I love the water. I have ever been drawn to it, not just to quench the thirst of a dry mouth, but to excite the senses, rouse interest in how it flows, its ripples and waves breaking against tree-lined banks, rocky shores, or long sandy beaches. Streams and springs, brooks and creeks, rivers and lakes, from safe harbors to perilous and seemingly endless seas. Standing on shores, dangling my feet in the waters, I have gazed across earthless horizons on the West Coast and the East, from Europe across the Atlantic, and Asia, Australia and islands over the Pacific and Indian oceans. I have struggled to view beyond the seas, the great chasms that separate friends and foes, providing security from predators and longing for lost loves. One could imagine distance so vast that not even angels could follow.
When I was a child I would go whatever distance was necessary to avoid scolding or punishment for a deed done wrong. I remember avoiding my mother’s wrath only to incur my father’s, which was worse. It did not matter how many pairs of underwear I put on, or that I put a wallet in each back pocket, if I had to lower my shorts before a spanking, my avoidance did no good. I remember my dad chuckling a little bit under his breath at my ingenuity. I think he was a little proud. I still got the spanking, but I think his hand was lightened. It was never all that bad, as in the long run it reminded me into behaving a little better.
From age ten I lived in the middle of an almond orchard surrounded by hills and mountains, rivers and streams, within walking distance. It became easy to disappear for several hours at a time hiking over mountains or wandering on the river bottom hoping my parents would forget any ill-conceived actions on my part. That hiking and wandering also became a means by which I thought to avoid assignments on the farm, but I usually ended up doing everything I was required in the end. The truth is that you can never escape your wrongdoing, because it is always with you, knowing what you did, and knowing that God knows, even if no one else, that correction was in order, or that an assignment went undone.
Looking across the wilderness that is an ocean one can understand how Jonah might have felt it possible to escape his assignment from God to preach the gospel to people he considered enemies.
Since the youngest years of my childhood I have been fascinated with Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851). I think watching many times the 1956 film of the same title is probably in large part responsible for me never venturing too far from land. As much as I like the water, I like even more being able to see the shore. The profundity of the narrative character, Ishmael, being saved from the attack of the white whale while all other hands were lost, floating on a casket for more than a day until rescued, has not so grimly stirred my heart, but inspired greater faith and reliance on the Lord.
One of my favorite chapters in Moby Dick is titled “The Sermon.” Melville writes of a discourse given on the basis and experience of the Prophet Jonah who tried to flee the Lord to avoid His commands. I highly recommend reading the entire chapter.
The setting is an old church in New Bedford, Connecticut, of which Melville writes, “In the same New Bedford their stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fisherman, shortly bound for the Indian or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot.” The preacher is Father Mapple. “He had been a sailor and a harpooner in his youth, but for many years past had dedicated his life to the ministry. …Father Mapple was in the hearty winter of a healthy old age,” and was famous and respected by the sailors and people of the community for his experience, wisdom, and inspirational sermons.
Father Mapple opens the Bible to Jonah, “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—‘[Now the Lord] had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah’ (Jonah 1:17). Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters,… is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is the lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? …As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God….”
Somehow as a child I thought in my wandering avoidance that I could escape the consequences of my actions and inactions, avoid justice, and perhaps at times I did. My parents did not always remember my transgressions and failures, and exact punishment, or so I believed. But there is no sea we can cross wide enough, no vast chasm of time or space to allow us to escape our disobedience to God’s commands. We must and will take responsibility for the things that we do, and only by Christ may we do so and receive mercy in our repentance.
It is as the fictional Father Mapple taught, “With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign….” God reigns in all the earth, and on all the waters of Earth. In all the universe does He reign, and with His benevolence He has provided His Son that we might have forgiveness and grace sufficient to overcome sin, and for our sins to be buried in the sea.
Even as Jonah was buried in a sea of darkness and despair for three days, and then mercifully delivered to the shore by the same whale which he thought would only bring destruction, so the Lord delivers us from our own depths of guilt and sorrow and provides us hallowed ground upon which to walk in new life, leaving our sins in the depths of a watery grave. As was declared by the Prophet Micah, “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).
As we look across the earthless horizons of our seas, let us look inwardly and seek no more to escape His word, His justice, His law, but repentantly embrace it as the life preserver that delivers those who venture into dangerous waters. The Savior Jesus Christ is our buoy, rescuing those who will reach up and hang on, if only by the tips of our fingers, to be saved from sin and brought to walk on holy ground. Even as the character Ishmael was saved holding tightly to a floating casket constructed for another man, Jonah expulsed from the tomblike belly of a whale, so is the death and resurrection of our Lord, His overcoming of death and robbing the grave of her prize, our salvation from the belly of a beast delivering us from evil and leaving only our sins buried in the depths. Let us run away no more, but be obedient and follow His commands, that we might enjoy always the safe comforts and warmth of His harboring love. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.