Updated: Sep 29, 2022
You have probably been in circumstances where a prayer was expected and the most religious person in the room stepped up and said something.
July 24, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright If you know the story of Jonah, then there are certain parts that stand out: He was sent by God to preach to Nineveh, that old enemy of Israel! Jonah fled in the opposite direction. He ends up in the belly of a whale. God delivers him. He preaches, but hopes Nineveh won’t listen. Nineveh repents, from the king all the way down to the cattle! Jonah pouts … and God has to remind him that it is God’s prerogative to be merciful! You know the first part of the story – Jonah’s mission, refusal, and time in the belly of a whale – thanks to countless children’s stories. You may recognize the last part – his time in Nineveh – because it appears a couple times in the lectionary. But there is something missing in my summary: the meat in the sandwich, Jonah’s prayer. Why is that?
Is it glossed over because a prayer is just an expected part of this story? Either because Jonah is a prophet, so of course he prays. Or because he is in a crisis, so of course he prays! You have probably been in circumstances where a prayer was expected and the most religious person in the room stepped up and said something. Maybe it was at Thanksgiving. Or the start of a church meeting. Or at a backyard grave. It happens to me all the time. We start Rotary meetings with a prayer and often they turn to me because I’m a preacher. Rarely do people remember the contents of those prayers. Not at Rotary, nor at those other places of expected prayer: not once the turkey is carved. Not once you get into the agenda. Not once the tears and pet memories flow in equal measure. The prayer can’t compete with all that other stuff. Maybe that’s why we forget it. Or maybe its because Jonah’s prayer is prayed in a crisis. I’ve prayed quick prayers as my car skidded on black ice, or facing an unexpected bill, or in that split second between falling and landing. You probably have too. They are not meant to be eloquent or profound. Maybe that’s why most folks couldn’t tell you anything about Jonah’s prayer. It’s either religious filler or an adrenaline surge designed to dissipate after five seconds.
But maybe that’s not true. Maybe we’ve ignored Jonah’s prayer because it’s not distinctive. Solomon gets the chance to ask God for anything and asks for wisdom. We remember that! But when Jonah prays, he sounds like any number of psalms. Like Psalm 30: “O Lord, my God, I cried to you for help … you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me from among those gone down to the Pit!” Or Psalm 83: “For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” Or Psalm 116: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me … Then I called on the name of the Lord, ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’” There is nothing wrong with being unoriginal. There is something comforting about using a prayer that has stood the test of time. On Tuesday, Dawn Adamy, pastor at Bream, began a meeting with Augustine’s prayer, “God of life, there are days when the burdens we carry are heavy on our shoulders and weigh us down, when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies gray and threatening, when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to your honor and glory.” She is a fine pastor, and her own words would have been wonderful, but not any better. There is nothing wrong with Jonah drawing on the psalms, but maybe his words get lost because they sound like somebody else’s words.
There is another possibility though. Maybe we don’t remember Jonah’s prayer because there is something about his words that don’t ring true. He prays as a prophet, but he has shirked his calling. He prays from inside the stinking belly of a great fish that saved him from drowning, but his words only have the form of a crisis prayer, not the passion. Worse, in picking from the psalms, he fails to select any that signal remorse for his sin. He uses pious words, but blames God for casting him into the deep. He complains over being driven away from God’s sight, when in fact, he is the one who rebelled and ran from God. He shows no contrition; takes no responsibility for the mess he has gotten himself into; and gives no evidence that he is now ready to go to Nineveh. So maybe we don’t pray Jonah’s prayer the way we do Psalm 51 because we sensed that when David prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” he really meant it. Jonah’s words leave a bad taste in our mouths – and it’s not just the taint of the rotting belly contents.
But here’s the thing: God does not give up on Jonah. One scholar writes, “The story could have ended here [in the belly of the great fish]. Its point could have been: Do not disobey God. Remember what happened to Jonah?” God could have dismissed Jonah’s prayer for all the reasons we have listed today. Instead, YHWH spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out on dry ground. It was a second chance to live out his calling; a second chance to tell Nineveh about God; a second chance to speak of the wonder of God’s justice and grace. That same God refuses to give up on us … when our prayers are lackluster imitations, or lacking in honesty, or die on our lips. God saves us anyway and gives us another chance. May we learn that, and more, from Jonah’s prayer. Amen.
 “Prayer” by Graham Dean  Attributed to Augustine of Hippo (354-430) according to the “new” Book of Common Worship, page 1103  From James Limburg’s commentary, Hosea – Micah, page 145