In the Weeds

In the weeds – when you’re burdened with so many problems, or so much work, that you find it exhausting and draining to deal with life and living.

“We’re down in the weeds here in customer service! Got too many missing orders!”

“The nurses were so deep in the weeds, with too many patients, that they were threatening to walk out!”

Then along comes Jonah: “The waters closed in over me, and the deep surrounded me. Weeds were wrapped around my head.” As we’ll hear shortly in our Scripture lesson, the Old Testament’s reluctant prophet is in the weeds.

In the weeds – not just overwhelmed by it all but, even more so, overly concerned with small details, much to the detriment of seeing the bigger picture and understanding who and what are truly important.

“I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds, but we’ve got a small problem here.”

“He’s one of those guys who can get down in the weeds and work on the details, but he’s forever missing the forest for the trees.”

And eventually, when you’re in sufficiently far, you pass the point of no return. The thickly treed forest and its long, weedy tentacles weigh heavy and pull you under. And you find yourself floundering, in deep and over your head.

“I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever,” Jonah bemoans before changing his tone dramatically. “But as my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD. You, O LORD my God, snatched me from the jaws of death! And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple.”

God always hears our constant prayers. But proving the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes, surely it often takes hellish, rock-bottom, deep-in-the-weeds circumstances for us to hear clearly and accurately God’s voice of response. We tend to hear what we want to hear, which most assuredly most often is not how the Lord intends to answer our prayers.

Which also might explain why tragedy strikes and bad things happen.

I’m not one to believe that God is the direct cause of everything, but I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the notion that God lets happen certain heartbreaking and appalling circumstances. While never letting go of our hands, the Lord lets evil pull us down into a swampy quagmire of slimy weeds, where, finally hitting rock bottom, we discover the intimate blessings of careful listening and complete trusting.

Please be in that place of careful listening and complete trusting, as through the Holy Spirit we join souls and spirits with Jonah, whom frightened sailors at his shocking request have tossed into the roiling sea, where a great creature swallows up poor Jonah like an appetizing hors d’oeuvre.

Listen for God’s Word to you in this sacred moment.

The LORD arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. He was inside the fish for three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish. He said, “I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and LORD, you heard me!

“You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. The mighty waters engulfed me; I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence. Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’

“I sank beneath the waves, and the waters closed over me. Seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever. As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD. You, O LORD my God, snatched me from the jaws of death! And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple.

“Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone.” Then the LORD ordered the great fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach. (Jonah 1:17-2:10)

It’s enough to make a believer nauseous: Sometimes, the great fish vomits you onto dry land.

Dry land. A far sight better than stormy seas. But neither is it a pristine beach on the French-Italian Riviera.

Sometimes, oftentimes, you don’t have much of a choice about the means through which you will be delivered – saved from stormy seas, released from gastrointestinal tracts of great-big whales, freed from the burdens of your days and nights, your weeks and months, your years and years.

As with you and me, Jonah probably had another method of rescue in mind. He no doubt would have preferred a different process. But the Lord God was just fine doing exactly what he did: Working unto the good of deliverance amid Jonah’s sea-borne encounter with a Goliath of the deep – and doing so on heaven’s terms and timing, not Jonah’s or ours.

As with us, Jonah’s deliverance comes only after his repentance is complete. Jonah isn’t just sorry for what he did, namely running away from God in abdication of the work that God wants him to do. At the urging of the Holy Spirit, Jonah not only expresses regret and remorse for trespassing into places where he isn’t supposed to go, but also Jonah repents of his self-interest and once again places his trust in God!

In the hearts and minds of you, and me, and many others, the healing works of God – vital aspects of God’s rescue and deliverance – will remain undone as long as you and I keep the Lord at arm’s length, spurn his invitation to repentance, and refuse his trust. Thus you and I, like Jonah, cocoon in womb-like darkness, joining the desperate lament and almost-giddy expectation of the psalmist in Psalm 86:

Bend down, O LORD, and hear my prayer; answer me, for I need your help.

Protect me, for I am devoted to you. Save me, for I serve you and trust you. You are my God.

Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am calling on you constantly. Fill my heart with joy and gladness, O Lord, for I give myself to you. O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive, so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help.

Listen closely to my prayer, O LORD; hear my urgent cry. I will call to you whenever I’m in trouble, and you will answer me. No pagan god is like you, O Lord. None can do what you do! All the nations you made will come and bow before you, Lord. They will praise your holy name. For you are great and perform wonderful deeds. You alone are God.

Teach me your ways, O LORD, that I may live according to your truth! Grant me purity of heart, so that I may honor you. With all my heart I will praise you, O Lord my God. I will give glory to your name forever, for your love for me is very great. You have rescued me from the depths of death.

O God, insolent people rise up against me. A violent gang is trying to kill me. You mean nothing to them. But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. Look down and have mercy on me. Give your strength to your servant. Save me, the child of your servant.

Send me a sign of your favor. Then those who hate me will be put to shame, for you, O LORD, help and comfort me. (Psalm 86:1-17)

Thanks be to God, Jesus Christ is the sign of heaven’s favor. And thanks be to the Holy Spirit whose courage inspires some disturbing questions of faith about heaven’s favor:

Where in your life are feeling burdened, exhausted, or overwhelmed?

Where are waters closing in? Where does deep surround?

What kinds of weeds wrap around your head and so suffocate your complete trust in the God who so constantly pursues you, because God so completely loves you?

Where in your life are you desperate enough to pray for change, to be patient in your waiting for change, and to embrace in the fullness of trust the change that only God and God alone can bring?

Deep down I suppose Jonah, the psalmist, and we all still know that, if the God of Israel – now revealed as also the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – really is full of compassion, mercy, and grace – if this God of heaven and earth really is abounding in steadfast love, then that’s cosmically Good News for everyone. Because, most of the time, we’re on the receiving end of all the saving and forgiving goodness that such great love makes possible. Absent the steadfast love of the Lord, no one rests easy in God’s promises of forgiveness and deliverance.

Yet, by grace, we feast daily on the riches of God’s compassion and patience. And if basking in all that goodness also means God is patient with some whom we’d be perfectly OK with God’s not being so patient, well, we can deal with that, perhaps so long as we see encouraging signs now and then, here and there, that things are heading in the right direction – hope and assurance that is ours, even when we’re deep in the weeds.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, February 5, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the second of his four-part series from the Old Testament book of Jonah. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by David Guzik, Scott Hoezee, and Phyllis Tribble inform the message.

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