Devotional

Dark, Cramped, & Stinky (Good Friday Vigil)

If you prefer an audio presentation of these Good Friday meditations, go HERE.

We have lost so much over the past 12 months. Many have dubbed 2020 “the lost year.” Collectively, as a human race, the coronavirus has claimed 2.73 million souls so far—over 543,000 in the United States alone. Each one of these souls was precious in God’s sight, and has a family who grieves their loss. 

We have also lost jobs. According to Reuters, “The economy ended 2020 with 9.4 million fewer jobs.” The country lost 20.6 million jobs between mid-March and early May of 2020, resulting in an unemployment rate of 14.7%, a level not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s. This has led to an incalculable loss of security, peace of mind, and hope for millions of struggling families who don’t know how they’ll pay the mortgage/rent and other bills.

Those of us blessed enough to have jobs this past year have at times nearly lost our sanity as we try to work from home while home-schooling squirmy kids. We lost so many normal rhythms and precious traditions. We lost the ability to blow off steam and laugh with friends out on the town. We have been unable to visit ailing grandparents in care facilities. We have been unable to gather together in doors for worship and missed our church fellowship around tables and in living rooms. 

But the forces of darkness swirling around us the past year go well beyond the coronavirus. Another virus has intensified in its spread and severity, wreaking havoc in our nation and world. I speak the the Virus of Old: Sin and its super spreading agent Satan. We haven’t just lost lives and livelihoods this past year. We’ve seen the loss of civility and political sanity. We’ve suffered a loss of unity and common ground. We’ve lost trust in our leaders and government and elective process. Some are losing their minds.  Just a couple weeks ago, we witnessed two mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, with so many innocent lives snuffed out by crazed, sick individuals in need of help. 

Holy Week, and Good Friday in particular, is the time to look the darkness in the face, name the evil that still lurks in this world, and watch and marvel once again at the God who chose to step down into the darkness and take all the evil, pain, brokenness, and sin onto Himself.

So, when I reached into Scripture for a passage to capture the horrific year we’ve just gone through, I landed on Jonah’s miserable 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the fish—just add 362 additional days and nights. My three word assessment of 2020 (which has not improved in 2021) is: dark, cramped, and stinky! Can I get an ‘Amen’?

Interestingly, when Jesus reached for an image to describe his forthcoming passion, death, burial, and resurrection, he also chose Jonah’s experience:

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:20). 

Good Friday is a night we hold space and sit in quiet vigil—joining the 3 disciples who sat near Jesus in Gethsemane. We try to keep watch and not fall asleep as Jesus sweats drops of blood anticipating the suffering He’s about to undergo on our behalf. We ponder his passion. We marvel at his mercy. We shed tears over his torture. We contemplative the depth of his love and grace. Of course, we have the luxury of pondering these things from the comfort of a warm and dry room—a place that isn’t cramped, doesn’t stink, and is only darkened by our choice. 

This year I want us to join Jonah in the belly of the fish, to imaginatively enter into his experience and ponder his prayer from the depths. This is Jonah’s suffering, death, and resurrection story; and we too are called to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, to undergo our own spiritual death and resurrection—over and over again. (See e.g., Gal. 2:20; Rom 6:4-6; Phil 3:10-11 for how our lives somehow participate in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection).

A cloak of mystery hangs over what Jesus’s Spirit may have been up to during those 3 days his body lay in the dark, cramped, and stinky tomb. But we don’t have to guess what Jonah did during his time in the belly: he prayed! Let us ponder his prayer and apply it to our own lives as we try to  navigate our own dark, cramped, and stinky trials. Our journey will lead us through eight short meditations. 

#1 — Let us begin by reading Jonah’s prayer in its entirety. As you read, ask the Spirit to impress a word or two—a particular image or line—directly upon you heart. 

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.

But you, O Lord my God,

    snatched me from the jaws of death!

As my life was slipping away,

    I remembered the Lord.

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 fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.

Take a moment to write down any particular lines or words or phrases or thoughts or questions your initial reading sparked: 

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Now let’s take it bit by bit. 

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!

#2 — The first step is to courageously admit and put a name to our own “Great Trouble” that has us feeling dark, cramped, and stinky all over. Note: Jesus wants to restore us to the Land of the Living, but our trials, sins, choices, and brokenness of the world often have us feeling like we’re in the Land of the Dead. Can you identify and give your Great Trouble a name? 

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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.

#3 — In Jonah’s case, his “in the belly” experience was divine punishment for his own disobedience and waywardness. While God is overwhelmingly merciful and patient, and isn’t not a lightning bolt throwing deity, He will sometimes let us reap the consequences of our own sinful choices. Sometimes our choices have landed us in the belly of the fish. Reflect a bit on your own trials and sufferings, and ponder how/why you got there.

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Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence. Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’

#4 — Let me share a secret: Not all statements from a biblical character are theologically sound. The Book of Job, for example, is full of terrible theology on the part of Job and his friends. The entire book is aimed at showing how wrong they were, and how little they understood God. Christ, however, gives us the fullest and most accurate picture of God and He promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” and “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” So I believe Jonah is wrong even though he feels like God has driven him from His presence. Sin always makes us feel distant from God, like we need to hide from God and cover our shame like Adam & Eve. Jonah had no idea that the Holy Temple he hoped to one day look upon again would be destroyed, so that God’s True Temple could be every human heart. Spend a few minutes praising God “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). 

“I sank beneath the waves,

    and the waters closed over me.

    Seaweed wrapped itself around my head.

#5 — I wish Simon Peter could have come to visit Jonah inside the fish, to bring a cooler of beers, and share his own story of sinking beneath the waves when Jesus called him out of the boat to walk on water. In that story, you’ll remember, Peter learned that the worst thing you can do as the water is closing over you is take your eyes of Jesus, and focus instead on the waters that threaten. Fear becomes a blindfold that prevents us from seeing God in the middle of our crisis. In this case, Jonah has let seaweed become a literal blindfold wrapped around his head. Jesus would tell Jonah and us today, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the seaweed/sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb 12:1-2). What is the particular seaweed (lies, fears) slowly wrapping itself around you, blinding your eyes from seeing Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Do you have someone in your life who helps you get untangled when the seaweed really ties you up? 

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I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.

    I was imprisoned in the earth,

    whose gates lock shut forever.

But you, O Lord my God,

    snatched me from the jaws of death!

#6 — Jonah’s prayer now touches the addict in a tender place. We have a tendency to treat the “symptoms” of sin rather than the root cause. We often put bandaids on issues that need much deeper treatment. Addicts know what it feels like to feel “imprisoned” with “gates locked shut,” and their loved ones know sometimes they need to “sink down” deep, hit rock bottom and kiss the jaws of death, before they can be rescued from the depths. Let us spend a few minutes praying for all who are struggling with addictions of every kind—especially our loved ones who are still longing to be set free.

As my life was slipping away,

    I remembered the Lord.

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.

#7 — How many of our dark, cramped, and stinky moments in the belly of the fish are the result of failing to remember who and whose we are?  Our lives—our peace, focus, purpose, joy, contentment, etc.—keep slipping away as we serve the false idols/gods of the world (money, comfort, sex, power, acceptance). Every summer I sink into the sea of depression, and once again need to slay the sea dragon that tells me my worth and happiness is bound up in whether or not people appreciate my ministry efforts: my sermons, my teaching, my letters and other writings, my audio devotionals, etc. In basing my worth on other’s appreciation, I turn my back on all God’s mercies—his approval, his doting love for me, his “atta boy!”  I defeat that sea dragon by “remembering the Lord” and his love for me. How about you? What do you need to remember about the Lord? Which idols are you tempted to bow down to? Which mercies might you be forfeiting in the process? 

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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.”

#8 — Imagine yourself back into the utter darkness of Jonah’s deep sea prison.I wish Jonah could have known in that dark, cramped and stinky place just how awesome God’s ultimate salvation would be when Jesus arrive on the scene. Nevertheless, he knew that God could rescue him from his watery grave. While Good Friday and Holy Saturday are as dark and mysterious as 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a fish, Jonah’s own Resurrection Sunday was about to happen. What can open the mouth of the Great Fish? What can shake the ground and roll away the stone? According to Jonah, its offering up a song of praise for God’s salvation! Whether you’re a gifted poet or not, let us each reach into the depths of our heart this Good Friday and write down our own song of praise to the One who went down into the belly of the earth for our sins, and who suffered the pain and humiliation of the cross in our place. Let us cry out again for him to rescue us, and watch as our songs of praise place a tickle in the Great Fish’s throat, and we find ourselves catapulted out of the darkness and into his marvelous light! Write down your song/prayer/poem of praise to take with you or leave behind in the chapel for others to read.

My Song of Praise from the Depths

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Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming! It’s dark, cramped, and stinky at the moment, but before long we’ll be sharing a meal on Resurrection Beach with Jesus and basking in the Light of a New Day! And won’t it be fun to share that meal with Jesus, Peter, Jonah and Job? Will we swap stories of the belly, or simply take turns sharing our songs of praise over our common salvation? Our very lives on earth are our song of praise. Amen!

As the song goes, “May it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ears.”

Join us for our Easter Worship Celebration!

1 reply »

  1. Thank you, Jeremy, for posting in writing again along with the audio option – much appreciated. What an interesting juxtaposition of the dark time in the whale’s belly and in the closed tomb!

    Good Friday blessings, Judy

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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