Sailors used to get tattoos on their knuckles that read “HOLD FAST.” One letter would appear on each of the non-thumb fingers. Hold fast comes from the Dutch “houd vast,” which means “hold tight.” This term would be shouted as the sea became angry. Those on board would “houd vast” to the ship’s ropes and rigging.
The tattoo was a reminder to them to bear down and stay the course, even when the sea got rough. The sea can be a wild place when storms stir up the wind and the waves. A good storm can induce fear even on the largest of boats. To hold fast would be to face the storm, to ride it out, to hold onto the hope that the storm will pass and you will arrive safely to your destination.
I thought the message of hold fast was good for the moment we’re in together. Humanity has been collectively thrown into the sea and this time of COVID-19 has us feeling like we are in the belly of the fish.
The question is, what do we do with this time? Do we complain that we are in the belly of the fish? Do we scream with protest that we need to be liberated? Perhaps the belly of the fish is where we need to be right now to reflect upon who we are and what we need to do once we leave the fish.
Jonah’s problem was that he ran from God after God told him to preach against Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. One could hardly blame Jonah. It would have been like asking one of us to go to Pyongyang, North Korea, and preach against it. Anyone here up for that task? So Jonah tries to flee from responsibility but God has a way of giving him a second chance.
Yes, God is asking him to do something difficult, but all throughout the story we see how God is always with Jonah and how God has grace for both Jonah and the residents of Nineveh.
There is a point when the seas were raging that Jonah thought he deserved to die for running from God. He didn’t think others should die for his mistake. So he told them to throw him over. But God had grace for Jonah. He didn’t want Jonah to die. He wanted Jonah to do what he was called to do. God provided for Jonah and saved him by having a big fish swallow him. Jonah doesn’t die, but he is forced to shelter in place for a bit before he is brought back to land.
In that time Jonah prayed to God a psalm of gratitude for God’s grace and salvation. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.”
This is Jonah holding fast to hope. This is Jonah trusting in God that the sea nor the stomach of the fish shall be his grave.
“Salvation comes from the Lord” represents the theological foundation of the Jonah story. Salvation for Nineveh comes from the Lord. Salvation for Jonah comes from the Lord. The God of the second chance stands ready to forgive both Nineveh and Jonah. God’s salvation and great love for all people stands far beyond what we could imagine.
God not only loves a disobedient Jonah but God also loves a disobedient Nineveh, a people whom Jonah and his people Israel hated. Perhaps Jonah needed to find himself in the belly of a fish in the middle of the sea to be still enough to begin to understand what salvation means.
We are now in the belly of the fish, so to speak. The world is in a partial stand-still. We have been taken from the world we know and have found ourselves in limbo. Now is a time to hold fast. Now is the time to reflect on the salvation that comes from God’s great love for all people. Now is the time to make good on what we have vowed to God.
When we get back to land, will we follow God where God leads us? Will we see that salvation doesn’t come from our own striving and our own storing of wealth? Will we see that our salvation cannot be gained by destroying the earth and one another?
Let us hold fast to the salvation we find in Jesus, who gives us the sign of Jonah. If there is to be new life, the old must die for the new to be born. Jonah’s life didn’t end in the sea. The fish that was to be his tomb was emptied. The cross was not the end of Jesus and the tomb carved within the rock was found to be empty that first Easter morning.
Life is a series of deaths and rebirths. It is the pattern we see in Jonah, in Jesus, and in the changing of the seasons.
We should not be surprised that this pattern appears in our own lives as well.
As disturbing as being trapped in this fish can feel right now, let us learn from this liminal space — this space between the old and the new — and hold fast to our hope in God. A new world is dawning. Let’s trust God and follow God where God is leading us.