Jonah goes to hospital

Week of Sunday January 25 - Ephiphany 3
Bible: Mark 1:14-20, Jonah 3:1-5,10

Jonah 1:1-6,  3:1-10

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ 3But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ ...

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

(The names in this sermon draft have been changed.)

On Tuesday I did an orientation course at the hospital, spending 5 hours learning safety codes and best practice, and getting taken all over the hospital. I came home and slept for two and a half hours. I was so distressed when I woke up that I went back to bed and slept again− and again− before I could finally manage to function a little bit.


Because 27 years ago I did hospital orientation on the first morning of my chaplaincy training, and then went off to my assigned wards. I fell apart. Within a few days I could not even function to enter one of the wards I was supposed to be looking after, and barely managed in the other one. No one else knew, but I was screaming inside.

During the next couple of weeks it became clear why. I had flash backs to being held down, screaming, trying to escape a white, ether soaked cloth, being thrust over my face.

With that recognition, I slowly began to function again.

After the course College sent me off to see a psychiatrist. In the first session, after only 10 minutes, he said, "So how many times were you in hospital before you were six!?"

And when I replied, he asked, "So will you ever be comfortable in hospital?"

"I don't think so."

"So what are you going to do about that?"

"Well, I won't ever take on a position as a hospital chaplain, that's for sure."

"Good," he said. "Now, what on earth are we going to talk about for the next six months?"

This is what trauma does. I thought that because I will only be looking after the little congregation that meets in the hospital for a few months, and not doing the rest of the chaplaincy job, I would get away with it. And I think I will.

But trauma has its own rules about coming back. It's why visiting a mother who was abusive, can still undo us, even though we left home decades ago. Trauma is why we fall apart when a friendly young police officer arrives at the door to tell us they found our stolen pushbike− the traumatised part of us remembers that other time the police came with very bad news, even if we don't remember.

Why am I talking about this?

Well, in the book of Jonah we can see a classic trauma response. There is a huge storm and the boat is sinking.

They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? (Jonah 1:5-6)

See that? Just like me, Jonah has coped with the trauma by going to bed and sleeping. :-)

My colleague Kathy Donley told me of a

Jewish midrash from the early first century [that said] the captain of the ship came to [Jonah] and said, 'Behold, we are standing between death and life, and you are sound asleep!'" 

Avivah Zornberg is a contemporary rabbi.  She says, “The captain expresses the existential plight of those who stand between death and life. Uneasily straddling death and life, the sailors stand and cry [out to God.] Jonah escapes into a stupefied sleep.  Here, the midrash registers the core [-- what's really at the root--] of Jonah's flight. To flee from God is to refuse to stand between death and life; it is to refuse to cry out from that standing place. The opposite of flight from God is, in a word, prayer. (Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep:  Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, (New York:  Schocken Books, 2009), pp. 84-85)

All of our existence stands between death and life. In the past months Jenny has stood very much more obviously in this place as she has looked after Agnes. Jenny has refused to sleep. She has "refused to let herself be stupefied" by something else to block out the pain. It hasn't been easy.

As we stand between death and life, it is very tempting to bury ourselves in work− to be too busy to help, or to watch two movies a night, or to eat ourselves into obesity, or to constantly go shopping, or to drink too much, or even to set up an anti-halal movement…

All of these things stupefy us. They let us avoid the pain of really living, and of really engaging with the realities of death and life. They insulate us from the traumas of life.


In the gospel reading, Jesus says "the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." (Mark 1:15)

To repent means to live differently− to live the in way which God shows us through the life of Jesus. And to believe means to "put your money where your mouth is"− not just to talk about and agree with what Jesus tells us about living, but to actually do it.

When the opera singer Delmae Barton collapsed on the footpath she was left lying at a bus stop in 35 degree heat for five hours− over a thousand people just walked past− because she is black…

When poor people come to the door, some folk never have any cash, or any spare food...

When a person is dying, some family disappear… until it's time for the funeral− and sometimes they don't come to that, either.

When we do things like this, we have not repented. When we do things like this, we don't really believe. We are like Jonah− we go to sleep; we close our eyes to the world. And the kingdom of God is far distant at such times.

Maybe… Jenny… in your looking after Agnes… and Tom… you have discovered the Kingdom of God coming near. You have glimpsed little bits of the deeper realities of life… seen what life with God can really be…  and today you are being baptised.

Rabbi Zornberg says that to "stand one's ground in the human place between death and life, is, in itself, to cry out… [it] is the essential posture of prayer." (Zornberg pp 86)

In looking after Agnes, you were praying. When we visited Agnes we were praying. In cooking Friday night tea at this church we are praying. If we didn't come because some people at tea smell, or because they are a bit odd and engage us in some strange conversations, we would be fleeing, like Jonah... fleeing God, fleeing the kingdom, fleeing trauma indeed… and the only destination when we flee… is death.

To stand, to fight back against our fears, even a little bit…
to love, to be compassionate, to be gentle, to care…
to do what Jesus did, to live like he did…

all this lets the kingdom come near to us. It changes and heals us. It heals and comforts others. It builds a new community, standing between death and life, which is being healed to see the great depths and joys of life, and which is being healed of its trauma and sickness.

Each time I visit someone in hospital I come home really, really tired. It's the childhood trauma stirring a little bit. Sometimes, like Tuesday, for no reason at all really, that I can see, it flares up and floors me. But I recognise it. I know what to do. I know how to get up and get moving again, instead of giving in and just sleeping like Jonah.

Because I have trusted the way of Jesus, because I have believed only just a little bit, the kingdom of God has come near. I am being healed.

If I stayed out of hospitals I couldn't be a minister. I couldn't be me. I would be a captive, lost, asleep to life.

Sisters and brothers, the Kingdom of God is near to us. If we follow the Jesus Way of living we will be taken into some uncomfortable, even dangerous, places between death and life. We will live life on the edge. And we will be healed. We will find the depths of life, and the joys. We may even be led into more trauma, or confronted by past horrors we scarcely knew happened to us…

but to flee all this is to live, as the Rabbi says, a stupefied life. It is to be dead while we are alive… lost… driven by fear… unconscious.  There are worse things than being dead.

Jesus said, "the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." There is a much better way of living than just being alive.


Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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