A storm was coming. The sailors knew it by the heavy stillness in the air, and the leaden colour of the sea. They knew it would be a bad one. But their passenger slept below, giving no thought to the weather. Sometimes sleep is just another way of escaping from uncomfortable truth. And the sailors gave no thought to their passenger; they had far too much else to do to ready their ship for what was coming. But they kept looking over their shoulders as they worked – there was something menacing about that grey, unnatural stillness.
The storm drew close. The waves moved unevenly, the wind came in sharp, irregular gusts, and the sky was so dark that some of the sailors were already muttering invocations to their gods. The old-timers looked uneasy, something was not quite right, this did not feel like the sort of storm they should expect at this season. For once they did not make fun of the blanched faces and the muttered prayers; they just looked grim and set about their tasks with a cold determination – the only survival tool they really knew. And the passenger slept on below, oblivious.
The storm hit. Lightning sizzled the air, and the thunder rattled through their bodies. A mighty wind drove the waves to a terrifying pitch, and the boat they had been so proud of only hours ago was tossed like a child’s plaything between mountains of water. They began to doubt that the timbers could hold together under such a horrifying force. In desperation they began to pitch their cargo overboard, the same cargo which had been the raison d’être for their voyage, and the promise of a very handsome profit when they reached Tarshish. But no financial gain counted for anything when their own lives were at stake. But the passenger, amazingly, still slept, and it was only at this juncture of despair that they called him to mind. Why wasn’t he at least praying for their survival? The captain himself went down to fetch him.
The storm intensified. By now they were convinced that this was no natural storm at all. Some deity was pursuing them with terrible anger. No sailor led a blameless life, they took their survival and their pleasure wherever they could find it. Had one of them offended some god? If so they would know which god must be appeased, , so that all of them might survive. But, to their astonishment, went they cast lots, the lot fell on their passenger. Who was he? What had he done? How could such an ordinary (and sleepy) guy provoke such divine fury?
When he told them he was a Hebrew, their awe only increased. They knew that the mysterious god of the Hebrews was not like any other god – he had no image, and only one temple, yet claimed lordship over all that was. How could a man dare to trifle with a god like that? How could he think to run away from the domain of a God who had no boundaries or limitations? They were even more frightened than before.
Yet the passenger was not afraid. “You must throw me into the sea,” he said. How could they dare? This man was obviously sacred to his strange god in some way beyond their understanding – what would such a god do to them if they should harm his servant?
The passenger insisted, and there was a strange peace about him, that was more convincing than any great emotions would have been. This, he insisted, was simply the only thing they could do. Any attempt to solve the problem by normal means would be just as futile as his own “escape” had been. In the end they had to agree, and with anguished prayers for forgiveness from his God, they complied, half-fearing that a thunderbolt would strike them down as they did so.
Immediately, the sea was calm, the tempest vanished as if it had never been. Overwhelmed, they were moved to pray to this God, who was so obviously in total control, and, absorbed in prayer, they did not see what happened next – the enormous fish that appeared and swallowed him whole. They did not see that what God wanted was not the destruction of His disobedient servant, but his obedient witness, to go forth and tell the world that at the heart of the tempest of destruction and judgement lay an offer of salvation so vast that no human being could delimit or delineate the passionate love that sought them.