Here is the next instalment of the series on Jonah that I preached at Shepparton Baptist Church recently. Enjoy!
Jonah chapter 1 verse 17 to chapter 2 verse 10
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 2 1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
4 I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
5 The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
7 “When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Last week we looked at the first 16 verses of chapter 1 of Jonah. In that reading, we saw Jonah do a runner. He ran from the task that God had set before him. He ran as far away as he could. On that trip, God intervened. A great storm came and threatened to sink the ship. Eventually, the crew discovered that Jonah was the cause of the storm. It was his disobedience of the living God that had caused the storm to arrive. The only way to stop it was for Jonah to go overboard. So they threw him overboard, and the storm became calm. We left last week with Jonah sinking into the deep and the ship being saved. We left last week with the despair of sinking and dying. We left last week realising that Jonah had received his punishment for disobedience. We also left last week knowing that God's undeserved grace means we don't always get what we deserve. I left you with a question and a thought to reflect on. Don't worry; I'm not about to ask you if you remember. I asked you to commit to finding out from God whether there was anything you were running away from. I also asked you to commit to stop avoiding what God wants you to do. How did that go?
This week we "dive" into the story of Jonah being saved by a great fish swallowing Jonah.
Now, before we go any further, I want to clarify something. When the book of Jonah refers to a great fish, but we think whale…is it a problem? For those of you who have read Moby Dick or looked at the history of whales, you will know that it wasn't that long ago that whales were indeed considered fish. It is only recently that whales (and dolphins for that matter) were reclassified as mammals, not fish. Just to settle everyone's nerves about all their childhood stories being wrong, don't panic. A whale was considered a fish and a fish a whale.
Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, and he was inside the fish for three days and three nights. Yuk! Dark, smelly, claustrophobic & hopeless. You can almost hear Jonah thinking at that moment. Wale, that's just great! First I thought I was going to die by drowning…Now I'm going to die by being digested. Aren't things just getting better and better? This was for three days and three nights.
Three days and three nights. There isn't any surety concerning what this means. It could be how long Jonah was grumpy for (that's a serious grudge), it could be concerning how long the Hebrews considered it to take to get to Sheol. Remember that the Hebrew worldview was that there were three elements of the world. The heavens, the earth and Sheol. Sinking down into the depths of the sea could only mean, especially to them, that Jonah was sinking towards Sheol. The place where true death was experienced. It could be as practical as it took the great fish that long to reach the destination that God had asked it to travel in preparation of vomiting out Jonah (he was heading the completely wrong direction). Or it could have been a prophetic happening that, in hindsight, will represent how long Jesus would remain in the tomb. Or it could be option E….all of the above.
For three days and three nights, Jonah was in the great fish with not a lot to do except think and pray. In our reading today, we read of the prayer that Jonah prayed. Again, many theologians will say that this prayer was taken from other parts of the Bible. The writing is different, and it isn't specifically about being in a fish in the sea. We do know that Jonah was a prophet. As a prophet, he would have been very familiar with the prayers and psalms of others. In fact, the structure of the prayer is in a traditional mode. There is an introduction (v2), then a description of the trouble (3-6b), a report of God's deliverance and followed by a conclusion that sometimes referred to a vow. Again, I get to be a little heretical here and suggest that Jonah did pray this prayer. Based on his understanding of other psalms and prayers, it's quite likely that he would have shaped it in the way he was familiar.
In this prayer, we see many things. We see Jonah calling out to God in his distress. We know in hindsight that his distress over his situation is the method of his salvation. The calling out to God in his distress would have fit better on the boat…I guess he wasn't quite ready to approach God at the time. We hear of Jonah's faith that God will hear us, even in the depths of the sea (makes you kinda wonder again why he thought Tarshish would work).
Jonah also knows that he is there because of God's intervention. Verse three says "You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. Again, Jonah's faith in Yahweh becomes apparent when he acknowledges that God has turned away from him and yet Jonah will look to God's holy temple. In amongst the depths of the sea, we find Jonah realising that the fish was indeed God's method of saving him.
But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. This verse can easily relate to the Hebrew viewpoint of the world. Jonah was sinking into the pit, but God saved him by providing a fish to stop him drowning. We find the timing of when Jonah thought to pray "when my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your Holy Temple.
We often hear of the near-death prayers that have been answered. We don't always hear whether the prayer follows through and believes in the God who saved them. We do in this account of Jonah.
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Wow…just let that "sink" in for a moment. Do we have idols that prevent grace? Do we refuse to allow God into our lives because of what we chase?
Verse 9 and the conclusion of the prayer shows us that Jonah has turned away from his disobedience and with thanksgiving will vow to do what Yahweh has asked. To finish with, he declares where salvation comes from.
Jonah being able to declare that salvation comes from God…inside a fish…how much faith does that show? He doesn't yet know that God will have the fish vomit him out. He doesn't know they know what the end of the story will look like. But he does know one thing. God, his God, will save him.
As we look on at this account of Jonah, we do know the end. We do know that his near-death experience is about to end. We know he will be vomited out and he will live.
It does make you think though, doesn't it?
How often are we looking in the wrong direction for answers to prayer? How often are you looking for salvation from the salvation that has already been brought to you? How often are you griping about the belly of a fish when the belly, in fact, is your ticket to life? Jonah chose to give thanks to God in the belly of a fish. His faith in God ensured that he wouldn't lose heart even though it looked exceptionally gloomy.
If this were to be a story made up to represent God and his actions in the world, the fish would represent salvation and grace. We deserve death, but when we follow Jesus, we receive grace. The truth of it though is that grace is often messy. It's often smelly. It's often is in the midst of darkness. It's very often not in the way we expect it. Isn't all of life just like that as well?
What's the message for us as we read through this part of Jonah? Last week we talked about the grace that God imparts. The grace that we never deserve but God gives so freely. This week, the message for us is about faith.
I can't seem to think of a time where a person initiated contact with God. There doesn't seem to be a story (correct me if I'm wrong by the way) that I know of where God doesn't start the contact. We are told that He draws us to Him. In Jonah, we see God initiate contact with Jonah and ask him to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent. Jonah's reaction was to run. God again initiates contact with Jonah by sending a great storm and a great fish. Jonah's reaction this time is to respond with faith.
Isn't it amazing to think that God initiates a connection with us in all sorts of circumstances? It is so humbling to think that the creator of everything wants to be in touch with you. All he asks us is to respond in faith. Faith that what he says is true. Faith that what he does is in love. The problem is that we expect His love to be centred around us as individuals. I suspect Jonah wasn't too happy with God because he wanted Jonah to express God's love to the Ninevites and not to Jonah. Jonah was happy in his prejudice of pagans, but God wasn't.
It wasn't until Jonah had returned God's grace with faith that Jonah was willing to trust God to know better, not only for his life but others as well.
So, we come back to the question from last week…" what is it that God has asked you to do that you are running from?" The deeper question this week is why. Why are you running? Most times we run because we are scared (well, not the park runners or triathletes and marathon runners). What is it that you are scared of in what the Lord has asked of you? That's a rhetorical question. One for you to go and reflect on.
Jonah must have been scared. His eventual response in the fish is our model. He responded with faith. We can do the same, respond with faith.
I'm not talking about how much faith you have. It doesn't take much faith; it can be as small as a mustard seed. It's about whether you have faith or not. Do you believe that God will look after you? Do you trust the outcome to be the best for you? Do you think that God won't care for you in His plan for your life?
Jonah expressed his faith in a great fish. We have the chance today to express our faith in the midst of our lives. No matter where or what or who the issue is, today is a renewed opportunity to express our faith in God. That he will indeed save us, that he will indeed care for us, that he will most certainly love us. All that God is asking of each one of us is to respond in faith. To say yes, instead of are you sure? To walk towards God instead of away. To know that even in the midst of what looks like the inside of a fish (dark, damp, smelly, claustrophobic) that God is for you and never against you.
Jesus responded in faith in the garden of Gethsemane. Not my will but yours be done, Lord. Jesus faced the most torturous times with faith in the Father. Jesus chose to follow a path he knew would lead to his death. He chose it so we can express our faith in the Father; experience his love and his grace and his mercy. The Father chose to prove to us the level of his love for us in sending his son to live and die. He chose to act first so we can be assured of his salvation. All we need to do is respond in faith. Will you do that afresh today? Respond to God and respond to what He has planned for you? I hope so.
Have faith. Have faith in the one true God. Believe in Him…he surely believes in you.