This past week, beginning Tuesday evening, there was a very important Jewish holiday. Does anyone here know what it was? Yom Kippur. We probably know it better as the Day of Atonement. That’s the day when the Jewish people remember how they have sinned over the past year and then they seek God’s forgiveness. But what you may not know is that every year during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Jews read the story of Jonah.
And whenever someone asks why they read the book of Jonah on this day, the rabbis give several different reasons. The first is that the story of Jonah reminds us of God’s infinite mercy. The second is that the story of Jonah is a story of repentance. Third, the book of Jonah serves as a reminder that the entire world, and all of its natural forces, are in God’s hands. Fourth, the story of Jonah reminds us that God answers prayers.
I would suggest a fifth reason why the story of Jonah is so fitting for the Day of Atonement. It is because this story shows us that God is willing to do whatever it takes to bring his children back to him.
Last Sunday, we began our look at the book of Jonah. We left off with Jonah trying to run away from God, or at least run away from his responsibility to God. And, as I said, I think we can all relate to Jonah, either because there have been times in our own lives when we have tried to run away from God, or because we have family members or friends who are still doing that right now.
People we know who grew up in Sunday School and were active in church. Maybe even went to a Christian college or went on mission trips. Perhaps some of those you know who have run away from God are your own children that you raised to love God. But, like Jonah, they’ve chosen to run away.
And it breaks your heart. You want so much to see them come back to God. It’s important for us to remember that even when we forget God, God doesn’t forget us. Not matter how far away from God we may try to get, God remains close to us. And God is willing to do whatever it takes to bring his children back to him.
When we left off with Jonah last week, everything seemed to be falling into place for him. God had told him, “Go to Nineveh,” but Jonah said, “Don’t want to. I’ll think I’ll head to Tarshish instead.” God said, “Go east.” Jonah said, “I think I’ll go west.” And so, he did.
He went down to Joppa, a seaport where he found a boat headed for Tarshish. And it’s amazing, isn’t it, how when you want to run away from God, you can always find a boat going where you want to go. Satan has his ships, and they are always ready to take on one more passenger.
So, Jonah paid his fare, boarded the ship, and as it left the harbor, he went down below deck to take a nap. And everything seemed to be working out just the way he planned. He was on a nice Mediterranean cruise. Soon he would be in Tarshish, a beautiful city in Spain. And there he could live it up, far from the presence of the Lord. Or so he thought.
That’s where we left off last week – Jonah disobeyed God, and it looked like he got away with it. But, of course, you know there’s more to the story. Because God will not let his children run away without doing everything in his power to bring them back.
So, this morning, I want to take a look at how God goes about bringing Jonah back home. And as we see how God dealt with Jonah, we’re going to learn something about how God deals with us when we try to run away.
I. God will often send storms to get our attention
“But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.” (Jonah 1:4-5).
Did you notice the word that is used to describe what God did with the wind? God “hurled” a powerful wind onto the sea. It’s the same word that’s used in verse 5 when the sailors hurled the cargo into the sea. It’s the same word that’s used in verse 15 when the sailors hurled Jonah into the sea. And here, the text says that God hurled a mighty wind onto the sea. I love that imagery.
And it must have been a terrible storm because these men were professional sailors who had seen it all. They spent their lives at sea. So, if they were scared, it must have truly been a terrible storm.
So, they held an impromptu prayer meeting, with each man crying out to his own god. And then they started throwing the cargo overboard. Now, keep in mind, they were getting paid to carry that cargo. You know the situation is desperate when you’re willing to throw money away to save your life.
These sailors learned what most of us have discovered – life can change in the blink of an eye. God knows exactly how to get our attention.
He can send a storm of adverse circumstances.
He can send a storm of the sudden death of a loved one.
He can send a storm of a loss of a job.
He can send a storm of a desperately sick child.
He can send a storm of a stock market crash.
Our God is very creative. He can send the storm in so many different ways. And when he does, God says, “Okay, now do I have your attention?” Now, I’m not going to tell you that everything that happens that’s bad is God causing it in your life, because I don’t believe that’s true. But I do believe that there are times when God may cause, or God may allow, what we would consider to be something absolutely terrible so that he can fully get our attention. It’s usually only later that we come to realize that that storm was sent to us because of God’s grace.
That’s always step one for the prodigal child. God will send a storm to get our attention.
II. Sometimes God allows others to suffer because of our sin
I want you to see that everyone on board that ship was in danger because of Jonah’s sin.Jonah was the sinner in this situation, and yet his foolish rebellion endangered everyone else around him.
It’s important that you realize this — you may be alone when you sin, but your sin will always affect other people — your spouse, your children, your friends, your family.
Every step we take away from the will of God hurts people around us, and sometimes they have to bear the consequences for the mistakes we make.
And it is to Jonah’s credit that he finally realized, “It’s my fault.” There may be someone here who needs to come to the same realization. You thought what you did was done in secret and it didn’t hurt anyone. But don’t kid yourself. If it hasn’t hurt somebody yet, it’s going to.
There comes a time when we need to realize like Jonah did, “This is my fault. I’m hurting innocent people because of my disobedience to God.” Jonah finally owned up to it.
III. God will sometimes send someone to wake us up
As the ship is groaning and creaking under the weight of the wind and the heavy waves, and as the men throw cargo overboard in a desperate attempt to try to save the ship, where’s Jonah? You would think that he would be on deck helping the sailors. But he’s not. He’s down below, taking a nap!
How in the world could a man sleep during a terrible storm like this? And I think the answer is this — Satan knows how to put us to sleep while the world is crashing in all around us. How else do you explain a man’s reckless behavior in having one affair after another? How else do you explain a politician who breaks the law and then lies with impunity? How else do you explain a mother who abandons her own children? The devil can put us to sleep while the ship sinks or the house burns or the world falls apart all around us.
But at some point in time, God will send someone into our lives to wake us up. Notice what happened next: “So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” (Jonah 1:6).
Now, it’s interesting to me that at this point in time, the captain (who is no doubt a pagan) has more faith in God than Jonah does. Seeing the danger, he wants Jonah to wake up and start praying.
Now, this is an important point that may well be the most important thing that I will say in this entire sermon — The world doesn’t want our sermons, but the world wants our prayers. I want you to think about that for a moment.
Generally speaking, the world out there doesn’t care about what we say and do on Sunday mornings. To many of them, this seems boring and irrelevant, which is why this Sunday and every Sunday most people will not be in church anywhere. And that’s true of just about every city in America. On any given Sunday, most people don’t go to church anywhere. They stay at home, stay in bed, wake up late, take a walk, read the paper, watch TV, and in general live as if the church doesn’t exist. And that’s never going to change no matter how much we preach against it.
And I don’t think it’s that they’re hostile against the church. I once heard someone say that most people in the world don’t care enough to be hostile. Mostly they’re just not interested in anything the church has to offer.
The world doesn’t care about our religion, but – notice this — the world wants us to pray. As the captain said, “Jonah, get up and pray to your god. Maybe he can save us.”
We claim to know the living God. We claim to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. We claim to have access to the God of the universe. And the people around us know that. And even if the world doesn’t want our religion, it desperately wants our prayers.
And so, people we know will often say to us, “Can’t you see what’s happening? My marriage is falling apart. My kids are in trouble. I just lost my job. My husband has cancer. We can’t pay our bills. You say you know God. If you do, wake up and pray for us!”
So maybe the question we ought to be asking this morning is this — why aren’t we praying more? We can preach a thousand sermons and the world doesn’t care. But the world wants us to pray.
We often wonder how to reach this generation that seems so turned off to God and “religion.” And if we just sit back and wait for people to show up at our worship services, we will likely be waiting a long, long time. But there’s one way we can reach people, by asking one simple question. “How can I pray for you?”
Those six words will make a difference, because this world is waiting for the church to pray. I’ve shared with some of you before that this is something Sueanne and I have sometimes done in restaurants when we go out to eat. I’ll say to the waiter or the waitress, “How can I pray for you?” In all the times I’ve asked that question, not once has anyone ever taken offense at that question. In fact, sometimes it has brought them to tears, the idea that somebody cared enough about them to want to pray for them.
The world can do without our sermons, but they can’t live without our prayers. And if they get our prayers, then maybe someday they might listen to our sermons.
I heard recently about a youth group that took a mission trip to New York City and they decided to pray for people. Several places in Manhattan, they set up “Prayer Stations.”
And their plan was, if people stopped, they would just ask them, “How can we pray for you?” Now they weren’t sure how the people of New York City would respond to something like that. But, as it turned out, people stood in line waiting to be prayed for.
Which shouldn’t surprise us. People are hurting, families are in crisis, people struggle to make ends meet, there’s sickness of one sort or another in every family, and everyone is touched by pain and sorrow. It’s no different in a big city than it is in a small town.
The world is waiting for us pray. They don’t understand our doctrine. They aren’t all that interested in our sermons. But the world wants us to pray. And sometimes, I think the world wonders why we don’t pray.
So, like Jonah, we need to wake up as the world says to us what the captain of that ship said to Jonah — “You call yourself a follower of God. Why aren’t you praying? My life is falling apart. I need you to pray for me.”
IV. God will expose our disobedience
You see, one of the things that we tend to do when we disobey God is to try to hide it. We don’t want anybody to find what we did. But God has ways of exposing our disobedience.
Verse 7, “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.” (Jonah 1:7) .
Casting lots was kinda like rolling the dice or drawing straws, but this was no random act of chance. God made sure that Jonah got the short straw. Which forced him then to reveal who he was and why he was on the ship:
“And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” (Jonah 1:9-10)
Isn’t it amazing how God works? We may run and run and run, but God will eventually bring us to the place where we finally have to be honest with ourselves and with others and tell the truth. And, in fact, we will never begin the process of healing until we are willing to acknowledge the truth about we have done.
Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better. And things were about to get a lot worse for Jonah.
V. God makes us face the consequences of our own foolish decisions
Jonah knows that this storm is his fault. So, when the sailors ask what they should do to make things calm down, Jonah offers the only solution that makes sense:
“He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’” (Jonah 1:12)
But that’s not what they did, at least not immediately. In verse 13, “Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.” (Jonah 1:13)
When Jonah said, “Throw me overboard,” the pagans wouldn’t do it. Instead, they started rowing for shore. Which is interesting, because it means that at this point, these ungodly men have more compassion than the prophet of God does. They care more about Jonah than he does about them.
Furthermore, consider this – there’s only one prayer to God recorded in Jonah chapter 1. And it’s not Jonah who does the praying. It’s the pagans.
It is to our shame that sometimes the pagans of this world act with more love and more compassion than the people of God do. And there may even be some times when the pagans have more interest in praying to God than we do.
Here’s what the sailors prayed: “Therefore they called out to the Lord, ‘O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’” (Jonah 1:14)
In the Hebrew language, there are a number of different words for God: El, Elohim, Yahweh, and so on. Yahweh was the covenant name of God. It’s the name the Jews used when they spoke of the God who had made promises to Israel. It was the most sacred name for God in the Old Testament. And three times in this prayer of the pagans, the Hebrew word “Yahweh” is used:
“They called out to the Lord, ‘O Lord.’” “You, O Lord have done as it pleased you.”
These pagans cried out to the true God, the covenant-keeping Lord of Israel. Here’s what’s interesting. Back in verse 5, every man was crying out to “his own god,” but now in verse 14 all of these men have started praying to the God of Israel, the one true God. That’s an amazing change. As Jonah begins to wake up and come to his senses spiritually, God is also using this storm to work on the hearts of these pagans so that they begin to cry out in desperation to him.
And so, we see here the hand of God at work in every part of this situation. The Lord will often uses desperate times to wake men up so that they will cry out to him. He does it here for Jonah and he also does it for the pagan sailors who suddenly don’t look so pagan anymore. Check out their theology at the end of their prayer:
“For you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you” which is really just another way of saying, “God, you are in complete control.” Just a short time earlier, these men were worshiping their own gods. Now they proclaim the sovereignty of the one true God.
So, they throw Jonah overboard and the text says that “the sea ceased from its raging.” (Jonah 1:15). We learn two important things here, one from Jonah and the other from the sailors. From Jonah, we learn that the storms will often continue until you stop running from God. We generally have smooth sailing when we first go our own way. Things look rosy, and life is good because disobedience brings temporary pleasure. But, be assured, the storms will come sooner or later, and those storms are often sent by God as part of his grace to bring us back to our senses and to lead us to repentance.
From the sailors’ side, we see something amazing happen: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” (Jonah 1:16)
You probably haven’t noticed this before because immediately after Jonah gets tossed into the sea, we want to see what happens to Jonah. But while Jonah is in the water, a revival breaks out on the boat. Suddenly that boat was filled with worshipers of the one true God. And that boat was still headed for Tarshish, which means that when they got there, they were able to share their faith with the people in that distant land.
Meanwhile, Jonah is dog paddling in the middle of the ocean. And I’m sure Jonah expected to die. In fact, that may have been what he wanted to happen.
VI. God reveals his grace in the midst of judgment
This is the part of the story we know best: “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)
Notice that the text doesn’t say the Lord “created” a great fish. It says that God “appointed” a great fish. Doesn’t say it was a whale. Could have been a whale, but we don’t know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter.
But I picture God having a conversation with this fish, “I’ve got a job for you to do.” “Yes sir.” So, he gave the fish the GPS coordinates and said, “Be there at precisely this time.” “Yes sir.” “When you get there, a man’s going to fall in the water in front of you. I want you to swallow him whole, but don’t chew him up. And then I’ll give you further instructions.” “Yes sir.”
As with everything else in this story, the fish obeys God better than Jonah does.
But I want you to consider why God sent that great fish. First of all, it was to rescue Jonah from the sea. If God hadn’t sent the fish, Jonah would have died in the ocean. And second, it was to bring him to repentance, because, as we saw last week, “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
What Jonah would see as the worst possible thing that could happen to him was actually the grace of God. And like, Jonah, we often don’t realize that until much later in our lives.
For those of you who may have friends and loved ones who at this very moment are running from the Lord, I hope you’ll see a message of hope in this story. God knows where they are. He knows what they’re doing. He knows how to reach them, and he knows how to bring them back. So, for now, don’t give up. Keep believing and keep praying.
And if you’re the one who’s been running from God, I’ve got some good news for you – it’s never too late to stop running. But I would encourage you, don’t wait for the storm. Don’t wait for the big fish. Because if you continue to run from God, there may be some consequences for you down the road that are not very pleasant.
When the Word of the Lord comes to you like it did for Jonah, you have a choice: you can either obey or you can disobey. If you want to run from God, you can always find a ship sailing the wrong direction. And if you insist on disobeying, God may need to send a storm to grab your attention.
Some of you may be in the midst of that storm right now. If that’s the case, it’s not because God has turned his back on you. To the contrary, it shows that he loves you and wants to bring you back to your senses so that you’ll come back to him. And you’ve got another choice. You can either keep running, or you can come back to God.
Please pray with me: Father, we ask this morning that you do for our loved ones what you did for Jonah. Even after a message like this, it’s easy to feel hopeless. They seem so to be far from you. They seem to be having such a good time, living it up. But you know where they are. And you know how to touch them. We ask that you would please do whatever it takes to bring them back to you.
Father, there may some even in the audience here this morning who are running away from you. I pray that you would bring a storm into their lives to bring them to their senses as you call them back to you. Even as they face the consequences for their disobedience, may they see your hand of grace that welcomes them back. In Jesus’ name, amen.