Jonah (3) — Running Back to God

            This morning, we pick up in our study from the book of Jonah.  In just a few moments, we’ll be in chapter 2 if you’d like to be turning there.  But first, let’s take a moment to review where we’ve been.  In the first verses of Jonah, we read, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” (Jonah 1:1-2)

            As I shared with you a couple of weeks ago, we know from history that Nineveh was extremely wicked, and they did horrible things, torturing innocent men, women, and children.  And God said to his prophet Jonah, “Go preach to those people.”  God said, “Go.”  But Jonah said, “No.”  Instead, he got on a boat, headed west with a destination about 2,500 miles away in Tarshish. 

            But God basically said, “This assignment is too important.  I’m not going to let you run from me,” and so God hurled this huge storm onto the sea.  It was so big, the storm was about to break up the boat.  The captain of the ship woke up Jonah and he said, “Jonah, you’re a prophet, maybe if you pray, if you call on the name of your God, maybe he will save us.” 

            And, as I pointed out last week, it’s curious that this pagan saw more value in prayer than Jonah did.  As I said, the world may not want out sermons, but they do want our prayers.

            And so, this captain came to Jonah, asking him to pray.  The storm rages on.  And eventually, Jonah had to admit, “It’s my fault.  I’m running away from God.  Throw me into the sea and everything will be fine.”  And although they didn’t want to do it, eventually the sailors realized, “We have no other choice.”  And so they threw Jonah overboard. 

            And the very last verse of Jonah chapter 1 says, “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.”

            And that’s where we left off last week, with Jonah in the belly of the great fish.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to be inside that fish?   Consider for a moment what a horrible experience that must have been.  Sometimes I think we talk about Jonah being in the belly of the fish three days and three nights as if that were a normal everyday occurrence.  Or we picture Jonah being like Pinocchio and his father setting up a little campfire inside the belly of the whale.  But I want you to listen to one writer’s attempt to picture what it must have been like:

            “Pitch black.  Sloshing gastric juices wash over you, burning skin, eyes, throat, nostrils.  Oxygen is scarce and each frantic gulp of air is saturated with salt water.  The rancid smell of digested food causes you to throw up repeatedly until you have only dry heaves left.  Everything you touch has the slimy feel of the mucous membrane that lines the stomach.  You feel claustro­phobic.  With every turn and dive of the great fish, you slip and slide in the cesspool of digestive fluid.  There are no footholds. No blankets to keep you warm from the cold, clammy depths of the sea.”

            That’s not a very pleasant picture.   But God wants us to learn from Jonah that whenever we deliberately choose to disobey him, we need to be willing to face the consequences of our sin.

            And Jonah definitely was doing that.  And he had some time to think.  Samuel Johnson once said, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.” 

            What he meant by that is that if a man knows he’s going to die very soon, it has a way of clearing his mind of trivial details.  For example, if you know you’re going to stand in front of a firing squad at sunrise, you don’t worry about washing the car.  Somebody else can wash the car.  You’ve got bigger things to worry about.

            And that’s the way it was for Jonah.  I’m pretty sure during the time he was in the belly of that fish, Jonah wasn’t thinking about how he was going to replace his sandals when he got out of this mess.  He wasn’t thinking about whether he needed to fix the roof on his house.  No, his mind was focused on what he had done to get himself into this mess.  And that was important because it helped bring him to his senses.

            I read something from a man who is involved in ministry to students.  Occasionally, he’s faced with disciplining students whenever they break the rules.  He said, “I’ve dealt with everything you can imagine.  Every sort of sexual sin.  Cheating.  Breaking the law.  You name it, I’ve seen it.”

            He made two statements that I think are significant.  First of all, he said, almost everyone lies, and they lie all the time.  After discussing how people routinely lie to cover up their sins, he offered this conclusion:  You can’t help a liar.  You can help anybody who is struggling with any sort of sin as long as they tell the truth, but you can’t help a liar.

            The situation is made worse by the fact that when most of us get caught doing something wrong, we tend to confess as little as possible.  Which led him to his second point.  He said it’s always a good sign when “they tell you something you didn’t already know.” 

            In other words, if you know someone did A, B and C, but that person tells you, “I also did D, E and F”, you can be pretty sure that their repentance is more than just “I’m sorry I got caught.” True repentance always involves coming clean, and coming clean means owning up to the whole pattern of wrongdoing, not just to the thing you happened to get caught doing.

            Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” 

          In I John 1:9, John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

            “If we confess our sins.”  But it’s very difficult for most of us to come to this place of total honesty with God and with others.  And it may well be that the three hardest words for any of us to say are, “I have sinned.”

            Nobody wants to say that.  We would rather do anything, including lying, to keep from saying those words.  We will make excuses, we’ll rationalize, we’ll twist the facts, we’ll blame others, we’ll say, “It’s not my fault” or “She told me to do it” or “So what? Everyone else is doing it.”  The excuses go on and on.

            So it’s important for you to know this — It’s a good sign that you are growing in your maturity as a Christian if it is becoming easier for you to say, “I was wrong.”  That’s a good sign because it means you’re taking responsibility for your own actions.  It means you’re ready to get your life right with God.   It means you’re ready to start growing again.  

            Let me suggest something that can help you in your Christian walk.  Now, what I’m about to say isn’t easy to do, and it’s not certainly not a pleasant thing to do, but if you are serious about wanting to grow in your relationship with God, then I would encourage you to pray this simple prayer: “Lord, show me the truth about myself.”

            Just seven words — “Lord, show me the truth about myself.”  And then wait for God to do that.  Because when we pray that way, the answer will begin to come to us from God.  Little by little, the Holy Spirit will show us our weaknesses, our faults, our mistakes, our bad attitudes, our foolish words, our pride, our arrogance, our need to be in control, our need to tell others what to do, our desire to have our own way, our anger, our bitterness, our lack of mercy, our lack of love, and our lack of compassion.  If you will pray that prayer, God will always answer that question for you.

            But, as I said, that’s not an easy thing to do.  It’s very difficult.  And it’s understandable if we’re hesitant to pray that prayer.  I think God knows that, and so sometimes God forces the issue and he answers that question for us without us even asking it.  Sometimes God puts us in places where we have to face the consequences of our own stupid choices.  Because God cannot ignore our sin.  And he loves us too much to let us go on sinning.

            And that’s why Jonah found himself in the belly of a fish.  If God wanted to punish Jonah, he could have just killed him.  He could have just killed all those men on the ship.  But, because of his grace, God brought Jonah to a place where he could think and reflect on everything that had happened, so that he could get himself into a better place.

            And when he did that, Jonah started praying.  Now, we have no record that Jonah prayed while he was back on the ship.  But now, “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.” (Jonah 2:1). 

            The first thing Jonah did was to cry out to God for helpHe said,“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” (Jonah 2:2).  Jonah said, “I cried out in my distress”.  When things got bad, “I called out to the Lord,” and what did the Lord do?  “He answered me.”

            Now, I want you to stop and think about that for a moment.  “I called out to the Lord, and he answered me.”  Do you really understand what it means that we have the ability to cry out to the God of the universe, the Creator and the Sustainer, the One who hung the stars in the sky, who created the heavens and the earth and all the galaxies that exist, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the Supreme Judge, the Holy One, the one who is all knowing and ever present and all powerful – that God?  We can call out to him, and he will answer us. 

            Jonah called out to God after he had basically said to God just a few days earlier, “Forget you.”  But our God, who is so merciful and full of grace, was still willing to hear his prayer and to answer him.  I want you to think about that.  Don’t let the power of that pass you by.  We can call out to God and he will answer us.

            The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 4:16, we can “draw near to the throne of grace” with confidence.  We have the ability to step into the presence of God to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  We can call out to God and he will answer us. 

            Jonah says, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Sheol is the word the Jews used to describe where you go when you die.  Jonah truly believed this was the end of the road for him.  And so he cried out, “I’m so far from God, a place where I’m miserable and helpless and desperate and afraid and hurting.”  And so he cried out to God. 

            Some of you can relate to that.  In fact, some of you may be in a similar situation right now.  Oh, I know, you’re not in the belly of a fish.  But you feel like your life is just spiraling out of control.  You’re getting further and further from God, and you’re miserable and helpless and desperate and afraid and hurting.  And if you haven’t done so already, it’s time for you to do what Jonah did and cry out to God.

            Second, Jonah acknowledged that God put him where he was. “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me…The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head” (Jonah 2:3, 5)

            Notice that Jonah doesn’t blame the sailors for tossing him into the sea nor does he blame the storm or the fish.  Jonah sees clearly that behind the ship and the storm and the casting of lots and the raging sea and the great fish, behind all of that stands the great God of the universe. Jonah humbles himself before God and he says, “I’m here because you put me here.” 

            And he also knows there’s no way out of this situation unless the Lord rescues him.  Without God’s help, Jonah is Sunday lunch for the big fish and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.

            Third, Jonah remembered the Lord. “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord,” (Jonah 2:7)

            After all the running away, after all the disobedience, after all of his self-centered living, God finally has Jonah’s undivided attention.

            Make no mistake about it — God will do whatever it takes to bring us to the place where we remember him.  He will stop at nothing. That includes calamity, sickness, loss, repeated failure and heartbreak.

            Whatever it takes to get us on our knees is good for our spiritual growth.  So Jonah says, “Lord, I’ve been running from you for a long time, and now you’ve got my full attention.”

            Fourth, Jonah vowed to serve the Lord. “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.” (Jonah 2:9).

            Basically, Jonah is saying, “God, if you will just get me out of this mess, I will be your prophet.  I’ll go where you want me to go and I’ll preach what you want me to preach.  Just get me out of here.” 

            I find it interesting that Jonah was pleading for the one thing that he wasn’t willing to extend to the people of Nineveh — the grace of God.  The whole reason he started running in the first place was because he didn’t like the fact that God was willing to extend grace to those people over there.  Jonah wasn’t even sure he wanted to serve a God who showed mercy.  And now, here he is begging for God’s grace and mercy to be shown toward him.

            That’s something I think we all struggle with.  It’s like the way we feel about police officers.  Have you ever noticed that we want to insist that police officers uphold the law — as long as it involves someone else?  Whenever you see someone turn right on red without stopping or commit some other traffic violation, you think to yourself, “I sure wish there was a police officer around here and that he would give them a ticket!”  But whenever we get pulled over for a traffic violation, what are we thinking as the officer makes his way up to our car?  “I sure hope he’s willing to extend mercy.”

            And I think we all do that with God.  We see people living in sin and we want God to “give them what they deserve!”  But when it comes to our sin, we want God to extend his mercy and his grace.  I wonder how it would change our view of this world if we were willing to extend the same amount of grace toward others that we want God to show toward us.

            And so, Jonah makes this promise, “God, if you will save me, I do will everything in my power to serve you.  I’m sorry for the way I acted.  I’m sorry for the way I disobeyed you.  If you will save me, I will spend the rest of my life doing what you want me to do.”

            That’s the advantage of being in the belly of a big fish.  It clears your mind so you can think about what’s most important.  God had to stop Jonah in his tracks in order to get his attentionAnd I believe that God often needs to do the same thing with us.

            It would probably do us all a lot of good if we spent a few days inside the belly of a fish.  But since that’s not likely to happen, we need to find some other way to get to a place where it’s just us and God and no distractions — without TV, without the Internet, without our smart phones, just us and God and time to think about what’s really important.

            Because, often our greatest problem is slowing down enough to hear God’s voice.  It’s amazing and it’s frightening to think about how easy it is for Christians to go through life without ever talking to God.  Why do you think Jonah prayed while he was in the belly of the fish?  Well, for one thing, there wasn’t anything else to do.  Without the regular distractions of life, Jonah was able to focus on God. 

            People will sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t God speak to me?”  The answer may be, “He speaks to you all the time, but you won’t slow down long enough to listen to him.”  All of the distractions we have in our lives, the constant noise, the constant pressure to get things done, to meet our goals, and to cross things off our to-do list, all of it keeps us from talking with God and listening to God.

            But God knows how to get our attention.  Be careful you don’t make the mistake of saying, “There’s absolutely no way I could possibly slow down’ because God has ways of making us slow down.  They’re usually not very pleasant, but they accomplish his purpose.

            And understand this — It’s a good thing to be desperate if desperation turns your heart to God.  I can’t think of a whole lot of things worse than being in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights.  But I can tell you this – it’s better to be in the fish and talking with God than to be out on dry land living your life on your own, without even thinking about God.  It’s a good thing to be desperate if desperation turns your heart to God

            And so, in Jonah chapter 1, Jonah tries to run away from God and everything gets all messed up.  In chapter 2, Jonah prays and things start to get better.  At the end of the chapter, we read, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2:10)

            The same God who appointed the fish to swallow Jonah now tells the fish to let him go. One moment Jonah is wedged inside the belly of the fish, the next minute he’s flying through the air and lands on the shore, covered with all kinds of gross stuff.

            The story of Jonah is a lot like the parable Jesus told in Luke 15.  A young man came to his father and said, “Give me my share of the inheritance.” So the father did, and the young man took the money, left his family, and journeyed into the far country where he spent his money on wild living.  And everything was going great until the famine came.

            By the way, you can mark it down.  The famine will always come sooner or later.  You can have your fun and spend your money and live any way you like.  You can ignore everything God says.  But eventually, the famine will come.  And when the money runs out, you will find out that your so-called friends won’t return your phone calls.  Oh, they were happy to party with you while you had cash in your pocket and a credit card to cover everything else.  But when the money’s gone, your party buddies suddenly disappear.

            And so now the prodigal son is feeding the pigs, hoping to eat some of the leftovers from the slop bucket. Jesus said, when the prodigal son came to his senses, he said to himself, “Back home, my father’s servants have plenty to eat. I will arise and go to my father and say, ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Make me one of your hired hands.”

            And then he began the long, difficult journey back home.  Ashamed and embarrassed of what he had done. Wondering what his father would do when he got there.

            But, of course, there was no need to worry about that.  Jesus said that the father saw his son a long way off.  Which means he had been watching and waiting for his son to come home.   Day after day, he waited and he watched, until one day he saw his son in the distance and he ran out to meet him.  He couldn’t wait to see his son again.

            After his father had hugged and kissed him, the son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” This was the speech he had rehearsed.  And then he was going to say, “Make me like one of your hired hands.”  But he never got those words out.  The father wouldn’t let him say it.

            His father said, “Go get some sandals.  Go find my best robe.  Get the golden ring.  Kill the fatted calf.  My son who was lost has been found.  My son who was far away has come home. Let’s get the party started.”

            Remember, I began this lesson talking about how important it is to be honest – to be honest with yourself, to be honest with others, to be honest with God.   And some of you here this morning, if you’re being honest, you know that your life has been looking a lot like Jonah and the prodigal son.  Because you’ve been running away from God.

            But I’ve got some good news for you.  Your heavenly Father is waiting for you, and the door is always open.  The hardest part about coming home is always that first step.  Prodigals are scared to take that first step because they are afraid of what’s waiting for them at the end of the journey.  What if there’s no one to meet them?  What if no one is glad to see them?  What if they’re greeted with someone yelling at them?

            But Jesus paints a picture that assures us that our Father stands waiting for his prodigal sons and daughters to come home. And he doesn’t say, “Get yourself cleaned up first.”  He just says, “Come home.  I can’t wait to see you again.”


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