When you talk about God’s men who have told God to get someone else, you have to think about Jonah. In fact, in four short chapters, we’ll see Jonah tell God “no” no less than four times. He has to be dragged kicking and screaming into service. And we’ll spend this Sunday and next looking at this reluctant prophet from whom God would not take “no” for an answer.
Let’s begin in chapter 2 in the middle of this familiar story and work our way back from there.
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God.
He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.
From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
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.
I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight;
yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God.
“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.”
And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Illust. – Lion & Elephant - Jonah could relate
Disobedience to God – that’s nothing new. Some of God’s best people seemed to have it down to second nature. But Jonah, how could you!
God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s sworn enemy. Today Nineveh is just a minor little town in Iraq, but in its day it was the largest and most populated city on the face of the earth – it took three days for a man to walk across the city. God says to Jonah, “Go to Nineveh” – his mission is to announce that God is about to destroy the city because of its wickedness. Jonah’s first stop is the travel agent – “What is the furthest, farthest, most distant destination from Nineveh?” One one-way ticket to Tarshish in Spain coming up!
Jonah’s no novice prophet – in the reign of King Jeroboam II, God sent Jonah to the king with instructions – no problem there – Jonah performed with distinction. Why the problem now? He’s not afraid for his safety, so why does Jonah run from God’s direction?
He would be glad for God to destroy Nineveh, but perhaps he knew God too well. “Why go to Nineveh and preach destruction – you’ll just end up forgiving them.” Jump ahead in the story. Nineveh does repent and God does indeed have mercy on the great and wicked city of Nineveh – just as Jonah had predicted – “I knew you were gracious and compassionate...”
It’s not just that Jonah knows God, he hates Nineveh. After all, God is Israel’s God, not Nineveh’s. Jonah’s jealousy and pride and bigotry all rush to a boil.
God’s command puts Jonah at odds with God, at odds with himself. As Jonah sees it, there’s only one thing he can do. Flee from God’s presence.
Pay the fare, board the ship, set sail. Jonah will never see Spanish soil. Out on the sea a storm quickly arises – a storm that has weather-hardened, tough-as-leather sailors praying to their gods for deliverance. They are throwing the cargo overboard, they are doing everything they can to save their lives and their ship.
Where is Jonah? Jonah has retreated into the hold of the ship, deep in sleep. How far from God can he get? (They called the prophets “seers” – but doesn’t Jonah strike you as shortsighted?) Perilously close to death, Jonah has checked out – it’s not his business.
And then the wake up call. The captain himself descends into the darkness of the hold where he finds the sleeping Jonah. A rude awakening – “How can you sleep?! Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” (The captain hasn’t had a conversion experience here. He doesn’t know Jonah’s god from a Canaanite Baal. But he’s desperate – and maybe whatever, whoever Jonah’s god is, can save them.
The sailors are going to get to the bottom of this – someone is responsible and they cast lots to find out – who do you suppose they point to? Now, the Bible tells us that Jonah had already told them he was fleeing from the Lord. But they begin questioning him – who are you, where are you from, why is this happening? When Jonah tells them he is a Hebrew and his God is the Lord God of heaven, the creator of everything, they are terrified and ask “What have you done?”
The storm has gone from awful to terrible to horrific. This is no calm discussion they are having – the ship is being tossed around like a cork – the wind is howling and rain is pouring down in sheets – and they are screaming at each other trying to be heard above it all – “What shall we do to you?”
Jonah knows it’s his fault – after all, remember Jonah is a prophet – “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm.” Perhaps in death the sea will hid him from God.
The sailors are a remarkable lot – after what Jonah had just said, I would have tossed him in and had done with it. But they aren’t going to give up yet. They decide to make for shore – but a storm that is already raging out of control gets even worse. Finally, the sailors see no other option – they take Jonah, ask for the Lord’s mercy and throw him overboard – and the storm quits.
Does a shiver run down your spine? It did theirs. They look at each other, they look up at the clear sky – they look down into the water where they have just thrown this prophet of God – and what do they do? They fear the Lord, make sacrifices and vows – their lives will never be the same.
How would you like to be the cause of someone’s coming to the Lord because they saw how greatly the Lord punished you for your sin?
The sailors are standing in wonder, Jonah is sinking down into the water, but God isn’t through with Jonah yet. It amazes me how persistent God is. Jonah isn’t the only prophet God has – back home in Israel there’s Elisha and Amos and Hosea. Why not let Jonah sink and get somebody else?
But, you see, God isn’t like us – he doesn’t give up so easily. And tell the truth – aren’t you glad he doesn’t? God has always pursued his people – in spite of themselves.
The God who created the storm, the God who calmed the storm, this same God now sends a fish to swallow Jonah. What kind of fish? It’s not a whale – they had a word for whale in Hebrew and this isn’t it. It says fish – a Jonah swallowing fish – perhaps one uniquely created for the situation – after all, why is it hard to believe that the God who can create the world with a word would have a tough time creating a fish big enough to swallow Jonah whole and keep him alive?
· For three days Jonah is in the belly of that fish. Inside that fish, Jonah came to his senses – and ch. 2 begins, “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.”
· One day wasn’t enough, two days and Jonah still doesn’t get it … it took three days for God to get Jonah’s attention.
· If Jonah thought he knew God, he gets a refresher course. Suddenly, Jonah really learns what it means to be alone and separated from God.
· “In my distress I called to the Lord…” It takes a crisis to bring us to our senses.
Jonah’s message still screams out like a siren in a tornado.
Where do you flee from God? You can’t flee from God – I know that – but that’s not what sin tells you, is it?
· Satan whispers in our ear, “God won’t know… God won’t care… it’s not that big of a deal. God’s not paying attention.”
· It doesn’t matter what we know – somehow we tell ourselves that God isn’t aware of what’s going on in our lives. We flee from his presence.
· You know how you can tell?
o Prayer isn’t so easy – you just can’t face him.
o The word just seems to stay shut – because every time you open it it seems to remind you and convict you.
o Worship becomes dry and stale and you just don’t get anything out of it. The last place you want to be is worshiping God, because it’s hard to face yourself.
We aren’t so much different from Jonah are we? The trouble God had with Jonah is the trouble he has with us. Disobedience and rebellion turn our hearts from him. We may not jump on a ship to Tarshish, but we flee from the presence of the Lord. Jonah and David were kindred spirits – Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. Psalm 139:7-12.
What I love about Jonah though, is that God didn’t leave Jonah in the belly of that fish. After three days the fish vomited Jonah up on dry ground, covered with seaweed, his skin bleached white from the fish’s digestive juices – and with a mission – go to Nineveh. And you know what Jonah did? He went. God didn’t give up on him. And Jonah didn’t give up on God. Who do you think wrote the book of Jonah? Jonah did – with all honesty and transparency – Jonah looks back at his sin and tells us his story.
On one occasion, the people asked Jesus for a sign. He said, “None will be given except for the sign of Jonah.” What was he talking about? I think I know. In fact, everybody thinks they know. Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish – Jesus will spend three days in the grave and then rise again to life. And that is true. But maybe there is more. Maybe when they heard the story of Jonah they were reminded that this is the same God who continues to pursue his disobedient and rebellious people that he might save them. He never gives up on us.
Illust. – Regarding Henry
Jonah 2:8 – “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
What idol are you clinging to that keeps you from God? Where have you run trying to flee from God?
His grace could be yours. It was, after all, Jonah who wrote, “Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9).