Photo: “The Whale Tail” sculpture in Clonakilty, the nearest I could get to a whale around here without getting on a boat!
Sermon from last Sunday. Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (though the whole story is discussed).
You’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for Jonah; he was just sitting there, minding his own business and then God comes along and tells him to get up on his feet and go to an enormous city and start preaching. Imagine if that were us? There we are sitting down one day, watching T.V. or counting our ‘Friends’ on Facebook and all of a sudden there is a Big Voice and the Big Voice tells us to get up off our backside, to leave our comfortable life in West Cork and go to a big city, far away in another country, where we have never been before and we are to walk the streets and market places and we are to tell people that they had better turn to God, because God is angry with them! What would go through your mind, how would you react? Right now, are you trying to push out of your mind something that God has called you to do and you are not yet doing?
Jonah ran away, he wanted to hide, silly thing that, ‘how can you hide from God?’ we say, but haven’t we tried to hide from God sometimes too?
There’s a wonderful few verses in Psalm 139 that go like this:
7Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
Of course, these are meant to be comforting words, but if you are trying to run away from God, then they will help you to see that it is all pretty pointless, because God is everywhere!
But that doesn’t stop Jonah. He gets up, then standing at the crossroads and looking at the sign for Nineveh, (which is in the East), he takes the road heading in the opposite direction to a town on the coast called Joppa. Then from Joppa he pays to board a ship headed west for Tarshish and as far away from God as he can get.
Once on board the ship, perhaps Jonah begins to feel a bit safer, perhaps he feels he can stop looking over his shoulder for a while. It is an exhausting thing running away from God. Jonah goes down into the safety of the ships hold and in no time at all he is in a deep sleep. We are told that the LORD hurls a great wind upon the sea and that there is a mighty storm that threatens to break up the ship. Things are desperate and the crew of the ship sense that there is something supernatural going on here. Perhaps this is a storm unlike any other they had seen and they reckon that it is somebody’s fault, they cry out to their gods for help and they throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship, but it is no good. Jonah’s disobedience is putting the lives of everyone on board in grave danger.
But not for long, the captain wakes him up and says:
‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (1:6).
They draw lots to see whose fault it is and sure enough the lot falls on Jonah. The sailors are convinced that it is his fault and they ask him to explain himself. Jonah replies:
I am a Hebrew,’ … ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ (1:9)
And when the sailors learn also that Jonah is fleeing from this all-powerful God, they become even more afraid, so they ask him what to do because even as they are speaking the wind and waves are growing in strength and stature. Jonah replies:
‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ (1:12)
What an astonishing response. Jonah realises that he is cornered, that it is ultimately futile trying to run and hide from God and so he gives up and resigns himself to the fact that he has lost, that God has won and they might as well throw him overboard because that is the only way that the storm will stop. But the sailors don’t want him to die so they try hard to row the ship back to land, but it is no use so they cry out to Jonah’s God asking for mercy and they throw him overboard, into the dark ocean depths … and immediately the sea quietens down.
Perhaps Jonah is convinced he is going to drown, that the light from above will fade as he disappears into the inky blackness of the deep, that yes it is possible to run away from God, but if you succeed the place where you will end up is called hell. But God has other plans; He sends a big fish to swallow Jonah.
Have you ever been swallowed by a great fish? No, I haven’t either, but perhaps we have been or are in the same place that Jonah was. Now at last the running away had stopped, Jonah cries out to the God that he had been running away from and he does something that he had not done for a long time, he prays. Jonah pours out his gratitude to God that he has not drowned. Overwhelmed with relief, he looks to God again and over a period of three days and nights, he refocuses his life, he stops trying to be in control and he hands his life back to God.
Jonah learns his lesson (I suppose that it goes without saying that he has learnt it the hard way!) So when God sees that Jonah is a changed man He speaks to the fish and so Jonah is unceremoniously spewed out onto dry land. He stinks and looks like he’s been in the belly of a fish for three days, but he has been saved, he is alive and stands on solid ground once again.
God tries again, He says:
‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ (3:1)
So we are told that Jonah goes into the middle of the city and he speaks out the word that the LORD had given to him, he says:
‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
I imagine that he was probably thinking that they would grab him and throw him in prison, or something much worse, but at least God was on his side now, he was doing the right thing. But something amazing (and probably most unexpected) happened, in chapter 3:5 we read
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
Next time you are thinking that people will think you are strange if you tell them about Jesus, think again. You may very well be surprised at their reaction. The longer we follow God’s way, the more we realize that we do not need to be afraid, so we certainly do not need to be afraid to tell people that we are going to church, that we are going to a Home Group or helping out with Sunday Club, God can and will use all these things to bring people to Himself. The people of Nineveh were far from God, but on hearing the message from God they repented and they fasted and they changed their ways, so that in verse 10 we read:
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
If you ever doubted that God is the God of the second chance or that He is the God of new beginnings, read again the story of Jonah! Just because we have made mistakes in the past, it does not disqualify us from serving God in the future. On our own, none of us are good enough, none of us are qualified enough to serve God. It is all down to His love, His mercy, His healing, and His undeserved favour. One of the most incredible verses in the whole Bible is found in Romans 5:8, it says simply this:
‘… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. (ESV)
God loved Jonah and He proved it by not leaving him to be a victim of his own choices and in rescuing him from the dark depths of his own decisions. God loved the people of Nineveh so much that He wanted to rescue them from themselves and the mistakes they had made. He wanted to warn them and He wanted them to change their minds and be saved. God loves you and me beyond all measure and He proves it by giving His Son to die for us, in the place that we deserved upon the cross.
Please don’t let your life become a tangled, mixed up mess of your own wrong choices and bad decisions, hand it over to God, all of it. Trust Him, He does, after all know what He is doing … Amen.