Jonah's Prayer

 

Today we are continuing the sermon series that we started last Sunday--a sermon series based on a study of the book of Jonah.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book of Jonah, as a matter of fact--which sounds a lot more intense than it is, because there are only four chapters in the book of Jonah. 

Now, let's pick up where we left off last week. When last we left Jonah he had been called by God to go preach to some people Jonah didn't want to preach to in the city of Nineveh.  Jonah decided to run the opposite direction and got on a boat heading to the ends of the earth.  A storm came up and the sailors feared they would all die.  Jonah was eventually fingered as the one on board whose god was angry at him.  Jonah confessed that he served the One God and that he'd been running.  Instead of fulfilling his calling however, Jonah defies God even further by demanding to be thrown overboard.  At last the sailors do what he says, and then God makes a huge sea creature swallow Jonah to save him.  

It's hard to find a more well-known story in the Bible than Jonah and the Whale, am I right?  I shared last week how fascinated I was with this story when I was a kid.  It's also hard to find a story that is surrounded with so much controversy and diverse opinions regarding interpretation.  

Lots of people have a hard time believing this story is factual.  I get that.  My goal for this series wasn't to spend a lot of time focusing on the scientific accuracy of the story itself. I believe this is a story about knowing and doing the will of God, and the struggle that we often have to do just that.  

BUT I did find some interesting material this week on a story from the 1890's about a whaling ship that finally brought a huge sperm whale on board after it had destroyed a harpoon boat and swallowed one of the sailors in it.  They finally cut the stomach of the whale open and discovered the sailor still alive, unconscious but still alive.  

Who knows?  I think that the possibility that this could be true is miraculous in and of itself, don't you think?  And as I said last week--the moment you push away from the possibility of the miraculous when you read stories like this is the moment you push away from the idea of an all-powerful and creative God.  

Today we are going to study Jonah chapter 2, which is essentially a prayer by Jonah to God from the belly of the whale--a prayer made when he is hopeless and helpless.  What we're going to be focusing on today is simply this:  The first step back to God's will is to admit that you're not in control. 

Let me ask you a question.  Can you think of a time when you thought you had something completely in control, but you didn't?  Think about that for a moment, and then turn to the person next to you and briefly share that moment with them.  

Let's read Jonah chapter 2 shall we?

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.

First and foremost what we see here is that Jonah both symbolically and literally has descended to the realm of the dead.  In Jewish literature the sea represented chaos and certain death for those who presumed to try to control it.

“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.

But remarkably, God is present in those depths.  Like the Psalmist who sings, "Where shall I go to hide from your presence?  If I go down to the depths... you are there."  Jonah realizes that God is with him somehow even in the face of certain death. 

Theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about this passage in Jonah, and about the fact that even in our darkest moments, we can experience God.  He wrote: "that which denotes death also has within it the presence of life." 

What this means is that if we believe in an ever-present, all-powerful God, then we need to also affirm that no matter how dark, negative and lifeless our circumstances might be, they aren't beyond redemption. 

This is a wonderful part of the story--so pay attention to this.  As Jonah is in the depths his prayer rises to the heavens.  

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.

He is in the worst moment, the worst place he's ever been.  In the face of death, in the face of shame, in the face of despair, he cries out from the very bottom of rock bottom and his prayer rises to heaven.  

7 “When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,

    to your holy temple.

This is a beautiful symbol of the way that God is able to turn death into life, to restore what was left for dead, to reach into the darkness and bring light. 

And here's something amazing.  The psalm that Jonah is singing here is not a song of lament, or even of praise.  It's a psalm of thanksgiving.  Jonah is already assuming his deliverance.  He surrenders the outcomes, and simply trusts that God has his best interests at heart. 

In spite of his circumstances, he acknowledges the grace and sovereignty of God.  He admits that God is in control and he is not. And in so doing, he begins the journey back to the will of God. 

Remember what we said---The first step back to God's will is to admit that you're not in charge.  And for many of us, this is the most difficult thing to admit in this process.  
As the story of the first people in Genesis teaches: Since the beginning --we've been struggling with God over who gets to run things.  And most of the time we decide in our favor, don't we?  

Here's the thing, we don't seem to have any problem with abandoning God when it suits us.  When we want to do things our way, in our time--it's all too easy just to shut God out of the equation.  

But when it doesn't turn out... when we find ourselves in the belly of a whale, so to speak, and it feels like God has abandoned us---not that's a different story...  

If you're like me--that's the moment when I play the "Why me?" card.  Or the "What have I done to deserve this?" card.  Before I know it, I am wallowing in misery.  

What I see here in this text, though, is that BECAUSE JONAH GAVE UP HIS DESIRE FOR CONTROL AND TURNED TO GOD he found MERCY in his MISERY.  He found himself in a miserable situation, to be sure.  But there was mercy in that misery.  There was life in what seemed like death.  There was heaven in that little bit of hell.  

There is a wonderful word here for those who are about to go under for the last time. For those who feel like there's no light at the end of the tunnel...  

Mercy in the midst of Misery.  Come on!  

So no matter what's happening in your life--if you've been tossed overboard, the bottom has fallen out, you are at the end of your rope...  If you have experienced loss and grief... if your marriage is falling apart... if you are fighting addiction... if you are facing financial ruin...   

You can find mercy in the midst of that misery---and listen... listen... all it takes to fully embrace that mercy is to turn away from trying to make it all happen on your own and admit that you're not in control.  

How do we do that?  How do we surrender the outcomes, and turn to God to embrace this mercy?  I think Jonah teaches how in the three things he did when he found himself in the lowest moment of his life. 

First, he showed honesty about where he was and that it was his own pride and reliance on his own will that got him there. He didn't sugar coat his situation.  He didn't try to cover it with Hallmark card platitudes.  He didn't say, "I'm just working through it." or "One day at a time, you know."  No, he bared his soul, he told God exactly what he was feeling.  

And guess what?  God didn't flinch.  God didn't get upset with his honesty.  God was just present.  

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.

You see, although Jonah seems to be kind of blaming God for putting him in a bad situation, what he is really doing in a very ancient Hebrew kind of way is acknowledging that all through his trials and tribulations, God's was there.  

And the same is true for you and I.  We are not alone.  We are not abandoned.  God is with us in the worst moments, in the valley of the shadow.  And I believe that God desires nothing less than our unfiltered honesty in those moments.  I can't tell you how many people I have counseled who refuse to acknowledge their pain, doubt and fear to God.  

Be honest about your situation, and your need for God--and know that God is near. 

Second, Jonah showed repentance.  This is a natural progression of being honest with God.  Not only did Jonah get honest with God about his situation, he expressed a complete acknowledgement of his own willfulness, and his desire to turn back to God.

7 “When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.


In other words, Jonah says "I am miserable." and then essentially says, "And the only way out of this misery is to turn to you, God!"   Then he says this: 

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. 

Have you ever met someone who just seemed to want to be miserable?  I mean they had every reason, every opportunity to find peace, to embrace mercy, but they turn again and again toward their own understanding, their own power, their own way, and it leads them right back to suffering.  

That's essentially what Jonah is saying here about those that cling to worthless idols.  They keep turning again and again to the gods they make, rather than the God who can make them.  

Maybe you find yourself doing something similar right now.  Maybe it's time to turn from those idols and embrace God's mercy.  

Finally, Jonah offers thanksgiving.  You can see throughout his prayer that the joy of his salvation is slowly restored, and he begins to recognize that God has been in control all along. This fills him with a sense of relief--you don't even hear him begging for God to save him, he assumes it.  He surrenders the outcomes.  

 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.’”

My most anxious moments--seasons of discontent and angst--have come when I decided to wrestle with God over my future.  These are the times in my life that seemed the darkest. 

The moment when I let go of the wheel, however, is a moment of relief.  When I trust that God has it all under control, I can simply be who God has meant for me to be, pursue his will his way and embrace God's mercy and hope.  

My friends, the first step back to God's will is to admit that you're not in control.  

And here's something amazing that I was saving for this moment.  The last words that Jonah utters before the whale regurgitates him on to dry land are these:  "Salvation belongs to the LORD!"   In Hebrew those words are yeshuata leyahweh.  

As Christians we can't read this story and not be reminded of what happens when we surrender to the God who raises the dead.  Those words  yeshuata leyahweh... Jesus' name in Hebrew was Joshua, which means "Jehovah Saves."  You pronounce Jesus name in Hebrew as Yeshua.  

When you read the final statement of Jonah's prayer you hear the name of Jesus, and are reminded of the hesed the covenant love of God for his people.  How cool is that?

You are not in control, my friends.  But the One who is loves you so very much that he went to the greatest lengths possible to rescue you from sin and death.   

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