JONAH #3: IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE

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So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part 3

JONAH #3. JONAH 1;17-2:9. PART A

We ended last time with a fish swallowing Jonah. The Hebrew word for “fish” really just means: “really big sea creature,” so it might have been a grouper, or a whale shark, or a sperm whale, or some other creature that has since become extinct, or one that humans have yet to discover. It doesn’t really matter, because the Bible is not asking us to believe that this incident conforms to the normal laws of the physical world that God put in place long ago. It is clearly portrayed as a miracle.

I have pointed out before that when God said “get up!” Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the coast. He went down from the wharf onto the ship. He went down into the lower parts of the ship. Last time, he went from there, down into the sea, and now, down into the belly of the sea creature. Finally, Jonah has hit bottom.

In many ways, chapter 2 is the heart of the book of Jonah. It is the beginning of Jonah’s journey back “up.” Verses 1-9 are a psalm – that is a prayer, or song of worship – composed by Jonah. Judging from the psalm, especially verses 3-5, Jonah started to drown after he was thrown overboard. It was quite possible, perhaps even likely, that he didn’t know how to swim, since there were no swimmable bodies of water near his hometown. If he did know how to swim, the storm was drowning him anyway. From the descriptions in those verses, he was not keeping his head above water, but instead was sinking down, and all but certain he was about to die.

But the fish, by swallowing him, saved him. There, inside the fish, Jonah composes the psalm, which, no doubt, he perfected and memorized and wrote down later. I can’t imagine there is much else to do inside of a sea creature. It is interesting to me to notice that once he is inside the fish, he already feels that he is as good as saved. If it had been me, I would have been thinking, “OK, at least I didn’t drown, but what am I supposed to do now? How am I going to get out? Won’t I die of thirst, with no fresh water?”

I think there are two reasons that Jonah praised God before his deliverance was complete. I mentioned last time that he had probably absorbed some of the beliefs of the worldwide culture, and, while he officially believed that God was God of all things, practically speaking, he acted like God was just a territorial god from whom Jonah could run away. In the middle of the storm, his eyes are opened, and his faith was taken to a new level. Remember, he acted courageously and selflessly, telling the sailors to throw him overboard. I think during those moments, Jonah was almost like a new convert. He was in awe of God’s power. Even inside the fish, he was probably thinking: “Oh my word! It’s all true! Everything I’ve heard about God is actually true!”

Therefore, when he was swallowed by the fish he understood that to be God’s miraculous way of saving him. If he was able to think logically, it was a million-to-one that he would be swallowed by a sea creature and live, so God must have sent the fish. And since God sent the fish when he was drowning, obviously, he didn’t want Jonah to die yet.

One of the major themes of the book of Jonah is that God is in control of all things. He sent the storm. He stopped the storm exactly at the moment Jonah was swallowed by the fish. He sent the fish. Later we will see he directed the fish to the coast and caused it to vomit Jonah out. We will also see that he caused a plant to grow, a worm to eat the plant and a hot wind to bother Jonah. God is not “out there somewhere” doing his thing. He is intricately involved in nature, and in the lives of human beings. Verse three reiterates that God is in control: “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. [By the way I am using this: “//” to indicate a new line. It saves space here in the written version of the message.]

So, pay attention to what Jonah was saying. Even though it was Jonah’s own decision to flee by ship, and even though it was actually the sailors, with Jonah’s own encouragement, who threw him overboard, Jonah declares that it was God who cast him into the deep. He recognizes that behind even his own decisions, and the actions of others, God was at work.

God allowed Jonah to choose his own path, and yet, at the same time, God was completely in control. He allowed the sailors to make their own choices, and yet those choices were the outworking of God’s purposes acting in human affairs. Jonah’s choice to run resulted in God’s purpose, which was that the sailors come to know Him, and that Jonah’s faith be revived. So understand this: The Bible does teach us that we are free to make our own choices. It also teaches us that God is completely in control of everything. However, (listen carefully now): The Bible does not teach us how to reconcile those two truths with one another. It is true that I am fully responsible for the consequences of my actions. It is also true that God is in control, no matter what I do. Jonah understood this, and it did not lead him to blame God for that, but rather to praise him for being in control of the whole world. That is what it supposed to do for us also. We can have peace knowing that God is in control. We can praise him, knowing that we do not have the power to thwart the purposes of God. That is freeing and wonderful knowledge.

I realize, however, that if we were to accept that God is so completely in control, it causes problems for the way we think. If God is so involved, what about when storms or droughts destroy lives? What about when people are doing their best to follow him, and tragedy strikes?

 The book of Jonah does not try to answer all of those sorts of questions, though, we will see at the very end, it does provide one sort of response. However, I don’t want to raise the issue and leave it completely alone, so I’ll point out three main ideas to consider.

In the first place, we often conveniently forget our real position before the Lord. Think of it this way: Joseph Stalin was a communist dictator who ordered the brutal torture and murder of millions of people. If a storm came and destroyed his house, would we say that it isn’t fair, that God is unjust? No, in the case of Stalin, we might say, “fair enough,” or even, “God should have done even worse to him.” But the same thing that was inside of Stalin, the thing that caused him to perpetrate such injustice and cruelty, is also inside of me. It is called sin, and it is like cancer. Perhaps I have reigned it in better than Stalin did, but maybe, if I had as much power as he did, I would not have controlled myself, and maybe I would have been even worse than him. And frankly, in my case, the only thing that has caused me to fight against that sin inside me is the Holy Spirit given to me by Jesus. In other words, the only true good inside of me comes through Jesus, not myself. This is true of every single human being on the planet. Any good in this world originated with God, and this is true even for those who don’t know it. Therefore, no one – no one – no, seriously, no onedeserves any good from God. Maybe the cancer doesn’t grow as large in some as in others, but we all have it.

1LORD, hear my prayer. In Your faithfulness listen to my plea, and in Your righteousness answer me.2Do not bring Your servant into judgment, for no one alive is righteous in Your sight. (Ps 143:1-2, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)

20There is certainly no righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins. (Eccl 7:20, HCSB, women are also intended as part of this statement ;-/)

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

If you think I don’t have sin in me, that is only because you don’t know me well enough. If you think you don’t have sin inside yourself, that is only because you don’t know yourself well enough. There is some good inside of people, a remnant of the original intention of God when he made us. But it is not enough. If the standard is perfection (and it is) than all things that are imperfect fall short. There are no degrees of perfection. Either I am perfect, or I am not. And I am not. Being close doesn’t count.

What if you are 95% good? All right, imagine someone served you a hearty stew. You could see chunks of meat, and potatoes and carrots, and also little dark chunks of something else. The stew smells of good meat, but also of something else that seems repulsive to you. You ask your host, “What is the rest of this stuff?”

Your host says, “95% of the stew is good stuff like beef, and carrots and potatoes. Only 5% of it is dog feces.”

Would you eat it? 95% of it is good, why not eat it? Because even 5% spoils the entire thing.

Really a better analogy would be 5% of the stew is deadly poison. Only 0.0000001% is needed to kill whoever eats it. Any amount of deadly poison in your food is too much. It destroys the value of all the good parts.

So, to say, “Yes, I have some sin in me, but also a lot of good” is like saying, “yes, there is some deadly poison in the stew, but also a lot of good stuff.” Or, “there’s only a little bit of cancer in your liver.” Any amount changes everything. In the same way, any amount of sin separates us from God. Therefore, even though we may have some good within us, any amount of sin is too much, and separates us from God.

 Therefore, if a storm destroys my house, the truth is, I never deserved to have a house in the first place. Sin is a cancer, and God will destroy every last bit of it in the end. Without Jesus, we would have to be destroyed with it, since we cannot overcome it ourselves. Our only hope of escaping the destruction is through Jesus. His death provides the only effective treatment for sin. There is no such thing as a truly “good person” who actually, truly deserves good things. If you are honest, when you look inside yourself, you know, at the very least, that you are not a thoroughly good person. I know I am not.

Secondly, when we think about God being entirely in control, we need to remember that He is infinite, and we are not. He knows incredibly more than we do. The entire universe cannot contain his knowledge, while all of my knowledge is contained within my three-pound brain. Therefore, we do not know – we cannot know – that God is being unreasonable, or unjust or cruel when he allows bad things to happen to people. We simply don’t know enough to judge God’s actions (or lack of actions).

Third, even though we deserve nothing good, God still piles good things upon billions of human beings, daily, including you and I: life itself, and everything that sustains life, like food clothing, family. He allows us to inhabit this beautiful planet. Frankly, I think I’ve got more than my share of good things. And in addition to these “everyday good things,” he sent Jesus so that we can eventually live in a world where there will be no sorrow, mourning, or suffering.  Anyone who desires it can come through Jesus, who calls himself “the door,” and, “the way, the truth and the life.” He offers us far more than everything this mortal life has to give. In fact, He offers far more than we could possibly lose here and now. We cannot always understand God’s ways, but because Jesus died for us, we can understand that he is good, gracious, and loves us far more than we could ever deserve. We can know that what he offers us will more than compensate for anything we suffer in this life:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

16Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day.17For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory.18So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2Cor 4:16-18, HCSB)

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you now about his control of all things, and about your salvation.

JONAH #2. THE FUTILITY OF IDOLS.

Though we modern people laugh at the idea of worshipping a statue, we often have idols in our lives without knowing about it. Sometimes we think, “If I only had [fill in this space] then I know everything would be fine.” Or, when we are in trouble, we run to [fill in this space] for comfort. Anything in which we place our hope (other than God) is an idol. Anything we feel we must have (other than God) is an idol. Anything we look to in crisis (other than God) is an idol. One of the messages of Jonah is that idols will always fail us, and our only true hope must be in God alone.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part

Jonah #2.  Jonah 1:1-17

Last time in the book of Jonah we learned a bit about Jonah, and what motivated him to run away when God told him to go to the capital city of Israel’s enemies.

At that point in history, like every time in history, people had certain assumptions about religious things. In those days, each nation or people-group worshipped their own gods. So the Ammonites worshipped Molech, and the Canaanites bowed to Baal, and the Philistines had a god called Dagon. Everyone assumed that there were many gods, and they assumed also that each god was in charge of certain people, and not others. In other words, the Ammonites would have utterly rejected the idea that they should worship Dagon, because Dagon was the god of the Philistines, not the Ammonites.

When nations fought one another, most people also thought of it as also a contest between the gods of the two peoples. So if the Ammonites fought the Canaanites and won, they would take this to mean that Molech was stronger than Baal, at least on that occasion. To put it another way, they believed in territorial gods.

If we are to understand the book of Jonah, it is very important for us to realize that this was how almost everyone in the world thought. No one even argued about it – they thought that this was obviously the way things were. People believed in territorial gods in those days the same way we believe that the world is a sphere. Almost no one has actually been far enough into space to actually see that the world is spherical (fewer than 600, out of almost 8 billion people). But we trust that scientists have discovered it. We take it for granted. So too, in Jonah’s time, they took for granted the existence of territorial gods.

However, from the beginning, the God of the Bible insisted that He was the only actual God, and that his God-ship was over the entire world, not just the Israelites. This was the official doctrinal position of the people of Israel. Even so, the people of Israel were deeply affected by the cultures that surrounded them. To believe in just one god felt a little silly. It was like being the only people today who believe the world is flat. So, although officially they believed God was the God of the entire earth, practically speaking, what they really felt was something more like this: “Our God is the best god of them all.” Again, they did know what they were supposed to believe: that God is the only God. But the history recorded in the Bible shows that again and again, they failed to act like that is what they believed.

Jonah is a perfect example. As a prophet, of course he knew the right doctrine. God is the only God in the universe. Even so, when push came to shove, he acted on his real belief. Deep in his heart, he wondered, maybe if he ran far enough, he might be able to get out of God’s “territory.”

Remember, in verse 1,God said, “Get up,” and Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the sea, and then down onto a ship, and then down into the deeper parts of the ship. He was clearly trying to hide from God. The ship left port with Jonah sleeping in the lowest part of the vessel.

Have you ever wondered why God waited until Jonah was on the ship and out at sea to try and stop him? If God could send a horrific storm onto the ship at sea, certainly he could have stopped Jonah in some way before he even reached the coast. So, why wait?

For reasons we shall soon see, God did indeed wait until the ship was far from land to send a storm. It was one that threatened to destroy the ship. The text says:

 “The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship’s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep (Jonah 1:5, CSB).”

“Each cried out to his god.” This is an important detail. Only someone from that time in history would write that without explaining further. But, as I detailed earlier, everyone took it for granted that each nation had its own god. Also, this has another subtle ring of truth. Throughout history, sailors have tended to be an international bunch, with each ship employing mariners from various nations. Even today, on any given cargo ship you will find people from several different countries. So, the book of Jonah also takes it for granted that the sailors would be from several different nations, having several different gods. If someone was making up the story of Jonah, this detail would probably have been overlooked.

The sailors started throwing cargo overboard. This means that the ship was in danger of sinking, and they were trying to lighten the load. Since their cargo was the basis for how they got paid, the sailors would not have done this unless they were in extreme danger. Next, the crosshairs line up on Jonah:

6 The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won’t perish.”
7 “Come on!” the sailors said to each other. “Let’s cast lots. Then we’ll know who is to blame for this trouble we’re in.” So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and what people are you from?” Jonah 1:6-8

The captain found Jonah belowdecks, sleeping. He woke him and urged Jonah to add his God to the list of those receiving petitions for help. In the meantime, the sailors decided that the storm must be supernatural. They cast lots to determine who was at fault. Casting lots was a bit like drawing straws, throwing dice, or flipping a coin. Basically, they would ask a question, and then, in essence, throw special dice to determine the answer. In our “scientific” viewpoint today, the answer should be determined by pure chance. But the people then believed that the gods would determine what happened when they cast lots. In either case, what happened is that that the lot pointed to Jonah.

Once Jonah was identified as the problem, they started questioning him closely. They didn’t start out assuming that he himself was the problem, only that he knew what the issue was. Notice that the questions about where he is from were connected to which God he worships.

9 He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were seized by a great fear and said to him, “What have you done?” The men knew he was fleeing from the LORD’s presence because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you so that the sea will calm down for us?” For the sea was getting worse and worse. Jonah 1:9-11

Jonah’s answer would have been stunning to the sailors. Many of them had never heard of such a thing as a God of everything. Yet, that is what Jonah meant: God was in charge in the heavens, which were, at the moment, blasting them with a great storm. He was in charge of the sea, which was endangering their lives more and more while they shouted at one another through the raging wind. He was in charge of the dry land, which was the place of safety they all wanted to reach. I can see the sailors saying to Jonah: “You mean, there’s a God who is in charge of the atmosphere, the sea and the land – in other words, everything? And you’re telling me that you have provoked that God to anger? Are you nuts? What have you gotten us into?!”

It’s interesting to note that Jonah’s experience has now become aligned with his official theology. Before, though he technically believed God was the ruler of all things, practically speaking, he thought maybe that was a stretch. The Israelites had never, since before Abraham, been involved much with the sea. Jonah probably thought, “In our history, I never hear about God at work out in the ocean. Chances are, if I get out to sea, I’ll be out of his territory.” But now he is realizing, in a very concrete way, that God is indeed Lord of all things.

12 He answered them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea so that it will calm down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this great storm that is against you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they couldn’t because the sea was raging against them more and more.
14 So they called out to the LORD, “Please, LORD, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For you, LORD, have done just as you pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men were seized by great fear of the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
17 The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:11-17

Another reason I think it would be wrong to read the book of Jonah as if it was a parable or allegory is because Jonah is clearly portrayed like a real human being. In some moments, he is a coward, running from God, rather than losing his standing as a hero in his own country. Later on, we’ll see him act like a spoiled child. But here, he has a moment of heroism. Jonah is a complex person, as most real people are. Once he realizes his mistake, he faces the consequences of his actions with true courage – at least this time. He could have lied to the sailors about what was going on between him and the Lord. He could have threatened to them that God would be even more angry if they threw him overboard (which they were inclined to think anyway). Instead, he calmly accepts the blame, and tells them that they must throw him into the raging sea.

The sailors decide to try and make it back to land, rather than do what Jonah says. Before we think too highly of them, verse 14 makes it obvious that at least part of their motivation is that they didn’t want to make God even angrier. Even so, they can’t get to safety. So, with a prayer to God, trying to exonerate themselves, they throw Jonah overboard. Very shortly after, the waves become calm and the wind dies down.

Now we get the next lesson from the book of Jonah: God is indeed Lord of all things, and he desires that all people, not just the Israelites, know who he is, and come into right relationship with himself. The result of the storm and then the calm is that the sailors recognize the God of Israel as the God of all things, and they begin to worship him.

Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. It does say “fish,” not whale. On the other hand, ancient Hebrew had no word for “whale,” so who really knows? The main fact is this: the Lord was the one who directed the fish to be there, and to save Jonah. Now, obviously this was a miracle. The text does not present it as something that happens to people from time to time. The whole incident was arranged and carried out by God’s intervention. If someone were to say: “No one can survive being swallowed by a fish or whale,” I would agree entirely. The only reason Jonah survived is because God superseded the normal laws of nature to make it happen. That is what a miracle is.

In fact, the entire first chapter of Jonah is presenting one major theme: God is in control of everything that happens. That is why he let Jonah get out to sea before stopping him. By allowing Jonah to get to sea, God could show that he can control the weather, the outcome of throwing a pair of dice (casting lots), the movements of living creatures, and the very laws of nature. There is nothing that is outside of God’s control.

I think we have enough to begin to apply to our own lives right now. When we read about the people having different gods, and turning to those “gods” for help, we might be inclined to laugh at them, and consider them ignorant and foolish. But the truth is, people still have many gods today; it is just that they don’t call them “gods” anymore.

Think about the following questions:

“If only I could have _______, then I know everything will be fine.”

“If only [some set of circumstances] were true, I could be at peace.”

“If I could just achieve ____________, then everything would be all right.”

For instance, you might think like this: “If only I had a million dollars in investments returning 10% income, then everything would be fine.”

Or, “If only my daughter married the right kind of man, I could be at peace.”

Or, “If only I could own my own business, then I wouldn’t worry.”

Anything that we put in those “blanks,” other than God, is a false god. Anything that we think of as ultimately good; any person, thing or achievement that we would give up anything that was asked of us in order to have, is a god to us. The message of Jonah is that all such gods are false. There is only one true God, and even if you somehow manage to get that thing or situation you think you need, it won’t save you when the big storm comes. So, what are the false gods that tempt you? Use the “fill in the blank” questions above to think about that.

Second, Jonah was learning that God really is in control of everything. God sent the storm. Nowadays, now that we know how complex weather patterns truly are, it is even more amazing to realize that God sent that storm to that place, and ended it right after Jonah was tossed overboard. His power is truly awesome and incredible.

Yet today, this is a lesson we often forget. On Wednesday, August 19th 2009, at 2:00pm, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, which is not really evangelical, or Lutheran…) was voting to overturn a historic Christian, Biblical understanding of human sexuality. At that exact time, a tornado ripped through downtown Minneapolis, where they were meeting. Their main meeting place was across the street from Central Lutheran Church, a large ELCA congregation, playing host to the conference. The metal cross on top of the church steeple was wrenched downwards by the wind. You can see a picture of it here: https://fratres.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/central_mpls_081809_02.jpg

Now for a loaded question: Did God do that? According to the book of Jonah, we ought to say yes. He is God of sky, wind, earth and sea. Nothing happens that he does not allow. Yet most of the ELCA conference members scoffed at the idea that God sent the storm. No wonder they did not have enough faith to trust what the Bible says about human sexuality.

This doctrine, sometimes called “The Providence and Sovereignty of God,” comes from more places in the bible than just the book of Jonah. It can be difficult to think that God is in control of everything when much of what happens appears to be terrible, tragic, and evil. There is room for complexity here. The biggest thing to realize is that we can’t understand how it all works. We will never truly be able to comprehend how God can be good, and yet allow some terrible things. However, God is not asking us to understand it all, but rather to trust him, and trust that He is in control, even when it doesn’t look like it.

Spend a few moments during the next day or two, asking God where he would like you to give up your need to understand, and instead, to trust him.

Remember Jonah had an “official belief” but practically speaking, he had embraced the belief system of everyone around him. Are there any areas where your Christian belief has given way to the sort of things everyone around believes?

Are there any “false gods” in your life that the Holy Spirit is bringing to your mind? If so, reject them in the name of Jesus, and turn to Him alone.