Q: Why couldn’t Jonah trust the ocean?
A: Because he knew there was something fishy about it.
Chapter 1, we meet Jonah son of Amittai. And the word of the lord comes to him and says ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up against me.’
So what about Nineveh and who is Jonah? Jonah is mentioned in two books, Jonah and 2 Kings. He lived in Joppa around 800-750 BC. He was prophesying around the similar time to Amos, and Elisha. At that time the prophets were mainly ministering into the reign of Jeroboam II who restored Israel’s borders after nearly a century of conflict between Israel and Damascus.
So what does Nineveh stand for. Well it’s a place of ‘wickedness’ verse 2. In the book of Nahum we read that Ninevah, the then capital of Assyria was a place of violence, a place of plotting against the Lord (or refusal to acknowledge God) a place of cruelty, plundering, prostitution, witchcraft and exploitation.
So God tells Jonah to go and preach to the people of Ninevah. Now, this is a problem, you see, Ninevah is the enemy, its people are the enemy to Jonah. And God is asking him to go to Ninevah, now that in itself is a big ask. To walk into a place where he is considered the enemy and then to start to preach against their ways and to ask them to repent of their ways and turn to God. That takes real courage, and who of us would have the courage to do that?
But theres another side to this. Jonah considers the Ninevites his enemy! He doesn’t like them. And God is threatening them with destruction if they don’t turn from their ways – now in Jonah’s eyes thats a good thing!!!
The human part of Jonah wants God to destroy the ninevites, he wants God to wipe them from the face of the earth. And God is asking him to go and preach to them, so they can renounce their ways and for God to show his love and mercy towards them. God wants him to be the vessel through which he can show his mercy and his love for the people of ninevah.
SO what does Jonah do, he runs the other way. He runs to Tarshish. Scholars believe Tarshish was in South west Spain, You see Jonah choose to go in completely the opposite direction both in physical and emotional terms. Jonah literally tried to escape from his divinely appointed task.
And this raises a really challenging question, what is our Nineveh? The place which we don’t want to go to for God, the place which takes us out of our comfort zone? The place we refuse to listen, or change our ways? You see we all have them. Maybe the thing that we will not give up. What is it that you are holding on to. The thing that you will not allow God to interfere with! Perhaps you like, Jonah are not willing to let God use you as a vessel, to bring love and reconciliation into a situation. Maybe, God wants to use you, to sort a long running family issue that’s been left to fester for too long. But are you doing a Jonah and refusing!!
And you know theres real irony in this story. As Jonah goes out of his way, to get away, the pagan sailors who he found in Joppa, who he paid to take him to Tarshish, those sailors who threw him overboard, were the ones who listened to God and did as they were told. And in so doing they turned to the Lord, chapter 1 last verse, verse 16 ‘at this the men greatly feared the lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the lord and made vows to him.’
They recognised the Lord was in control. And it was Jonah, the prophet, the one who should be the godly man, the man in touch with God, God’s voice to the people, who was running away.
And this got me thinking. As Christians, there are so many times when we ‘do a Jonah’. We deliberately turn our back on God, and run the other way. So many times when we fail to live as we know we should. It might be that we fail in our willingness to give our time, talents money, failure to commit to one thing or another. Failure to offer to help in a certain situation, or take on responsibility. Failure to live as God wants us to. And isn’t it so easy to find a set of ‘sailors’ so to speak, who are there to help take us further from God. It’s no coincidence that when we turn and run from God that very quickly we can end up on the slippery slope. Because the devil loves to help in that.
So often we, and I include myself in this, deliberately do what we want to do, with no regard to God. Knowing full well what we’re doing isn’t what God wants us to do. It might be drinking too much, spending too much, swearing, living falsely, lustful desires etc. Yet we do it anyway, with no regard for God. We literally turn our backs on him. Do things our way and carry on regardless.
Is there something in your life which is pulling you in the wrong direction? Are you doing a Jonah currently?
So as we pick up chapter 2, Jonah has been swallowed by the big fish. Now for many this seems a rather far fetched thing to believe. However, as I was preparing for today’s sermon I did a bit of research, the Bible doesn’t actually specify what sort of fish swallowed Jonah. Most people assume that it was a sperm whale. The Hebrew phrase used in the Old Testament, literally means “great fish.” The Greek used in the New Testament means “sea creature.” There are at least two species of Mediterranean marine life that are known to be able to swallow a man whole. These are the the sperm whale and the white shark. Indeed Aristotle described both species right back in the 4th Century B.C. and lets remember that the book of Jonah was written around the 6th century BC. So it is perfectly reasonable to assume that such creatures were around at this time.
I also found numerous stories of whales being caught and upon being cut open the contents of their stomachs revealed other sea creatures larger than any human being inside. So again it is perfectly reasonable that a man could actually be swallowed.
Then I came across this story. Found in the New York times 1891. James Bartley was a seaman aboard the whaling ship Star of the East. In February 1891, while the ship was near the Falkland Islands, a lookout spotted a sperm whale several miles off. Two boats were launched; one succeeded in harpooning the whale, but the second was upended by the whale’s tail and its crew tossed into the water. One man drowned and another, Bartley, could not be found.
The whale was killed and hauled to the side of the ship, where the crew set to work carving up the carcass. The next morning they hoisted the stomach on deck and were surprised to see signs of life. Inside they found the unconscious Bartley, who they doused with seawater and soon revived. For two weeks he was a raving lunatic, but by the end of the third week he’d fully recovered. Bartley recalled being swallowed by a great darkness, then slipping along a smooth passage until he came to a larger space. He felt slimy stuff around him and realized he’d been swallowed by the whale. He could breathe, but the heat sucked the energy out of him and eventually he passed out. The only lasting effect of the incident was that the skin of his face, neck, and hands was bleached to the color of parchment by the whale’s gastric juices.
Food for thought!! Sorry bad joke!!
So anyway, lets move on, Jonah is swallowed by the whale, and in chapter 2 we read this poem which Jonah cries out to the Lord, from the belly of the big fish.
The first thing to note, is that some versions of the bible say from the belly of Sheol, jonah cried out. This is important, you see the belly of the fish is compared to sheol, and the Jews believed that sheol is the place of the dead and it was believed to be down in the depths of the sea. It is also known as the pit, and again links can be drawn to the phrase ‘the pit of your stomach’.
And in many ways, here in the depths of the fishs stomach, Jonah couldn’t run any further from God, he was literally down in the depths, under the water, hidden from sight, but more than that ,he was in the depths of sheol, literally in the place of the dead. Hidden from view in the pit of a whales stomach, he was waiting to die verse 2b ‘from the depths of the grave to called for help’
Verse 7 ‘when my life was ebbing away I remembered you, Lord’.
Here in this place, he realises the error of his ways. He also realises that God is in control of everything, even the raging seas and the creatures that live in them. Here in the depths of the sea, when everything is going wrong and there seems no way out, it is right here in this place that God actually meets him.
And isn’t that just a fantastic thing for us today. It might be that our life isn’t panning out how we intended it, it might be that we find ourselves in a situation we don’t want to be in, we might be in a mess, we might have been making the wrong decisions for many years or have been running from god for a long time. It might seem that things can’t get any worse,
but know this,
and this is the truth that Jonah found out,
know this, that right there in the depths of sheol itself, in that lonely and dark place, God is there, he is right there with you. I find that an awesome thing. A huge comfort. He is there, we cannot go anywhere where God isn’t already there before us.
So now, things begin to change for Jonah, having ran away from God, having made the wrong decision in his life, not wanting to do God’s will, not wanting to offer God’s mercy and love to those living in Ninevah. Those Nenevites who Jonah despises, those Nenitives who have mistreated Israel in appalling, terrifying ways, suddenly Jonah sees that he is wrong. And verse 8 is a crucial verse in understanding this. ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs’.
Jonah now realises that God’s grace and forgiveness is there for him. He needs it just as much as the Ninevites.
And if we’re honest there are times in our lives, and you might be in one of these times right now, where you need the grace and forgiveness of God. You might find yourself in one of those situations now, maybe a long standing disagreement with others. A feud which has lead to breakdown of relationships or even a jealousy or a hatred. But you see we need to learn from Jonah, he realised he needed God’s grace in his life not only for himself, but also for the Ninivites. He needed to learn to forgive them, just as God is able to forgive them. After all if God is willing to show us grace, then surely we should be willing to show grace to others. Is there someone you need to offer the hand of grace to? is there a relationship that you need to sort? Because until we sort these things out in our lives, we can kind of stay in the depths, they can drag us down.
Look what happens to Jonah when he realises the error of his ways. Verse 9 ‘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’
Jonah realises that his salvation, his deliverance comes from God and likewise salvation for the ninevites comes from God and likewise salvation for you and me comes from God.
So as Jonah is spewed, or vomited, onto dry land, in many ways he is reborn, he has come from the land of the dead and is given another chance. And that fresh start is still available for each one of us today. God’s mercy and god’s grace is freely given for you and me. We can come to God and seek his forgiveness and know that through his love and grace shown in Jesus’ death on the cross we are forgiven.
I remember the night I came back to faith in 1999, the night I gave my life to Christ. As I talked with Nikki and read the bible, I was overcome with this whole free gift of grace, that I could be washed clean and forgiven for the things I’d done. And as this realisation soaked in and the understanding came, I cried, and I mean sobbed, sobbed from somewhere deep inside, and it just kept coming, for 2 hours. And when I stopped crying I can’t tell you how I felt, but it was as though I was a new man. And looking back, I like to think about that moment as a Jonah moment, out of the depth of tears I was in many ways healed, cleansed, washed clean and more than that re-born to do God’s will. And brothers and sisters, that grace and that forgiveness is there for each one of us every time we call on God.
So to finish, I thought it might be nice to just allow a bit of time for us to bring to God, situations in our lives, where perhaps we are running away, ignoring God, situations where we need to come before God and admit our faults, admit where we have failed. And lets allow God to speak into those situations, to bring healing, to bring forgiveness.