Church at Home Resources – 7th of June, 2020 – Jonah 2

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[Click here to read today’s Scripture: Jonah 1:17-2:10]

Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.

The story of Jonah is full of unexpected things. We’ve already encountered a prophet who runs away from God and pagan sailors who turn and worship God and here we have another twist. If someone is thrown overboard at sea, during a violent storm, what we expect to happen is that they will drown. But we read last week that when Jonah was thrown overboard, the sea grew calm, and then in verse 17 we have this great twist: 

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights 

(Jonah 1:17, NIV) 

Not only does Jonah not drown, he gets swallowed by a huge fish. He’s there for three days and three nights, alive in this fish, and while he’s there he prays this psalm, which is almost the entirety of chapter two. 

These things just don’t happen, do they? This is what you might call “unrealistic”. But the key thing in that verse, with its dramatic twist, is the beginning of the verse: 

“Now the Lord provided…” 

(Jonah 1:17a, NIV) 

This is a huge theme in Jonah – The sovereignty of God. God is in absolute control here. Later we’ll see even more remarkable things in this book and what’s behind all these very strange events is the total sovereignty of God. Don’t miss the sovereignty of God in this story by focussing on the giant fish. 

I said last week that this is not a story about a giant fish. It’s not. The fish is only mentioned in three verses (Jonah 1:17, 2:1, 2:10) and the author just writes about the fish in a very matter-of-fact style. There’s no physical description of the fish other than that it was huge. The author doesn’t dwell on it, because, although it was a huge fish, in terms of this story, it’s not a big deal. 

That said, I should probably still talk about this for a bit, because modern readers do get hung up on this. What are we to do with this story that involves such an unusual event? Ask any marine biologist and they will tell you that there is no species of fish that can swallow a grown man and then keep that man alive inside it for three days and three nights. Do we interpret this story as complete fantasy? Did this actually happen? 

You could say that this just didn’t happen because things like that don’t happen. However, then you have a problem with any miracle in the Bible. If you think that you can’t believe that this happened because it’s so unusual, what do you do with Jesus’ healings, what do you do with the feeding of the five thousand? What do you do with the gospel, which tells us that the Son of God was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, he lived a righteous life, performed great signs and wonders, died on the cross for our salvation and literally, really, physically rose from the dead and ascended into heaven? You can believe or disbelieve what you want, that’s your right, but I need to tell you that if you can’t accept that then you are not a Christian. At least not yet. If you can’t accept the miraculous then you can’t accept the gospel and if you can’t accept the gospel then, whatever it is you believe, it is outside of historical orthodox Christianity and you are not a Christian. 

Now, you could look at this big fish and decide that you don’t believe it happened like that for another reason. You could say that this story of Jonah is a satirical story and not every part of it is meant to be taken literally. The story mocks the pride of the prophet who begrudges others the mercy of God while simultaneously being thankful for that mercy when it comes to him. The story, through satire, confronts us with our own pride and the way we begrudge others the mercy and grace of God. It functions kind of like modern-day political cartoons, which have imagery in them that we’re not meant to take seriously, but nevertheless the cartoonist strives to communicate something real and true in an imaginative and powerful way. That kind of interpretation would still permit you to take other passages of the Bible, including miracles, and still believe in them because they belong to a different literary genre. I can respect that as a Christian interpretation. We need to interpret different types of literature differently. I don’t read comics the same way I read newspapers. 

The Holy Bible does contain irony and humour. So maybe that fish is there to get a laugh out of us. Jonah tries everything that he can think of to run away from God and his mission and just when he thinks he’ll finally be relieved of his duties by dying he gets caught by a fish. Very often when you get people to laugh you also get them to listen. 

Finally, there’s another way of interpreting this. The fish was real. Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish and kept there for three days and three nights, because that is what God Almighty brought about. Remember the key part of verse 17? 

“Now the Lord provided…” 

(Jonah 1:17a, NIV) 

This is the work of God. Is it impossible for God Almighty to do this? No! This is not a normal fish. It’s unusual. It’s unique! But so what? God can bring about whatever he wants. Now, that doesn’t deny the literary genius of this story or any of the humour or irony of this story. God has a sense of humour and not only can he inspire humorous satires of proud prophets, he can bring about real events that are, in their recounting, humorous. I mean, I know I’ve embarrassed myself before in real life and, reflecting on those embarrassing moments, I’ve thought to myself, maybe God is trying to tell me something here. Haven’t you? God doesn’t need to fabricate a story to deflate the pride of Jonah, he is powerful enough to create real life-changing events that can do that. 

If you’re interested, that’s my interpretation. Yes, it’s a very strange event. It’s unique. But so what? There are stranger things in the Bible than that… like the resurrection for example. I still think this is a satire, but it’s a real-life satire written by the Author of life. 

This fish was sent by God to bring Jonah back to the mission and Jonah stayed in the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights. At this point in the story the genre changes to a psalm. A poetic prayer. Jonah’s psalm gives us an insight into his beliefs, his heart. We have this kind of thing in modern media too. You’ve maybe seen a play where one character breaks off, the spotlight focusses on them and they deliver a soliloquy, a monologue that lets you know what’s going on inside them. We also see this in musicals. Something will happen and the characters break into song and the point is to share the characters’ feelings with you. 

From the belly of the fish Jonah prays to God. From this prayer we get a glimpse into Jonah’s heart. It’s a very religious heart. It’s a heart thankful to God for rescuing him and he commits to sacrificing to God. But don’t think that just because this is a very religious heart that it means it’s a very good heart. Religion can be a very bad thing. Religion can keep us from loving God and from loving our neighbour, which is what God actually wants. In this prayer we see Jonah’s religion, there are good things, but also bad things. We see some of Jonah’s contempt for the pagans and some of his pride. So, Jonah grasps God’s grace and mercy, but just like us, it’s mingled with the sense that somehow, we deserve it more than ‘them’, whoever they might be. 

Jonah’s psalm is beautiful in the truth that it expresses. It’s a prayer of thankfulness and faith and hope in the Sovereign Lord and his salvation. Jonah recounts how he was drowning and attributes his salvation – rescue by fish – to God.  

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 for ever. 
But you, Lord my God, 
    brought my life up from the pit. 

(Jonah 2:5-6, NIV) 

The final verse of Jonah’s prayer sums his gratitude: 

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.”’ 

(Jonah 2:9, NIV) 

That last phrase contains the key theme of this chapter and indeed the whole book of Jonah: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” It’s a beautiful truth and Jonah is enjoying one of the facets of that truth – His salvation comes from the Lord – while at the same time he has refused to bring that wonderful truth to the people of Nineveh. Jonah would rather run away. Jonah would rather die, than share this good news with the pagan people of Nineveh. This is like someone celebrating the amazing food that they’re eating, while at the same time not wanting someone else to eat that same food. 

You see Jonah’s very “local” idea of God in the heavy emphasis on God being in the temple. Look at verse 4:  

I said, “I have been banished 
from your sight; 
yet I will look again 
    towards your holy temple.” 

Also, notice the irony here of the runaway prophet saying “I have been banished”. 

And verse 7: 

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

Jonah has just learned that he can’t run away from God’s presence even on the sea. He told the pagan sailors “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” But still in his mind God is the God in the temple. Now yes, the temple in Jerusalem was a huge deal. A unique and truly holy place where God, in his mercy dwelt, in the midst of his people, but God is bigger than the temple. God called him to go to Nineveh. God cares about the people of Nineveh. He made them. He sustained them every day of their lives.  

Notice the things that aren’t said in this prayer. There is no mention of repentance. Jonah never says sorry for running away from God and refusing to be his prophet to the people of Nineveh. 

During this prayer Jonah also can’t resist having a dig at the pagans. You’d think it would be hard to be proud while squashed up in the belly of a fish, but pride finds a way. 

‘Those who cling to worthless idols 
    turn away from God’s love for them. 
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.”’ 

(Jonah 2:8-9, NIV) 

Jonah commits to making sacrifices to God, probably in the temple, but he says nothing about going to Nineveh and actually doing what he knows God wants him to do. God has explicitly told him to go to Nineveh. 

Jonah still has a local God and a partial grasp of God’s grace and mercy, but what this story teaches us is that God is bigger than we can imagine, and his grace and mercy are bigger than we can imagine. If we have been blessed to know God’s grace, then why should we begrudge anyone from experiencing the same thing.  

That’s why Christians pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and it’s why Jesus warned his disciples that if they don’t forgive, they will not be forgiven. Why should God forgive you and not them? Are you better than them? If you think you are then you don’t know what grace is — it’s the undeserved, unearned love of God. Jonah forgot that. 

This is a beautiful prayer full of things that are good and true and yet this beautiful expression of religion is being used to avoid God. There’s not just a giant fish here, there’s an ‘elephant in the room’. We know it’s there. God knows it’s there. Jonah knows it’s there, but he’s not saying anything about it. Jonah says all this beautiful truth and yet manages to sidestep repentance and never addresses the mission he has been given from God. He says all this poetry and yet never just says “I’m sorry for not going to Nineveh, I know it’s what you want me to do. I will go and I will preach to the people there.” 

After a week when the world saw police forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators, including clergy, so that Donald Trump could stand in front of a church he does not attend and pose with a Bible he evidently does not read, it is clear that religious things can be used as props while we go on avoiding God. Racial injustice, the dehumanisation of black people, police brutality and corruption need to be addressed and waving around a Bible for a photoshoot won’t please God or help anyone. 

Here is God’s response, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, to a people who put on a religious show instead of addressing injustice: 

When you spread out your hands in prayer, 
    I hide my eyes from you; 
even when you offer many prayers, 
    I am not listening. 

Your hands are full of blood! 

Wash and make yourselves clean. 
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight; 
    stop doing wrong. 
Learn to do right; seek justice. 
    Defend the oppressed. 
Take up the cause of the fatherless; 
    plead the case of the widow. 

(Isaiah 1:15-17, NIV) 

And what is God’s response to Jonah’s prayer. His very religious prayer that lacks any love for the people of Nineveh or confession of his sins. There might be a clue in the final verse: 

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. 

(Jonah 2:10, NIV) 

Religion without love is nauseating to say the least! 

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because the people there are not like his people. They are his enemies. And why should they have a chance to repent and turn to the Lord, his Lord? But as Jonah said, “Salvation comes from the Lord”. God saves. Not our nationality, or race, or good behaviour, but God. We are not saved by being the right kind of person from the right kind of place with the right kind of upbringing, we are saved by receiving the mercy and grace of God. We don’t get to take credit for it, no more than Jonah can take credit for surviving at sea. 

Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

(Romans 5:6-8, NIV) 

Talk about miraculous, unexpected things! God the Son died for his people! Not because we were righteous or good or beautiful, but while we were still sinners. Ungodly. This is God’s love and mercy. Not only did he set aside his glory and descend to be down here with us, he suffered on the cross for us, he died for us. The only correct response to such grace is to grasp it eagerly, thankfully, with both hands. To trust in the mercy and grace of God. And if we do that how can we ever begrudge anyone that same grace and mercy? 

Salvation comes from the Lord. That means we don’t get to take credit. It means we can’t look down on anyone. If we truly grasp the grace of God we will be gracious to others. We will want to share with others, not just some hollow religion, some rules of behaviour, some theories of the divine, but love. Our love and God’s love. 

Pray

Lord, we pray for ourselves, that as we rejoice in your great love for us we would be loving to others. We pray for our world, for justice and peace. We pray that more and more people would hear the good news of Jesus Christ and and turn to you. We pray for leaders all over the world to lead with love and justice and to desire peace. We pray for justice for the oppressed and marginalised.

We pray for your continued help in the fight against the Coronavirus. Bless those who mourn with your comfort. Bless those who are fighting against this virus in their own bodies. Heal them, Lord. Bless those who are fighting on behalf of others as the work to care for and treat them. Bless those who fight in labs to find effective treatments and vaccines. As we continue to ease restrictions here help us to remain watchful, careful and considerate of those who are especially vulnerable.

Lord we pray for those who have been impacted by restrictions. Those who are out of work. Those who are already struggling with something else and now are feeling very alone. Those for whom home is not a safe place. Lord God, be near to them and help them.

Today Lord, may we practice our religion in love.

We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sing

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