Impacting Cities & Communities thru Prayer
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When last we left Jonah, he was in the belly of the great fish. He was in a bad fix and a bad way. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “Nothing clears the mind like the certain knowledge that you will be shot in the morning."
That’s obviously true.
If a man knows he is going to be shot very soon, it has a way of clearing the mind of trivial details. You don’t worry about washing the car if you know you’re going to be shot at sunrise. Someone else can wash the car. You’ve got bigger things to worry about.
So it was for Jonah. But first he has to come to his senses.
I had the chance to spend some time with a man involved in ministry to students. Occasionally he is faced with difficult disciplinary decisions when the young people break the rules of the group. “I’ve dealt with everything you can imagine. Every sort of sexual sin. Cheating. Breaking the law. You name it, I’ve seen it,” he said. This particular organization has an established set of procedures in place to deal with those who get in trouble. And very often they are able to help the young people make amends and set their lives on a new path.
During our discussion the man made two comments that stayed with me. First, he has learned that lying has almost become a non-issue today. Everyone lies, and they lie all the time. It’s almost as if it’s not a sin to lie anymore. Perhaps it is a sign of postmodern relativism that we have come to accept that lying isn’t wrong. Or perhaps it is just a fulfillment of Romans 3:13, “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” After discussing how people routinely lie to cover up their sin, he offered this conclusion:
You can’t help a liar.
You can help anyone struggling with any sort of sin as long as they tell the truth. But you can’t help a liar because you can’t trust anything he says.
The situation is compounded by the fact that when most of us get caught, we confess as little as possible. And that leads to the second key point. The man said that it’s always a good sign when “they tell you something you didn’t already know.” If you knew A-B-C, but the person then adds D-E-F, you know their repentance is deeper than just “I’m sorry I got caught.” True repentance always involves coming clean, and coming clean means owning up to the whole pattern of wrongdoing, not just to the thing you happened to get caught doing.
Proverbs 28:13 declares that “he who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy." The Bible also says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God desires “truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6) or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “truth from the inside out.” It is very hard for most of us to come to this place of total honesty with God and with others. Most of us face a continual battle to be transparent in all our dealings, especially when we have sinned. You can make a good case that the three hardest words to say are “I have sinned."
No one wants to say that. We would rather do anything, including lying, to keep from saying those words. We’ll make excuses, we’ll rationalize, we’ll twist the facts, we’ll blame others, and we’ll say, “It’s not my fault” or “She told me to do it"or” So what? Everyone else is doing it."
The excuses never seem to end.
Let’s lay down a marker here at the start of this message. It’s a good mark of spiritual health if it is becoming easier for you to say, “I was wrong.” That’s a good sign because it means you are taking responsibility for your own actions. It means you are ready to get your life right with God. It means you’re ready to start growing again.
They say that every sermon should have an application so let me give you mine even before we get to our text. Here’s what I’d like you to do. Take a Bible plus a notebook and a pen and find a quiet place. Then pray this simple prayer: “Lord, show me the truth about myself.” Those seven words are all you need to say.
Then wait for God to speak to you.
When we pray that way, the answer will begin to come from heaven. Little by little the Holy Spirit will show us our weaknesses, our faults, our mistakes, our bad attitudes, our foolish words, our pride, our arrogance, our need to be in control, our need to tell others what to do, our desire to have our own way, our anger, our bitterness, our lack of mercy, our lack of love, and our lack of compassion. I know from personal experience that if you wait long enough, the Lord will always reveal the truth to you.
It’s hard to do this. God knows that so sometime he forces the issue. Sometimes God puts us in places where we have to face the consequences of our own stupid choices.
He won’t take sin in stride.
He won’t say “Boys will be boys.”
He is passionate for holiness.
He loves us too much to let us go on in sin forever.
That’s a truth Jonah found out the hard way.
In Jonah 2 the disobedient prophet finds himself in the belly of a great fish. We don’t know what sort of fish it was. We do know that the Lord appointed the fish to catch and swallow Jonah alive. It was a divine miracle that the fish appeared at just the right moment in just the right place, with just the right appetite to swallow Jonah but not to kill him or maim him in the process.
Can you imagine what it was like inside that fish? It’s dark, you can’t move around very much, the fish is swimming constantly, salt water washes over you, seaweed wraps around your body, and unidentified objects knock against you. One other thing. The inside of a fish really stinks. Plus it’s greasy, slippery, and the fish is trying to digest you.
Jonah 2:1 says, “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God." While he is inside the fish, he composes a beautiful prayer that takes the form of a psalm.
First, he cries to God for help. “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (v. 2). No boasting here. He knows that if God doesn’t save him, he will never get out of the great fish alive.
Second, he confesses that God put him where he is. “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas" (v. 3). Notice that Jonah doesn’t blame the sailors for throwing him into the deep nor does he blame the storm or the great fish. Jonah sees clearly that behind the ship and the storm and the casting of lots and the raging sea and the great fish, behind all of it stands the Lord of the universe. Jonah bows before God and says, “I’m here because you put me here." It is a great advance spiritually to stop blaming others for your problems. Jonah knows he must answer to the Lord alone.
Third, he feels like he is going to die in the great fish. “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head” (v. 5). There’s no way out unless the Lord brings him out. Apart from God, he’s Sunday lunch for the big fish and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Fourth, he remembers the Lord is his only hope. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord” (v. 7). Finally Jonah is acting like a true believer. After all the running away, after all the disobedience, after all the prodigality, after all the self-centered living, God has Jonah’s undivided attention.
God will do whatever it takes to bring us to the place where we remember him. He’ll stop at nothing. That includes calamity, sickness, loss, repeated failure and heartbreak.
Whatever it takes to get us on our knees is good for our spiritual growth. Jonah is saying, “Lord, I’ve been running from you for a long time, and now at last you’ve got my full attention.”
Fifth, he vows to serve the Lord. “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good" (v. 9). You can see the spiritual progress he’s making in this psalm. First, he acknowledges that God put him where he is. Second, he accepts God’s discipline. Third, he thinks he’s going to die. Fourth, he finally remembers the Lord. Then and only then does he vow to serve the Lord.
He comes to the great conclusion in verse 10: “Salvation is of the Lord." This is the hardest lesson for any of us to learn. Salvation starts with God and it ends with God. Some of us struggle a lifetime to learn that. Most of us have learn it over and over again. Some people never learn it at all. But there is no salvation, no deliverance, and no getting better until we realize that if God doesn’t save us, we will never be saved.
That’s the advantage of being in the belly of a great fish. It clears the mind so you can think about what matters most. Most of us would probably improve spiritually if we spent a few days in a great fish, or at least someplace without TV, radio, or the Internet. In the terrifying darkness inside the fish, Jonah realized the folly of fighting against God. As the wise man said, your arms are too short to box with God. He’s going to win every time.
Let’s wrap up the message with a few observations about Jonah’s journey so far.
It’s amazing and frightening how easy it is for church people to go through life without talking to God. Why do you think Jonah prayed in the great fish? For one thing, there was nothing else to do. Without the regular distractions of life, Jonah focused on the Lord. People say to me, “Why doesn’t God speak to me?” To which I answer, “He speaks to you all the time, but you won’t slow down long enough to listen.” The loud clamor of life and the constant pressure to get things done, to meet our goals, and to cross off items on our to-do list, all of it conspires to keep us from hearing the still, small voice of the Lord.
But God knows how to speak to us. And he certainly knows how to get our attention.
It’s a good thing to be desperate if desperation turns your heart to the Lord. I can imagine few things worse than being in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights. But it is better to be in the fish and talking to God than on dry land boasting about your big plans.
You pray inside the great fish because if God doesn’t do something, you will die there.
But notice this. It’s not that the belly of a fish is inherently more dangerous than living in a luxury suite in a high-rise hotel. You can get into trouble anywhere. An earthquake can strike, a tornado can come, a car can veer off the road, catastrophe can strike at any moment. You can be singing a tune one moment and have a stroke the next. It happens every day. No one is immune to trouble, and there is nowhere on earth where you are truly safe from heartbreak, sadness, disease, danger and death.
Notice the progression. In chapter 1 Jonah acts and keeps messing things up. In chapter 2 Jonah prays and things start getting better. Often our greatest problem is slowing down enough to hear God’s voice.
Being trapped inside a great fish for three days and three nights is an impossible situation. Even after Jonah gets right with God, he’s still inside the fish. He’ll never get out on his own. So God works an amazing deliverance. Look at verse 11 of Jonah 2:
The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
The same Lord who appointed the fish to catch him now tells the fish to let him go. By the way I checked out the Hebrew word translated “vomit” and it means . . . vomit. That’s a very good translation.
Some of you have heard of “projectile vomiting.” That’s what happens here. Jonah took a ride on the “regurgitron.” One moment he’s wedged in the belly of the fish, the next he’s flying through the air, and the next he lands on the shore, covered with shrimp cocktail.
All of it meant to teach him and us that salvation is of the Lord.
Jesus told a parable (Luke 15:11-31) that fits with the story of Jonah. A young man came to his father and said, “Give me my share of the inheritance.” So the father did, and the young man took the money, left his family, and journeyed into the far country where he spent his money on wild living. One translation calls it “riotous living.” He spent it all on wine, women and song. It all worked out until the famine came.
By the way, you can mark it down. The famine always comes sooner or later. You can have your fun and spend your money and live any way you like. You can throw off all restraint. But the famine comes eventually. When the money runs out, you find out that your so-called friends won’t return your phone calls. They were happy to party with you when you had cash in your pocket and a credit card to cover everything else. But when you tap out, your party buddies suddenly disappear.
Now he’s feeding the pigs, hoping to catch a little from the slop bucket. The Bible says when the prodigal son came to his senses, he said to himself, “Back home my father’s servants have plenty to eat. I will arise and go to my father and say, ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Make me one of your hired hands.”
He began the long, slow, difficult journey home.
Ashamed and embarrassed of what he had done.
Wondering what his father would do.
He needn’t have worried. Jesus said that the father saw his son a long way off. That means he had been waiting, waiting, waiting for his son to come home. Don’t you know the folks in the village made fun of him. “Come on in, old man. That son of yours is gone forever. Don’t waste any more time on him. Give it up.”
But he wouldn’t give up. The father said, “I will not come inside. I am waiting for my son to come home.” Day after day, he waited, watching and hoping for a sign his son was coming home.
One day he saw it. A tiny speck on the horizon.
The father ran to meet his son while he was still far away.
He didn’t say, “Let him come all the way and then I’ll talk to him.”
He ran after him.
He couldn’t wait to see his son again.
After his father had hugged and kissed him, the son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That was the speech he had rehearsed. He was going to say, “Make me like one of your hired hands.” But he never got those words out. The father wouldn’t let him say it.
Why? Because once a son always a son.
A son at home, a son far away, a son in the pigsty, and a son on the way back home.
That’s why the father said, “Go get the sandals. Go find my best robe. Get the golden ring. Kill the fatted calf. My son who was lost has been found. My son who was far away has come home. Let’s get the party started.”
I’ve got some good news. The lights are on in the Father’s house, and the door is always open. The Father stands waiting for his prodigal sons and daughters to come back home. And he doesn’t say, “Clean yourself up first.” He just says, “Come on home. We can’t wait to see you again.”
He doesn’t say, “Prove that you are worthy,” because no one is worthy of the Father’s love. He just says, “If you are tired of living in the far country, if you’re tired of running away, if you’re ready to come home, the door is always open to you.”
What’s the hardest part about coming home? It’s that first step. Oh, how hard it is to take that first step back home to God. Prodigals are scared to take that first step because they are afraid of what awaits them on the other end of the journey.
What if there is no one to meet them?
What if no one is glad to see them?
What if they are greeted with a torrent of angry words?
They don’t understand that Jesus has paved the way home in his own blood. His death is so great and his resurrection so complete that nothing can be added to the value of what Christ did for us 2000 years ago. That’s why when Jesus himself spoke about this, he called his own resurrection the “sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39-40). As Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, even so Jesus was in the heart of the earth. As Jonah came out of the fish, even so Jesus came out of the realm of death.
The story of Jonah points us to Jesus, and the story of Jesus tells us how far God will go in behalf of guilty sinners. He sent his Son to the lowest place on earth, to the bloody cross of Calvary, the emblem of suffering and shame. And out of that shame he fashioned our salvation.
Now the door to heaven has been thrown wide open. Now all the reluctant Jonahs of the world can find their way home to God. Sometimes we sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” I wonder if we shouldn’t change just one word to get the full impact of this story:
Outrageous grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
The grace of God is not just amazing. It’s outrageous! It welcomes the worst sinners into the courts of heaven. It makes a way for even super-religious people to be forgiven of all their sins. And for the rebel who today languishes in the far country, feeling alone and forgotten, God’s grace reaches out and says, “Jesus has paid the price. When you are ready, you can come home to God.”
Father, we thank you that we don’t have to be perfect because if we did, who among us would qualify? We thank you that we don’t even have to scrape off the dirt of our own foolish mistakes. We couldn’t do that if we tried. All we have to do is turn and come home.
Lord Jesus, you are the Friend of sinners. We are so glad because you are the Friend and we are the sinners. Thank you, Lord, for this story because if Jonah can get a second chance, there’s hope for all of us.
Give us grace to come and courage to take the first step. In Jesus’ name, Amen.