Sermon series: Returning to God
Jonah's story is simple. Jonah, a child of God, ran from his Father. God pursued his child on the wings of a storm. The storm, of course, forced Jonah to reconsider the path he had chosen. This short book is his record of those difficult days. As he reflected back on those events he confessed that he felt abandoned by God: "I said, 'I have been banished from Your sight.'"
We have a tendency to think that during times of crisis God is distant or removed. Sometimes we even interpret His silence as indifference. Jonah reminds us that God's presence enables us to endure the trials we face – even the ones we create by our disobedience.
Leonard Sweet tells of an unusual tribal custom that pictures God's presence during our darkest hours. "One tribe of native Americans had a unique practice for training young braves. On the night of a boy's thirteenth birthday, he was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. Until then he had never been away from the security of his family and tribe. But on this night he was blindfolded and taken miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of thick woods. By himself. All night long.
"Every time a twig snapped, he probably visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. Every time the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked. No doubt it was a terrifying night for many.
"After what seemed like an eternity, the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path. Then, to his utter astonishment, he beheld the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was the boy's father. He had been there all night long." [Leonard Sweet, "Soul Salsa," 23-24]
Likewise, God never forsakes His children – even when we disobey Him. And He wants us back. In our study of Jonah we have seen that all Christians need to periodically examine their spiritual passion to see if we have drifted from God. We also know that God is willing to do whatever it takes to awaken our hearts and bring us back.
Once we become aware of our need to renew our spiritual passion and return to God, we must then take the next step. In Jonah's story we learn how to respond to God's promptings to return to Him. In fact, Jonah's experience illustrates the steps back to God. Notice what we learn from:
I. Jonah's confinement – 1:17
In his testimony, the prophet wrote, "the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah"
There is much discussion about the nature of this fish. Was it a whale, a large shark, or a large fish? Like many Bible facts, we will have to get the precise answer in heaven. But the type of fish isn't as important as the role of the fish. Some see this fish simply as God's judgment on Jonah. But God used the sea as His hand of correction. The fish, on the other hand, represents much more than God's correction. The fish was:
A. A protective haven from the sea –1:17
"Jonah was in the fish." And the fish represents God's provision for his protection. God intended to use Jonah. While the three days and nights in the fish's belly were extremely difficult and painful, God had no intention of killing Jonah. If God wanted Jonah dead, He could have left him in the ocean and sent a shark! Although God desired to break Jonah's disobedient will, He wasn't finished with Jonah yet.
For that matter, ask yourself, "At what point did the fish swallow Jonah?" Did it happen immediately or did some time pass before the fish appeared? Jonah seems to answer that question in his description of those events. Notice the progression in his testimony:
The sailors throw him into the sea [1:15]. He, however, confessed that God was behind that action [see 2:3].
The waves swept over him [2:3b]. Since the sea was not calm, Jonah should have been able to tread water for only a little while. Apparently, Jonah was not a good swimmer.
He thought God had "banished" him [2:4]. He thought he was all by himself.
The water swirls around his neck as he struggles to stay afloat [2:5].
The water overcame him and he began to sink [2:5b-6].
He was about to die ["raised my life from the Pit" – 2:6-7].
Just before he dies [2:7] God rescued him. How did God rescue him? The great fish!
God sent the fish to rescue him from dying. Even in the throes of the consequences of his disobedience God loves and rescues Jonah.
B. A personal transport to the coast – 1:17, 2:10
After "three days and three nights" [1:17], "God commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah on dry land" [2:10]. The three days and nights probably has nothing to do with the speed of the fish, but with the time Jonah needed to empty his sinful heart. When Jonah was ready to obey God, the fish was ready to release him. This scenario also represents God's sovereign timing. We know that Jesus referred to the length of Jonah's fish ride when teaching His disciples about the resurrection [Matthew 12:40].
God had a specific place that He wanted Jonah and the prophet was in the wrong place. The Lord still desired for Jonah to go to Nineveh. So, God prepared a way to move him from the middle of the ocean back to where he started.
C. A private sanctuary with the Lord – 2:1
We read, "Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish."
What is a "sanctuary?" What makes a church auditorium, a prayer closet, or even a fish's belly a sanctuary? It is the place where you encounter God. And you can know that you have encountered God when He has your attention. In that moment everything, except God, diminishes in your sight. Everything else is just a distraction. And when you enter His presence you will not leave the same.
Think of what happened inside that fish.
Inside the fish, Jonah recognized his utter dependence on God. Listen to the desperation in his voice: "I cried out for help" [2:2], "I said, 'I have been banished'" [2:4], and "As my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord." [2:7]. When he exhausted hope, God moved in.
Inside the fish, God stripped the wayward prophet of both his pride and prejudice [2:8]. God removed all spiritual distractions.
Inside the fish, Jonah submitted to God without reservation [2:9].
Jonah got alone with God and the voice of sin, of fame, and of others became faint sounds. But the voice of God became loud and clear. If you have wandered from God and sense your need to renew your faith, then get alone with Him. Find a private place to meet with God. You don't need a dramatic event, you just need to be alone with God.
II. Jonah's communion
While offering this prayer, Jonah often quoted from the Psalms. Although he did not acknowledge the chapter or verse, he allows the Word of God to permeate his thoughts.
Notice at least seven specific references.
"Your billows swept over me" [2:3] Compare with Psalm 42:7.
"I have been banished" [2:4]. Compare with Psalm 31:22.
"engulfed me up the neck" [2:5]. Compare with Psalm 69:1.
"my life was fading away" [2:7]. Compare to Psalm 147:3.
"To Your holy temple" [2:7]. Compare to Psalm 18:6.
"to worthless idols" [2:8]. Compare to Psalm 31:6 ["Worthless idols" in Jonah 2: 8 literally means "empty nothings" ]
"Salvation is from the Lord" [2:9]. Compare to Psalm 3:8.
Why was the Word of God so critical to Jonah's spiritual recover?
A. God speaks through His Word to the heart
This reminds us of the value of hiding God's Word in our hearts.
B. God guides our thoughts by His thoughts
What is a word? It is a physical representation of a thought. God's Word is a physical representation of His thoughts on a level and in a language we can comprehend. Jonah's thoughts were incongruent with God's thoughts. The Word of God guided Jonah to understand and acknowledge God's thoughts about him.
C. God's Word has a cleansing effect on us
Notice that Jonah's rebellious heart softened. God's Word will always guide us back to Him if we will follow it. Maybe we should look at God's Word, like a man lost in the woods would view his compass.
"Well over 100 years ago, much of northern Michigan was entirely new country, covered with dense forests. The best woodsman was liable to lose his way unless he carried a pocket compass. A settler of those days tells this story: 'One day I had been walking in the woods, when though I could not see the sun or sky, I knew by the settling darkness that night was coming on, and started, as I thought, for home. I was so certain of my direction that for some time I did not look at my compass. On doing so, however, I was greatly surprised to find that, whereas I thought I was going east, in reality I was bound due west. Not only was I surprised, but I was so sure of my own judgment and so disgusted with my compass that I raised my arm to throw it away. Then pausing, I thought, "You have never lied to me yet, and I'll trust you once more." I followed it and came out all right.' The Bible is a compass that has guided millions to heaven. Some would throw it away, but those who follow it always come out safely." ["Stories for Preachers and Teachers," Heaven Word, Inc., CD]
III. Jonah's confession
When you come to the place that you know God has your attention and you know that you must return, what might you say to Him? Notice four responses that Jonah made concerning God's correction and drawing.
A. I recognize Your hand at work here – 2:3, 4
He said, "You threw me into the depths" and "I have been banished from Your sight." Notice the words "You" and "Your." Jonah makes the connection between his disobedience and God's correction. Furthermore, he holds God blameless and himself guilty.
B. I turn my eyes back to You – 2:4
Jonah added, "yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple." Here is a good definition of backsliding: Taking your eyes off God. Likewise, a good definition of repentance is turning your eyes back to God.
C. I thank You for Your compassion – 2:6
"But You raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God," he confessed. In case you missed it, Jonah offers his thanks in faith for he had not experienced deliverance yet. He believes that God has left him alive for a purpose.
D. I renew my commitment to You – 2:9
He promised, "I will fulfill my vows." Repentance without obedience results in failure. True repentance requires change.
A man in a certain church was known to rededicate his life on a regular basis. And he always prayed the same prayer, "Lord, remove the cobwebs from my life." Upon hearing the prayer yet another time, his Pastor whispered this prayer to the man, "And Lord kill the spiders!" [Raymond McHenry, "Something to Think About," 210]
It is said that the Eastern shepherd, as he brings his sheep back to the fold each night, stands at the door and counts each one. As he does so, he puts his hand on the head of each animal. He makes a habit of touching each one of them. If he were to grow careless and neglect to habitually touch his sheep, it would soon turn its head away when it heard his voice! This, of course, could be very serious, for with such a broken habit would follow the animal's actually ignoring the warning shout from the shepherd and subsequently could be disastrous for the sheep.
If we are experiencing the Shepherd's touch daily in our lives, then we will recognize His voice when He warns of impending danger. This will mean "practicing His presence" daily. If we do not practice His presence then we have probably been practicing the presence of our enemy. Our Lord awaits the moment to "touch" our day with His presence. ["Stories for Preachers and Teachers", Heaven Word, Inc, CD]