Sermon series: Returning to God

  1. Six Signs We Need to Return to God, Jonah 1

  2. God Wants You Back, Jonah 1-2

  3. Confinement, Communion, and Confession, Jonah 2

  4. A Second Chance with God, Jonah 3

  5. A Heartless Prophet, Jonah 4

Scriptures: Jonah 1


Jay Leno frequently does a "man-on-the-street" interview, and one night he collared some young people to ask them questions about the Bible. Mr. Leno turned to a young man and asked, "Who, according to the Bible, was eaten by a whale?" The confident answer was, "Pinocchio." Unfortunately, some in the church are just as clueless about the book of Jonah.

When we open the book of Jonah we must ask as one preacher said, "Is this a tale of a whale or a whale of a tale?" Some in our enlightened day think that the story of a fish swallowing a man it simply too amazing to believe. They obviously don't research history often. The following documented account is just one of several Jonah-like incidents.

"In February 1891, the Star of the East was whale hunting off the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. While pursuing a large sperm whale, one of the two boats was capsized by the leviathan. The hunters went on to kill the whale but feared two of their men had drowned. James Bartley was one of the missing fishermen.

"The crew mourned their loss, but also had a tremendous task of preparing this giant sea monster. They worked until mid-night removing blubber from the eighty-foot long, eighty-ton fish. The next morning they hoisted the whale's stomach on deck. To their surprise, they saw faint movement. M. de Parville, science editor of the Journal des Debats, investigated the incident. He verified that James Bartley was indeed the reason for the movement.

"When the stomach was cut open, Bartley was found unconscious. He was bathed in seawater and placed in the captain's quarters for two weeks. He was confused and mentally disturbed. Yet, in four weeks he had fully recovered and was able to recount his experience. For the rest of his life he carried the scars of a bleached white face, neck and hands from the whale's gastric acid." [Raymond McHenry, "Something to Think About", 144]

While we have good reason to believe this story, there is a second miracle in this book that adds to its credibility. Jonah, the prophet of God, honestly reveals his personal failures. To some extent, we believe the prophet because we find ourselves in the story. In fact, the book of Jonah is a great place to turn to critique our spiritual condition.

Those that desire to see God move in the church must grasp this truth: We will never see the moving of God collectively until we experience it personally.

In our information-based society we have fixated on indicators - weather indicators, economic indicators, and political indicators. Even our cars have indicator lights. Amazingly, it was the same in Jesus' day. For that matter, He chided them for understanding the weather better than the spiritual conditions of the day. As we prepare for revival, we need to examine our spiritual condition. And a close look at a backslidden preacher might reveal some things we need to address. What are the indicators that we need to return to God?

I. Indicator #1: We ignore God's Word – 1:1

Notice the phrase, "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah." It reminds us that God constantly tries to speak to the hearts of His people. Perhaps we should ask, "Has God spoken to your heart about any area of your life?" Really, it is not a question of whether God has spoken, but whether we are listening.

Ultimately, we ignore the Word that speaks to our heart for two reasons:

A. We don't like what God says or commands

Imagine how Jonah felt when he heard the Spirit say, "go to Nineveh." He didn't like it at all. Concerning the Bible, someone wisely observed, "Sin will keep you from this Book, or this Book will keep you from sin." When Christians drift from God they typically begin here.

B. We don't love it as we should

God's Word is truly a love letter. And when we love God we will want to hear from Him.

Charles Schulz consistently provided helpful and humorous insights through his Peanuts comic strip. In one run he showed Charlie Brown's sister, Sally, struggling with her memory verse for Sunday. She was lost in her thoughts trying to figure it out when she recalled, "Maybe it was something from the book of Reevaluation." She never did find her memory verse but she sure gave us something to remember when it comes to studying the Bible. We should always read it with the intent of reevaluating our attitudes and actions to make sure they are squaring up with the truth of God's Word. [Houston Chronicle, June 18, 1999, 11D]

Ignoring God's Word is an indicator that you need to return to God.

II. Indicator #2: We harbor hidden sins from our past – 1:2

A drunken husband snuck up the stairs quietly. He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he'd received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he'd pulled one over on his wife. When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. "You were drunk last night weren't you!" "No, honey." "Well, if you weren't, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?" ["Stories for Preachers and Teachers", Heaven Word, Inc.]

Have you ever tried to hide a sin? Maybe you did it years ago, but you have never confessed it or tried to apologize for it. Instead, you hoped to sweep it under the rug or hide it in the closet. Maybe the sin was committed against a loved one or friend. Maybe it was an act of pleasure seeking. But the issue is this - you must address its spiritual impact on your relationship with God.

Jonah had harbored a hidden sin from his past. Look at the phrase "Go to Nineveh." He hated Nineveh – he was prejudiced. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians, an inhumane people that scoured the earth [See Nahum 3:1-4]. The Assyrians had a strict "take no prisoners" policy. They would pull out the tongues of their captives and then skin them alive. As they left a conquered city, they piled the skulls of their victims outside the ruins.

Jonah, the man whose name means "dove," had grown popular as the prophet that denounced the Assyrians. And now he feared he would lose credibility with the Israelites if he went to preach the offer of grace to the Assyrians.

But this hidden sin had come back to haunt him. Now it became the excuse for his rebellion against God. We should all remember Numbers 32:23, "Be sure your sin will find you out."

If you harbor a hidden sin, this indicates that you need to return to God.

III. Indicator #3: We neglect our evangelistic responsibility – 1:2

God told Jonah to "preach against" Nineveh.

Most people know that the Jews are "God's chosen people." But have you ever thought about what they were chosen to do? They were chosen to take the knowledge of God to the nations. When God called Abraham to become the father of His people, the Lord told the patriarch, "Out of your seed will the nations be blessed." God entrusted evangelism to His people. And now the church is under the "Great Commission" of our Lord. We have the responsibility to carry the gospel to the world.

But are we sharing our faith? Interestingly, this story illustrates the redemptive work of God in the world.

A. "God" – He loves the world and sends us to them. The love of God is available to the wicked and vile as well as the civil and self-righteous.

B. "Nineveh" – The Assyrians represent the unconverted that desperately need to know both God's love and their impending judgment.

C. "Jonah" – The prophet represents the one sent to share God's love. He was glad to speak for God to the good people – but refused to speak to those that appeared to need the gospel the most.

Our indifference to the lost is an indicator that we need to return to God.

IV. Indicator #4: We decide to deliberately disobey God – 1:3

Notice the single word, "However." Jonah knew exactly what God required – "however." Instead of listening, he decided to willfully disobey. Disobedience is a gentle word for rebellion. For some reason, we have come to believe that God is willing to bargain with us over His commands. We tend to think that it is reasonable for God to make exceptions to His rules or, at least, compromise to some degree on His expectations.

Know this: God does not negotiate His commands. He didn't for Abraham, Moses or David. And He will not for us. If you testify, "I believe in God," but then qualify it with a "however," then you need to return to God.

V. Indicator #5: We run from our calling – 1:3

"Jonah got up to flee…from the Lord." Those words are even more stark when we remember that Jonah was a prophet of God. Notice three important phrases here:

A. "to flee" – The irresponsibility of running from God

When it comes to our calling, the Christian can find himself or herself in one of three situations: [1] Never started, [2] Started but quit – and you're making excuses, or [3] Going strong in service. But consider how irresponsible it is for you personally to run from your God-given assignment. Besides that, think of the eternal consequences for those God intends for you to minister to.

B. "to Tarshish" – The insanity of running from God

What is your "Tarshish?" It is the place you have gone to that is the opposite of God's will for your life. He tried to run as far from God's call as possible. His rebellion led him to do that which he would never have considered previously.

C. "from God" - The impossibility of running from God

Can you truly escape to some "Tarshish from God?" Of course not! You can run, but you cannot hide from God. Consider these questions: [1] What has God called you to do? [2] What has God given you a passion about? [3] Where are you supposed to do it? [4] When should you do it?

I heard God's call to ministry while in high school. But after my first semester of college, I decided that the ministry was not for me. So what did I do? I ran to Bonham, Texas. While anonymously attending a small country church, God ran me down. And like Jonah, God's call came second time.

Neglecting your calling is an indicator that you need to return to God.

VI. Indicator #6: We disregard God's correction – 1:5

In the midst of a God-sent storm "Jonah had . . . fallen into a deep sleep." His sleep is a good metaphor for spiritual indifference. Some people today are so "asleep" that they completely miss what God is trying to say to them. While the next message addresses this further, we must remember that "the Lord disciples the one He loves" [Hebrews 12:6].


So, how do you return to God? John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace," discovered grace and forgiveness through humility, honesty and confession. Newton signed on with a slave ship leaving from Africa with its "cargo." He was an experienced sailor and navigator, but his cursing and blaspheming turned hardened sailors' ears red.

Soon the ship was caught in a horrible storm and was taking in water. The crew had to pump 24 hours a day to stay afloat. But the constant wind rocked the boat so dangerously that the sailors had to tie themselves to the deck to keep from being swept overboard. At one point, several of the crew tried to throw Newton overboard. They figured that God was punishing him like Jonah of the Old Testament. The captain declared that the only way the ship would make it in to safe harbor was by God's power. He commanded everyone - including Newton - to pray. "God, if You're true," Newton prayed earnestly, "make good your Word. Cleanse my vile heart."

After four weeks of storms and constant brushes with death, the ship limped into an Irish port. John Newton, former "free thinker," former slave trader and atheist, declared his faith in Jesus. He became a well-known preacher and writer. In fact, we chiefly know him as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace." [Ernest Emurian, "Living Stories of Famous Hymns", 20]

Jerry Gifford is senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Franklin, Kentucky. Jerry holds degrees from Western Kentucky University and Liberty Baptist Seminary. He and his wife, Tammie, have two sons, Daniel and David. He is passionate about his family, spiritual renewal, discipleship, preaching, basketball, and water sports.