May 5, 2002
JONAH THE FISH FOOD
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
Just recently I dropped a tea bag into a cup of boiling water. Within seconds, the otherwise clear and transparent water began turning brown. Let me ask you. Did the boiling water put that brown color in that tea bag, or did the water merely bring out of the tea bag something that was already there? Have you ever been in hot water? What came out of you? Here in Jonah 2, our leading character finds himself in boiling and bubbling water, and we want this morning to pay close attention to what he does.
Last week, we looked at Jonah the Flabbergasted in 1:1-16. We noticed that Jonah acted on the basis of his feelings rather than in accordance with what he knew to be Gods will. We observed that Jonah had two faulty ideas about Godhe believed that God ruled over only a small geographical area, and he also assumed that you could then run from him and actually get away with it. Finally, we saw that, while Jonah readily claimed to worship God, he did not obey him. God doesnt simply look for people who claim to follow him, but for people who genuinely do what he asks. In the coming weeks, we hope to consider Jonah the Follower, Jonah the Furious, and Jonah the Fugitive. Today, however, we turn our attention to Jonah the Fish Food.
We left off last Sunday with Jonah sinking helplessly in the sea, having been thrown overboard by a group of terrified sailors. He had deliberately rejected Gods call on his life, and he ran away with all of his might. What a mess he got into. Jonah refused to say to God, Your will be done, so God said to him,
O.K., Jonah, your will be done. And look where it got him.
Of course, all of us who hear the story believe that Jonah got exactly what he deserved, dont we. Nevertheless, something extremely unexpected now takes place. Most of us are aware that fish typically feed on smaller fish. In this case, however, a monstrous specimen suddenly appears on the scene and swallows Jonah as he sinks steadily to the bottom. This fish, the writer informs us, was sent by Godthe Lord of the sea is also the Lord over all of the creatures who live there.
Here, then, is Jonah, nestled in the belly of a fish. He has been all over lately, hasnt he? While it certainly is not the Hilton, or even a Holiday Inn for that matter, Jonahs new surroundings provide him with an opportunity to do some things that he hasnt done for awhileslow down, catch his breath, think, and pray. He had done very little of these previously in the story, but now he has no choice.
Before long, the events that had just transpired begin to flash across Jonahs mental screen. Spontaneously, he recounts the near tragedy. According to his own description, Jonah was on the very brink of death itself (v. 2)he was as good as dead. At that point, longing for air as he descended into watery darkness, Jonah did what virtually everyone in the world would do in such a situation. He uttered a prayer that, though not recorded here, probably went something like this. Lord, get me out of here! And God did.
Now, as Jonah continues to take inventory in the belly of this fish, he seemingly realizes that things are not quite as bad as they seemed. He can still breathe. He is alive, and so, rather than running from God, Jonah begins to praise him and to see the hand of God in all of this: You, not the sailors, threw me into the sea. You, not simply the wind or the natural rotation of the earth upon its axis, caused the waves. And you, O God, saved my life. It was you all the time. Jonah, fortunately, is beginning to revise his ideas about God.
Suddenly, Jonah backtracks again, as though he simply cannot believe what has happened. The waters closed in over me, he declares. I was even entangled in seaweed, yet you delivered me, O God. My life was all but gone. Jonah is overwhelmed, sensing the same relief that the apostle Paul apparently experienced centuries later. We do not want you to be unaware, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10,
...of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again,...
Like Paul, Jonah is overcome by the both the goodness and the persistence of God.
Finally, Jonah arrives at a crucial conclusionserving God is the only thing to do. I will keep my vow to God, he concludes. I will serve the Lord. And though the writer of the story does not record it, its easy to imagine Jonah, now anxious to leave his otherwise smelly and confining surroundings, praying again one more time. Calvin Miller, in his book The Aardvark Parked on the Ark, describes this likely scene in these words:
When Jonah was swallowed by a fish...
Slosh, slosh, slurp, slurp!
He felt so foolish kneeling down
And praying for a burp...
He prayed: Help God, Help...help!
Slosh, slosh, slurp, slurp!
If you can make a fish this big...
Surely you can make him burp!
And with that, God speaks to the fish, who obeys far more quickly than Jonah ever did. With a flick of its tail, the fish gladly spews up this indigestible creature and swims off, its mission accomplished. As for Jonah? Well, he is on dry land again, and hopefully a much wiser man.
What a storyfrom Jonah the flabbergasted to Jonah the fish food. But what is here for us to learn? What happens to Jonah when he finds himself in hot water? To begin with, we notice that real changes start to take place in Jonahs life when he takes some time to think and to pray. You will recall that this is precisely what he did not do in chapter 1 when he acted impulsively and simply ran away. Overcome by his emotions and faulty ideas, and overwhelmed by the magnitude of Gods instructions, Jonah devised his own plans. When Jonah began to rebel, he stopped praying, and we often do the same thing. Its as though we cant imagine talking with God under such circumstances.
And yet, that is precisely what the Bible repeatedly invites us to do. When we find ourselves in difficult situationstrials, tests, temptationswhen we find ourselves feeling as though the entire world is against us and that walls are caving in all around useven if we have brought the difficulty upon ourselveswe can take time to think and to pray. Rather than abandoning God in the midst of his incredible suffering, Job went face to face with him. Rather than shying away from God when frustrated by conditions around him, the prophet Habakkuk pleaded his case. While both Job and Habakkuk turned to God, Jonah fled. Now, a stormy sea and a whole lot of trouble later, he is apparently beginning to come around. When my life was ebbing away, Jonah announces, I remembered the Lord.
And look what happened. His ideas about God changedhe now was able to see Gods presence in his life, even when things did not go the way he might have wanted them to. His ambitions changedhe agreed to serve the Lord rather than run from him. And his attitudes changedI with a voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. You see, the very nature of prayer changes not only our circumstances and surroundings, but, more importantly, prayer changes us.
Beyond this, Jonahs hot-water experience enables us to understand something else about prayer that can be extremely helpful. You will recall that Jonah originally had his sights set on the distant city of Tarshishthat is where he wanted to go when he tried to get way from God. From all indications, one would think that the place where he eventually ended upin the belly of a fish at the bottom of the seawas better yet! I mean, if you want to get away from God, can you think of a place where he would less likely be?!? Yet even there, God heard Jonahs prayer. You see, neither circumstances nor location can put the sincere seeker beyond Gods reach.
I know that this is difficult to believe at timessomeone here in the church recently told me that for years he thought that his past sins simply moved him too far away from God for him to ever hope again. No. Never believe that. It doesnt matter where you have been or what you have done. John Newton, who wrote the song Amazing Grace that we sang moments ago, was a slave trader before coming to Christ. The apostle Paul himself was a mass executioner. St. Augustine struggled with sexual sins. Lord, make me chaste, he once prayed, but not yet. If you are a Christian this morning but have been running and hiding recently, God is a whole lot closer than you might think. And if you are not a Christian this morningyou have never given your life over to Godthe Lord is but a prayer away. If you mean business with God, he will be right there with you. If you mean business with God, there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.
Finally, notice something about Jonahs predicament itself. While few if any of us would ever want to be swallowed by some monstrous sea creature, Jonahs prayer from the belly of the fish is actually a prayer of praise. His desperate cry for deliverance came earlier as he sank to the bottom of the sea. I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me. Remarkably, the fish was that answer. Could God have simply transported Jonah to the beach if he had wanted to? Of course. It would have been easier, and I suspect that the fish would have been happier! But God did not do that. You see, Jonah had some deep, deep problems that had to be dealt with first. He needed to think and pray, and he needed to learn that God knows what he is doing. None of these things would have taken place had Jonah bypassed the belly of the fish.
We tend to think of the fish primarily as a form of punishment. But in reality, it was the fish that brought Jonah to dry ground. It was the fish that God used to keep Jonah from drowning. It was a difficulty, an unenviable situation, it was the fish that brought Jonahs deliverance from a certain death in the depths of the sea. Its all a matter of perspective.
There is a story of an old Chinese man who had one boy and one horse. One day, the boy left the gate of the corral open, and the horse wandered off. Quickly, all of the neighbors gathered. Thats bad, thats bad, they said. The gods are frowning on you. Thats bad. But the old man responded, How do you know thats bad? How do you know? The next day, the horse returned to the corral, followed by twelve wild stallions. Soon the neighbors gathered. Thats good, they announced. Thats good. The gods are smiling on you. How do you know thats good? the old man asked. How do you know?
Lo and behold, the boy soon tried to ride one of the stallions, and it threw him, breaking his leg. Thats bad, the neighbors said. Thats bad. The gods are frowning on you. How do you know thats bad? the old man asked. How do you know? Sure enough, the next week the Chinese warlord came to the area, gathering all able-bodied young boys and taking them off to battle, never to return again. Sometimes, you just dont know. Sometimes, those things which seem bad to us, those events and experiences and situations that we so readily want to remove from our lives, sometimes they are the very channels through which God works in our lives. At the end of his long and difficult stay in a Soviet detention camp, an older but wiser Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, I thank God that the Gulag [detention camp] was in my life. One can now picture Jonah responding in much the same way: I thank God that the fish was in my life. Sometimes we just dont know. That is why we trust God.
Have you been in hot water lately? Perhaps you are even now. Learn to think and pray before you act. Rest assured that, regardless of where you are or what you have done, God will hear you if you cry out to him with a sincere heart. And realize, as Jonah eventually did, that life is often a matter of perspective. The God of heaven and earth is remarkably good at using the difficulties of life to teach us and even to save us.