The provision of prayer - Jonah 1:17 - 2:10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In 1992 a new best seller was born, it was called, Embraced by the Light and its author was Betty Eadie. Its initial print run of 20,000 sold out within two weeks. Its second print of 30,000 went just as quickly. In fact it stayed on the New York best seller list for well over a year. What was it that made this book an instant best seller? Well, it was its subject matter, which according to its dust jacket afforded, astonishing proof of life after physical death, and that Eadie, saw more perhaps, than any other person has seen before, and she came back with an almost photographic view. You see, Betty Eadie had what is called a near death experience. In the book she does not try to understand what happened to her, but simply describe it- an out of body experience, the moving along a tunnel towards a light source and then being, as the title of the book suggests, embraced by the light, experiencing, as she put it, an utter explosion of love. In this state she claims to have seen Jesus, accompanied by two monks and two spirit women and learnt that in the spirit world sins are not seen as they are here, we dont have to ask God to forgive us , we only need to forgive ourselves. Of course Betty Eadie isnt the only one who claims to have had a near death experience, others have had similar experiences and what is somewhat puzzling is that no matter what the moral state of the person or religious belief- all claim to feel a sense of well being and beauty as they are about to pass over to the other side. Of course attempts have been made to explain this. Some argue for purely natural explanations-that this is the body/ mind winding down, like the flicker of worn out valves as in the old wireless sets. Others, with good warrant to my mind, argue that malevolent spiritual forces are out work, seeking to deceive people. Personally, I think that it is a combination of the two. But whatever the answer, such close encounters with death do not leave the person unchanged. For good or ill- Betty Eadie will never be the same again. But what happens when a believer in the one true God has a close brush with death? What sort of changes can we expect to see then? Well, this morning we are going to find out as we look at the experience of one man- Jonah.
Jonah is a prophet on the run. God has called him to preach to the tyrannical city of Nineveh, capital of superpower Assyria, the vicious enemies of Israel. Jonah thinks that God has got his strategy all wrong- what these people need is a message of judgement not a message of repentance and forgiveness and so he heads out into the open sea. And then we see worked out through a series of breathtaking events in the life of Jonah the very thing that God wants to display to the inhabitants of Nineveh- his relentless pursuit of love. Wherever Jonah turns he finds himself hemmed in by the severe mercy of God. His flight from the Lord is checked by a storm, his claims to religious piety are checked by pagans who outstrip him in zeal, and at the point when it looks like the story is going to end prematurely as Jonah finds himself sinking into the dark abyss, his death is checked by God providing a rescue in the unexpected shape of a great fish. While at the beginning of chapter 1 it is God who calls to Jonah, for the first time in the story, here we have Jonah calling to God. And what he says has been preserved for us in the form of a psalm of thanksgiving. The effect of this near death experience is not to write a book but to write a song. So if you havent done so already to turn with me to Jonah chapter 2.
The first thing we encounter is an impossible situation. After Christmas Heather and I went to a charity shop, I think it was help the aged- she was wanting to invest in my future-so she bought be a second hand set of videos of the TV series MASH- a mobile army hospital set in the Korean War. In one of the episodes the leading surgeon is faced with a terrible decision to make. He is presented with a young man whose body was full of shrapnel, it would take seven hours of surgery, pints of blood and the chances are he wouldnt make it anyway. In the meantime there were plenty of other wounded coming in whose lives he could save. So what should he do? The point is his diagnosis of the young soldier who barely registered a pulse indicated it was all over for him. Best to leave him and move on. That seems to be the situation with Jonah. All the signs are that he is as good as dead. He really is in an impossible, irredeemable situation and the signs are there for all to see.
For a start Jonah is in the sea. As we saw last week, the symbolism of the sea in the Scripture is always a negative one, indicating godless rebellion and death. That is why in Revelation 13 the antichrist beast comes out of the sea. It is the place of moral darkness and chaos- when you go down there you are not expected to come up again. it is a one way ticket to oblivion.
In the second place, it is a great fish which swallows Jonah- 1:17. Around this time in 760 BC idolatrous ideas had seeped into Israel from the surrounding Canaanite culture, including the myth that the god Baal fought a sea monster at the very point of creation. A similar myth was developed in Babylon regarding the god Marduk who wrestled with the sea monster tiamat and cut it in half with a giant flat sword from which he made the earth and the sky. So you see talk of a great fish would create the same resonance in the mind of the contemporary reader. To be engulfed by a giant sea monster is another way of saying you are swallowed by evil-you are finished.
Linked to this is the reference in 1:17 of Jonah spending three days and three nights inside the fish. Why such precise timing? Well, again this has something to do with popular folklore. This exact phrase appears in 1 Samuel 30: 12, where a man is found who had not eaten or drunk water for three days and three nights -that is, this was a way of saying he was on the verge of death. In other words, three days is the absolute limit and then you are at the point of no return. That is where Jonah found himself-on the margins of non-existence.
In fact in the psalm Jonah close brush with death is spelt out even more graphically- From the depths of Sheol (the place of the departed)- I called for help v2, to the roots of the mountain I sank down.- v6. My life was ebbing away- v 7. But the phrase which indicates that he was beyond all help and hope, physically, emotionally and spiritually in found in v 4: I said I have been banished from your sight. To be cut off from the presence of God is nothing short of hell. That is where Jonah felt he had gone to. When you stand at the gates of hell, then there is little reason to be optimistic-the situation seems impossible.
Now that is exactly where we end up when we decide to go it alone without God- like Jonah. The wages of sin is death says the apostle Paul, and death offers no way of escape. A dead man cannot climb out of his coffin- it is an impossible situation. But of course one can be on the verge of death spiritually too- both as an individual and as a nation, causing one to ask Is there any hope? That was the case with Israel at the time of Jonah- a nation which appeared to be beyond the pale- as it constantly turns its back on God and his ways- just like Jonah had done. It certainly was true of Nineveh to whom Jonah was meant to go and preach-these people made the Talaban look like the Vienna boys choir.. But let me mention a nation and an individual both of which found themselves in Jonahs situation-on the verge of extinction.
The nation is England in 1722, which one writer described as the age of materialism, a period of dim ideals and expiring hopes. Does that sound familiar? Let me mention just a few of the signs that social and spiritual rigourmortis was setting in. First the treatment of the children of the poor. You would have expected the churches to do something about those born illegitimate, having no parents to care for them. They did . Here is one example which is typical - St Andrew above bars in the years between 1750-55 took in 284 infants to care for them - of these 222 died in the first twelve months, 57 were returned to their mothers and only five survived. Money was made available to church wardens to take them in- they kept the money and effectively killed the children. Then there was drunkenness and the evil of gin which was more or less a poison. In 1684 , 527,000 gallons of spirit were distilled, by 1750 spirit consumption had reached 11 million gallons. Most work in Fleet street stopped at midday, as did much parliamentary business because people were too drunk to carry on. This is when the term drunk as a Lord came into use- not an aristocratic Lord, but a Lord bishop. This was a nation sinking deep into the mire and towards oblivion. No hope you see.
And around the same time there was a young man from London called John who at 18 was press ganged into the Navy. That is where he learnt to love everything sordid and degrading. He later wrote : I was capable of anything: I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor the least sensibility of conscience. Like Jonah he descended from bad to worse hitting rock bottom when he was put ashore on some small islands just south of Sierra Leone. And for a year and a half lived as a virtual slave- in fact he was so impoverished that the black African slaves used to smuggle him food to eat. No faith, no morals, no hope- that was John Newton. And maybe you can identify with that or know people like that and you shake your head and ask: what hope is there? Well, that is where we come to the next stage in this drama, a cry of desperation.
What we see here with Jonah is that at last he is putting his beliefs into practice. In 1: 9 he declared that he feared the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. Now he was cashing in that faith. Look at v 1 In my distress I called upon the LORD -that is Yahweh, the covenant God, the God who makes promises and keeps them- the one who declared himself to be a gracious God and long suffering, abounding in steadfast love, as he Jonah later to state in chapter 4. This is exactly the one to call for help. Since he is the one who created the sea, he controls it. Since he is the one who cast Jonah into the depths in the first place- v3, then it follows he is the one who can rescue him from those depths. But Jonah does not presume upon this God, as if he were some benevolent father Christmas figure. He knows he is a just God, a holy God, and that is why in vv 4 and 7, he speaks of himself as looking towards Gods holy temple. Why? Well, this is the place where God had made provision for the sins of his people, the place where sacrifice was made to wash away sin. Jonah does not play the victim, the one hard done by, he plays the man and accepts personal responsibility for what has happened, for he knows that the juice in which he is stewing is of his own making. And that is always the first step toward restoration with God- owning up. Whether it is a nation, whether it is a church, whether it is an individual a humble ,honest recognition that things have gone wrong, that we are accountable and God has every right to bring us to this point on our knees, is the first step on the long journey home. If you dont take that step, no others will follow. You know sometimes it is a misplaced pride which prevents us from coming to God. We think to ourselves, Why should God bother with me now? I didnt bother with him when things were going well, now I am in trouble it seems a bit of a cheek to come to him and ask for help. And so you keep away. And there is some truth in that of course. But the amazing thing about this God is that he would rather take us back on such terms than not have us back at all- he hears our cry. And that leads to a remarkable salvation.
That is why this is a psalm of thanksgiving, this is the song of a drowning man who has been rescued full of amazement and brimming with gratitude- v 1 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. Then v6 which is the centre and turning point of the psalm To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in for ever. But you brought my life up from the pit of LORD my God. Salvation comes from the LORD. v 9 And the LORD commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah on to dry land.
Jonah declares the praise of the covenant God who promises to save. He professes faith in the all powerful God, the one who is able to save. Now we can see the point in God providing a giant fish to engulf Jonah rather than simply miraculously lifting him up out of the sea by divine command. Look, if the surrounding pagans, including some of those Philistine sailors in chapter 1, bought into the idea that some things were out of Gods control, like a sea monster- then you can never be sure that God can save. Someone or something might just beat him or at least make things difficult for him. But by saving Jonah in this way God was making a very important point to the Jews and to the entire world- he is in control of everything! He doesnt have to do battle with a sea monster to get his way, he provides a sea monster to act like his servant to bring about his will. He is able to weave the course of history- whether that of a country like Assyria or an individual like Jonah, to bring about his saving purposes. God is not caught off guard, his hands are not tied, there is no stronghold he cannot conquer. Thats the point about the great fish.
So it was in England in the latter half of the 18th century, as through men like Whitefield and the Wesley brothers a corrupt moribund church was brought to life, a nation had its soul snatched from hell as men and women cried out to God for mercy. The same happened to young John Newton, sailor and slave trader who on the 21st march 1748 found his ship caught in the midst of a violent storm like Jonahs. And as the ship began to fill with water from 3 am to 6 pm about which time later Newton was to write: I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in my favour. I began to pray: I could not utter the prayer of faith, I could not draw near to be reconciled to God and call him Father.. The great question now was, how to obtain faith. He spent the rest of the voyage seeking faith and turned to Luke 11 for help. And when he arrived in Ireland he was able to say this , I had satisfactory evidence in my own mind of the truth of the Gospel, suitable to answer all my needs.. I stood in need of an Almighty Saviour, and such a one I found described in the New Testament. The same God who saved Jonah, is the same God who saved Newton and the same God who saved this country from a bloody revolution like France. And you know, it is the same God who saves today.
Let me ask: why is there such an interest in near death experiences ? It is because people are afraid of death and seek some sort of assurance that death isnt the end. Well what about turning to the one who has defeated death- that is the Lord Jesus Christ? You see, just as Jonahs prayers were directed to the temple-the meeting place between God and man, the place where sacrifice was offered to atone for the sins - God now calls us to direct our prayers to Jesus- the perfect meeting point of divinity and humanity- who at Calvery on the cross offered himself as a sacrifice for sin once and for all, so that through Jesus God always hears our prayers. In Jonah we are given a refracted glimpse of what was going to happen to Jesus. He was the one who sank into the deep as the breakers of Gods righteous anger crashed over him as he bore Gods judgement in our place- v3. He was banished from Gods sight as the darkness covered the earth as he cried out My God, my God why have you forsaken me- v4. Because he, unlike Jonah had committed no sin, but took our sins on himself, God commanded the grave to let him go free, as he commanded the fish. Death could not hold him, and for all those who trust in him, it will not hold us too.
But finally, we have a failed appreciation. Just look at vv 8-9, Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Jonah hadnt yet learned his lesson. Do you not detect a note of smug self-righteousness here- Jonah the Pharisee?. No doubt he still had pagan Nineveh in mind- those who cling to idols forfeit grace- theirs is to be a message of judgement then. But there are two things which should have stopped Jonah in his tracks had he fully appreciated what was happening.. First, it was the Philistine sailors in chapter 1 who had done all of these things- they forsook their idols, they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. So if they can be changed why not the Ninevites? Secondly, it has been Jonah up to this point who was clinging to the idol of his Jewish nationalism, who refused to offer the sacrifice of his heart and life to God who called him to preach a message of forgiveness to the pagans- and yet, God saved him. If he has done it with Jonah, might he not be willing and able to do it with others too?
And maybe you have someone on your heart whom you long to see become a Christian. You have been praying for them for years. If so then dont give up hope-if God can do this, he can do that. Perhaps you look out upon our country with increasing despair as we drift further and further away from our Christian moorings into what seems to be a new dark age and ask: Has God given up on us? The God who surprises us with a big fish also surprises us with big revivals. But then again it might be that you feel that you have done something which has put you outside the reaches of Gods grace, such that he could never be bothered with someone like you. your conscience accuses you, your memories haunt you. If so then look again at the story of Jonah, better still look at the story of Jesus, for there we see a God who descends into the depths of human misery, depravity and sin, in order to raise us up into the heights of divine majesty, grace and love. And all you have to do- is what Jonah did - call on him.
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