Praying - Jonah 2
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What is the book of Jonah about? If we asked that question in a Sunday School group, we might well get the answer, "It's about a whale." [Not in one of our groups - they're all far too well taught. They would know it was a fish, not a whale]. But, even then it's hardly an adequate answer. The fish is almost incidental to the story. Sure, it plays an important part, but it's a small part. It only appears twice, does its job perfectly each time, and then disappears.
Someone else will answer, no doubt, "It's not mainly about a fish at all, but about Jonah, the disobedient prophet." And it is. He's the central character in the story. It is he who runs in chapter 1, prays in chapter 2, preaches in chapter 3 and moans in chapter 4. Indeed, one little (and very good) book on Jonah is called, "Preacher on the Run". [Not a bad title - I wish I'd thought of it].
That's getting closer, but it's still not adequate to say the book's about Jonah - at least not in the sense that he's the message of the book. It is, as we saw last week, a book about God. The whole Bible is a book about God. We read it to know him. That's why we open it together now. Along the way we may learn other things, but first and foremost we read it to know him. And the same is true with this part of the Bible. The next qu*estion is: what does the book of Jonah tell us about God. Okay, it's about God, but what about God?
We saw last week in chapter one a magnificent vision of the sovereignty of God- God rules not only over his servants, not even just over all people, but over his whole world, in order to bring his purposes to pass (to put everything under the feet of Christ). That chapter left us on a cliffhanger. Jonah was thrown overboard in the storm and miraculously swallowed by the great fish and rescued from certain drowning. [What a time for the end of the episode, for the title music to fade in and the credits to roleup the screen]. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger - chapter 2 with Jonah spewed up on to land by the fish (what'll he do now?), chapter 3 with the whole city of Nineveh turning to the Lord (what will God do and how will Jonah react?) The book leaves us uncertain how Jonah will respond to God's final ques"tion. But that's running ahead. You could see it as a trailer of what's to come, in future episodes of the Story o Mission Nineveh. [Some scholars, amazingly, argue that because the story is told in such a sensational manner it must be fiction. Can you believe it? It just means the story's been vividly told!]
But it's hardly a promising start to Mission Nineveh, to have the preacher running away. [That doesn't happen in Billy Graham's crusades and I don't expect to happen to us at Jesus 2000]. Not that Jonah's going to get away with running away - God has other plans. So he plucks him from the depths of the sea. The whole of chapter 2 looks back on that great rescue. It is all located in the fish. Clearly it's been written after the event. [Jonah would hardly have had acces to pen and paper in the belly of the fish - let alone anywhere to plug in his laptop].
He's looking back on his rescue from drowning. It might seem to us that being inside the gut of a fish is a long way from being rescued, but when the alternative is drowning, we might see it a little differently. Certainly Jonah did, verse 2. What an encouragement this prayer is! In the depths not only of the sea, but of despair, and on the brink of death - and all of it his fault, Jonah cries to the Lord. His prayer is heard and he is saved. All his problems were self-inflicted, his prayer is desperate, his circumstances are dire beyond description. We might be tempted to say, "You've got a nerve, Jonah. If anyone ever deserved to have God turn their back on them, then it's you. You've gone too far this time. Forget it, God's not going to listen to you." Buthe does. That's the kind of God he is.
And Jonah knows it. He acknowledges it at the end of his prayer in a short statement which gets to the heart of the message of this little book. It's there at the end of verse 9: Salvation comes from the Lord. A literal translation would be something like salvation with the Lord, and so a number of different English translations are possible: Salvation is of the Lord, Deliverance belongs to the Lord, My deliverance comes from the Lord alone, even Victory is the Lord's. The point is the same. If you want salvation, the place to go is the Lord. If you go to the Lord, the thing he wants to do is save you. Salvation is his property. It's his speciality, his work. Salvation belongs to him. You might even say 'salvation is God's business'.
Thumbing through the Hull Colour Pages, as one does from time, I discovered some interesting things. One is how many people there are in any one business offering pretty much the same thing. Do you know how many pages there are of Solicitors? 28! If it was possible to have a kind of theological equivalent of the Colour Pages and we looked up the entry Salvation, how many names would there be under it? Only one. Yahweh, the Lord. Salvation is his business, and no-one else's.
There are three ways in which the book of Jonah leads us to understand that statement, each one associated with one of the three salvations in the book.
1. Salvation comes from the Lord - and not from ourselves
Jonah discovered this in his own experience when he was saved from drowning. He goes out of his way to say how near to death he came. There was no way out for him unless God saved him.
In 1v17, we're told Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. That is almost equivalent to telling us that someone is 'six feet under'. It isn't necessarily literal, although there's no reason why it shouldn't be. But the point is that he's dead and gone. He isn't going to come back. But Jonah does come back.
He wasn't just plucked from the jaws of death, but from the depths of the grave - the belly of death. He'd been swallowed by death before God rescued him. Verse 5 is virtually a description of drowning. There's no air to breathe.... There's water all around and then more water.... He's being strangled by the sea.... It's the end.... But... He couldn't possibly save himself from this situation. If he could, it wouldn't be salvation. If you can save yourself, then you don't need saving and it isn't really salvation. The first step to being saved is admitting that you need saving and that you can't do it yourself.
Tony Adams, the Arsenal and England footballer has written very frankly about the mess he's made of his life. It's not great literature, but it is refreshingly honest. The book has the revealing title "Addicted". It's the story of his double addiction - to football and to alcohol. [I don't think I'd realised how desperate and pathetic and destructive alcoholism was until I read the first chapter of the book]. There he describes the drunken binge he was on and the paralytic stupour he was in for seven weeks in the simmer of '96. It wasn't unti lhe finally blurted out to a friend that he knew he had a problem that help was possible. He writes....
"It still moves me to think about the moment. Long may I remember it. It was the first time in my life that I had asked another person for help. Out of the humiliation had come some humility. And a twinge of relief. I had stopped fighting, finally stopped hitting myself on the head with the hammer. Until that moment I had always thought I could master by myself any problem that life had thrown at me. I was Tony Adams of Arsenal and England. Iwas strong. I was a leader.... But I hade run into something too powerful for me." [Addicted, p27].
It was only when Jonah asked for help that salvation was possible. But Jonah faced a worse peril even than drowning - and he knew that too. He risked being cut off form God himself. verse 4: I have been banished from your sight. He knew he was under God's punishment. What had happened hadn't just happened, God had happened it. [ Just as nothing in our lives just happens]. Jonah knew he was under judgment: verse 3: You hurled me into the deep. The sailors did it, and God did it.
Jonah's only hope is if God now chooses to save him. He's at the bottom of the sea, but worse than that, he's miles from God in his rebellion. But God isn't far from him. He's only a prayer away. Jonah's circumstances and hisdistance from God are no barrier to God rescuing him - and he does. He's that kind of God. Salvation is his business.
2. Salvation comes from the Lord - and not from other gods
This is the sailors' story. Remeber them from chapter 1? In the storm they began by calling on their own gods, verse5. When that achieved nothing, they begged Jonah to call on his god, verse 6. Jonah doesn't do it. But they do, verse 14, and in doing so they are saved. They discovered in their own experience the truth of 2v8. It is in contrast to idols that, verse 9....
We heard this morning from Isaiah 40 of the worthlessness of idols. They look good, they seem impressive [If they weren't attractive and impressive, who would fall for them?], they promise much, but in the final analysis they deliver nothing. But we still do fall for them. The Beatles sang "Money can't but me love." And yet millions live as if money and the possessions they buy are the secret of happiness. Others live for status, as if the acclaim and honour of their peers will bring them happiness - whether on the athletics track, on the dance floor, on the street corner, or in the club. So many, like Tony Adams, find themselves broken people only able to escape one addiction by giving themslves up to another. Only able to forget the lack of fulfilment in one idol by running to another - only to be disappointed again and to keep on running.
Notice again, the rescue of the sailors is not just a rescue from drowning, but a rescue for God himself. All the salvations in the book, Jonah, the sailors and the peopld of Nineveh, are salvations from a life without God for a life with God.
As with much of what Jonah says, there is great irony in these words. He speaks the truth, but he hasn't discovered the truth of the words he speaks. He himself is clinging to a worthless idol. He is clinging to the idea that he might be able to have a say in the salvation of Nineveh - that is a veto, that they not be saved. He is clinging to the idea that they may yet be destroyed, that he might somehow have some control over God, some kind of hold or handle on him to stop him from saving them. He isn't going to forfeit his salvation, he is still God's prophet, but he will forfeit the grace of knowing he's in the will of God.
I don't think there's any necessary suggestion at the end of chapter 2 that he's promising to go to Nineveh after all. He does promise, verse 9: I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. But that's no more than the sailors promised when they turned to God at the end of chapter 1: they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to them. Ironicaly, these pagan sailors got to that point before God's prophet did.
3. Salvation comes from the Lord - and not from Jonah
What I mean by this is that salvation is the Lords' business to the extent that he will not be told by anyone whom he should save and whom he shouldn't - not even by the very best of his servants, the prophets. This doesn't mean we don't have a part to play in God's saving people - which we will see Jonah himself doing in c hapter 3. It does mean that God always saves in such a way that the saving is only done by him, and no-one else can take the credit.
That is what the book of Jonah is about: sovereign grace. God's feedom in salvation. Salvation is his free gift and he is free in whom he gives it to. For grace to be grace, it must be sovereign. If God is not free in his grace, then it is no longer grace. If we are involved in any way in our salvation, or anybody else's, then salvation is no longer by grace. Chapter one showed us the the sovereignty of God - the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. Chapter 4 will show us the grace of God, verse 2. Chapter 2 already anticipates that by showing us the sovereign grace of God. Chapter 3 will then show us how that grace is shown to people.
Because we're sinful human beings, we don't like the idea that God should choose who is saved. We want to have a say in it. But sin is always putting ourselves where only God should be. We love to put ourselves in God's place, on his throne, calling the shots and trying to decide who should be saved and who shouldn't. But we can't do it! How can we posssibly be in a position to decide? We ust don't know enough. We can't see into people' heart. We don't have the information to get the judgment right. [I don't even know enough to sort out a minor everyday dispute between by children]. How can I possibly get it right who should be saved and who shouldn't?
And even if we could know everying, wht guarantee do we have that we'd get it right then? We're just too sinful, too prejudiced, too self-centred. W'd get it wrong time and time again. Just glance around church. And be honest with yourself. Aren't there people here whom you wouldn't have chosen to be part of God's people? [Mind you, they probaly wouldn't have chosen you either]. Perhaps even now you're wondering whether he hasn't made a terrible mistake. Isn't it frightening to think of the grounds on which we'd exclude each other? He's got the wrong accent. I don't like the clothes she wears. They listen to the wrong kind of music. They dont' know enough. He's too churchy. She's too casual. They're just weird. Remember, they're probably thinking the same aobout you.
And I'm not sliding off into universalism here. That's the idea that every single person, universally, will be saved in the end whether they want to be or not. That's just another way of telling God whom he ought to save. It's just now the particular group we're telling God he ought to save is everybody. We need to tell ourselves, again and again, Salvation is of the Lord. It is his business. If it's notour busioness to save ourselves - we can't do it. It's not the business of other gods to save us - they can't do it. It'st our business to tell God who can and can't be saved - we just can't do it.
We can't have it both ways, can we? We can't say God is free to save me and not to save others, If he's free, he's free. The remarkable thing is that in his fredom he chooses to save any of us. It is remarkable that it is salvation which is of the Lord, that he's in the salvation business at all.
It's always instructive to see how the Lord Jesus himself handled these trut\hs. He described himself as a sower sowing seed. Some fell on good soil, but a good deal fell on lousy ground where it would never grow. He didn't choose the soil. He just got on with sowing. When some refused to repent at his preaching, he praised God, acknowledging it to be his will. Our job is to keep sowing and to leave it to God to work out watt is going to happen when the seed hits this particular piece of soil. It is not our job to try and aim the seed.
There are three salvations in this book. Each one throws different light on what it means that salvation comes from the Lord. But the three salvations also have something in common. Each one is God's response to a desperate prayer. In1v14, the sailors cried to the Lord. In 2v2, Jonah said, In my distress I called to the Lord. In 3v8, the king of Nineveh told his people: Let everyone call urgently on God. Isn't that marvellous? God's sovereign grace is freely available to those who call on him. However desperate they are, however much their problems are self-inflicted, however greatly they deserve the predicament they're in. And the prayer doesn't have to be terribly eloquent.
Here's how Ted asked to be saved. He was a teenager, a member of a Chinese gang, who got to know a missionary working there. After attending a conference with her, he said, "Don't bother telling me I have asin. I know that. Just tell me what to do about it." So she did. Ted then said, "I'll pray tonight," and he started right in. "Hey God, are you tuned in on me? This is Ted. I'm dead like that man said tonight. I need you to clean up things. I've made an awful mess of my life. Can you do anything to help me? I'm here, God. Save me now like you said you would. I don't know how you do it, but go to it, God. Goodbye, Ted." [To a Different Drum, p215-6].
Many of us have prayed prayers like Ted's, although probably more lengthy, more full of theological language, more eloquent - but we shouldn't think they're more acceptable. We are no more saved than he. We haveeach alike called on the Godof sovereign grace for salvation.
The question Jonah asks us is this. Having called on him ourselves for a free salvation, how can we stand in the way of him offering it freely to anyone else?
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