I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 18, 2022.
So as we continue to look at Jonah, there is one small thing to get out of the way: that is, the part about the great fish. Because for some people, including people of faith, this part of the story makes Jonah an unbelievable story.
First, even if this where someone is coming from, that doesn’t actually change the main point of the story and what we can learn from it. Imagine for a moment if the book called itself a parable. We would still learn the same things.
But second, I’ll just say that if as people of faith we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, the same Jesus who healed the sick, cast out demons, walked on water, and multiplied the loaves and fish, we shouldn’t have any trouble with this story either.
I thought this was worth pointing out briefly because there are people who might dismiss Jonah or the Bible because of miracles or because of things that happen—that God does—that seem impossible to us.
And indeed, that God delivers us through his grace—that we have the God we do—might seem impossible too! But as we’ll see this week, Jonah shows how God will give us grace even in the deepest, darkest depths. No matter how far down we go, God can bring us out of it.
“I called to the Lord in my distress”
Speaking of down, notice how from the outset of the story, Jonah keeps going further and further down: Jonah went down to Joppa (1:3), he went down into the ship (1:3), Jonah went down to the lowest part of the vessel (1:5), he’s tossed down into the sea (1:15), he goes down into the belly of the great fish (1:17).
Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe puts it this way: “When you turn your back on God, the only direction you can go is down.” Needless to say, when we get to our passage, we find Jonah at his lowest point. He didn’t think he was coming back.
Listen to some of the language he uses: The water engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. Hope was gone.
In verse 2 we see him describe his prayer: I cried out for help from deep inside Sheol. Sheol was the Jewish realm of the dead or the grave. Now, Jonah wasn’t literally dead. Think of how someone will say, “I was as good as dead!” As far as Jonah knew, this was it.
Sometimes we have to come to the end of ourselves—of our own strength, wisdom, ingenuity, resources, skills—before we’re really willing to listen to God. We need to realize that whatever we’ve gotten ourselves into, and however we got ourselves there, that we can’t get ourselves out.
And this isn’t easy. Sometimes we need to be humbled—either a little or maybe even a lot—before we’ll admit to a mess we’ve made or admit how desperate we are. Doing so makes us vulnerable.
But Jonah certainly realized this. Finding himself sinking down to his death in a watery grave, he reached out to the only one who could help him. As it says in our passage, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Our passage is very much like a psalm. It’s a prayer Jonah wrote about his experience. In vivid detail he tells us what it was like when he was thrown into the sea. Look how it starts: I called to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me.
Elsewhere we read where he says: You heard my voice. Sounds like our opening Scripture from Psalm 40: I waited patiently for the Lord, and he turned to me and heard my cry for help.
And then: You raised my life from the pit. And Psalm 40 again: He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure.
We find similar words in Psalm 130: Out of the depths I call to you, Lord! Lord, listen to my voice; let your ears be attentive to my cry for help.
And when Jonah speaks of God’s deliverance, he’s talking about God appointing the great fish to swallow him. God rescues him from deep in the Mediterranean Sea and gives him a time to reflect, and a second chance to obey. We’ll look at that second chance next time.
But for now, perhaps we can say this: No matter how deep a hole we’re in, God can deliver us out of it. Wherever we find ourselves, however dark and deep it is, God doesn’t want to leave us there. There is hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Because of this we should never hesitate calling out to him. Remember what Jonah says? He answered me. You heard my voice. You raised my life from the pit.
We’re invited to pray to the very same God to whom Jonah prayed. We can seek help from the very same God. The very same God hears your voice when you cry out to him.
Let’s put it this way: When we find ourselves needing grace in the depths, God will hear our cries.
Let’s ask ourselves: What’s the lowest place you’ve ever found yourself in? Have you ever found yourself in such a place because of mistakes you’ve made? How did God deliver/rescue/save/ bring you up out of that situation?
“Salvation belongs to the Lord”
In the last line of his prayer, Jonah acknowledges: Salvation belongs to the Lord. In many ways, this is the theme of the book.
And when it says Salvation belongs to the Lord, it means only God can save. Not only that: it also means that who God saves and how God saves is up to God. That’s certainly a lesson Jonah needed to learn. We’ll see later if he learns it!
But Jonah certainly couldn’t save himself. He needed deliverance but he couldn’t provide it. That’s true of the Ninevites. And it’s also true of you and me. Salvation belongs to the Lord. This is why it’s so important to know what this God is like and why we can trust him.
That’s why it’s key to bring ourselves back to what Jonah says about God’s character in the last chapter of the book. There he says this: I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster (4:2).
The truth is this: God’s saving action is rooted in God’s gracious character. God saves because God loves. God rescues because he is compassionate. God delivers because he wants us alive and well and in his presence.
In fact, God loves us so much that he will bring us to a place where are desperate enough to reach out to him. Remember what we said last week? God will speak into our lives in whatever way necessary to get our attention. Jonah is at least beginning to get this into his head.
Charles Stanley puts it this way: “The dark moments of our life will last only as long as is necessary for God to accomplish his purpose in us.” Including allowing Jonah to find himself plunging into the depths of the sea.
In his prayer, Jonah says I have been banished from your sight. But God was always present, always there, and always had his merciful eyes on Jonah. Again, we need to remember: God always acts according to his love and compassion. He is always seeking to draw us nearer to him. He will even use our lowest points to get us to listen and to open our ears to his voice.
Remember: God gives us grace in the depths because of who he is.
So let’s ask: When life is really difficult, is it sometimes easy to forget what God is like? Do we forget that he cares for us and can help us? How have you needed God’s compassion and grace? How might you need it these days? Are your ears open to hear his voice? What do you think he wants to say to you?
“I will sacrifice to you”
In the prayer, Jonah also expresses what he will do in response to God’s deliverance. In verse 9 he says: But as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed.
Now what’s important about the sacrifice Jonah refers to here is that it is the “fellowship” or “peace” offering prescribed in the OT law. [S] The reasons for this particular sacrifice are: 1) to give thanks to God for his unsought generosity; 2) to accompany a vow that has been fulfilled; 3) and to give thanks for God’s deliverance in an hour of dire need.
And doesn’t that speak to what God has done here for Jonah? God certainly showed him generosity beyond measure. He definitely delivered Jonah in an hour of dire need! And Jonah also mentions this sacrifice in the same verse as fulfilling a vow to God (perhaps to be faithful to his prophetic call?).
Jonah wrote these words—offered this prayer—because he was thankful for God’s gracious, generous deliverance. He responded to God’s deliverance with thanksgiving. He sought to worship God, to be in his presence.
And he promised to fulfill a vow. The whole idea of Jonah’s vow means there is a commitment involved. There’s a commitment he’s made that he needs to fulfill. It requires obedience.
Maybe we can put it this way: When God delivers us, our lives should show it. Because like Jonah, when God rescues us—often from ourselves!—we have plenty to be thankful about.
But showing it should be the natural overflow of a grateful heart. We don’t follow God only because we should but because we want to do so. While our response to God’s grace towards us is always imperfect, we should obey more out of delight than duty.
So: Because God has given us grace in the depths, our lives should lift his name to the heights. And just as Jonah made a commitment to fulfill what I have vowed we too should, because of God’s gracious deliverance, commit our lives expressing our thanks.
So: How do we respond to God’s gracious deliverance in our lives? Based on what God has done for us, what should our lives look like? Are our lives ones of thanksgiving, worship and obedience to God?
So Jonah found himself in the depths. And finding himself at the lowest of lows, he called out for God to rescue him. And what happened? God answered his prayer! God delivered Jonah! Did he deserve God’s grace? Did God owe Jonah his mercy? No! Because he found himself where he was because of his disobedience. He ran from God. Or he tried.
My point here is that God doesn’t offer us help—he doesn’t rescue us—when we deserve it. God steps into our lives—into our circumstances—when we’re the ones who’ve made a mess of things.
Jonah experienced grace in the depths. This is because he called out to a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love. And we can too. No matter where we find ourselves and how we got there. This same God is here with us now. This same God hears us when we cry out for help.