August 9, 2020 – In The Belly of the Beast – Missio Dei 5 – Jonah 2
In the Belly of the Beast
The Rev. Jay Traylor
Jonah chapter 2 is our text this morning. Here’s one way God speaks to his people through this book. Jonah disobeys God, is lost, and yet God rescues him.
This is one of those Bible stories that almost everyone has heard of, even if it’s only the title. Jonah and the Whale. Jonah and the Great Fish. And if that’s all you know about Jonah, you might think that getting swallowed by the fish is the climax of the book. Now, the book of Jonah is pretty short, but most of it takes place AFTER he gets swallowed by the fish and then spit out onto the shore. It’s really a book about God’s mission to redeem his world, and what our part in it looks like.
We’re starting in Jonah 2, so here’s a minute on Jonah 1, on what came before this. Jonah is a prophet of the Lord, living in Israel, probably in the northern kingdom, near the city of Samaria. And God spoke to Jonah and said, “I want you to go to Nineveh and call them to repent!” And Jonah IMMEDIATELY goes down to the sea and heads to Tarshish. Now, no matter where you are standing in Israel, the great city of Nineveh was to the northeast, one kingdom over. And the city of Tarshish, well, there’s some debate as to where it was, because there might have been a few of them. But it’s most likely that it was either in Morocco or Spain. Basically, as far west as you could go in the known world at that time. So Jonah hears the word of God saying, “Your mission is to head northeast and preach my word.” And immediately he literally tries to run as far in the opposite direction as possible. It would be as if God said to me, “Jay, you need to go to Washington DC to preach my word,” and in response, I immediately jumped in my car and tore off for California.
But God’s plan is not going to be thwarted by the impetuous plan of one of his prophets. So a great storm comes up on the Mediterranean and the sailors, who were not God-fearers themselves, saw the storm as divine punishment or corrective, and they figure out that it’s Jonah causing the trouble, and they toss him over the side. Then, God sends a great fish to SAVE him, to swallow him, and Jonah stays, alive, inside this enormous fish, for 3 days.
That’s a major misconception in Jonah – “We tend to think of it like: God tells Jonah GO HERE, and Jonah hops on a boat to go THERE instead, so God punishes him by sending a fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah disobeys, God punishes Jonah by putting him into time-out for 3 days in the belly of a fish. Jonah repents, says he’s sorry, God forgives him, God lets Jonah live. But the fish isn’t God’s punishment. The fish is God’s RESCUE! God told Jonah his plans and his mission for Jonah. Jonah tried to do something else. God said, “NO, I told you to go THAT WAY” and throws up a big storm. Jonah was thrown overboard by the sailors, and left to drown, but God sent the fish to SAVE him.”
And so we come to Jonah chapter 2. From within the belly of this great fish, Jonah prays this prayer. And it sounds a LOT like Psalm 40 or Psalm 130 – a man crying out to God.
Jonah is in the “belly of Sheol” which means he is saying that he is in what the ancient israelites used to refer to as “the land of the dead.” It’s not quite Hell, it’s just… where the dead go when they die. He says ““I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.” But what’s interesting here is that even now Jonah recognizes that the fish is not the punishment, the fish was his salvation. He is saying, “I cried out to you as I was drowning, and you saved me.” He already knew that God had provided rescue. He says in verse 4, “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’” He KNEW that God was a forgiving and redeeming God. We find out later in the book, this is LITERALLY why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Because he knew that it was God’s nature to forgive and redeem.
See, Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria. Assyria had been bullying and troubling Israel for years. They were the greater power, they could push Israel around. And as a result, Israel did not particarulyar like Assyria. I don’t know if you were bullied in school. I was. There’s a couple of guys who, if I met them today, I’d have a hard time shaking their hand or being kind to them. They probably have no memory of me, but we always tend to remember the bigger kids who hurt us, rather than we remember the littler kids who we hurt. Anyway, Assyria has been taking Israel’s lunch money for years. And God says to Jonah, “go to Assyria and preach repentance. Tell them to repent of their deeds.” And Jonah KNEW, and we find this out in Chapter 4, he KNEW that if they repented God would forgive them. AND JONAH. DID. NOT. WANT. THEM. To be forgiven. He wanted them to suffer. He wanted the bully to get their comeuppance. But he KNEW the character of God, and so he thought he could get in the way of the mission of God by messing with the plans of God.
But God is in control. God is in control over the people on Nineveh, over the people of Israel, over the boat, the fish, and the storm. God is in control last night when, it seems, about half our houses were taking on water, when Beverly Street and Augusta Street were turning into rivers, when some families in town lost their homes because the foundation failed and the water was too high.
The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Jonah knew that he had been saved, and that he had been saved FOR A PURPOSE. He resolved to again participate in the mission of God and, after trying to flee as far as he could from the presence of God and the purposes of God, he went to Nineveh. He went there and he preached the word of repentance that God had told him to preach. “In 40 days, Nineveh, if you don’t repent, God will destroy you.” And they DID repent, exactly as Jonah feared. And God DID forgive them and spare them, exactly as Jonah had feared. Jonah wanted to see Nineveh punished. How often do we want grace for ourselves but punishment for others?
In trying to keep the wicked people of Nineveh from finding redemption through God, Jonah was turning into someone just like the wicked people of Nineveh. And yet, God redeemed him. This is why Jesus himself talks about Jonah in the Gospels. In Matthew 12:38-41, it says “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But Jesus answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
Jesus is the greater Jonah. Where Jonah ran from the plans of God, Jesus willing ran TOWARD the plans of God. Jonah was tossed overboard to save others, Jesus was lifted up high on a cross to save others. God rescued Jonah by keeping him in the belly of the fish for 3 days, and then spat out onto dry land. Jesus was dead in the ground 3 days, and then God resurrected him. The story of Jonah points forward to the story of Jesus.
And also, it has something to say to all Christians: at the beginning of this passage, this prayer, Jonah says that out of the deep he cried out to God, and God saved him. Why did he wait until things were literally as bad as they could get? Why, when the storm came up and the pagan sailors on the boat said, “Cry out to your God and maybe he’ll save us,” why did Jonah not pray? Why did he think that hiding from God would actually WORK? You know, Gus has discovered hide and seek. One of his favorite places to hide is under a blanket on the couch. With his whole legs and feet sticking out. Because he’s two, and he legit thinks that if he can’t see us, we can’t see him. This is Jonah. Jonah thinks he can run and hide from the creator of the universe. And then when these nonbelievers say, “Why don’t you pray?” Jonah doesn’t. Maybe he thought that he could ride it out; maybe he was ashamed. We don’t know. But there is never any reason to not run to God. Do not wait until it’s catastrophic. Do not wait until you’re overboard. Know that whatever it is, that God is the same God who redeemed and restored the Ninevaites who had beaten up his chosen people for years. Run to God.