We are beginning 2011 in the belly of a fish. Jonah, God’s prophet, ran away when God told him to preach to his enemies. This is the equivalent of a Jew during WWII going to Berlin to talk to Hitler to tell him that God loved him. It would be unheard of! So Jonah ran. God said to go east and he went west, to Tarshish, which was the furthest west known to man in Jonah’s day.
But Jonah started to realize that no matter where he ran to, God was already there, pursuing him. We can run from God, but we cannot outrun God. So God sends a storm as an intervention and not a punishment, to get to Jonah, who was sleeping in the darkest corner of the bottom of the ship. God tries to speak through the captain to wake him up, which we saw was not just a physical wake-up call for Jonah, but a spiritual one as well. God then tries to get to Jonah by speaking through the sailors. Jonah still does not repent or own up to who he is and what he’s had done. Finally Jonah says, “I would rather die than obey God.” As a result, the sailors are forced to hurl Jonah overboard and the storm finally stops.
You know, when you run from God, you can end up in the strangest of places! And in our story, everything has happened so fast. That is also God’s mercy in Jonah’s life. For some of us, one small choice to run from God in one area at age 20 and sometimes it takes 40 years before we realize how far we have drifted and how deep we have plunged. That is a scarier and harder place to be. The consequences could be frightening, but no matter what, we will see that God still meets us in the darkest of places.
Jonah’s been running and God finally slows him down. Not that Jonah was outrunning God as we saw last time, but God needed to get Jonah’s attention. God didn’t need Jonah, but Jonah needed God and God is relentless in His pursuit to get Jonah’s attention.
One of the things that I always feel, especially in the holiday season, is that everything is calling for my attention to which I surrender to, except God’s attention. Imagine if it was your birthday party, but no one came to tell you happy birthday, acknowledged you or give you a gift, but gave gifts to each other at the party? I feel like that happens every Christmas. I know God is always calling me to slow me down to turn to Him; to give Him my attention. But sometimes you lose yourself in all of it and do not know how to get back to what’s important. What do you do when you have made a mess of life and don’t know where or how to get yourself to get back to where God wants you to be?
Unfortunately the pattern in life is always the same. We make bad choices and as a result, we eventually get broken down. You can only go for so long with the gas light on. And once we sputter and stop, after the breakdown, then we cry out to God. And from that breakdown, if we let Him, God then in His mercy causes a breakthrough. Now one of the things I have learned over the years is not to despair over these breakdowns, but to rejoice in the fact that our breakdowns are times of opportunity to know the depth of our need and sin, but to also know and experience the depth of His love and grace as well (which we will discuss later). Obviously I am not preaching the sin more to experience grace more (Rom. 6:1) doctrine, but I am saying that God does not waste anything and we can always learn and grow more and more, even with our failures.
And sometimes we may receive a better grasp of truths we have known for so long during those times. And that is what has happened to Jonah. Jonah knew some things in his head and preached it to others, but now Jonah’s made a mess of himself and has no where to look, except upward. Yet God will meet Jonah where he was and take him into another level with him. It is this process I want to look at today, that is, from breakdowns to breakthroughs. How does God meet us and take us from the messes we have often made to the places He wants us to be?
Well, first of all:
I. Our breakdowns help us to lay down (Jon. 1:17)
Look at Jon. 1:17. We left Jonah with his choice to die. And again we have a “And the Lord…” phrase. Again, I really don’t know how many times there is an “And the Lord” interjection in the story of our lives. All of us would not be here if that never happened! The Lord is always intervening in our lives. We never want to ask God to leave us alone. That would truly be punishment!
Here we see that God “appointed” a great fish to swallow up Jonah. We get some clues in Jonah 2 that Jonah, after being thrown overboard, had sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean, got tangled up in seaweed when God sent His rescue vessel to swallow Jonah up. Again this is intervention, not punishment. There is no indication that the sailors saw this fish and so they must have assumed that Jonah was dead. Notice the word “appointed” in Jon. 4:6-8. In this story, the fish, the plant, the worm and the wind are all appointed by God and they obey, almost rebuking God’s prophet who’s good at disobeying. This verb is used with the meaning “special assignment” or “ordain.” God calls this large fish to serve Him at the appointed time and the appointed place. God is sovereign over every detail of every large fish of life that swallows us up. I don’t want to get into what kind of fish; whether it was a sperm whale or a whale shark or how even Jonah survived within it. God made it all, so He can do the miraculous and create an animal to swallow a man alive and keep its gastric juices from digesting him!
I’m sure we have all eaten bad fish, but what do you call a fish eats a bad prophet? I wonder if the fish got sick? It might have since the text says in Jon. 2:10 that he “vomited” Jonah up! Anyway, Jonah’s choices end up in a place where he is powerless and helpless. And that is the best place to be with the Lord! R. T. Kendall says it well: “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.” It’s a good place to learn because there is not a lot to do inside of a fish and nowhere to run. But it is certainly not a resort. Bob Deffinbaugh notes, “As Jonah regained consciousness, imagine the horror of his first sensations: the feel of the stomach lining of the fish pressing about him; irritation of the acidic stomach juices of the fish beginning to bleach his skin; the foul smell of the place; the passing-through of the normal diet of the fish; the darkness of this place.”
Why a fish you think? Rosemary Nixon in her excellent commentary postulates the possibility of God sending a bird to sweep down and transport Jonah to dry land. Or a heavenly chariot like Elijah had to rescue him. Nixon believes the fish is the best vehicle to use here as she observes, “The Lord does not usually protect us from the consequences of our own choices and actions. In his faithfulness and graciousness towards us, Yahweh comes with us into the consequences of our choices in order to save us there. Jonah had chosen the sea as his escape route; it is there that the Lord awaits him.”
God does not take us out of our messes, but meets us in them. And after we have made a mess of the situation and we take our hands off, while we finally break down, we can then lay down. This is the lowest place Jonah can go. It is the place of death. But it is precisely the place where God meets him. We are told the duration of his stay: three days and three nights. The point of this information is to let us know that being devoid of food and water, he was near death.
We are not sure if he prays the prayer in Jonah 2 after the three days as we should not press the “then” in Jon. 2:1 too much since the Hebrew could also mean “and.” So we are not sure if he was angry and rebellious for three days or if he was repenting and we just have a little snapshot of his prayer? Nevertheless, the point is that Jonah’s breakdown enabled him to stop running, as he was forced to lay down.
Our times of breakdown are so good for us. Breakdowns cause us to lay down before the Lord. By lay down, I mean to have serious reflection about our walk and life. For example, I have always joked with you that I always thought I was a nice and peaceful guy until I got married. And now that I have kids, I have seen even deeper how much anger I have. And I can despair at this breakdown, which I have done at times, or I can lay down before the Lord and tell him: “Any control of anger I have, any peace in my heart comes from you. I don’t have it on my own.” Most of us think we are pretty good with some quirks or bad habits. But as C.S. Lewis says, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” Breakdowns reveal the depth of our sin and rebelliousness.
I would add that most of us are always busy or try to look busy. We waste time with materialism or meaninglessness. Really in doing so, we are always looking for a Savior. And when we make saviors out of entertainment, relationships or our friends or our children or our careers, they will fail us. And when they do, that realization is where God is trying to get our attention. God meets us there to show us there is only one Savior. So don’t be upset if you had a bad week. Don’t worry that thing if that was functioning as your Savior has failed you. Don’t even let it consume you that you have failed the Lord. Breakdowns help you to lay down. It is this moment you can tell the Lord, “Lord, I am more of a coward than I originally thought. I am more superficial than ever. I am more of a greedy, selfish consumer than I ever imagined I would be at this point.” It is there God wants to meet you. But we cannot stop merely at this self-realization. We cannot simply lay down. So secondly,
II. Our laydowns help us to look up (Jon. 2:1-7)
Notice Jonah 2:1. If I was editing this, I would have added: “finally.” But don’t miss this phrase: “to the LORD his God.” God is still His God, though Jonah forsook Him, fled from Him, refused to pray to Him, rebelled against Him and wanted to die than to obey Him, God is still his God. Aren’t you glad that no matter what we have done or will do, God is still not ashamed to call Himself as your God?
Jonah was broken down, laid down now in the belly of the fish, but when you lay down, what is the only place you can look? Up! No more running. No more excuses. Jonah has nothing left, except God. The Psalm has come true: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Ps. 139:7-8).
Jonah then pens his own psalm here in thanksgiving and praise. Interestingly, he is not asking God to get him out of the fish, but thanking God for delivering him from drowning by sending the fish. Remember that running from God is to choose death. You are going to die inwardly since God is our life and source of life. And Jonah had gotten the lowest of the low before God saved him. And when the fish swallowed him, he was in a tomb. Notice the phrase: “belly of Sheol.” “Sheol” is a Hebrew word that can mean “hell.” When you run from God that is what life will eventually be, a hell.
But God can turn tombs into wombs. When you are broken down and finally lay down to look up to the Lord, no matter how bad you’ve been or how dark a place you’ve gotten yourself to, God can transform that “place of death” into a place of new life. He might not take you out of the tomb, but He can certainly transform the tomb into a womb. This is what God does for Jonah as Jonah looks up.
How do you look up to the Lord when you have been laid down by Him? Notice here:
a) Look up by embracing God’s Word again
Jonah’s psalm here is a collection of various psalms he knew from God’s Word. God’s Word becomes real and relevant to him again. That is where he finds confidence, hope, motivation, urgency, power, etc. All of his passion here is fueled by God’s Word.
I can testify to this truth. I have been feeling dry spiritually of late. And I know when I don’t feel like being in God’s Word is when I should be in it. So earlier this week, I read some passages and I remember being encouraged by Zeph. 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” I was so blessed by that. Later, I was putting Abbie down for the night and usually we have a routine where after prayer, she would request a song and I would sing it and dance to it. It’s nothing great by any means, but I love being goofy to see her smile and laugh. Afterward, I had some worship music on and was singing to the Lord when suddenly Zeph. 3:17. It hit me really hard. God rejoices over me. He sings over me! Wow. Even me! I was quieted by His love. See, if I wasn’t in God’s Word or in worship I would not have been able to make that connection. God wants to get His Word to you. You might be asking God to help you be a better student, spouse, parent and God wants to speak to you about those things, but if you are never in His Word, how will He get that message to you? Here Jonah finally speaks to the Lord again and God’s Word is nourishing him. Get back into His Word!
b) Look up even in our guilt
Sometimes we might feel so guilty for not being in God’s Word or prayer or not walking as we ought to walk. We may have guilt from sin we have committed. We might think God is like, “Don’t even think about praying to me after running away like that. Don’t even think I want to hear from you!” But is that what God is like? But even in Jonah’s guilt here, he experiences God hearing his prayer. “I called out to the LORD,” He prays. Even the LORD who I turned by back on hears me! I cried out to Him, sometimes without words, but He heard my voice, Jonah realizes.
Notice also that Jonah says that God threw him overboard in Jon. 2:3: “For YOU cast me into the deep.” In other words, it is right God that I should die for my sin. I should be punished. Notice again in Jon. 2:3: “YOUR waves and YOUR billows.” The water was God’s servant to rightly punish Jonah, but somehow beneath the waves, there was love. And we know God doesn’t punish us for our sin because Jesus took our punishment. What Jonah saw a glimpse of we see in full, that is, God’s amazing love beneath our sin.
Do not let guilt stop you from praying. He is waiting for you to look at Him, to call out to Him and pray. God meets you right where you are. There is love beneath the waves of guilt. Our sins reach far, but His grace reaches farther. Our sins are deep, but His love runs deeper!
c) Look up even in impossible situations
Jonah sees God hurling him into the sea in Jon. 2:3: “You cast me into the deep.” He was in an impossible circumstance. Notice the extremity of his situation in Jon. 2:5-6: “the waters closed in over 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.” It would be one thing to fall overboard when the sea was calm. It is another to be thrown over where 20 to 30 foot waves come at you and you know you’re done for. Did you notice that God allowed things to move from bad to worse to impossible for Jonah, before He sent the fish. Why? I think it is so that God can get all the glory. Notice Jon. 2:9; “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” It’s all you God! Jonah takes no credit here for being alive. Call out to the Lord even when you do not believe, see any change up ahead or even if you know things cannot change. God specializes in the impossible. Look up to Him and pray.
d) Look up in hope
Notice a couple of times in this chapter that Jonah mentions the temple (Jon. 2:4 and 2:7). Once he ran away from the Lord, thinking he would never be allowed ever in the place where God’s presence dwelled. But the Lord replaces his despair with hope that Jonah will be praising Him with his people again. God is a God of living hope. Hope says, “I was so lost, God, but you have not given up on me. My days ahead are good because you are with me! I will not give up or let up!” Jonah realized if God loved him so much to plunge to the bottom of the deepest sea to rescue him out of a mess he himself had created, surely he had purposes for him he had yet to see and understand.
Beloved, it is good to look up to God. Don’t let guilt stop you. Don’t let the impossibility of the situation stop you. When you look up, you are embracing His Word and standing on His promises with hope. Jonah is very thankful that though he has been broken down and laid down, it was the best place to be, because laying down helped him to look up to God! Then lastly,
III. Breakdowns are for our breakthroughs (Jon. 2:8-10)
God does not intend for us to be broken down and laid down simply to end with us looking up at God. No, he wants to take us deeper with Him into the next level. So our breakdowns in life are to prepare us for a breakthrough. What is the breakthrough that God wanted for Jonah? Look at the last verses of Jonah 2.
Notice the phrase: “steadfast love.” This is the Hebrew word “hesed.” I love this word as you know! It refers to God’s faithful, covenant love for His people. For Jonah, this meant only for Israel. Here in Jon. 2:8, however, he realizes when unbelievers (he is probably thinking of both the Ninevites and the sailors) pray to idols, they are losing their opportunity to experience God’s covenant, faithful, undying, relentless, committed love for them. Wait! What is Jonah implying here then? He is implying that God has covenant love for Gentiles as well as for the Jews! This was a huge breakthrough for Jonah. Bigotry of his heart has been replaced by God’s heart for mission.
What transformed Jonah here? It has to be grace. Well, Jonah knew about grace already as God’s prophet and it is actually one of the main things he will accuse God for in Jon. 4:2. However, here in Jon. 2, he has grasped grace in a deeper level as he has experienced grace for himself.
I would recommend to you today that every breakthrough God wants for your life will come through the method and means of grace. Grace is what started your Christian walk and grace is what will help you continue in it and the vehicle for a breakthrough in your life to walk closer and deeper with the Lord. What do I mean by grace? Tim Keller, the favorite preacher around these parts these days, says, “Grace is the undeserved gift of an unobligated giver.” He explains this by giving some case studies. Let’s say you may be in a situation where you give an underserved gift to someone, but you are obligated to so, like being a parent of a disobedient, rebellious teenager. Or you may be in a situation where you have a great teacher (or pastor) where upon their service the class (or church) decides to give him/her a special gift. However, though they may deserve it, you are not obligated to give them something.
But let’s say you lived in an apartment building where a neighbor tends to put music on at a really high volume. When you stop by to ask him to turn it down, he closes the door on your face. Then anytime anyone turns on the music at all in your building, he calls the police. Then let’s say he gets sick. But you run errands for him and clean his apartment and buy him dinner. That would be grace. Those are undeserved gifts by a completely unobligated giver. Keller goes on to say that most of us struggle with either one or both of those components and that is the reason for the lack of spiritual transformation. Either we don’t see the depth of our need as we think we are not that bad (I’m ok) or we don’t see the depth of His love and commitment to us (I’m too bad and undeserving for God to love me). Both are cases of unbelief. We don’t believe we need Him to save us or we don’t believe we are worthy of saving. But the gospel says, I’m such a bad sinner that Jesus had to die for me, but I’m such a loved sinner that Jesus wanted to die for me.
We all may know that and agree to that, but God wants it to burn it in our blood deeper and deeper as we grow in Him. The breakthrough for Jonah was a breakthrough of God’s grace. And that did not come if it had not been for the breakdown in his life. Notice he ends by basically saying, “I will be obedient Lord to go wherever you want me to go. Grace has freed me. Grace has changed me. I will do whatever you want me to do. I am yours Lord and I understand that salvation belongs to you, so you can save whoever you want.” And when God accomplished what He wanted in Jonah for that time, the fish once again obeys the LORD and vomits out Jonah on to dry land.
Now something concerns me in this psalm. I am not sure if I see real repentance in Jonah. Do you? Is Jonah simply thankful that he’s not dead and not really dealing with the real issue? I am not sure. Right now I am leaning towards pro-repentance and pro-Jonah. Perhaps he had acknowledged his sin, but it is not recorded in detail here? But why was it excluded then? It will be interesting to discuss this. Come to Sunday School next week! But regardless, see God’s grace in Jonah’s life breaking through in getting him to the place God wanted him to be.
As we close, I don’t know if you feel like you are a mess spiritually. I feel like that sometimes. I don’t know where to begin with God or to begin again with God after wandering and running. But Jonah 2 tells that no matter how dark a place I’m in, I can lay down and look up to God. If that’s you, open up God’s Word again and speak to Him from the belly of the problem and mess. I am also wondering if we really understand grace. I don’t know if we will completely understand it, but I do know God longs for us to know Him and His grace deeper than we do now. I want him to take me to the next level of grace, but I think we need to first confess our unbelief. Do I truly believe that I am worth saving? Or do I truly believe that I need saving at all? Even today after I have accepted Jesus, do I still need this grace? This will be the barrier that keeps from breaking through. Really search your heart this morning. Do I believe Jesus loves me despite my unworthiness? But I am still thankful that we have a God more willing to show us grace than we are to receive it. May His Spirit grant us the grace to even receive His amazing grace.
Bruckner, J. (2004). The NIV Application Commentary: Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (50). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. (241).
Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Psalm of the Prodigal Prophet,” http://bible.org/seriespage/psalm-prodigal-prophet-jonah-21-10 accessed 24 December 2010.
Nixon, R. (127).
Lewis, C.S (1952, 2001). Mere Christianity (56). New York: Harper Collins.
Tchividjian, T (66).
A sermon by Dr. Timothy Keller, “Those who cling…forfeit the grace,” preached Sept. 30, 2001 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.