Jonah's Breath and God's Compassion (Jonah 1:17-2:10)
Topic: Jonah Passage: Jonah 1:17–2:10
Jonah: Fleeing or Following the Heart of God
Jonah's Breath and God's Compassion
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
January 3rd, 2015
I. God's Wide-Open Heart
This morning, as with every Sunday morning, we have the astounding privilege of hearing from the One who made us; from the God who spoke the universe into existence; from the God who sustains everything by the word of His power. How do we hear from God? We listen to the word He gave us, the word He preserved for all generations in the Bible.
Take your Bible (or one we've provided) and look with me at Jonah chapter 2. As we come back to the book of Jonah, it's absolutely critical we review what God showed us last week. If you were with us or listened online, you may remember that we learned how God commissioned Jonah the prophet to go the city of Nineveh and warn the Assyrians about the evil path they were on.
But surprisingly, Jonah, a prophet of the God of Israel, actually ran away and tried to get away from God's call. He did this by getting on a Mediterranean boat bound for a distant coastland. Jonah knew the God he served was (1:9) “the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land”. But I believe Jonah was hoping that God would simply choose another prophet to carry the message to Nineveh. But he was wrong.
The majority of chapter 1 tells us how God sent a powerful storm that nearly sank the ship on which Jonah traveled. The crew made every attempt to escape, but finally did what Jonah knew they must do: throw him overboard into the raging waters.
But the most important idea I hope you took away from last week is directly connected to the reason Jonah ran away from God and God's mission: he simply did not want to do anything that might benefit the Assyrians, who were the regional bullies and enemies of Israel. God made it clear He cared about the Assyrians and wanted them to turn away from their evil. God made it clear His hear is wide-open, that He cares for all people. But Jonah ran from the heart of God. Jonah: God's compassion is wonderful, but only when it is for “us” and not “them”.
And as we talked about last time, we're not unlike Jonah. We also run from God's heart, don't we? Like Jonah, we often run to pride, indifference, or unforgiveness, instead of compassion.
II. The Passage: "You Brought Up My Life" (1:17-2:10)
So as we resume this study, we have to ask, “What will God do with a runner like Jonah?” He has pursued the fleeing prophet across the seas, and driven him into the churning waters. But for anyone reading Jonah for the first time, things seem pretty bleak. At this point it seems very hard to understand how God can take someone who flees His heart and turn him into someone who follows His heart. But that's exactly what he is doing and this is how He does it.
Consider God's strategy as we read, actually beginning with the last verse of chapter 1. This is where the story gets really 'fishy'. Instead of Jonah sinking into the watery depths, we read in 1:17...
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. [2:1] Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish,  saying, “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.  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.  Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’  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!”  And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Do you see what God is doing here? God did not punish Jonah by consigning him to a watery grave. No, God had...compassion on Jonah. Compassion. Do you understand? The very heart from which Jonah ran was the very heart which appointed that fish...ahead of time (maybe as soon as the storm began). The very heart from which Jonah ran was the very heart which made sure Jonah was preserved for three days under the surface of the water. The very compassion from which Jonah ran was the very compassion which saw fit to deliver Jonah back to dry land.
How does God turn a runner? He makes him or her into a recipient. When we run from being agents of God's compassion, God runs TO us with His compassion. It is a personal experience of, it is a renewed sense of, the goodness of God's mercy that puts us back on the right path, headed in the right direction. That's what Jonah needed. That's what we need.
And chapter 2 can help us immensely in this regard. How? Well notice that 1:17 does not go straight to 2:10. Instead we have been given a prayer, a prayer Jonah prayed while inside the fish whom God used to save his life (which I wouldn't advise trying to do; this was clearly a miracle). So did Jonah actually compose this poetic work while stuffed in a fish's stomach? Maybe? Did Jonah simply use a psalm he already knew, one that seemed especially fitting for his experience? Maybe. The psalm or prayer is general enough and similar enough to other prayers in the book of Psalms to stand by itself.
We simply don't know the answer to those questions. All we know is the literary work we know as Jonah includes this beautiful prayer. And if it didn't, we would not have an amazing window into the heart of this prophet who ran. I think Jonah's prayer reminds us of four things we should also remember as those who often run from God's heart. For example...
1. Runners Must Remember How Bad It Once Was
Most of the verses in chapter two describe the terrible ordeal Jonah underwent.
When Jonah was thrown overboard, what do you think he believed about his fate? I'm guessing he believed God was punishing him for his disobedience. The judge's sentence? Death by drowning!
Look at how Jonah describes his fate: he was (v. 2) in “distress”. He was (v. 2) in “the belly of Sheol [the grave]”. Verses 3 and 4: 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. Verses 5 and 6: 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... Verse 7, his “life was fainting away”.
It must have been a terrifying experience. But we also see here that...
2. Runners Must Remember How God Answers
Jonah's prayer tells us that in the midst of his frightening ordeal (however long it lasted), Jonah cried out to God. Even though Jonah believed he was under the judgment of God, he directed his faith-filled cries to heaven. Verse 4: Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon [or better, toward] your holy temple.’ As he sank down, Jonah (v.7) remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. What was the result? Verse 2: “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.” As we see in the end of verse 6, God “brought up [his] life from the pit”.
And we know the strange way God delivered Jonah, don't we. He (1:17) “appointed a great fish to swallow” him. Because God is a compassionate God, because His heart is wide-open, Jonah was heard. And not only was he heard, he was saved, rescued, preserved, delivered. But there's more here. We also see here that...
3. Runners Must Remember It's All of God
As Jonah laid there, wrapped in seaweed, curled up in the smelly stomach of that fish, he knew there was only one reason he was safe. It was (v. 8) the “steadfast love” of God. As verse 9 puts it “Salvation belongs to the Yahweh!” There is nowhere else to run, there is no one else who can truly deliver us. Jonah is not looking to “vain idols”, like the sailors were doing on that battered ship.
He had no other hope. The sailors had no other hope. Nineveh had no other hope. We have no other hope. “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” But there's one more thing we learn here...
4. Runners Must Remember the Right Response
Did you notice what Jonah tells us about how he responded to God's compassionate rescue? We see that in verse 9. He prayed...
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.
The right response to God's compassion is gratefulness. The right response to God's compassion is giving our heart to Him in light of his heart. The right response is committing myself to His commission. As we will see in chapter 3, this is precisely what Jonah did. Maybe that is the vow he made in the fish's gut.
There is a right response when God rescues, and it certainly is not running away from the heart that secured one's salvation.
III. Renewing Our Vows
So think for a minute about how you are like Jonah. Think about the times you run from the wide-open heart of God. Is it that difficult boss or employee? Is it that deadly terrorist group? Is it that disrespectful neighbor or divisive political leader? Maybe it's a distant spouse. Maybe it's a dysfunctional family member or a demeaning parent.
Whoever it might be me, all of us know there are people for whom we are not inclined to pray; people we do not want to love or forgive or help. These are the Ninevites in your life. These are the people we would rather run from than to. No, we don't literally run. But we do avoid; we ignore; we gossip; we criticize; we judge; we stay indifferent; we stay embittered; and then we rationalize all of it, sometimes with religious rationales.
But God calls us to be like Jonah, not in a Jonah chapter 1 kind of way; but according to the pattern of Jonah chapter 2.
Let me ask you this: why do people renew their wedding vows? I know each situation is a little different, but I think what most of those couples have in common is a deep desire to remember the love they experienced at first, and how that love led them to a life-long commitment. Maybe a couple feels they are drifting apart. Maybe a couple has gone through some personal tragedy. Whatever the reason, renewing their vows is an attempt to rekindle or reclaim something precious and powerful.
Follower of Jesus, shouldn't that same impulse be in your heart? When I run from the heart of God for all people, it means that in some way, I have forgotten the heart of God for one person: for me.
When you are drifting away from your devotion to Christ, when you are distracted by life, when you are consumed with putting out fires right and left, when the world's enticements are locked on you like a Star Wars “tractor beam”, it's easy to lost sight of the love of God you experienced at first. It's so easy to take for granted that precious and powerful compassion God poured out into your life. That's why we need to be renewed by remembering.
For the ancient Israelites who read Jonah, I believe God wanted them to remember Abraham, and Moses, and David, and all the ways God was merciful to them, and the grace that made them His people in the first place. Remember what God told them after he liberated them from slavery in Egypt?
...The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples,  but it is because the LORD loves you... (Deuteronomy 7:6b-8a)
But for us as followers of Jesus, we should go back to the gospel, right? We have to go straight back to the Good News about Jesus Christ. I was reminded the other day that, at some point in the future, our praises before the throne of God will echo Jonah's prayer: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne...and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10)
And who is the “Lamb” mentioned there? Jesus Christ. As I mentioned before, Jonah's prayer reminds us of four things we should also remember as those who often run from God's heart.
Runners must remember how bad it once was. Do you remember what it felt like to be a slave to self and sin? Do you remember what it felt like to have no hope, in life or in death? Do you remember what it felt like to be so angry or so scared or so prideful or so lost? Do you remember what it felt like to know you were guilty before God? Guilty of ignoring Him; guilty of hurting other people; guilty of such destructive self-centeredness? But we also know...
Runners must remember how God answers. Do you remember how it felt to know God cared? What it felt like to be forgiven and accepted? To be rescued from that life of emptiness and despair? Do you remember what it felt like to know Jesus died in your place, and that He wanted you; that God wanted you to be His child; to be with Him forever? But we also know...
Runners must remember how it's all of God. Do you remember...do you remember that you were saved by God and God alone; by His grace; that it isn't something you deserve? Do you remember how everything else you tried failed? Finally...
Runners must remember the right response. As you are renewed in the memory of how much God loves you and what He did for you, and what He is doing now to care for you and carry you to himself one day, do you feel that impulse of gratitude and submission? Do you remember how you once committed yourself to the One who proved His commitment to you by suffering and dying for you on the cross?
Brothers and sisters, it's no wonder Paul gave Timothy this simple advice: Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel... (II Timothy 2:8) Did Paul really think Timothy would forget? Yes. He knew all of us can, in a very tragic way, forget Jesus. Of course, Jonah's experience was always intended to ultimately point us to Jesus. Jesus himself spoke of 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.” (Matthew 12:40)
When God puts people on your path, people you are tempted to run from in regard to God's heart, God's compassion, what should you do? You should remember. Remember how you were sinking. But also remember how God swallowed you up in His compassion. How he rescued you.
Because when you do that, God will help you see yourself in them. By remembering your neediness, God's help you understand their neediness. By remembering the One who died for you, God's renews your desire to live for Him. Let's ask God for those things right now.