I wonder if you are in distress in one way or another as we meet here today. In a group like this, some of us will be in distress. That may be because of something that others are aware of, or it may be something known only to you. Your distress may be caused by something for which you have no responsibility, but it's having a big impact on your life. On the other hand, you may be all too aware that what's causing your distress is basically your fault. You've brought it on yourself in some way, and if anything that just magnifies your distress. Either way, if you're in distress, then today's section of the Bible is especially for you.
We've come to the second episode in our mini-series on the Book of the Prophet Jonah. It would be great if you could have that open in front of you. You'll find it on page 774 in the Bibles. And we're looking at chapter 2, which begins with Jonah in very great distress. And it's his fault. Let's remind ourselves why. What's been happening so far?
Jonah the prophet was commanded by God to go to the great and pagan city of Nineveh and preach against their wickedness. Jonah says 'no', runs off in the opposite direction, and boards a ship to take him out of reach – or so he hopes. God will not take no for an answer, so he arranges, by means of a great storm and some terrified sailors, to have Jonah thrown overboard and then swallowed by a fish. But instead of dying, Jonah is kept alive in the fish. Then after three days, Jonah is sicked up on the beach - rescued. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. Episode One in chapter 1 ends with Jonah being swallowed. Jonah 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."
Then Episode Two is taken up with what Jonah says to God from inside the fish, before he is vomited up on the beach. So it begins (Jonah 2.1):
"Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying…"
And the rest of the chapter, apart from the very last verse, is all his prayer. So you'll see on the back of the service sheet that my title today is 'Crying Out To God'. And I have four simple headings that we'll go through as we think about this. First, Jonah's distress; secondly, Jonah's cry; thirdly, God's answer; and finally, Jonah's thankfulness. And you can see all of that there in verse 2, the beginning of Jonah's prayer, which is a kind of quick overview of what the whole thing's going to be about:
"I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol [that's death] I cried, and you heard my voice."
The distress; the cry; the answer; and the thankfulness. We'll look at each in turn. So:
First, Jonah's Distress
By the way, before we go any further, let me make a comment in case you're thinking to yourself, "This could not possibly have happened. Nobody gets swallowed by a great fish and lives inside it for three days to tell the tale." Some people do take this little book of Jonah as a parable – that is, a story from which we can learn a lot, but which didn't actually happen. Jesus, of course, often taught using parables. I am not persuaded that's right way to read Jonah. To my mind, we should be reading this as history. It happened. What it teaches only really has force if that is so.
To be sure, Jonah's experience was miraculous. But God can and does make miracles happen. In fact the repentance that this book records – the change of heart, first of Jonah himself and then of the City of Nineveh to which he preaches – is perhaps a greater miracle than the fish, such is the hardness of our hearts. But what seals it is the reference that Jesus makes to Jonah when he is asked for a sign to prove himself. This is Matthew 12.39-40:
"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."
So Jesus draws a parallel between Jonah's experience and his own coming death and resurrection. If we believe in the resurrection, as we must do, then what's a few nights B and B in a great fish? So, back to where we were – my first heading: Jonah's Distress. "I called out to the Lord, out of my distress …" Jonah says. This prayer is the outpouring of Jonah's heart and soul from the depths of his distress. He is, as he puts it in verse 3, "in the belly of Sheol". Just as he is in the belly of the fish, so he feels as if he has been swallowed up by death. He describes what he's been going through there in verse 3:
"For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and billows passed over me."
And he continues in verses 5-6:
"The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the root of the mountain. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever …"
What a graphic account this is. Down, he goes, through the waves, the seaweed entangling him around his head, down almost it seems to the ocean floor, imprisoned by death, never to escape – or so he thought. Jonah gets about as close to physical death as it is possible to get, without actually dying. And there's another kind of death represented here too – spiritual death; the death of losing God. Because he has run "away from the presence of the Lord," as chapter 1, verse 3 puts it. He has cut himself off from God. He is in deep distress.
Who is responsible for his plight? Jonah could blame the sailors. He could blame God. After all, if God hadn't come up with this ridiculous plan for him to go to Nineveh, none of this would have happened. And it was God who had whipped up this deadly storm. So Jonah says to God, "For you cast me into the deep". But Jonah needs to point the finger at himself. He is the rebel on the run. He is the one fleeing from the presence of the Lord of the universe. You cannot do that with impunity. That is a deadly dangerous way to live your life, as Jonah was discovering.
I'm reminded of the day that I passed my driving test. We're going back some time. It had taken a while, and I felt as if I'd won Olympic gold. That evening I took my parents car out into the countryside to enjoy my newfound freedom. I became careless. On a winding country lane I took a bend too fast, and as I rounded the bend on the wrong side of the road I realised that there was a car headed straight for me. I couldn't get over to my side. Time seemed to stand still. I thought, "This is my fault. And this is the end. There is no way out of this." I was in distress. A moment later I realised that I was still alive. We had not collided. To this day I don't know how. It seemed like a miracle to me. I pulled over, switched off the engine, and sat there shaking, trying to take in the lesson that God was teaching me. That could so easily have been the end of my life – not in the depths of the ocean, but on a country lane.
That was a moment of distress that felt like a lifetime. Sometimes our distress is a lot more long drawn out. Sometimes it is our fault in the final analysis. Sometimes it isn't. Are you in distress? If so, the very first thing we need to know is this. We are not alone. God sees. God hears. Even if our distressing circumstances are part of God's discipline, as they were for Jonah, we need to know that God knows what we're going through. He loves us still. And in our distress, we need to cry out to him. That's just what Jonah does. And that's my next heading. So:
Secondly, Jonah's Cry
In the depths of his distress, a miracle takes place in Jonah's heart. Remember what his state of mind has been up to now. He is a rebel on the run. He has been fleeing from the presence of the Lord, says Jonah 1.3, trying to get as far away from the presence of the Lord as he can. But in the nick of time, he comes to his senses and turns back to God. He sees that God has done an amazing miracle of grace in his life, and is rescuing him from the depths through his providential control of this great fish. And Jonah turns back to God, stops running away from God in his heart, and cries out to him. That is the miracle of grace, the work of the Holy Spirit, in his heart. You can see how he prays in verses 4 and then 7. Verse 4:
"Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.'"
And verse 7:
"When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple."
You might say that Jonah's cry is faithful, vocal, and hopeful. It's faithful in the sense of full of faith, because he comes to his senses like the Prodigal Son and looks to God to be his saviour. It's vocal in that he puts into words what's on his heart and tells God. He directs his cry to God. How easy that is to do in the belly of a great fish I don't know – one way or another that's what he does. He cries out to God. And it's hopeful, in that he has found a fresh confidence in God's saving mercy that he knows will bring him back into God's presence, into the dwelling place of God – his holy temple, the very place from which he had been fleeing.
A New Testament example come to mind, from the experience of the apostle Paul who finds himself in great distress, not through disobedience but through his obedience to the call of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 1.8-10:
"For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again."
How clearly we can see there Paul being faithful, and hopeful even though in the deepest distress. Are you in distress? Like Jonah, and like Paul, we need to turn to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – faithfully, vocally and hopefully. Jonah could see the beginning of his salvation. He realised that the fact that he was alive in the fish was the saving work of God, and that God would bring to completion what he had begun. We too can see God's saving work for us – the cross and resurrection and promised return of his Son. Are you in distress? Like Jonah, cry out to God. And when we do, as we have seen, God hears us. So to my next heading:
Thirdly, God's Answer
Even as Jonah cries out, God is already acting to rescue him from his distress. From a New Testament perspective we could say that Jonah's cry itself is an aspect of God's grace at work in his heart, softening it and turning it back towards God. So Jonah's prayer, inspired as it is by God, is heard and answered by God. Look at verse 2 again:
"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."
And verse 6:
"I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God."
"… my prayer came to you…"
Are you in distress? Cry out to God, and know that God will answer and rescue. He is a God who brings life from death. He is the God of resurrection. Through the resurrection of his Son, he brings resurrection into our lives – where we were spiritually dead, he raises us to new life with Christ; where we are physically dying – and in the end we all are – he promises us resurrection to eternal life through Christ. When we are in distress, we should cry out to God, and God will answer our cry and rescue us. And what then? Well finally and:
Fourthly, Jonah's Thankfulness
Look at verses 8-9, where first Jonah acknowledges the trap that he has so narrowly avoided:
"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!"
The old Book of Common Prayer speaks of our 'sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving', following Hebrews 13.15 that urges us:
"Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name."
The only possible response we can make to the gift of salvation that we cannot deserve – the gift of Jesus – is thankful obedience. While we wait for resurrection, we're a bit like Jonah in the fish. We have been saved, but our salvation has not yet been completed. We know it's coming. Jonah's rescue too was in two stages. Stage one, he gets swallowed. Stage two, he gets spewed up on the beach, and his rescue is completed. The life of faith in Christ is like life in the fish, so to speak. The resurrection life is yet to come. But we are safe in the hands of Jesus.
Are you in distress? I would say that there is a sense in which we are all in distress to some degree or another. Life is hard this side of heaven. Jonah's story is everyone's story. Are you in distress? Cry out to God, look out for his answer, and be wholeheartedly thankful as you experience God's saving grace in Jesus. So let's drink in deep this lesson that Jonah learns and remember it when the going is tough. What an amazing experience he had. Jonah would never have forgotten this lesson – would he? Come back in two weeks and find out.