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JONAH: Belly of a Fish    Jonah 2:1-10    Pastor Larry Boatright      (1st service)

We’ve been in a series in the last few weeks going through the book of Jonah.  Jonah is the fifth of the minor prophets.  He prophesied in the latter half of the eighth century BC, so a long time.  Jonah is unique because it’s mostly a narrative; he’s not making big proclamations and all these sorts of things, it’s telling us an interesting story.  Hosea and Amos were also prophets at the same time, and in all three of those books there’s this running theme of God showing God’s mercy to other nations.  God calls Jonah to go share this good news of this mercy with the Ninevites. The Ninevites were bad people.  They were often brutal, they disregarded human life and all these sorts of things.  The whole book is really about God’s extravagant mercy.

Jonah was disgusted at the idea that God would show mercy to people that Jonah felt didn’t deserve it.  So, when God calls Jonah, he runs.  He pays the fare to get on this ship, and as he gets on the ship, he goes down into the belly of the ship and he falls asleep.  God sends a huge storm, and the sailors realize that it was because of Jonah that this storm was happening, so they were freaking out and woke him up.  Ironically, the sailors, who didn’t know the God of Jonah, acted more in line with God than Jonah did.  They asked him to appeal to the Lord, his God.  He didn’t.  He was in full-on rebellion, so he suffers the consequences of running.  He was tossed overboard and sinks to the bottom of the sea.  You know the story.  Here’s the thing that’s so ironic, God does for Jonah what God wanted to do for the Ninevites through Jonah.  Pretty wild, huh?  So, just as Ryan shared a few weeks ago, we see a resentful prophet meeting a relentless God.  That’s the story of Jonah.

In chapter one, we see a series of five downs:  He goes downto Joppa.  He goes downinto the boat.  He goes downinto the water.  He goes downto the bottom of the sea, and ultimately, he goes downinto the belly of the fish.  As I thought about that, I realized that sometimes life feels like that, doesn’t it?  It’s just down…..and then down…..and then down…..and one hard thing after another happens.  For Jonah, it was an act of rebellion that led to this series of downs.  It’s interesting because in this pattern of Jonah, we see what seems like a pattern, in the Old Testament, for Israel, where God calls, there’s disobedience, it leads to exile, and eventually repentance and restoration.  We’re going to see all this play out in this book.

For a lot of us, we experience a set of downs and we didn’t do anything wrong.  We’re not running from God and sometimes we feel like we have our back against the wall.  Whether it’s because we’re running from God or just that life is taking us down a different path, we can all relate to the way that Jonah must have felt as he was at the bottom of a series of downs.  We’ve all experienced feeling scared, and being confused, and unsure of what to do, and feeling like we’ve hit rock bottom, and stuck, and like we’re trapped in the belly of a fish.  Who’s with me?  We’ve been there.   Interestingly, this is the sort of the human experience that Jesus modeled for us —- death, burial, and resurrection.  We’re going to see that is the pattern in Jonah as well.  He neared death, he entered the belly of the fish, and then he came back to dry land.

Today, I want to talk to those of you who feel like you’re stuck in the belly of the fish, whatever that is for you.  Whether it’s because you’re running from God and you’re facing the consequences of that, or you simply can’t explain why, but life, right now, just feels like a series of down, down, down.  And I also want to talk to those of us who’ve experienced a low, a belly of the fish moment in life where you felt like all was lost, and you’ve lived to tell about it.  So let’s dive into Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish, and I want to see what we can learn and how it applies to our own belly of the fish moment.

I invite you to turn with me to Jonah and we’re going to start in chapter 1, verse 17, because it sets up the story. In the Hebrew Scriptures, verse 17 of our Bible is verse 1 in chapter 2.  Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.  I love the language here…..the Lord providedthis fish and God instructed the fish to swallow him.  That’s really, really important.

The Scriptures say he was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, it doesn’t always literally mean three days and three nights, it just means it was a long time, but not too long.  I can’t but remember the Scripture Ryan pointed out last week, Matthew 12:40.  This is Jesus talking:  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.  Think about that:  Three days and three nights in the belly of this fish.  Imagine how Jonah must have felt.  It was dark.  It was musty.  It smelled like bad sushi.  He was probably confused and asking himself, “Am I dead?”  I’m sure for a while it really did feel like his death.  How much worse could it be?  He had the series of five downs and there was now place that he could go.  His goal was to get as far away from God as possible, and I’m sure, never in a million years, that he imagined that that place would be in the belly of a fish.  Maybe, for him, it felt like the end of the road, the worst case scenario.  It would be easy to look at this and go well, this is just the punishment you got from God for being in rebellion and running from God.  But here’s what we know to be true:  The fish was his salvation, not his punishment.  Chew on that for a moment.  The belly of a whale….well, it was God’s provision for his salvation.  I think it’s interesting that the heart of the earth, a tomb, a cave, was God’s provision for ours.  Isn’t that cool?

Jonah was an unrepentant prophet who wanted to get as far away from God as he possibly could, and in the process of doing so, he actually found himself protected by God.  He tried to run as far as he could and he fell right into the hands, the loving, protective hands of God.  I think this is true for us that often what feels like our grave is what God uses to save us.  Maybe you’ve experienced this.  You’ve been in a dead-end job and you’re going nowhere.  Or maybe you’ve had a loss of identity, or maybe even a loss of everything, and it feels like punishment.  I would ask:  What if, in that dark moment, that impossible situation, that God has us positioned in such a way that we can grow and become who God created us to be.  What if, instead of being restricted by our circumstances, God’s using them to push us in a direction we otherwise never would have gone?  I’m not so naive as to not realize that it’s really hard, when you’re in the belly of the fish, to think, well, maybe God’s using this for good.  It’s not all that easy.  But what if?

So Jonah, three days in silence, in confusion, and then slowly realizing, “Wait a second, I must be alive.”  As we’ll see from Jonah’s prayers, in a just a moment, he came to understand that he was alive.  And he came to realize that, instead of this moment being punishment for him, being in the belly of the fish, as restricted as it was, was actually the safest place he could be.  

Let’s pick it up in Jonah 2:1 — From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.   Interesting language here.  The Lord hisGod; it’s personal at this point.  In chapter 1, the captain of the boat said, “Pray to the Lord yourGod,” and Jonah did not do that, and we see the consequences of this.  Jonah responds and prays personally to the Lord his God.  He found himself in a situation where he realized that God had saved him.  He realized that he was alive and he wasn’t dead.  He had nowhere to go, and at this point where he was at the bottom, he chose to talk to God.

Before we get into the prayer, I just want to point out an interesting observation, for those of us that are Bible nerds.  What he does in his prayer is quote a bunch of psalms.  I want to point out that Jonah is borrowing some words.  I have to be honest that as I studied this it frustrated me.  I think that every time you come to the Scriptures, if you’re honest, you’re trying to see how it speaks to you.  Am I right?  This is neat and this is cool and I want to learn about this, but what does this have to say to me?  It frustrated me that in this moment, Jonah didn’t use his own words.  I’m not seeing him saying what he feels.  I had to ask the question: Is his heart tender?  Is he pliable?  Does he want to hear from God or is he just going through the motions?  But here’s the truth: Sometimes when we’re at rock bottom, we struggle to find our words.  Sometimes when our back’s against the wall, we have nothing left to give.

I’ll tell you, as someone who’s been a pastor for over twenty years, I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital with people who were going through unspeakable tragedies.  I cannot tell you the pressure that I feel when I walk into a room and someone’s hooked up to a ventilator or received a bad diagnosis or whatever it might be, and the pressure I feel to say some magic string of words that makes it all better.  But I’ve learned this to be true, sometimes the best thing to say is I’m so sorry and I’m here with you.

Listen, if you feel like you’re in the belly of the whale, today, sometimes we need to borrow words from those who’ve gone before us and that’s okay.  There’s a little prayer book called The Book of Common Prayerand it’s filled with prayers, and I’ve used that for weddings and funerals and all kinds of things.  On Sundays, I read what’s called the ‘collect,’ which is just the prayer, that someone wrote.  Sometimes I borrow that and speak it verbatim.  It’s amazing, because someone who’s gone before me has these words.  Sometimes that’s all we have.

Jonah knew the psalms—-surprise, it’s Israel’s prayer book.  These psalms were written by people.  One of the things I love about the psalms is it shows the full range of human emotions.  People who are mad, scared, frustrated, exuberant—all those things all at once.  I wonder if Jonah leaned into the words of those who’d gone on before him.  Words he was taught his entire life.  He was at rock bottom and had nothing left to give.

One more thing that we’ll see is that these aren’t psalms of lament, they could have been.  These are actually psalms of thanksgiving.  It’s not exactly what I would imagine I would use when my back was against a whale….I mean, a wall.  See what I did there?

Verse 2 — He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.  From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”   For the beginning of his prayer, he acknowledged his predicament and God’s provision, and he sort of summarized what happened.  He was found and distressed and God answered.  He uses real poetic language here:  He says he was deep in the realm of the dead.  That’s a way of saying as good as dead.  He asked for help and the Lord heard his cry.  The language shifts from telling us about him, to him talking directly to God–You heard my cry.

Verses 3-6:  You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.  I said, “I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.”  The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.  To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.  But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.  

Here Jonah gives a couple of examples of how bad he had it in this moment.  The first one was the water was swirling and the waves were breaking.  If you’ve never been to the ocean or have been pounded on by the ocean, breakers are these big waves that pour over the top of you….over and over again.  We used to live in Tampa, right on the Gulf of Mexico, and you really didn’t get the BIG waves, unless there was a bad storm.  If you ever went to the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, sometimes they’re big, unruly, scary waves, aren’t they?  They’re not something to brush off; they can be dangerous and scary.  Years ago, my family and I went to a waterpark where they had a wave pool.  Technology created these artificial waves and you could get in and bob around; it was really fun.  I don’t know if the machine was broken, or what happened, but these waves were like EPIC waves….BAM!  They’d nail you!  My youngest son was wearing a life jacket and he was just bobbing, but I did not have a life jacket.  I started noticing these waves were getting bigger and bigger and BIGGER and pounding on me and I lost my footing.  Now I have nothing to connect me to the bottom of this thing, and I had wave after wave after wave hitting me.  I could not get my head above water! {Shows scary water picture} Seriously, I thought I was going to drown.  I felt like nobody was looking at me.  I knew my son would be okay because he had a life jacket on.  The waves just kept crashing over me.  I don’t know how, but eventually I was able to get out from under the waves.  When I got to the edge of the pool, I was completely and totally exhausted.

It’s a precarious place to be when the breakers are hitting us.  But in the midst of that, Jonah expresses confidence that he’ll look again at God’s holy temple.  He could only do this by staying in this place of praise and remembering that God has shown mercy before, and that God will again show mercy.

In the second part of this, he talks about how the waters threatened him and surrounded him, that he’d sunk so low and that seaweed was wrapped around his head.  He’s really saying he sank as low as he could go.  Even still, he praised God that God had brought him up from the pit.  I have to be honest and say that this really challenged me.  When my back’s against the wall, when I’m in the belly of my fish, it’s easy for me to cry out to God and to complain and to ask for help, and I can do that really well.  But then when I’m out of it and things are better and I get out of the pool, I often forget to stop and take inventory about what happened in my heart and in my life and to thank God for bringing me out of it.

Let’s look at verse 7:  When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.    This is the rock bottom moment.  I want you to pay attention to that language….when my life was ebbingaway.  He found himself nearing death, barely alive, crying out to God.  Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt a moment where you just wanted to say, “I don’t know if I can take this anymore,” “I don’t know if I have anything left to give,” “I just don’t see how I can survive this?”  In that moment, we see that Jonah remembered God and lifted his prayers to God.  There’s a quote I ran across recently that says this:  “So far, you’ve survived 100% of your worst days….You’re doing great!”  It’s kind of funny but it’s really a great reminder.  If you’re stuck, it’s a great reminder that you’ve survived all the hard things that have happened to you in your life.  God has saved before and God will save again.

Maybe, for some of us in the room, we’re at a place where our backs are against the wall and we have nothing left to give, but to cry out to God.  We think that crying is not spiritual, it’s not healthy, it’s being a wimp.  I beg to differ.  I think crying is natural.  I love what the great author, Charlotte Bronte, says:  “Crying does not indicate that you are weak.  Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”  I have friends that had a baby this week, and I went into the hospital.  I went into the wrong part of the hospital; I went into the birthing place.  From the very first room that was there, I heard a kid screaming its little head off.  This is what babies do when they’re first born, but it’s a really good thing to hear that sound, isn’t it?  It’s life to be heard!  Crying is good.

Look at verse 8: Those who cling to worthless idols turn away form God’s love for them.  It’s really interesting language, because I think for most of us, we would think well, I don’t cling to worthless idols, so I don’t know how to relate to this.  But I can tell you as a pastor, I’ve spent a lot of time with people whose life is ebbing away—from cancer, or disease, or some sort of thing—and I’ve never one time, in twenty-two years of ministry, seen someone, as they were nearing death, cling to their stuff.  Not once.  I’ve never seen them holding that thing that they’ve loved so much.  Instead, it’s always like family—They’re clinging to family.  To friends.  To happy memories.  And for many, faith in God and this hope that there’s something more than this thing, this dot, at the end of our lives.

For Jonah, he had this realization that God was his only hope.  Those worthless idols—the things that many people might cling to and pray that in the moment when his back was in the belly of a fish, those things would do nothing for him.  For us, maybe when things are hard, we buy stuff, or we drink too much, or we sleep around, or we numb ourselves, or hurt ourselves, or, like Jonah, we run away.  Listen, in the end, you know this to be true: those things always leave us empty. And sometimes they leave us worse off than where we found ourselves to begin with.  Jonah shows us that when we find ourselves in the belly of the fish, we should remember that God is our only hope.  Not things.  Not money.  Not possessions.  But God.

Look at verse 9:  But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.  What I have vowed I will make good.  I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”   I think it’s interesting that at the end of this he’s overwhelmed with gratitude and his response to all of this, pouring his soul out, even though he borrowed the words from others, was gratitude and action.  Shoutsof grateful praise.  He said I will sacrifice to you, and he acknowledged that salvation comes from the Lord.  I’ll be honest, that last part is very hard for me, because I’m very independent.  I don’t want to have to depend on anybody for anything.  I feel like, no matter what the situation, that I should be able to figure it out.  But listen, if that’s you, maybe a practice for those of us that are uber independent types is a practice of gratitude and acknowledgment that salvation comes from God alone, and not from our own hand.  It’s a lot of pressure, friends, to put salvation from any situation on your hands.  It’s a measure of faith to say, “I’m just going to trust that God’s going to do what God’s going to do here and provide and take care.”

That finishes Jonah’s prayer. Finally, we’ll look at verse 10:  And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. {Who’s ready for lunch?}  At God’s command, the fish spit him out.  He wasn’t really necessarily at a better place than when he first started, but he was at least back on dry land.  I don’t want to skip too far ahead in this, but in the next couple of verses, we see the pattern change.  Instead of calling and disobedience, we see calling and obedience.  Look at Jonah 3:1-3a — Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. 

There’s a lot to learn here about thanksgiving, and borrowing words when we don’t have them, and remembering that God is our true salvation, but I’ll be honest with you, sometimes writing a sermon comes fairly easily, sometimes it comes harder.  One of the reasons it’s a struggle sometimes is I always want to feel I’m personally connected to it in some way, that I can see myself in the story.  I think if we’re honest, we’d look at this passage and go, boy, if I went through everything that Jonah went through, I would be pouring my heart out to God.  In a way, he did, we did see that.  But I was frustrated with this and it was really hard.  Why, Larry, why was it so hard? I’m so glad you asked me this question!  It’s because I don’t see a major transformation or repentance here.  I mean the big BOOM transformation or repentance.  At no point in the story do I see Jonah say, “Yeah, you’re right and I was wrong.”  I looked at this; I read, I prayed, I agonized over this, I had conversations with people.  I was looking for the BOOM moment, that moment of repentance, this big moment of transformation.  For those of us who feel like our back is against the wall—I can promise you, if you’re back has ever been against the wall—you want the BOOM moment where you get out of all of it, don’t you?  We want it to all be better like that.

As I meditated on this, my frustration subsided and I started leaning in and going what is this saying?!  Then I thought about the way God moves in my own life and in the lives of almost everybody that I know and here’s what I remembered:  Transformation most often comes through small little changes, not massive explosions.  There are people that come to faith in Christ and it’s BOOM!  Overnight, they are a completely different person.  We probably all know somebody like that; it wasn’t like that for me.  Most people that I know, even when they met Jesus, it was a process that they followed.  It took time.  That’s completely and totally normal.  All too often, we want transformation to be BANG and then it all gets better, but that’s rarely how it works.

My friend and I like to joke about winning the lottery and how amazing it would be.  Well, here’s what I would do….  You find yourself at the end of a 30-minute conversation that’s just ridiculous.  At this point, you have four islands you own.  You’ve bought Jurassic Park; you got rid of all the dinosaurs.  You helicoptered over….   All these sort of things in the land of fairytales.  All these things we want, but here’s the truth: Growth and rescue doesn’t happen like that.  If you’re in debt, you probably don’t get out of debt overnight.  It’s over time.  I realize that I can have the things that I want, that God is always pulling me forward, but to get what I want I have to develop and invest in habits over time.  It’s a consistent investment over time that brings growth and transformation.

I’ve been reading this amazing book called Atomic Habits.  If you’re a reader, you’ve got to get this book.  It’s pretty amazing.  Listen to what the author says:  “A slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination.  Making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime, these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.”  All too often, when our back is against the wall and we don’t see the big, miraculous salvation right in front of us, we want to give up.  The author shows this chart that’s interesting, and he talks about what we think should happen gets better consistently over time.  But really, with a consistent investment, with practices that we put in, there’s a dip, which he calls the “Valley of Despair.”  there’s a huge upturn, but most of us give up before we ever get there.  I think that’s true when it comes to our faith as well.  Consistent investment into our faith, our relationship with Jesus, over time, when our back hits the wall, we wait and eventually we see God show up.

With Jonah, his transformation was subtle, but it was there.  I see it in his words, his actions, his attitude.  He emulated others with his words.  He committed to doing something, and he went when God called his again.  I know you’re asking, “What is the path of transformation that we should take in the belly of the fish?”  I want to walk us through some steps we can take when we feel like our back is against the belly of the fish.  I encourage you to write these six things down and to chew on these things and to see what God may have you do with these things.  The first is:  Put practices in place, ahead of time when things are good, that will sustain us when they’re not.  This is why we talk so much about spiritual practices.  They’re a necessary and critical step in our formation.  This is why recovery groups have steps they take, a process they can put in place to guide them and have a path to follow when things get tough.  Jonah had obviously spent time with the Scriptures well before he was in a bind.  So don’t wait until your back is against the wall and then try to figure how to walk out of it.  Start NOW with practices that give you something to draw from when the going gets hard.  Root yourself in the Scriptures.  Drink from that regularly.  Connect with God.  Meditate.  Pray.  Go for a walk.  Do things to posture yourself to hear from God, so when you need it, it’s there.

The second one is:  Choose gratitude.  It’s easy to praise when things are going well; it takes courage and faith to praise when all seems lost.  I think it’s true that thanksgiving orients us to the reality that God has moved before and will move again.  Even in the moment, if you’re not feeling it, call upon what you’ve known from the past and utter praise and thanksgiving to orient you to the fact that God WILL move again.

Number three:  Remember that God is our only hope.  Not our stuff, not all those things, but God alone.

Number four:  There’s nothing non-spiritual about borrowing words from those who’ve gone before us.  Sometimes you don’t have the words to say, just borrow them.

Number five:  Commit to taking a step.  Just do something.  Jonah said I will fulfill my vow.  He made a commitment.

Number six: Obey when God says go.  I don’t know whether it’s going to be in a minute after you pray, or in a year, or in ten years, but at some point God will give you ‘here’s your next step.’  The fish may spit you out of its mouth.  I don’t know how it works for you, everyone’s different, but when you hear it, have the courage to take that step and obey when God says go.

There’s some things you can do now and you can do when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, so I just want to leave you with this question:  What about you?  We talked a lot about Jonah.  We looked at Jonah’s story and Jonah’s life.  We looked at this moment that’s scary, and we realize that we find ourselves in similar situations and if you haven’t yet, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you will.  That’s how life works.  I want you to reflect on this and I’m going to put the slide back up on the six things you can do.  For some of us, your step is to stop running from God.  The best time to stop a series of downs that are coming from running from God is the moment you realize you’re doing it.  The second best time is NOW.  Chances are, if you’re running from God, you realize it and you know you should stop but you haven’t.  Choose now.  Stop running from God.  I just want to remind you that God is patient.  God is compassionate.  God is slow to anger.  God is abounding in love.  I want to remind you of the beautiful poetic part of this story that God ended up doing for Jonah what he wanted to use Jonah to do for the Ninevites.  That was to show His unwavering compassion and mercy.  If you’re telling yourself this lie that God’s through with you, that what you’ve done is so bad that God can’t forgive you, it’s time to stop running and come home.  If you’re running, stop and allow yourself to, as Jonah did, experience the lavish mercy and the grace of God.  And take these steps to get back on the right track.

For others in this room, maybe you aren’t running from God, but you feel like you’re in the belly of the fish right now.  I want to encourage you to follow these steps and allow God to do his work in you, and you do yours.  Invest now into the things that will allow God to lead you out of the belly of the fish.

For those of us in this room who’ve been in the belly of the fish and we’ve lived to tell about it, I just want to challenge you and encourage you to come alongside others who are struggling and encourage them, and support them.  Give them words to say and remind them that they’re going to get through it, because you personally experienced it yourself.

So my question for you is what’s your next step?  Maybe you need to put some practices in place in your life.  Just little practices and consistently pour into those over time.  Maybe it’s choosing gratitude.  Maybe it’s remembering that God is your only hope.  Maybe it’s borrowing words from another.  Maybe it’s committing to take another step.  For all of us, maybe it’s go when God says go.  I don’t know what it is for you, but my prayer is that you’d run into the loving arms of God, and that your rock bottom would be the launch pad for something spectacular in your life.  Let’s pray.

Lord, every person in this room knows what it feels like to be at rock bottom at some point.  I think we can look into the story of Jonah that you provided for us and see ourselves in it.  I love that about your Scriptures, how we can look and learn about other people who’ve gone before us, but we also see what you’ve done in their lives and that can build faith in our own lives.  So Lord, I just thank you that you’re good, even when it’s scary.  Even when our back is against the wall, we can trust that you are up to good things.  Lord, you’ve given us some steps to take and I just pray that those listening would take that to heart.  That they would meditate and reflect on your goodness and who you are.  That they’d remember that you love them, that your desire is to show mercy, and that even when their back feels against the wall, that you’ve not left them, you’ve not forsaken them, that you’re constantly wooing us.  So give us wisdom into the steps that we should take.  Lord, my prayer is that as we respond in that wisdom, we’d have the courage just to obey and to follow hard after you.  We ask all these things in the strong and powerful, the merciful, the loving, kind words of Jesus.  And together this church said….Amen.