I had so much material for this Sunday that a good chunk ended up on the editing room floor. Here is what didn't make the cut:
INTRODUCTION TO JONAH AND THE WHALE:
Because of the nature of this story, often thoughtful people would say, “I don’t know if it’s okay to say this in a church or not, but if I was going to be truthful, the idea of a fish swallowing a guy and having the guy live inside it for a while is kind of hard to believe.”
I want to talk directly to everybody having those kinds of thoughts for a moment. The first thing I want to say is I’m so glad you’re here because we want to be the kind of church where nobody ever has to pretend to believe anything, where we can just be honest about what it is we really, really think. Not what we think we are supposed to say in church. Because it is what we really think that matters to God. We want to be the kind of community that studies the Bible in a thoughtful way.
I remember as a kid in church hearing rumors or urban legends of scientists finding a fish that you could actually live in for several days, as a kind of defense of this book. But most Bible Scholars and scientists agree that as best they know there is no such fish in the world. The point of Jonah is not that there really are fish that in ordinary everyday life, a human being, could survive in for three days. The point is it if this happened it would be a miracle.
For some of you, you have no problem believing in miracles. You believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and so this fish deal is nothing for God.
Here is the point -- I would encourage everybody not to get hung up over things such as what genre you put this story in or what kind of fish it was or those kinds of details, because you will miss the whole point of what the writing is trying to communicate to us.
The point of this story is really is a spiritual message that God is up to something great.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM AND PRAYER:
Jonah comes to realize that what looked so bad -- hitting bottom: the wind, the storm, getting thrown overboard -- was actually the best thing that ever happened to him because it brought him back to God, and God is doing great things. Jonah hits bottom and is swallowed up, and there, God is greater than ever before.
Has anybody here ever been in over your head in life? Pray. Is it your own fault? Pray anyway. Have you not been living the kind of life you think God wants you to live, not been towing the line, not been crossing all the t’s, dotting all the i’s. Pray anyway. Are you concerned, because the honest truth is, right now even if you were to pray, your motives are kind of mixed and you’re really more selfishly concerned about your own well-being than you are about God’s will? Pray anyway.
This is part of what this story of Jonah is telling us about God: Even when we come to God because we have nowhere else to go, He is gracious and accepting.
JONAH IS A COMEDY; NOT A TRAGEDY
This story is a comedy: when we human beings are going down, God is up to something great. Jonah hits bottom and is swallowed up, and there, God is greater than ever before. From God’s perspective, death and the grave are not a problem at all. Human stiff-necked, rebellion, stubbornness, is not a problem. God laughs at it all.
God laughs at death, laughs at the grave. Jonah ends up getting vomited onto the shore. One day, we will understand joy wins. Jonah is a joy book. It is comic in the most sublime, transcendent, wonderful sense of that word because there is another character between every line in this book.
Jesus who comes to meet us at the lowest place and says death loses, sin loses, lost loses, sorrow loses, sadness loses – and joy wins. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1Corinthians 15:55; NLT)
Because, like Jonah, when we hit bottom and are swallowed up. God is greater than ever before. What will happen one day, what if when disease and aging, when cancer and heart disease, when AIDS and dementia have done their worst, and we go all the way down into the grave and then come back out on the other side. What if in that day, life then is so good, what if our healing and redemption are so complete, what if our new bodies are so wonderful, what if the community of the saints is so rich, what if our fellowship with our God in that day is so sweet going into Eternity that we look at each other and we say, “This is what I was afraid of? I thought death was so awful? It’s nothing at all. It’s a joke. It has no power before God. It’s just a door to life.”
SOME JONAHS I’VE KNOWN
There is a Jonah I know who is a lawyer. He was on the ship of Tarshish, had a lot of cash, and he was living for a lot more. His sea was a sea of alcohol. And he could not stay away from it. He was being swallowed by it. He just kept going down and down and down and down. The managing partner of his law firm told him at one point, “Your next bender will be the last one you ever take when you work for this firm.”
For a couple of months, he stayed sober. Then he blew off a bunch of meetings. They found him in a hotel. He had been on a binge, drinking out of control for three days. He lost his job. He got put into a rehab clinic for a month, got assigned a sponsor who told him that he would have to get up every morning at six o’clock for an AA meeting.
His response was, “No way am I getting up at six o’clock in the morning to meet with a bunch of drunks.” His sponsor said, “You’re not just going to meet with them; you’re going to get up earlier and fix coffee for those drunks.” (BTW – in 12 step programs they say that the one difference between a therapist, who is generally gentler, and a sponsor, is the only time a sponsor says the word ‘closure’ is before the word ‘mouth.’)
This guy, finds Jesus in that group, and he is delivered. His life is saved, and his marriage is saved. -- Because, like Jonah, when we hit bottom and are swallowed up. God is greater than ever before.
Another Jonah I know I met in Africa. His name is Evariste. When Evariste was a teenager, the Genocide in Rwanda broke out. Everiste is part of the Hutu tribe which began to massacre the Tutsis tribe. The Hutu’s used fear to enlist their neighbors to help them – “if we don’t kill them, they will rise up and kill us all.” Everest’s father was a Free Methodist pastor and, despite pressure from his neighbors, refused to participate in the genocide. This infuriated the people in his village because they thought he was being a coward.
Eventually, the Tutsis did rise up and fight back. And when they came back through their village, they asked, “who was the instigator of the mass murders in your village?” They pointed their fingers at Evariste’s father. And, as Evariste and his family watched, the Tutsis gorillas took his father and oldest brother to the edge of town and stoned them to death.
Today, Evariste has given his life to working with some of the million orphans that live in Rwanda. And if you were to ask Evariste today, he would tell you that -- when you are sinking down to the bottom, when you are swallowed up by life, God is there. And there is peace down there. And God is greater than ever.