Gaining Perspective through dark times.
We started this story last week so if you didn’t hear it, I’d recommend that you go back and listen to the podcast. To recap quickly though, Jonah was a prophet who didn’t want to do his job. He knew what God was telling him to do, and he said “nah.” It was a punk response, but we all do the same thing every day, maybe not on quite as big a scale. Scale. Get it? Jonah was supposed to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent so God could save them but he ran the other way, got in a boat to get as far away from Nineveh as possible and God caused a storm to turn him around. He wasn’t willing to turn around so Jonah is thrown into the sea hoping to die rather than obey but God saved him in a rather unexpected way instead. Big scaled submarine ride.
God saved Jonah in a really strange unbelievable way. He saves us in a strange unbelievable way, too. A giant sea monster might be scary and weird but so is death and atonement by the crucifixion of the Son of God. Point is, when we run from God He will pursue us with deadly force. He will release the Kraken.
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.”
Is it hard to believe this kind of thing? Are you so distracted by the implausibility of what happens in the story that you almost can’t hear what God is saying? You might be thinking, “Those kind of things just don’t happen—I’ve never seen it.” You know, God kinda knows this is a remarkable story, it’s probably why He make sure to put it in His book. It’s not supposed to be understood as an everyday event. “If I had a nickel for every time someone got swallowed by a leviathan I’d…well, I still wouldn’t have a nickel.” The question with miracles is not whether they are possible as part of a normal scientific occurrence, but whether we actually believe in the God who created the natural order and can bend the rules once in a while if He wants to. That’s why they are called “miracles.”
Did any of you see the video that was going around where that baby was pulled out of the rockpile? Seven or eight men are digging with their hands, lifting massive stones out of a collapsed pit, they are yelling and frantically working to rescue a baby that was buried several feet beneath rocks, gravel and dust. It seemed impossible that a child could survive under all that jagged weight but after who knows how long—the video is seven minutes long but they had started before the camera was rolling—in an unbelievable moment they pull a perfectly alive and seemingly unharmed baby from out of the pit. It did not look possible. Sometimes strange things happen.
What happened to Jonah was strange but it happened.
Did Jonah deserve to be saved? What was it about his rebellious attitude and suicidal tendencies that earned him the steadfast love of the Creator of the Universe? He disobeyed God and made it clear that he would rather die than be used to possibly save the lives of six-hundred-thousand Ninevites. There was nothing noble or good about his actions or his intentions.
When God saved Jonah it was completely by grace. We actually hate grace. Grace is when people are rewarded when they don’t deserve it. Grace is unfair. Grace is offensive to our merit-based, karma obsessed culture. Grace is giving the sore loser with the bad attitude a first place trophy when he didn’t even finish the race. Grace is letting the bad guy go free when he is guilty and everyone knows it. Grace is what allows wretched hypocritical sinners like you and me to sit in the presence of God thanking Him for His love and mercy. Grace is only possible because of Jesus.
We are offended by grace when other people receive it but we are always thankful when it’s given to us. That’s when we think it’s amazing.
Grace doesn’t always look like grace at first. In Jonah’s case, grace was the stinky dark stomach of a sea monster. It was in that putrid suffocating disgust that he got a little perspective about the dark consequences of his dumb decisions. Ever had to deal with the consequences of a dumb decision? Have you ever had to walk through a season of darkness smelling the stink caused by the choices you made? Like breaking a relationship because of cruel words or selfish actions? You knew what the right thing to say or do was but you weren’t willing to do it. You wake up to the misery and darkness of what you’ve done and you have another choice to make. You can justify your actions, make yourself a victim and a martyr—rehearse the speech inside your head about how it’s all someone else’s fault—or you can use your time in the stench and darkness to think about how you got there and get some perspective. Maybe get a little humility. What is God saying to you? Listen to Him this time. Talk to Him. What does He want you to do about it? Does He have your attention now, or does the pit need to get deeper and darker?
Suddenly Jonah realized it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He realized in spite of what he had done that God still loved him and saved him. The difference between a happy ending and a tragedy is where you stop telling the story.
Jonah was a beloved child of God but he was being a disobedient child and God was disciplining him. Discipline is always painful in the moment but the point of discipline is to lead us someplace—to better understanding and wisdom, God is never punishing us for what we’ve done, He is always redirecting us toward being more like Jesus—who was punished, and punished for us.
Parents, it is never our job to punish our kids when they do something wrong. It may seem like semantics but our job is to love our children and discipline them, not punish them. Discipline has a goal, a redirection toward the good, at its root is “disciple” which is someone who is learning. Punishment doesn’t have the goal of making anyone better, it simply wants vengeance and make someone pay for their crime—a completely different motive than discipline. Punishment is not for the good of the person being punished.
In our lives, everything that happened yesterday helped prepare us for today, which is preparing us for tomorrow. God is always using our current situation to teach us the Kung Fu we’re going to need for our next battle. Every day God shows us His love by disciplining us toward the person He is shaping us to be. He knows us far better than we know ourselves. He loves us more than we love ourselves, too.
We seem to think, “If God loved me He would give me what I want and He wouldn’t ask me to do anything hard.” Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, so let’s think about this from the perspective of a parent. Kids want to eat ice cream and candy instead of food. They want to stay up late watching TV or playing video games. They don’t want to go to school, do their housework, homework or anything else that doesn’t look like fun. They’re just not into deferred gratification as a concept or philosophy. As parents, are we better and more loving if we let them do what they want, have what they want and let them avoid doing anything hard?
The truth is, the moment we stop disciplining our kids is the moment we give up on them, and stop loving them. Here is the Gospel: God will never give up on you, He will never stop loving you, so He will never stop disciplining you. God is not a bad parent.
We hear that, we hear the Gospel—that God shows us grace, which as I said earlier, almost disgusts us with its lack of fairness—and then when we mess up by doing something bad, what is our our first reaction? It’s never to run to our forgiving Heavenly Father of mercy, but instead we run to the law to crush us further. We stew in our failure. Wallow in our guilt and shame. Kick ourselves while we are down. We hide in the dark and feel sorry for ourselves.
Jonah’s prayer in chapter two:
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.
Another word for Sheol is Hell, or place of the dead. I think this counts as a near-death experience.
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.’
God’s people prayed facing the Temple because that was the dwelling place of God’s Presence. Jonah has a new hope.
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!”
Jonah reflects on what has happened to him while he’s still inside the monster. It’s interesting to note that he doesn’t whine and complain about his accommodations but admits that it sure beats drowning at the bottom of the ocean with seaweed wrapped around his face. He’s thankful simply to not be dead. God heard his cry and saved him.
What about you? Are you in a dark place? Maybe you don’t really want to talk about it. Not even to God. I can understand that.
I was pretty lost when my band was dropped by Warner Brother in ‘95. I was so angry. I had a hard time trusting God and stayed in that pit for way too long but eventually God pulled me out of it. Last year was pretty dark for me, too—pretty much from January 2014 to January 2015. I didn’t really see the light again until I was laid off and my mom died—both in the same week actually. It wasn’t until God began to reveal this NewChurch vision to us that I started to feel joy again. But it was crying out to God from the darkness and soul searching of the past year that gave me perspective to accept what God had for me next.
What can I say today to persuade you to use your current situation to cry out to God, to let go of the selfish things you might be grasping for. To repent of the ways that you might be running from God, refusing to surrender to what He is wanting you to do. To confess your sins—really confess them—call them what they are without trying to justify them. Then talk with God, listening to Him, hearing His word.
God will give you another chance. and another. and another.
And you’ll need all of them because wherever you go, there you are. You’ll be waiting for yourself when you step out of this current hardship. In whatever way you blew your marriage, left your church, failed at your job, lost a friendship—you’ll probably do it again. Maybe not as bad next time. Maybe worse. The point isn’t to get everything right, scoring an A+ of your “doing everything holy” Jesus test. The point is to be thankful that God forgives us by grace and we get to keep trying. It probably won’t get easier, but perspective helps us to have thankfulness and humility makes it possible to keep walking and have joy.
The last verse of chapter one was Jonah being swallowed, the last verse of chapter two is this:
“And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
Jonah is puked up and left on the beach. I doubt if he landed on his feet. Pastor Matt reminded me that as gross as it sounds to be vomited out of a fish, the other potential exit would have been worse. We can always be thankful for the little things.
So, we’ll leave Jonah on the beach this week. He’s laying in the fetal position covered in goo like a newborn, smelling like three days of fish guts. He’s lost his luggage, and he still has a 500 mile trip to his friends in Nineveh in front of him.
There is a sense in which Jonah was born again. He rebelled against God, he was lost and dying, he was baptized, buried, shown grace and forgiveness, his tomb becomes a womb and he is reborn from the darkness into the light of a new day. It’s a wonderful picture of salvation and redemption and a great reminder that following Jesus has never been a promise of a life without trouble, pain or difficult situations.
God will call us all to do hard things. Challenging things. But He will also give us the strength and direction to see us through them. He’ll pursue us and love us, disciplining us as His dear children. His promise is a new life filled with hope and meaning.
May we cry out to the LORD in our distress, when we are surrounded by darkness. May we see our trouble as discipline, as childbirth, as being born again and again into new opportunities to do what God has called us to do. Saved us to do. Saved us to be. May we be thankful and lift our voice to praise God from whom all new beginnings flow. And may we find ourselves expectant and hopeful as we open our eyes to find we are on a sunny beach walking toward Nineveh.