Rehab in the Belly of a Fish
Jonah • Sermon • Submitted
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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 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.
Scripture: Jonah 1:17-2:10
Sermon Title: Rehab in the Belly of a Fish
Brothers and sisters in Christ, last week as we began our study of Jonah I mentioned that often the story gets trimmed down into this barebones, three-scene drama of a prophet’s disobedience, his getting saved by what many presume to be a whale, and then he finally listens to God and goes to Nineveh. What happens when we do that, especially on this part of the story, is streamline the process to go from chapter 1 verse 15 to chapter 1 verse 17, Jonah gets tossed overboard and we forget the sailors on the ship, our priority becomes on him getting swallowed by a great fish and staying there for three days, and then we jump to chapter 2 verse 10 where he gets thrown up on shore. It can almost be as if our minds connect Jonah taking a ride in a fish to the fun, calm images we have of someone swimming with dolphins; all of a sudden this becomes a pleasant almost 3-day vacation for Jonah to cruise back to shore. We read this this morning though, and we see there’s this prayer in chapter 2 verses 2 through 9, and it’s a prayer that contains some pretty terrifying yet also some hopeful language. (Show the pictures)
So this morning right from the start, I invite you to expand your vision from the images of a smiling whale and Jonah peacefully passing 72 hours to seeing this is as a miraculous experience, that’s actually quite unpleasant experience. It’s with that connection that I invite us to see the time Jonah spends in the belly of the fish as a time of rehabilitation.
What kind of rehab are we to have in mind? If you watch the news or follow any number of news websites, that word may strike you in regards to those struggling with substance abuse. Rehab is a treatment in which someone gets rid of the toxins in their body and prepares for life without them. There are a growing number of facilities for this across Canada and the U.S. which often seem to be a revolving door for celebrities and athletes some going through for the first time, others sadly seem to have made it their vacation home. Along similar lines of preparing to return to life in a changed way is rehabilitation in the sense of what some criminals go through. No longer are the only options incarceration in jail or punishment by fines and community service, but a mix of things which can include counseling services to help bridge the gap between the criminal and their victims as well as programs to prepare those who have been confined to prison cells for life on the outside. There’s also the type of rehab when some has a sports or work-related physical injury, the focus is on the healing process through various therapies. Rehab for an injury is restoring function to that part of the body and then getting it in sync with the rest of the body again.
The type of rehab I’m inviting us to consider this morning really borrows something from each of these contemporary situations. In the first chapter, we saw Jonah get on a bad road, but he admitted his problem and he committed to change by being thrown overboard. As we enter into the story today, we find a man that’s literally sinking towards rock-bottom, and now comes the rehab program. It’s a process for Jonah of recovery and preparation for what God has ahead. If it’s help you to have a sort of three-step program in mind for where we’re going, the themes we’ll be using are reimagining faith, remembered by God, and renewed identity.
The rehab process then with Jonah reimagining his faith. We’ve picked up on our text being a prayer, it is what he prays about as he is in the fish. It begins in verse 2 where Jonah acknowledges that he has been saved, this came about only from God hearing his cries. Verses 3-7 contain Jonah re-living his experience, he says, “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled around me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.” There are some scholars who believe that he gets picked up by the fish fairly quickly after being thrown overboard and so this is his description of the experiences he has had from inside the fish, but as I suggested last week leaving Jonah to sinking in the water, I believe that he spent some time in the sea awaiting rescue. The language he uses is language that we find used metaphorically in the psalms, but he literally is being swept under the surface. Whether you have him in the fish already or yet in the water, consider what he experienced: “The engulfing waters threatened me…seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth barred me in forever.” It’s in that situation that he prayed the one-line prayer we find in verse 4, “I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.”
This personal confession of Jonah is his reimagining his faith. He recognizes his situation as one of punishment by God, but yet he’s able to claim that he is going to see God’s holy temple again. Jonah believes he is going to make it back to Israel. One of the major themes we looked at last week was the sinner’s need to recognize their brokenness, and that God desires for us to take responsibility for our sin. I bring that up again this morning because it’s only from the place of seeing our predicament for what it is that a believer can say that things in this world are not the way they are supposed to be. Jonah took that step when he said, “It’s my fault, throw me overboard,” but now he’s imagining what is true and what is ahead. Jonah’s mediation when death appears to be minutes if not seconds away is to think with hope on God’s goodness and compassion. The faith of Jonah that we’ve seen is one in which God does what God is going to do, but now Jonah’s faith is one that connects himself to God, his situation as something of worth to his Creator. In a situation where it doesn’t make much sense, Jonah reimagines his faith which is given him by God, to proclaim that he’s making it out of this alive.
The next step we see in the rehab program is God’s remembering and hearing the cry of his servant. It’s easy to get caught reading verses 17 and 10, and see God only acting by providing the fish to swallow and commanding the fish to vomit, but that’s to miss, as theologian Adam Clarke pointed out that “All is miracle.” The fact that Jonah survives being thrown out in the middle of the storm, that he describes sinking to the roots of the mountains in the sea where the weeds wrapped around his head. Even if this is merely poetic, Jonah was looking death in the eye, being barred and strapped down into the grave that is earth, and God saves him by providing the fish. The miraculous doesn’t stop when the fish is provided, but Jonah is sustained by God while he is in there. He is given the ability to breathe somehow, to have the cognitive ability to pray somehow, to not be consumed by the fluids of the stomach that digest the fish’s food. After three days, God commands this fish to vomit him up; it’s not exactly the most appealing story you want to read around the dinner table. God has prepared and provided a fish that spares Jonah from being crushed by its teeth upon entry, from being done fatal harm while he is inside, and in the end has him disposed alive and able to see God’s holy temple again.
The character of God that we find in the book of Jonah is a God who hates evil, a God who shows mercy to those who repent, and a God who is in control over all circumstances. The rehabilitation that God leads Jonah through in the midst of all that’s going on is incredible! Jonah doesn’t need days to think things over; Jonah doesn’t need a comfortable room and spa package to cleanse and reset his mind from its previous wrong. Jonah gets a pitch black tomb to consider his situation, to consider what he has done, what has been done for him, and what he is to do next. The text presents Jonah as having a large amount of faith and knowledge that there is more to his life than it ending right now, and God is the one who has enable this to be. God shows the vastness of his compassion. That’s not to say that there’s no punishment, but what we, the audience, receive in a glimpse of what happens by way of this prayer, is God rehabilitating, God doing the healing on Jonah’s heart that he can trust him, that he can go, he will be provided for. God’s remembering of Jonah may also be a reminder that Jonah is one who has been created, and thus has a duty to serve his Creator who calls him.
We’ve look at how Jonah reimagined his faith, how God remembered him and provides healing and the purpose of that is for Jonah to have a renewed identity. If you have your Bible open, you can see that Jonah’s prayer begins with his assurance, “In my distress I called to the Lord and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” After he reflects on what he had been through, he gives voice in verses 8 and 9 to a renewed conviction and dedication, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” There’s a sense of awe, a thirst in what Jonah has to say. Remember he’s still in the fish when he says this, in the dark, soaking wet, nasty smelling belly of the fish when he prays this prayer laying down or curled up unable to get away from the food that the fish can digest and all of the innards. His fear and discomfort has given way to holding onto the hope that if he has been kept alive for this long, God has something ahead. What we hear him saying here, too, gives an indication of where his heart is at. He’s been a prophet all his life, he’s cried out against false teaching and faithless people, and that can lead to a sense of entitlement in his relationship with God. But now it’s in these verses that I hear him saying, “If only the people knew…” not boasting in the sense of “Look what I got, look how special I am.” But rather he sees the miraculous grace God has shown him as that which could belong to anyone who calls upon his name. For his grace, God deserves greatest praise and utmost thanksgiving as well as his steadfast commitment.
It’s this third step of the renewed identity that Jonah concludes the intensive of the rehab program that has been offered him. There are still two chapters left of what lies ahead of us in the story, but he’s gotten the biggest wake-up call and set his life back on track for now. Take a moment and let what we’ve seen in the first two chapters sink in: Jonah hears from God but runs away, he admits his guilt and takes charge of changing his path, he calls upon God and has faith for something ahead. Everything happens based on the grace of God, which cannot be taken away from who God is. God has seen all that goes on, he cares for all who he has created, not just Israel, and he has control over all parts of nature and animals. For Jonah it was in seeing his sin that God’s grace became clear. It’s like when you wear eyeglasses or sunglasses and you get a smudge on the lens. When the glasses are on your face you can’t tell exactly where the smudge is, you just know you can’t see clearly. However when you take them off, you’re able to see the dirt and clean it up. Jonah in the midst of the storm knows something is wrong because of his action, but it’s when he takes himself off of that by going overboard that he can see the dirt on the lens. He sees that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be: he hasn’t trusted God, he hasn’t dedicated himself to God, he hasn’t praised God. He cleans the lens and proclaims “Salvation comes from the Lord!”
If you’re not a believer and you’re hearing this, my prayer is that you hear this story and you can trust that it’s real; it’s not some fairytale that we brainwash our kids with. Our God is this incredible, and he cares and provides for every part of our lives, not the least of which is our eternal salvation; I invite you to see God as the one who has a purpose for all that happens and who gives purpose to each of us. He is ready and willing to reveal to you his grace and compassion; he’s the only one that can truly help you. If that sounds like something you want to know more about, come talk to me or to someone who looks like they’ve been around here for a while, we want to meet you and talk about this.
What does it mean for those of you who have been around for a while, those of us who claim to be sinners saved by grace, born again Christians? I’m hoping you haven’t already made your peace with this passage, saying, “Isn’t it great that God rehabbed Jonah like he did: rescuing him, providing for him, giving him cause to grow his faith and rededicate his life!” and you’re just waiting for me to stop talking. Brothers and sisters, the process of rehab isn’t something that just ends, it doesn’t conclude when Jonah hits the shore, it doesn’t end when you make your profession of faith or when the Sunday services get done. We need to constantly be reminded that God’s in control and active. We constantly need to be reimagining our faith, considering what the life ahead of us in this world and the next is all about. Our faith, a gift from God and a discipline in our lives, calls upon us to take our place in the kingdom work that God is doing. We can get stale though, not the work, but we; so we need to be renewed. We need to be reminded that if we’re to go on living our lives without any real thanksgiving and attention to God, that we are in the same position as those clinging to worthless idols. Brothers and sisters, whether you’re new or mature to the faith, the grace of God is ours to hold. He calls us again to remember that he is still working, he is still healing. May his grace transform our worship, our families, our communities, everything we do. May we be willing to continue in rehab so that we too can confess in all times, “Salvation comes from the Lord!” Amen.