Running Back to God | Sermon by John S. Fils-Aime
Jonah tried to run away from God. In chapter 1 of the book that bears his name, the prophet receives a word from God instructing him to go to Nineveh and announce to its citizens that God was preparing to judge the city because of its wickedness.
Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was a powerful nation that had oppressed and subjugated Israel. Jonah knew that God’s threat of judgment was not absolute but a means of getting the people of Nineveh to repent and turn to Him.
Even though Jonah, as God’s messenger, believed that God was acting out of love for Nineveh, he refused to carry God’s message to the people of Nineveh.
Jonah hated them and his preference was for the city to be destroyed. He could not accept that God, rather than hating the people of Nineveh as he did, could be gracious and merciful to them.
Jonah’s prejudice against the people of Nineveh caused him to flee from the presence of God. God wanted Jonah to go one way; Jonah went in the opposite direction, deliberately disobeying God’s instructions.
Jonah became a man on the run, trying to hide from God. From the time Jonah rejected God’s assignment for him, his life was on a slippery slope.
In 1:3, Jonah attempted to run from God and traveled down to Joppa and boarded a ship sailing to the city of Tarshish. Once on board, he went down below deck.
Eventually, he was thrown into the ocean where he sank down into the depths of the sea and was swallowed by the fish. Jonah’s flight from God was not just a geographic one, but a spiritual one as well. The further Jonah tried to run from God, the lower his life sank.
Jonah 2 records Jonah’s prayer from inside the belly of the fish. From Jonah’s prayer, we see that God can deliver you no matter how deep your life has sunk. The good news of Jonah 2 is when your life hits rock bottom, God can still meet you and pick you up.
The Purpose of the Fish
Means of Jonah’s rescue
Jonah had been thrown overboard in the middle of a severe storm with no life preserver. He would not have been able to swim to safety, and more than likely would have died had he not been swallowed by the fish.
After three days and nights, the Bible says that God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land. It was unorthodox, but the fish saved Jonah’s life. Salvation by any means is sweet (1:15; 2:10).
Means of God’s revelation
Throughout the book of Jonah, God had been working to get Jonah’s attention. He spoke to Jonah. Jonah didn’t listen. Then God began to speak to Jonah through circumstances. Jonah still didn’t listen.
When the storm hit the boat, the sailors urged Jonah to pray to his God. Jonah didn’t pray. Finally, through the fish, God spoke in such a way that Jonah could not ignore Him. Answer when God calls!
The Prayer Inside the Fish
Jonah speaks of his experiences as being a dark night of the soul (v. 2). This was a place where he felt like trouble was closing in on him and God was moving farther from him. But Jonah’s testimony states that despite how far from God he felt, when he cried out, God showed up.
In chapter 1, in the midst of a violent storm the sailors urged Jonah to “call on your god” (Jonah 1:6); an invitation to pray that Jonah refused.
But when his situation became more desperate, Jonah finally decides to pray—a prayer of thanksgiving no less. Jonah is thankful because God is compassionate; even after turning his back on God, God answered his distress and heard the cry of a repentant sinner.
Jonah was in Distress
He was in the depths of the grave and the furthest, emotionally and spiritually, that you can be from God. Jonah’s testimony in verse 2 states that when he called, God answered and delivered. God will meet you and answer you in the depths of life.
Through a series of powerful and poetic images, Jonah begins to recount his past experiences (vv. 3–7). In verse 3, Jonah says he felt discarded, just as the sailors had done to the cargo; Jonah feels God has done that to him.
In verse 6, Jonah says he felt trapped in the roots of the mountains and locked in a grave. His situation seemed inescapable. In verse 7 he describes his experiences as being near death and he could do nothing about it. But for Jonah, the worst part about his past experiences was not that he was trapped or discarded or close to death, but that he would never see God again.
Interestingly, Jonah had hoped when he ran away he would escape from God’s presence. Now he realizes that the worst place in life to be is away from the presence of God.
The most commendable aspect of Jonah’s prayer is the final verse where he vows to praise when his ordeal is done (vv. 8–9). The vow is made from the belly of the fish even though there are no clear signs that Jonah will survive.
Praise is a celebration of God’s mighty deeds. Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 is an example. It glorifies God after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea on dry land and the hard-charging Egyptians were drowned when the waters came crashing down around them. Praise also anticipates what God will do and celebrates God’s deliverance even though we cannot see it yet.
There is no place that you find yourself that God cannot deliver you. You can be in the depths of financial despair and God can answer you. You can be in the depths of emotional distress and God can rescue you. You can be in the grave of spiritual disappointment and God can meet you there. No matter how far the distance, God will travel to deliver us.
No matter what depths, God will sink low to save us. We see this especially in the ministry of Jesus, who dined with sinners and traveled a great distance to meet a Samaritan woman at a well. There is no low too low, no distance too great, that God won’t come when you call and answer when you cry out.