Life at the bottom of the pit
by Jack Wald | September 28th, 2014

Jonah 2:1-10

As you probably know, I have great admiration for the music and lyrics of Jason Gray. I showed a video of one of his songs last week as part of the sermon. Jason Gray had an abusive stepfather and a difficult childhood. This caused him to develop a stutter and his story is one of being healed by Jesus of the pain he endured. At one point in his life, he doesn’t talk about when, he thought of killing himself and writes of this in his song, Without Running Away.
I’ve spent some days looking
For a length of rope
And a place to hang it
From the end of my hope
But where I thought hope had ended
I always find a little bit more

This is a song Jonah would have resonated with. We left Jonah last week as he was thrown into the sea. He was depressed and did not want to live. Being thrown into the sea would end things for him and he was ready to have his life end.

When he was selected by the sailors who cast lots and they asked what they should do to appease Jonah’s god, Jonah told them to sacrifice him by throwing him into the sea. They reluctantly did this and the storm quieted down.

We ended the sermon with Jonah cast into the sea and then in one more amazing twist in Jonah’s story, he was swallowed by a great fish. The story today ends with Jonah being vomited out of the fish onto dry land. In between these two incredible events (swallowed by a fish and then vomited out of the fish on to dry land) lies a psalm Jonah wrote about his experience.

In the book of Jonah, there is a chapter of narrative followed by this psalm and then two more chapters of narrative. The truth is that when we read the book of Jonah, we read the first, third, and fourth chapters but skim over the psalm that is the second chapter.

But this psalm is critical to understanding Jonah’s story because without it, his actions after he is once again on land make no sense. This psalm is a turning point in the life of Jonah.

So let me run through the psalm and then talk about turning points in our lives. Every follower of Jesus has a turning point. In fact, followers of Jesus have many turning points because we are continually shifting away from our following of Jesus and have to be redirected. By examining Jonah’s turning point, we can cast light on the turning points in our lives.

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said:
“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.

Jonah reflects from the relative safety of the belly of the fish, what he calls the depths of the grave. He remembers what he experienced when he was thrown overboard.

It is one thing to say you are going to die and another when the time actually comes. Jonah was picked up by the sailors and thrown overboard into the raging sea. He hit the water and the boat, blown by the wind, moved away from him. He remained on the surface of the sea, more and more alone.

Assuming he knew how to swim, a big assumption, he could last for a bit but not for long. If he did not know how to swim, it was just a matter of seconds and then he began to sink under the waves. This was it. His life was over.

He had wanted to die but now had second thoughts and cried out to the Lord for help.

3 You hurled me into the deep,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.

It is curious that Jonah says that God was the one who threw Jonah into the sea. The sailors asked what they should do and Jonah told them to throw him into the sea. It was Jonah’s suggestion, and yet Jonah has the sense, as he reflects from the belly of the fish, that God’s hand has been in all the actions that have taken place. God caused the storm to rage. God led the sailors to Jonah as the guilty person. God has been in control of the situation and so Jonah sees the hand of God in having him thrown overboard.

Jonah is lost in the sea being tossed by the waves like a piece of driftwood and all this is part of God’s orchestration in the life of Jonah and the sailors.

4 I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’

His experience in this darkest moment of his life is not without hope. In the sea, moments from drowning, he cries out for help. But what chance of that is there? What can save him? But he cries for help and has the faintest glimmer of hope that he will once again look toward God’s holy temple. As Jason Gray wrote, “But where I thought hope had ended I always find a little bit more.”

5 The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.

Jonah went down to Joppa, down to the hold of the ship, lay down to sleep, and now he is descending even farther down into the sea. He is threatened, surrounded, and being wrapped with seaweed for burial.

6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O Lord my God.

The glimmer of hope was becoming steadily fainter. He was sinking to the bottom of the sea where he would be a prisoner of the deep. He was at the bottom of the pit, the end of his life.

And then, most improbably, he was swallowed by a great fish and discovered he could breathe. He was not dead. He was not terribly comfortable, but he was not dead. He did not know if he would ever leave the belly of this fish, but he was alive. Is this his grave? Will he ever leave the belly of the fish? Is this to be his final resting place?

Notice that he prays, O Lord my God. Jonah has been running away from God but now he is returning. He talked to the sailors about the Lord, the God. Now he prays, my God. In the midst of the depth of his circumstance hope rises, faith grows. There is not enough hope and faith to see what will happen, but there is hope and faith that God has not finished in his rescuing of Jonah.

7 “When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.

He was snatched up from the prison of the grave at the bottom of the sea and in this new tomb, he began to reflect. He has a lot of time to reflect, two to three days, and he goes back in his memory of his experience with God over the years. He remembers who God is and prays. From the depths of the sea, in the belly of a fish, his prayers rise to God.

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit the grace that could be theirs.

Jonah has already experienced the grace of God who kept him from drowning. Is an idol capable of doing that? Isaiah wrote: (Isaiah 45:20)
Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood,
who pray to gods that cannot save.

Jonah was saved, but not by sacrifice of vows to an idol made of wood. Jonah was saved by the living God. Jonah experienced the grace of God, receiving from God what he did not deserve.

9 But I, with a song of thanksgiving,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.

The sailors gave thanks when the sea was quieted and made vows to continue their sacrifices in the future. Now Jonah gives thanks as he has been rescued and it seems he too made a vow. What was it? It was probably something like this, “Lord, if you get me out of here and give me another chance, I will do what you tell me to do.”

Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Jonah ends his psalm with an acknowledgment that God, not Jonah, is the one who saves. It is not for Jonah to choose who receives salvation. Paul wrote in Romans 9:18
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
God saves who he will save. God has shown mercy to Jonah which is the mercy he will show to the Ninevites. Jonah has experienced the message he will preach before he has preached it.

Jonah has finished his psalm. From the depths of the pit he has called out for help and been rescued. He has vowed to obey in the future and now God gives him another chance.

10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah was back in Palestine where he had left. Jonah deserved death but was given life. God has rescued his disobedient prophet and we will see next week what happens. We would expect that the story will have a happy ending, but there have been so many unexpected turns in the story so far, it can be expected there will be more in the last two chapters.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to have another prophet take God’s message to Nineveh? Look at all the trouble God went to in order to have Jonah carry the message.

Once again, this is the central message of the book of Jonah. God worked to rescue the Ninevites. God worked to rescue the sailors. And God worked to rescue Jonah. There is no limit to how far God will go to save those he created in his image. God will endure rejection, abuse, humiliation, and pain in order to rescue the lost. And because God has unlimited creativity and power, he is able to use our obedience and disobedience to reach out to save all the people in our stories. We still have to accept the hand offered to us, but God’s hand is always extended for our rescue.

This psalm of Jonah is testimony to the power of God to save us. No matter how much we resist and no matter how determined we are to escape, God will always be present with us to save us. This is what Jonah learned. He learned that he could not flee from God. I mentioned Psalm 139 last week (Psalm 139:7–10 )
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

God was present in the depths of the sea and if Jonah had made it to Tarshish, God would have been present there as well. Jonah learned that God is merciful and extends grace. Jonah learned that God is the one who saves and that his heart is for all people to be saved.

This was a turning point in the life of Jonah and he once again resolved to be God’s obedient prophet.

The writer of Hebrews encourages us, (Hebrews 12:2)
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,

I was in university, following my own passions, trapped by my own insecurities. In retrospect I can see that God had pursued me for many years. A teacher in a Sunday School class, my oldest sister’s story of how she discovered Jesus, a trip to Florida where I went into a church in the middle of the night and prayed – all these were experiences I pushed away as I lived for myself. But then, in my second year of university, I was found and became a follower of Jesus. I turned from myself to Jesus.

Every follower of Jesus has a turning point when we turned away from what we were pursuing and turned toward God. But this is not the only turning point in the lives of followers of Jesus. There are many times we have to turn away from something and turn toward Jesus.

The battle with sin is a battle between our will and God’s will. We want to be masters of ourselves. We want to be God. As one of my sisters said when she was four or five years old, “I want what I want when I want it.”

But God wants us to live in submission to him. God doesn’t want this because he is an egomaniac and enjoys having people submit to him; God wants us to submit to his will because he knows better than we do what we need. It is because God loves us that he wants us to submit to him. It is in our best interest to submit to him.

In Romans 1 when Paul is describing God’s punishment of the ungodly, he writes: (Romans 1:26&28)
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.

God’s punishment was to let them be masters of their own lives. God said, “OK, if you insist, do whatever you want. I will not resist you.” Without the restraining hand of God they descended into hell on earth. Submission to God leads to life, not death. It leads to freedom, not restriction.

God’s pursuit of Jonah with the storm and the great fish was a pursuit of love. God’s pursuit of us when we rebel is a pursuit of love, not punishment.

We insist on carrying our own burdens, fighting for our rights, determining our own future, pursuing our own pleasure, making our own way, and eventually we get tired. To all the tired people in the world, Jesus said, (Matthew 11:28–30)
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

We come to the bottom of the pit, we surrender to God and are rescued.

There are many stories of surrender in the Bible. Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who took his share of his father’s inheritance and went off to a distant country to live a wild life. After he spent all his money he began the descent of Jonah. There was a famine and he was in need. He had been the heir to his father’s estate but now he became a hired hand. He was put in charge of feeding the pigs, which as a Jew was a disgraceful and humiliating job. He was so hungry he began to long for the food that was fed to the pigs. He went down, down, down, down until he was at the bottom of the pit.

Sitting in the midst of the pigs he came to his senses. (Luke 15:17-19)
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’

At the bottom of the pit he surrendered his willful rebellion, his self-centeredness that made him think more of himself than of his father and family, and his pride. He went back, ready to be a servant in the household where he had once been son of the master.

His father is a picture of God who waits eagerly for us to come to our senses and return to him. The son was rescued and redeemed.

Jacob was a clever opportunist, always looking to see how he could get ahead. His twin brother was stronger, but he was more clever. He took advantage of his brother and stole his birthright and blessing. Because his brother was physically stronger than he was, he fled for protection when his brother discovered he had been robbed. He went to his uncle, who was a clever opportunist himself, and outwitted him, taking his two daughters and a large part of his wealth.

He headed back to the land of his father, the land where his stronger brother lived and the night before he met his brother, in fear of what would happen that next day, he wrestled with the angel of the Lord at Peniel.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

This was a turning point in Jacob’s life. He had always survived by his wits and now he realized he was weaker than God. From this point on, he begins to build altars as he moves from place to place. Jacob learned to submit to God.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector in Jericho. He was a wealthy man who was considered by his fellow Jews to be a traitor because he collaborated with the Roman occupiers of Israel. He lived his life with wealth but not respect.

When he heard Jesus was passing by, he climbed a tree to see because he was too short to see over the heads of the crowd. When Jesus saw him, he called him down and announced he would eat with him. Zacchaeus was overcome with emotion and pledged to give half of his wealth to the poor and to pay back four times anyone he had cheated.

Climbing a tree to see Jesus pass by is not the way to gain respect, but Zacchaeus was desperate. He surrendered his pride, surrendered the shame he carried, surrendered his attachment to wealth, and made Jesus his master.

Judas and Peter both betrayed Jesus. Judas sold his knowledge of how to capture Jesus and Peter denied three times knowing him. Both Judas and Peter were shamed by their actions. The difference is that Judas could not face the shame and took his life. Peter took his shame and went to Jesus. He came as the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable came to his father. Peter surrendered to Jesus and Jesus restored his honor. This was a turning point in his life. Peter had always been brash but now he came out of this experience with humility.

A friend of mine carried the growing pain of his life circumstances, trying to keep his head above water when event after event threatened to take him under. Then, one day, as he was reading and praying, he surrendered and wept. He gave up carrying the stress and released it to Jesus to carry.

Have you surrendered to Jesus? Are you carrying burdens you no longer need to carry? Are you carrying shame you can put down at the feet of Jesus? Is your focus directed elsewhere, making Jesus an accessory to your life rather than the center of your life?

Let Jonah’s experience encourage you. God loves you and will go to the ends of the earth and the depths of the sea to save you. His work in your life is not punishment; it is designed to help you, to save you.

God hears your prayers in every situation of your life. You may think he is absent because he is not answering your prayer in the way you would like, but he hears every prayer. Once again, let me read from Psalm 139: (Psalm 139:1–4)
1 O Lord, you have searched me
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O Lord.

God is always present with you, working for good in your life. But he waits for you to surrender. You must surrender all of who you are, in every part of your life.

It is often a helpful exercise to write a psalm, as Jonah did. Express the emotion you are feeling. Write in vivid imagery and language what you are experiencing. Let it all out, hold nothing back. And then, when you are emptied and can’t think of what else to write, allow God to come into that part of your life with hope and healing.

Your turning points are events that are celebrated in heaven. When the prodigal son returned he confessed his sin.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

Surrender to Jesus and let the celebration begin.