In June of last year, Michael Packard, a commercial lobster fisherman, went in for his last dive of the day off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Packàrd was about 45 feet deep into the water searching for lobsters when he felt a huge push, almost like a “truck hit me and everything just went dark,” Packard went on to say: “I felt around and I realized there were no teeth,” he said. “And then I realized, ‘I’m in a whale’s mouth. . . and he’s trying to swallow me.’” Packard had been swallowed by a juvenile humpback whale. This was an accident by the whale as humpbacks have never been known to be aggressive towards humans. Michael Packard was just simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luckily for Packard, the whole ordeal lasted only about 30 seconds, and the whale promptly spit him back out onto the water. But in those 30 seconds Packard thought it was the end and thought about his wife and two teen-aged sons. Marine biologists were quick to say that this was a one in a trillion chance of happening and that while the mouth of a whale could contain a human, the esophagus of a humpback whale or any non-toothed whale isn’t large enough to push down a human. This incident of course brought to the minds of many the story of Jonah.
Based on what marine biologists said in response to Michael Packard’s ordeal we may ask ourselves “How did Jonah survive in the belly of a fish?” Whether or not he was swallowed by a large whale or fish is not the point. The story of Jonah tells us about who God is and how God is at work in our lives.
Biblical scholar, Elizabeth Achtemeier has this to say about the book of Jonah:
“Certainly it is futile to argue whether such a thing would be possible. The author is telling us a story to say some very important things about God, and all arguments over the fish tend to divert our attention from the main points being made. The important fact is that Jonah, despite his disobedience…has been saved from a watery grave by the totally undeserved grace of God.”.
Jonah himself knows this. He very well could have drowned when the sailors threw him overboard into the stormy seas. He knows he is only alive because of God’s gracious decision to save him from a watery grave. Albeit he is in the belly of a large fish, but it could have been much, much worse. And because Jonah realizes this, he begins to thank God. Jonah has come to experience God’s grace in a new and more powerful way.
Jonah chapter 2 is a prayer. It is Jonah’s prayer recounting what he’s learned or maybe more accurately “relearned” about who God is. First of all, Jonah is grateful that God listens. He begins his prayer recounting how he called out to God in distress (probably just as he was about to hit the water when the sailors threw him overboard) and that God heard his cry for help.
While Jonah started out as running away from God, he is now desperate to get back to God. He’s realized that only God can help him now.
To get a better understanding of Jonah’s prayer it’s helpful to understand what he means when he says, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried and you heard my voice.” According to ancient Hebrew thought, Sheol is the deepest of the depths. It is the dark place where the dead go after leaving the land of the living. It is a place beyond human reach and human help. Still even in the darkest of dark places Jonah is thankful that God still hears him.
The first thing we can take away from Jonah’s prayer is this: “God hears us.” No matter how far gone we think we may be from God’s presence we are never so far that God can’t hear our cries. For God is always listening.
Not only does God hear us, but God is also with us. Last week, Pastor Troy alluded to Psalm 139, my favorite Psalm in the Bible, where the Psalmist says in verses 7-8: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there, if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Many of you have heard me summarize this Psalm before as this way “There’s nowhere we can go where God can’t find us.”
Here is the second take away from Jonah’s prayer: “God remains with us.”
No matter how far away we think we are from God, God remains with us. Even when, like in Jonah’s case, we try to run from God.
Jonah doesn’t know this, however, until he repents. He admits he was wrong to try to run away from God. To repent means to literally change direction. While Jonah began by fleeing from God, we see in Jonah’s prayer that he now turns toward God.
Whereas the sailors who threw Jonah overboard came to believe and turned toward God after experiencing God’s power over the sea, Jonah turned toward God when he experienced the power of God’s grace. God saved Jonah even though Jonah did not deserve it – resulting in Jonah overflowing with thanksgiving to God for His graciousness.
Even when Jonah chose to not listen to God, God heard Jonah.
Even when Jonah tried to run away from God, God remained with Jonah.
In his prayer Jonah praises God for God’s far-reaching love and graciousness for him. He praises God for saving his life. It’s interesting to note that Jonah acknowledges God’s grace, but only for himself.
Spoiler alert: In chapter 3 we see that Jonah is still not ready for God to show grace to the Ninevites. The Ninevites were some of Israel’s sworn enemies who attacked and brutalized them. You really can’t blame Jonah for not wanting God to show mercy to the Ninevites. But if we believe that God’s grace really does extend to all, then that also includes our enemies or those who have hurt us. In that sense God’s grace is truly offensive. Sooner or later, we have to come to terms with just how deep and wide God’s love and grace truly is.
Story of talking to students at Cherry Hill East. “God’s grace could extend to someone as terrible as Hitler.” I hated saying that.
This isn’t to say there aren’t consequences to our bad decisions. Jonah does after all find himself in the belly of a fish for disobeying God. There will always be consequences for our mistakes. There will always be consequences when we choose to turn away from God. It will always be true, however, that through Christ, God extends grace to each of us.
If we are open to God’s astounding grace for ourselves, then we must be open to the fact that God’s astounding grace extends to others even to those who we don’t think deserve it. The fact of the matter is that none of us deserve God’s grace, but because of who God is, God’s grace is always there for our taking.
God will never force us, however, to accept His grace. We are always presented with a choice. We can choose to follow God or run from God. We can repent or remain in the depths of darkness. It is our choice to make.
And it’s not a onetime choice. We will continually need to make the choice to turn towards or away from God. There will be times when we will wisely choose to turn toward God and there will be times when we won’t be so wise.
The consequences of not choosing to turn towards God is that we will find ourselves in the belly of our own proverbial fish. We’ll still be alive, but we’ll be in darkness. We’ll still be alive, but we won’t be truly living.
While Jonah comes to terms with God’s grace in the belly of the fish, in the depths of Sheol, Jonah wasn’t meant to remain there. God did not create us to live in the depths of darkness. We were created to live in the light with God and with others. And that can only happen if we are open to receiving the radical and offensive grace God gives to us all. Even those who we think don’t deserve God’s mercy.
The crazy thing about God’s grace is that it opens our eyes to just how wide and deep God’s love is. When that happens, we realize how we mistakenly put limits on God’s love for ourselves and others.
At the end of his prayer, Jonah criticizes those who worship idols instead of God. For Jonah, he had to give up his idol of who he thought God should be. There will be times when we must give up our idea of how we think God’s love should work and just allow God’s love to truly work. This means recognizing God’s deep love for all and letting go of the false belief that there are those who God cannot possibly love and forgive.
Because again we see in Jonah that no matter how far we try to run, no matter how dark the darkness around us becomes, God finds us, remains with us, and brings us back into the light. While we won’t always choose to turn toward God, the good news of Jesus Christ is that God will always choose us. There is nowhere we can go where the love of Jesus Christ cannot reach us. Even when we, like Jonah, have a hard time understanding God’s all-encompassing love for all.