Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 2: 1-10 Salvation comes from the Lord


Some of you may know this already, but you almost didn’t have me as your Rector. Our church youth club went on regular trips to different places throughout the year. Normally, when we were going swimming, we went to Portadown pool. But once, as a special treat, we went to Shankill leisure centre in Belfast. The reason was because of the wave machine.

Everyone would be in the pool, having lots of fun, and then every so often a siren would sound, indicating that for the next five minutes, the waves would be turned on. We had been in the pool a while, when the siren went off again, and the waves started up. And I was out from the edge, and a little too far down the pool, and I went under. And I couldn’t swim. (Still can’t).

Down I went, clutching and grabbing and trying to get to safety, but the others (friends and strangers) thought I was just having a laugh. And down I went. The lifeguards hadn’t spotted me. I was in danger. And then my rescuer arrived. Tommy, one of our youth club leaders, saw what was happening, and pulled me up by the hair, and got me to safety. A scary experience. Plucked from near death and brought to dry land.

So as we read of what happened to Jonah, my chest starts to tighten and my panic starts to rise at the thought of being under the water - not just in the Shankill Leisure Centre, but in the open sea. But it wouldn’t matter if you can swim or not - in the open sea, to find yourself thrown overboard means certain death. There’s no RNLI lifeboat coming for you, and no Irish Coastguard helicopter searching for you. There’s just you and the wide open sea; you and the deep blue sea.

Now, last week we saw how Jonah had got into this situation in the first place. God’s word had come to Jonah, telling him to go east to preach against the city of Nineveh, one of the big cities of the Assyrian empire (modern-day Mosul in Iraq). God had said go, and Jonah said no. He hot-footed it in the opposite direction, getting on a boat to flee to Tarshish, running away from the Lord.

But Jonah should have known that you can’t run away from the God who made everything, who is present everywhere. And so a storm came on the boat, terrifying the sailors, who cried to their gods. Jonah was blamed for the calamity, and he told them to throw him into the sea. When every other option failed, then the sailors did so. And at once the storm ceased. And the sailors worshipped the one true living God, the God of Jonah.

But what happened to Jonah? We know from the end of chapter 1 that the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in it for three days and three nights. And in chapter 2, we get to hear Jonah’s prayer from inside the great fish.

As you look at it, set out in the pew Bibles, it looks a bit like a Psalm - and it sounds like some of the Psalms as well. But no other Psalm and no other scripture was composed in the belly of a great fish under the sea. So what does he pray?

In verse 2, he acknowledges that God heard and answered his prayer: ‘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.’

No matter our circumstances, our feelings and emotions; no matter our location (even in the depths of the grave), God hears and God answers our prayers. That was certainly true for Jonah, and it’s still true for us today. No matter how low (emotionally or physically), God will hear us when we call to him.

And that’s even the case when God is the reason that we find ourselves in those low circumstances. Do you see how Jonah speaks so directly to God:

‘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.’ (3)

In the deep, under the waves, swirled about by the currents, Jonah feels himself cut off from God, banished from his sight. (Of course, he isn’t - God always sees us in darkness as well as in light). Yet even in that deep, dark situation, Jonah turns his sights towards God and his temple:

‘I have been banished from your sight;
yet I will look again towards your holy temple.’ (4)

And as he looks towards the temple, as he orients himself back towards God, as he repents, so he finds that God will hear his cry. And yet still, he sinks:

‘The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in for ever.
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O LORD my God.’ (5-6)

Have you noticed that up to this point, all the movement has been down, down, down. Jonah had gone down to Joppa (1:3), down into the ship (1:4). And when he was thrown into the sea, he’s in the depths, the deep, sinking down to the roots of the mountains. He is at rock bottom, the lowest point he could possibly reach. And it’s when you reach rock bottom you discover that the Lord saves, and the Lord lifts us up.

In a few minutes we’ll use Philippians 2 as our creed - reminding ourselves of how the Lord Jesus, equal with God, came down, down, down in order to save us. he became one of us; he died, even the death of the cross; in order to be our rescuer. He descended to the depths that we had got ourselves in, he took the lowest place, in order to lift us to the heights of his throne.

The Lord is willing to save. The Lord is able to save. The Lord will save all who call on him. Jonah is proof of this:

‘When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.’ (7)

Jonah was close to death, his life was ebbing away. And in that moment, he remembered the Lord, and called on the Lord. It’s why we can’t be sure that so-and-so isn’t in heaven. Who is to say what happens between a person and the Lord in their final moments, as their life ebbs away? [Of course, it’s better to be sorted long before that moment, to be sure of salvation without waiting for a deathbed conversion]

We see the contrast between trusting in anyone or anything else; and trusting in the Lord as Jonah’s prayer comes to an end: ‘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.’ (8-9)

Grace is available, but to receive it takes open hands; empty hands ready to receive. To cling to worthless idols means that we can’t receive God’s grace.

We need to receive God’s grace, and recognise that salvation comes only from the LORD. He is the one who saves, if we will look to him, call on him, and receive from him. And so far we have seen that salvation comes from the LORD for the sailors who gave up their worthless idols, their old gods, to call on the LORD. And salvation comes from the LORD for Jonah.

His prayer was heard, and his life didn’t ebb away under the depths of the sea. His salvation came in the form of a great fish, provided by the LORD. Can you imagine it? The smell, and the darkness, and the general unpleasantness. It might not seem very attractive, and yet it is the means of the Lord’s salvation.

To have witnessed the events of the first Good Friday, they also wouldn’t have appeared very pleasant, or attractive. The bruised and beaten body of Jesus, bleeding, and hung on the cross, abused and mocked by those who stood watching. And yet, the means of salvation, the most precious event in the history of the world.

And three days later, Jonah appears from the fish, a sign pointing to the resurrection of Jesus, as God continues to be in control of everything, commanding the fish to vomit him out onto dry land.

Jonah’s prayer acknowledges that salvation comes from the Lord. But it is also a declaration of praise to the source of his salvation.

A few months back I was in Dromore, and happened to bump into Tommy. And we chatted about that night in the Shankill Leisure Centre. And my gratitude to him was deepened - the one who lifted me from the depths, and saved me from near death that night.

When we realise the depths from which we have been rescued; the desperate state of our sin; the nearness to certain death; how deep must our gratitude be to the Lord who has saved us! The only one who can save us: Salvation comes from the LORD.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 26th January 2020.

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