May 14 lesson: God’s Love Preserved Jonah
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God’s Love Preserved Jonah
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 3: God’s Pervasive and Sustaining Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 14, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Jonah 2
Last week, we saw Jonah resist a call from God to go and preach in Nineveh. In fact, he boarded a ship and fled in the opposite direction. But God sent a frightening storm to trouble the ship, which was the vehicle of Jonah’s attempted escape. However, Jonah recognized the hand of God in the storm and advised his fellow travelers to throw him into the sea. As a result of the sailors taking action, the storm was stilled. Meanwhile, the Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah. And as we are reminded, this could be the prophet’s transport back to where he belonged.
Though the trip back to where he belonged was geographical alright, more importantly, it was spiritual. Even if Jonah had never left his house, the reality was that he had turned his back and walked away from God. For sure, he needed to come back.
Scholars recall the old adage that there are “no atheists in foxholes.” Similarly, perhaps there are no atheists in fish bellies either. Important to note! Peril inspires prayer.
We are advised that Jonah’s prayer is written in poetic form, and the chief hallmark of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Whatever else parallelism may mean, it always involves the repetition of an idea. As scholars note, we see that technique here in the phrases of verse 2. “I called” is paralleled by “I cried.” “Out of my distress” is matched by “out of the belly of Sheol.” And, “he answered me” is balanced by “you heard my voice.”
A central thought in our scripture passage is the phrase “Out of my distress,” for so often that is the place from which we call out to the Lord. Jonah characterizes that distress as “the belly of Sheol.” Belly, indeed. Sheol was the Hebrew term for the place of the dead. But while some translations render it “hell,” scholars state that it was not generally understood as a place of punishment so much as a place of nothingness. “Sheol” is also translated grave, which is probably where Jonah understood himself to be.
In verse 3, Jonah acknowledges that his situation is the chastening action of God. The prophet’s language may sound accusatory, but at some level it is a very positive affirmation. Just as King David wanted only a calamity that put him in the hands of the Lord (2 Samuel 24:14), Jonah was in the good place of knowing that God was in charge of his fate.
But then, like us sometimes, Jonah assumes the passive voice and says, “I am driven away,” he prays. Yet, we know that was not the case at all. He was no more driven away from God’s presence than the prodigal son was driven away from his father’s house.
Scholars inform us that the longing for God’s Temple is a common expression in the Old Testament. It was especially associated with the presence of the Lord. In Jonah’s case, therefore, the matters are synonymous in his heart. He feels that he is at a distance from God, and he cannot imagine even getting back to the Temple again from where he is.
But as we continue with the story and hear the descriptive picturesque language, we see Jonah sinking, deep into the waters of the Mediterranean. He figures he is a goner. However, it is then that the Lord spares Jonah, delivering his life from the Pit. And since this testimony does not come from dry land, we recognize that the fish is God’s means of salvation.
According to scholars, “Remembered” is a richly meaningful term in Scripture. It is not merely the opposite of forgetting. Rather, it assumes the actions that naturally follows from what is being remembered. Hence, it is sufficient for the Lord to command Israel to “remember the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8). That is not simply making a mental note of the Sabbath, but living out a conscious recognition of the implications and practice of the Sabbath.
For Jonah, to remember the Lord, therefore, is for him to turn back to God. He prayed to the Lord. And while Jonah had earlier despaired of seeing the “holy temple” again, still he affirmed that his prayer reached God there.
While scholars do not know exactly what Jonah meant in verse 8, they do understand the spirit of what he meant. Ever since Eden, humankind has been faced with a choice. And that choice is a theme that runs all through Scripture (Deuteronomy 30:19; Proverbs 4:14-19; Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 8:5). And one element of that choice has always been deceptive, empty, and ultimately very costly.
One thing we humans tend to do is complement our repentance with promises when we say we’re sorry for something past. Usually, we add a promise that we’ll do better in the future. Scholars assert that practice is not necessary for the Lord, because it is not a prerequisite for God’s forgiveness. However, those same scholars declare it is necessary for us. It is right and appropriate that our contrition should be accompanied by new resolve. And so Jonah looks hopefully forward and promises God his thanksgiving, his sacrifices and his obedience.
In summary, we are now aware that God’s mission and the fish’s purpose are accomplished. Jonah is back where he belongs. He is now in line with the will and call of God, and he’s back on land.
A Place to Pray
Whatever the circumstance or situation, it is always the perfect time and place to pray. And Jonah is our example and bore witness to this truth.
Where was Jonah? As you know, he was in the fish’s belly, and there he despaired that he might never again see the Lord’s holy Temple. For sure, the Temple was the most appropriate and inspiring place for prayer. That’s easy to comprehend – its architecture, its elements and its symbols – all point to God. The worshiper senses the very presence of the Lord, just beyond the altar, hallowed by the curtain.
But Jonah was a long sea-mile from the Temple. No question! He was not surrounded by the beautiful enhancements of worship.
Quite the contrary, as scholars remind us, Jonah was surrounded by the sights and sounds of digestion. His setting was dark, slimy and unbearably smelly. What sort of place for prayer was that?
In reality, it was a perfect place for prayer! As I mentioned previously, peril inspires prayer. Trouble is a perfect place for prayer. That is also true for “need” and “desperation.”
Personally, I do my best praying out of need and desperation. The reason is, that at that point I move beyond self-reliance and lean solely on the Lord.
George Matherson, the British minister and hymn writer, knew the truth of that. “I sink in life’s alarms,” he sang, “when by myself I stand.” Jonah had tried to go it alone, to be by himself without the Lord. But when he began to sink, he reached out to God once again.
No doubt, the belly of the fish was a long way from the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it became a catalyst for God to change Jonah’s heart. God is always near. Therefore, the belly of the fish became a perfect place for prayer.
The late Kenneth Leach, Anglican clergyperson, wrote a book entitled “True Prayer.” In that book, he said, “In prayer, we are seeking to achieve a continuous state of recollection of and wakefulness to the reality and presence of God.” Any place is a good place to pray.
Deliver Us from Evil
For many of us, praying The Lord’s Prayer is a normal part of our worship services, and perhaps even our private lives. And as a part of that model prayer, we find the familiar petition: “Deliver us from evil.”
Now, there is something quite right about praying for deliverance even when we don’t see or sense any trouble. After all, our senses are not infallible and our very perception of evil is clouded. There is, therefore, more evil from which we need to be delivered than we probably know. And as scholars make clear, the story of Jonah illustrates very effectively for us how God endeavors to deliver us from all kinds of evil.
Jonah’s prayer for deliverance came in the belly of the fish. That unpleasant and scary place was the “evil” form which he longed to be saved. But, as we are told, that is a bit like calling 911 from the back of the ambulance. You see, the fish was already part of God’s project to save Jonah.
At this point, we need to see the bigger picture. We need to move beyond this episode in the fish’s belly and see how God worked to deliver from evil. The very first words of the whole story reflect God’s heart in this matter.
The first order of divine business, as you recall, was to deliver the people of Nineveh from their evil. For that purpose, God sent Jonah to preach to them. The next thing we know, however, is that Jonah himself needs to be delivered from evil. And that evil is not the fish, but Jonah’s disobedience and attempted distance from God.
The storm is God’s effort to save Jonah. The fish is another part of God’s effort to save Jonah. And Jonah himself is meant to be an instrumental part of God’s effort to save Nineveh.
So Jesus taught the disciples to pray, among other things, that the Lord would deliver us from evil. This prayer of our Lord reflects our ongoing need. And without doubt, it also reflects the heart of God, for delivering us from evil is what the Lord is doing far more than we know.
Can I Get a Witness?
At some point, most of us have probably had a fish-belly story. The details, of course, are not the same as Jonah’s experience, but his experience serves as a metaphor for us. Most of us could probably share our individual versions of it. We know about living through a rough time. We know about calling out to God for help. And a number of us have stories to tell about God’s deliverance.
As scholars note, the interesting thing about some of these stories is that they are told with smiles. Even though they were filled with details of inconvenience, expenses, and even danger, still they were told with smiles and laughter. Why? Because the people had come out of the other side of those troubles, and the passage of time has turned their experience into funny stories.
But, for us, the final product is something even better than a funny story. Even though these troublesome experiences may have a humorous side, the deliverance of God turns them into testimonies.
Toward the end of his prayer, Jonah speaks “with the voice of thanksgiving” (2:9). Thanksgiving is always the avenue of testimony, you see. It may be accompanied by smiles or even tears, but thanksgiving always points to loving intervention of God. And in the end, as we are told and are aware, Jonah makes a declaration that can be echoed by multitudes. Jonah, his fellow sailors, the people of Nineveh, you and I – we may all join together in affirming, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (2:9).
- Where do you see God’s love in today’s portion of Jonah’s story?
- God never abandoned Jonah, as evidenced by the sending of a great fish to rescue him. What experiences have you had (class members) that assure you that God loves you and will never abandon you?