Two weeks ago, we started to look at the story of Jonah. We discovered that his story is all of our stories. We’ve all run from God; some of us are still running. We think we’re different, but we’re really not. Jonah’s story helps us understand what happens to us when we run, and ultimately what happens when we stop running.I’ve been reading a book called Traveling Mercies by Ann Lamott. It’s a book about one person’s spiritual journey, and it’s not a story for the easily offended. She grew up believing God was almost like a strange man with a personality disorder. She took drugs, spent a good chunk of her life drunk, had multiple boyfriends – some of them married – and viewed Christians with great suspicion.”Then one afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me,” she writes. She found herself calling a pastor. She doubted God could love her, but he said, “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.” She reluctantly began to attend church, always leaving before the sermon, but the music started to get to her. “Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender.” Finally, one day she did stay for the sermon, “which I just thought was ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape.” She ran home to her houseboat and prayed a version of the sinner’s prayer I’ve never heard before – one that I can’t repeat in polite company.We may or may not have had the same experiences as Anne Lamott, but we can all probably relate to what she said: “the cracks webbed all the way through me.” We’re not all that different. A lot of us have reached that point of brokenness, even though our lives may not have looked as messy. We may have reached the point of wondering whether God could still love us.What’s amazing in Lamott’s story, as well as Jonah’s story, is that when you reach this point, it’s not really a point of despair. It’s a point of hope.It’s a point of hope, because it turns out that God reacts differently from how I would react. If I was God (thank him I’m not), Jonah 1 would have been the end of the story. You mess up, you’re thrown overboard, the storm ends, justice is done, the end. I’m not so sure I would give Jonah a second chance. I’m always tempted, when I tell someone to do something and they don’t and everything falls apart, to say, “I told you so.” I’m not so sure there would be Jonah chapter 2 if I was God.But Jonah reacts differently too. Even though he’s at a very low point in his life – how much lower can you get than up to your neck in water and seaweed inside a great fish – he doesn’t pray a prayer of deliverance. He prays a prayer of thanks. Somehow he figures out that God’s not quite done with him yet. Even though he’s experiencing the consequences of his own disobedience, he sees hope because of God’s character.I don’t think he composed this section word for word when he was in the fish. He probably prayed something along these lines, perhaps even using some of the Scripture passages that came to mind in the middle of the crisis. This prayer reflects his thoughts, perhaps, as we was in the fish’s digestive system, but a little more neatly composed than he might have been able to handle from within the situation.Some lessons for when we hit the bottom:
1. When we call in distress, God listens
Anne Lamott’s prayer used language so vulgar that I can’t repeat it here. It doesn’t seem to have mattered; God heard her. We sometimes think God only listens to us when we’re in neat situations, when we’re presentable enough that he won’t be offended by us. It’s like what they say about banks: they only loan money to people who don’t need it. We think that God only gives grace to people who don’t really need grace. But that isn’t the case. God responds to us when we call on him, even if our lives happen to be a mess.Listen to Jonah 2:1-2: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish. He said, ‘I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the world of the dead, and LORD, you heard me!” Jonah wasn’t in a great negotiating position. There wasn’t a lot that Jonah could say that would get God to respond favorably to him. But God listened anyway.Sometimes the most eloquent prayer we can pray is, “Help!” Those times that we wonder if it’s safe to turn to God, or whether he’s turned his back on us – it’s safe. We can still call out to him.
2. When we run, God will work to get our attention
Jonah continues his prayer by describing his situation. He paints a picture of what God will do to bring us back to himself when we run:
You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence. How will I ever again see your holy Temple?'”I sank beneath the waves, and death was very near. The waters closed in around me, and seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead. But you, O LORD my God, have snatched me from the yawning jaws of death! (Jonah 2:3-6)
Jonah thought he was as good as dead. He sank to a pretty low level – one that a lot of us have seen in others, or even in our own lives.God could spare us from the consequences of our actions, like some parents do. I’ve seen some parents cover for their kids – write checks for their overdrawn accounts, shield them from the consequences of their mistakes. God isn’t the type to shield us from the consequences of our mistakes. Think of Moses (kills a man, exiled to the dessert) or David (adultery, lost a child, kingdom began to fall apart, lost his reputation). God lets us experience the full consequences of our actions when we run so we understand the cost, so we won’t run quite as far the next time. He does it, not to pay us back, but to win us back.
3. God is strategic in how far he takes us
Jonah writes, “When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the LORD. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple” (Jonah 2:7). Here’s where we see that God isn’t vindictive; he’s strategic. When we run, our lives may look out of control, as Jonah’s did – way out of control. But we’re not out of God’s reach. God is bringing us to the place where we have nowhere else to turn. He becomes our last, our only resort. For some of us, it almost takes as far as it took Jonah – to the point at which he had lost all other hope. God will bring us to the end of ourselves so there’s nowhere else to turn.
4. We forfeit God’s grace when we run
Jonah 2:8-10 says, “Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone.” The word mercies is one of my favorite Old Testament words. It’s hard to translate into English. It has the idea of a stubborn, relentless kind of love that won’t give up on us. When we run, God does lead us to the point at which we want to come back – but we forfeit something. We forfeit his mercies; we forfeit what we would have had if we had kept a close relationship with him. There are consequences.There’s a touch of irony in Jonah 2:10: “Then the LORD ordered the fish to spit up Jonah on the beach, and it did.” I think we’re supposed to read that and think, “If only Jonah was so obedient!” If only we were that obedient as well.We’re all runners. We’ve either come to the point at which the cracks are showing, and there’s nowhere else to turn, or else we’ll be there one day. All God’s people have been.God uses our brokenness for a purpose. Everyone God has ever used has first reached the end of themselves. Go through the list of the people God has used – Moses, David, Peter, Paul, Jonah. They’re all people who have something in common with us. They’ve run until there’s been nowhere else to turn.Prayer
Thank you that you hear us when we’re as far from you as possible. Thank you that it’s your job to love us, even when we are at our most unlovable.Your story is a story of using people who’ve run away, and then run back to you. Thank you that you can use any of us, not because we have it all together, but because you can put us back together.