Sermon: Praying from the Belly

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

What happens when you have to stop running? What does it look like to pray when you have no other choice, there is nothing else to do, but pray?

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Jonah. Jonah chapter 2, beginning in verse 1. Jonah is in the Old Testament, tucked between Amos and Obadiah on the left and Micah and Nahum on the right. Jonah, chapter 2, beginning in verse 1. To catch you up in the story, Jonah was a prophet of God to Israel and was told to go to Nineveh, but instead, he fled toward Tarshish, hopping on a ship headed as far west as he could imagine. The LORD hurled a storm, everyone panicked, and the sailors learned Jonah was responsible. Jonah told them to throw him into the sea and after they tried everything else they could think of, they gave in and did. The storm stopped and God sent a large fish to swallow up Jonah. This morning we will be with Jonah in the belly of the fish. It is here that Jonah finally stops running, that he finally turns and prays to the LORD.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called to the LORD out of my distress,

and he answered me.

Out of the belly of Sheol I cried

and you heard my voice.

You cast me into the deep

into the heart of the seas,

and the flood surrounded me.

all your waves and your billows passed over me.

Then I said, “I have been driven away from your sight;

how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”

The waters closed in over me,

the deep surrounded me,

weeds were wrapped around my head

at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land whose bars have closed upon me forever;

yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.

As my life was ebbing away,

I remembered the LORD,

my prayer came to you,

into your holy temple.

Those who worship vain idols

forsake their true loyalty.

But I with the voice of thanksgiving

will sacrifice to you.

what I have vowed, I will pay.

Deliverance belongs to the LORD!”

Then the LORD spoke to the fish and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jonah does not start praying until he has been swallowed up. He does not stop running until he reaches the end and can run no more, when it looks like death is the only possible end to the story. Only here does Jonah pray. Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish.

The whole story Jonah has been running. From the moment the Word of the LORD came to him, Jonah has fled in the opposite direction. ‘Get up, go to Nineveh’ but Jonah gets up and flees to Tarshish. Every step away is a step down. To flee from the presence of the LORD is a descent. First, Jonah goes down to Joppa. Then down into the boat. Then down into the hold of the boat. Then he lays down to sleep. Even his rising from sleep is only so that he can be thrown down into the water. Down, Down, Down.

The whole time Jonah is running, we have no word of him praying. The first prayer, the first word Jonah speaks to God in this book, comes from the belly of the fish. When God speaks to Jonah, we hear no response. His feet do the talking as he heads to the boat. When the captain wakes him from his slumber and tells him to “Get up, call on your God.” Jonah says nothing. He talks to the sailors. He takes responsibility for what has happened to them. But not a word of prayer. Not a word to the LORD.

The first words of chapter 2 land with a thud, Then Jonah prayed. Then – not when this whole thing started, not when the storm started to pick up, not when it was revealed what Jonah had done, not when the sailors were straining and trying to keep the ship afloat. Only after all of this and Jonah himself is thrown into the raging storm – Then Jonah prayed.

What takes him so long?

Jonah only begins to pray when he cannot run anymore. Jonah runs and hides rather than face God. This impulse is as old as the garden. When our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned, they went and hid. Rather than face God, they ran from him. Rather than come clean about what they had done, they covered themselves, sewing fig leaves. They hid until they could not hide anymore. Only then did they speak with God.

How often do we hide and run and run and hide to avoid dealing with God? If you are like me, you get really good at saying, “I’m good. I’ve got this.” As long as the situation seems at least a little manageable, we will try to manage it on our own. “I’m good. I’ve got this.” The career we hoped for starts to fade from reality, so we double down, “I’m good. I’ve got this. I’ve even got a plan.” Cracks start to show in the foundation of the marriage, “I’m good. I’ve got this.” The doctor speaks the dreaded c-word, our voices cracks, but we say, “I’m good. I’ve got this.” We do all the things, take all the tests, do all the work, go to all the counseling sessions, take all the meds, read all the books, put in all the overtime, all the time more weary and weary saying, “I’m good. I’ve got this.”

We run and hide and hide and run, because the alternative is facing the fact that we are not good and we do not have this. Most of us, most of the time, we do almost anything rather than admit this.

Jonah runs down to Joppa. “I’m good. I’ve got this.” He pays the fair and gets into the boat. “I’m good. I’ve got this.” Even as the storm picks up, “I’m good. I’ve got this.” The ship is breaking apart and the sailors are filled with fear. “I’m good. I’ve got this.” Even when it is revealed that Jonah is responsible for all of this, “I’m good. I’ve got this.”

Anything rather than face God. If you are like me, this running and hiding is deeply ingrained. Often, it is only when we have nothing left, when we cannot run anymore, that we will finally turn and face God.

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish. When Jonah finally prays, his prayer calls for us to recognize just how deep our trouble is.

“I called to the LORD out of my distress,

and he answered me.

Out of the belly of Sheol I cried

and you heard my voice.

You cast me into the deep

into the heart of the seas,

and the flood surrounded me.

all your waves and your billows passed over me.

“You cast me into the deep.” Jonah must deal with God. While it is Jonah’s fault that he is caught in the storm and while it was the sailors who threw him overboard, Jonah recognizes that it was the LORD who put him there.

More than the storm, more than the water and the waves, Jonah’s trouble is far deeper. To pray with Jonah from the belly of the fish, to pray at the end of ourselves, we begin to recognize that our deepest trouble is our trouble with the LORD. This is why so many of us run so hard and so long to avoid bringing our troubles to the LORD, because our deepest trouble is with the LORD and we, like Jonah, have no resources. It is only when “I’m good. I’ve got this” no longer cuts it than we can finally turn and face the LORD.

Jonah’s prayer tells a story. However, already at the beginning, we are told how the story will end. I called to the LORD out of my distress,

and he answered me.

Out of the belly of Sheol I cried

and you heard my voice.

God will hear Jonah from the belly of the fish.

Jonah was cast by God into the heart of the sea. He is far from the land, surrounded and soon to be overwhelmed. Like a city besieged by enemies all around, the waters of the oceans swirl violently around Jonah. It is here, bobbing in the waves – the waves God has sent upon him – that Jonah realizes what has happened.

As he was running away, God was also driving him away. Jonah was far from home, far from the presence of the LORD in the house of God – the temple. Then I said, “I have been driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” It is almost as if, in this moment, Jonah turns and strains his eyes to try and see God’s house, but cannot. While God is present in all places, while there is nowhere we can go that God cannot go, Jonah knows that there is more to the presence of the LORD than this. Jonah has fled from God’s faces and he cannot find his way back.

Jonah’s longing to see God’s temple again is a longing to stand again in the presence of God. It is a longing, contained in this prayer, to be restored to God. “Look again” could have the sense of “look back.” Despite his exile, Jonah looks back toward the temple, toward where God has promised to dwell. He longs to be there again.

There is a powerless power to prayer in this moment. Jonah has nothing. Jonah has reached what feels like the end and looks toward the LORD. Jonah, in this moment, must trust in what he cannot see. He must trust is what is not yet a reality for him. As he sinks in the deep waters, especially the deep waters that are of his own making, he must look to the only place where he can find safety. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” 

Yet, even after Jonah looks toward the LORD, he is not rescued by sinks further.

The waters closed in over me,

the deep surrounded me,

weeds were wrapped around my head

at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land whose bars have closed upon me forever;

After looking toward the LORD, he sinks below the waves. He sinks down to the deepest part of the sea. He enters the land of death. He begins to drown.

There is a delay between when Jonah looks to the LORD and when he is saved in the form of a large fish. This is the usual way of prayer: we come before the face of God and there is some time before we see his answer.

During the wait, Jonah sinks further. Drowning is considered one of the most horrific ways to die and Jonah begins to drown as he waits. You simply cannot breathe.

“Jonah is not delivered from the worst that could happen. His redemption comes on the other side of the worst, so that we may know that there is no worst from which the LORD cannot deliver us.” God does not snatch Jonah away just as it gets bad. Jonah goes through abandonment, fear, and even the experience of drowning and only then is he saved. This tells us that no matter how far we sink down, no matter how worse the worst gets, we can never in this life sink to a place where God cannot hear our prayer, where God cannot reach us.

So if you have been running and hiding and hiding and running, saying all along, “I’m good. I’ve got this,” but deep down you have known for quite some time that you are not good and you don’t have this, look to the LORD. If you have been trying to avoid God because you know how much of a mess you have made things, or you’ve been walking in ways you know you shouldn’t walk and are just afraid to turn back to him, look to the LORD. There is no worst that you have done, no deep you have been cast into, no storms you are responsible for that you cannot be delivered from.

For when Jonah was at the lowest, when he was at the end of himself and began to pray and even the waters swept over his head and he had no breath in his lungs with which to pray, this happened:

“yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God”

As my life was ebbing away,

I remembered the LORD,

my prayer came to you,

into your holy temple.

This is the language of resurrection. Jonah may not have physically died, but he experienced a resurrection. God is the God of resurrection. 2 Corinthians 5 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17) or Ephesians 2 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (4-5).

God brought Jonah’s life up from the pit. In a story that has been nothing but unbroken descent – Jonah going down, down, down – God intervenes to bring him up. When Jonah is as far from the face of the LORD as he can get, the arm of the LORD is not too short to save him. God intervenes, when Jonah is as good as dead, and raises him up. Jonah is swallowed up and saved.

Jonah ends his prayer with the stunning claim, “Deliverance belongs to the LORD.” Whereas, like those who trust in idols, Jonah had forsaken his true loyalty, his true love, now he has been lifted up. When Jonah stopped running, even if it was because he could run no longer, and turned and faced God, he found not only a holy judge, but a gracious deliverer.

Deliverance belongs to the LORD. Literally, it says, ‘Salvation belongs to the LORD’ or ‘Jeshua’ belongs to the LORD. Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish ends with a foretaste and a prophetic pun on the name of Jesus. Jonah calls upon the name of Jesus in the depths and in doing so, he makes a down payment on his vow to worship and looks forward to the day when the great multitude from every nation standing before the throne will shout, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the lamb.” (Rev. 7:10).

“Deliverance belongs to the LORD” is the good news, the bold claim of Scripture. That whenever we stop running and turn to God, we will find a deliverer. “But so far Jonah has made this confession only in the depth of the sea, where none but the LORD can hear him. That will not be sufficient. The burden of the rest of the book concerns whether he will confess that salvation is the LORD’s even in Nineveh.” (Cary, 103).

For Jonah is saved, but he is saved to get back on the mission God gave him. “Then the LORD spoke to the fish and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” Jonah has been brought from the depths of Sheol and been vomited out back upon the land of the living.

When he was plunged into the stormy sea, Jonah finally stopped running from God. Struggling in the water, he turned his face toward God. Even as he dropped beneath the waves and breath was stripped from his lungs, God rescued him. God raised him up from dead in sin, dead in the water, to life. Having been given life, the question remains whether Jonah will keep running from God or whether he will go to Nineveh.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s