Objectively speaking, the “hero” of today’s scripture, Jonah, is probably the most successful preacher who has ever lived. Or close enough! By the end of this book, we learn that through Jonah’s faithful preaching of God’s Word, 120,000 people repented of their sins, turned in faith to the one true God, and were rescued from God’s wrath. They were saved.
Jonah was very successful in his mission! Billy Graham reached more lost people than that, but that was over the course of 70 years; Jonah did it in three days!
But perhaps that’s where the comparisons end. Based on what we learn from chapter 1 of this book, Jonah does not seem much like Billy Graham.
After all, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and preach God’s Word against them because of their great evil. Nineveh is 600 miles east of Israel. So what does this great great man of God, this great prophet, this most successful preacher who ever lived, do? Verse 3 tells us: He boarded a ship bound for a place called Tarshish, which was “away from the presence of the Lord.”
Tarshish is all the way across the Mediterranean, in Europe, in present-day Spain. As far as Jonah is concerned, it’s on the other side of the world—and it is absolutely as far as he could go opposite the place where God was calling him to go. Do you think Jonah was confused about directions?
One of my best friends in high school, for example—a brilliant kid—was so bad with directions he did not know his left hand from his right. He only knew for sure which way was left by holding his two hands, looking at his thumb and forefinger, and seeing which one formed an “L” on his hand. I’m not kidding.
So maybe Jonah got his east and west mixed up? I mean, surely this great Bible hero—this great man of God, this most successful preacher who ever lived—would not disobey God in such a flagrant way! Right?
Yeah, right! God told Jonah, “Go east,” and Jonah told God, in so many words, “No, thanks! Instead, I’m going to go as far west as my map tells me that I can go!”
He’s no Billy Graham!
So our temptation is to feel morally superior to Jonah. We think, “Jonah is awful! He’s the worst! He’s such a screwup! I mean, God called him to do something—perhaps even in an audible voice! We don’t know! Regardless, it was obvious and unmistakeable to Jonah that God was commanding him to go and do this thing, and he disobeyed God!
And we’re tempted to place ourselves above Jonah, and look down on Jonah, and think, “If God told me to do something or to say something to rescue lost people from their sins, I would gladly go and do it!”
Oh, wait… “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” Some preacher once joked, if you want to hear God speak to you in an audible voice, read the Bible out loud!
So when we consider our failure to witness, maybe we’re not so different from Jonah…?
But maybe we’re worse than Jonah, because unlike us, at least Jonah had a good excuse not to obey his particular commission! Nineveh was the capital of a nation that, in about 25 years, would wipe Jonah’s nation off the face of the earth. Jonah was from the northern kingdom of Israel. He was part of the ten tribes of Israel that would no longer exist after the Assyrians conquered them and brought them into captivity, never to return. So to Jonah, the Ninevites represented an evil, deadly, violent, hated enemy… It would be like God calling me to go to—I don’t know—to Afghanistan on September 12, 2001, and preach the gospel to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. No, thanks, God!
So we’re hardly in a position to judge Jonah too harshly!
So Jonah’s plan was to run away from God, to run away from the place where God was calling him to go, and to sail to the other side of the world. But God loved Jonah and was unwilling to give up on him—even if Jonah was ready to give up on God. And verse 4 records some of the most merciful, most loving, most compassionate words in all of scripture: “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.”
“Hold on… That doesn’t sound very merciful or loving or compassionate!”
But not so fast… If we are a part of God’s family through faith in Christ, God will ensure that every storm—literal or figurative—that God sends our way—every storm that, in his sovereignty, he allows us to face—will ultimately be for our good.
John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, would certainly agree. As most of you know, he spent a couple of difficult, fruitless years as a pastor and missionary in the new British colony of Georgia. Maybe you’ve been there? In fact, if you go to Reynolds Square today, in the historic district of Savannah, there’s a statue of Wesley where his original parsonage stood. But on the month-long journey from England to America in January 1736, a violent storm in the Atlantic threatened to sink the ship.
He and his fellow Englishmen were terrified, screaming in fear. Meanwhile a group of German missionaries and their families, associated with the Moravian church, were circled up, holding hands, and singing hymns—men, women, children. Wesley was impressed by their confidence, their calm, their lack of fear. He asked one of them later why they were so calm when everyone else on board was panicking. This man said, “We’re not afraid to die.”
Wesley later realized that the difference between these Moravian Christians and himself was that they were saved, and he wasn’t.
In his journal he wrote,
“I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?… I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ‘To die is gain!'”
Wesley was so impressed by the faith of these Moravians that when he came back to England, he made friends with some of them. And Wesley was literally at a Moravian-sponsored Bible study on Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, at 8:45 p.m., when—as he wrote in his journal—“my heart was strangely warmed,” and “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” And immediately afterward, the Methodist renewal movement began sweeping across England, Scotland, and Ireland and across the Atlantic to the colonies of America.
It’s no exaggeration to say that you and I are in this church this morning in part because God sent a storm! Because God used this storm to wake Wesley up to the reality that even though he was an ordained minister in the Church of England, he didn’t yet trust in Jesus as his Savior and Lord. He wasn’t saved. And through that event at Aldersgate, Wesley brought revival to the Church of England and founded our Methodist church in America, which has led to so many other Wesleyan and Methodist churches, to Holiness churches, eventually even to Pentecostal churches… and… well, as a result, literally millions of saints will be in heaven in part because God sent a storm!
Or consider Jesus’ own disciples… On two different occasions in the gospels Jesus sends his own disciples into a life-threatening storm, on board a tiny fishing boat, on the Sea of Galilee. Both times the disciples thought they were going to drown… They were bailing water, battling wind and waves, afraid for their lives. Yet God used both storms to teach them something about Jesus and his gospel and their trust in him. After the second storm, Matthew says, “And those in the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
Suppose you could go back in time and interview these disciples—who have just realized that Jesus is God in the flesh, and have just had this amazing worship experience—suppose you could ask them, “Was it merciful and loving and compassionate for Jesus Christ to send you into a life-threatening storm like that?” What do you think they would say?
They would say, “Of course it was merciful and loving and compassionate! To have that experience with Christ, to behold his glory, to grow in our relationship with Christ, to trust in him more, to fall more deeply in love with him—it was totally worth the storm!”
And that’s what the sailors on board this ship bound for Tarshish would have said about their storm… because look at verse 16: After they throw Jonah into the sea, after “the sea ceased from raging,” we’re told that “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” That they “made vows” means something like this: “They committed their lives to believing in, loving, fearing, and serving the God of Israel for the rest of their lives—the same God who would later become flesh and dwell among us as Jesus Christ.
If it took a life-threatening storm to bring them to saving faith in God, well, none of these sailors who are enjoying God in heaven right now are complaining, I promise you that!
And I’m guessing that the 120,000 Ninevites would agree with those sailors. After all, if not for this storm, Jonah would never have been willing to sacrifice his life, would never have been swallowed by God’s miraculous fish, would never have repented, and would never have fulfilled God’s mission for him to preach to the Ninevites… which gave them the chance to repent of their sins and be saved from God’s wrath.
For those of us who are Christians, therefore, we can be confident that the storms God sends us will be good for us… that God will use them for our good.
There’s a profound song by singer-songwriter Laura Story about this very topic. It’s called “Blessings,” which she wrote when her husband was battling a life-threatening illness. It includes these poignant words:
We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?
I haven’t known a thousand sleepless nights, but I’ve known more than a few in my life. I bet you have, too. Is it possible that that situation or person or event in your life, that storm in your life, which caused or is causing those sleepless nights is precisely what you need to “know that God is near” and draw closer to him, and trust in him more, and depend on him more? And if the end result of that trial you’re going through is that you finally learn this lesson—and your faith in Jesus is strengthened—wouldn’t it all have been worth it?
Of course it would!
The message that God sends us through these storms is usually the same as the captain’s message to Jonah in verse 6: “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!”
Maybe, like John Wesley, you need to face the fact that you’ve never truly trusted in Christ as your Savior, you’ve never surrendered to him as Lord, and Christ is calling you right now to do that! If so, wake up!
Or maybe you know that, even though you’re a Christian, there’s some habitual sin, besetting sin, in your life of which you need to repent—even if all you can do to repent is confess your powerlessness over the sin and ask God’s grace to change you. If so, wake up!
Or maybe, like Jonah himself, you need to do your part to rescue lost people from the consequences of their sin—which is death and eternal separation from God. If so, wake up!
By the way, why was Jonah sleeping in the first place? No one else was!
Jonah is sleeping because he’s depressed, because he’s given up hope! Unlike all these pagan sailors on board the ship—who are desperately praying to their phony gods—Jonah doesn’t think that praying to his God—the God who is real—will do him any good. Why? Because he believes that God is angry at him, that God won’t listen to him, and that God is going to kill him… because he’s sinned… because he’s disobeyed God. Jonah is asleep because he doesn’t consider the possibility that God could still love him… that God could be using this storm for anything other than his destruction… that this storm is really God’s mercy in disguise.
How surprised he must have been, in verse 17, when he learns that God actually appointed a giant fish to swallow him up—not to kill him, but to rescue him and give him new life.
Oh, wait. You mean, God hasn’t given up on me? God still has a plan for my life? God can still use me… in spite of my many failures, in spite of my disobedience, in spite of my sin?
And it’s true for you, too! Look at chapter 3, verses 1 and 2: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” These are the same words that God used back in chapter 1, verse 1. The difference is that this time Jonah obeys God.
But I need to make three important observations. First, God rescued Jonah from the storm by appointing this big fish before Jonah did anything to repent. In other words, God didn’t save him with the fish on the condition that he be really, really sorry for what he did. Second, notice what God doesn’t say in chapter 3, verse 1. He doesn’t say, “Jonah, you really messed up last time, but I’m giving you one more chance. You better get it right this time!” No! God doesn’t mention Jonah’s previous sin and disobedience. It’s almost like it didn’t happen… Because as far as God is concerned, it didn’t. What does the Bible say? “[A]s far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us.” “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Third, many of you know how the Book of Jonah ends. Jonah is mad at God for saving the Ninevites and full of self-pity. And it’s almost like… Jonah still doesn’t have his act together… He’s still a sinner… even after all the grace and mercy God showed him! And God just keeps on loving him!
So… The grace that God showed to Jonah did not depend on him being really, really sorry for his sins, and it also didn’t depend on future faithful performance.
What is God trying to show us? Only this: If we are his children through faith in Christ, his love and mercy and grace and acceptance of us does not depend on who we are and what we’ve done, but only on who his Son Jesus is and what he’s done for us. Listen: Forget what’s happened in your past. If you’re a Christian, it’s as if you’re standing on the shore with Jonah in Chapter 3, verse 1, and God is saying, “Now, you go and do these things I’m telling you to do. Okay?” God isn’t holding your sins against you. God is giving you a fresh start right now. God is saying, “I’m not mad at you! I’m not disappointed in you. I couldn’t love you more than you do. I’m not against you; I’m on your side. Nothing you do, nothing you refuse to do, will ever change that. Because you’re my child, and I love you!”
If it’s true for Jonah, why do you think it wouldn’t be true for you? Jonah’s sinned in a spectacular way! It doesn’t seem to matter. God keeps on loving him anyway! And it’s true for you too if you’re his child.
But why does God show us such grace? Jonah tells us why… Actually, Jesus himself says that Jonah tells us why. Jesus refers to this event in the gospels as “the sign of Jonah.” What he means is, Jonah helps to show us who Jesus is and what he accomplished for us.
Think about it… Apart from the free gift of salvation available through Christ, it’s as if we’re the ones on board that ship, which will soon be destroyed by a violent storm. Like Jonah, we’re facing God’s wrath because of our sin. And like Jonah, we’re about to be thrown into a deep, dark abyss—which for us means hell, eternal separation from God. It’s what our sins deserve.
And that’s what will happen to us… unless someone else steps forward and volunteers to take our place, to suffer the death penalty that we deserve—and that someone, of course, the only one who’s eligible to do it, is God’s Son Jesus.
Like Jonah, Christ chooses to sacrifice his life to save ours. By doing so, he turns away God’s wrath toward sin so we can have peace and reconciliation with God. And, like Jonah, after three days, he was given new life—so that the good news could be preached to God’s enemies, to “sinful Ninevites” like us, so that we could be saved and have eternal life.
Brothers and sisters, if you believe this, will you say Amen? If you’ve received this free gift of salvation through faith in Christ, will you say Amen? If, like Jonah, you’re ready to go and share this good news with others through both your actions and your words, will you say Amen?
If you, like those sailors, like those Ninevites, are ready to repent and be saved, you’re invited to come forward and do that now… Amen.