'The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying […] Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Jonah 1:17, 2:1-2, 9.
Brothers and sisters, what is at the centre of the Christian faith? There is one thing which is found in no other religion but which is at the very heart of biblical faith: grace. All other religions say you have to make yourself good enough and only then will god accept you. The Bible shows us that biblical God accepts us, and then makes us good enough. And this acceptance - this salvation which we have not earned it - is called grace. Grace means an undeserved gift. Grace means receiving something which is unearned and indeed, often unexpected. Grace is at the heart of the Jesus-religion, and separates out Christianity from every other belief system. And what’s more - as we will see today - grace is at the centre of biblical religion not just in the New Testament but in the Old Testament as well, for Grace is the heart of God. Let us, then, in the second of our series through Jonah, look there and find the God of grace.
Where did we get to in the story last week? Jonah, a prophet and representative of God’s people had been told by God to go and preach to the enemy city of Nineveh. But Jonah runs away, taking a boat in the opposite direction. Jonah is so adamant that he will not obey God, that even when God sends a storm Jonah still does not turn back, but instead has the sailors throw him into the sea. We ended last week with Jonah sinking like a stone, preferring to die rather than obey God’s command. And that is what would have happened were it not for the fact that God does not give up so easily (see the reading above). Now don’t get distracted by the fish! This story isn’t about the fish, it’s about Jonah, and it’s about you and me. Jonah ignores God and runs away from His commands. And last week we saw that we do that too. This week as Jonah sinks down in the ocean he comes to the end of his own resources, just as we too often find ourselves at the end of our resources. And when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, when we find ourselves at the end of our resources, what are we to do? We’re to pray! In verse 1 of Jonah chapter 2: ‘Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the Lord out of my distress’. Here is the man who wouldn’t listen to God; the prophet who, when the storm descended on his boat, wouldn’t pray to God! Here is Jonah, the one who would previously rather be thrown into the depths of the sea, than ask God for help! But now Jonah - brought to his knees by his own actions - cries out to God. He deserves nothing from God, Jonah has no rights, and surely has no expectations. Jonah has sinned and ignored God, and it would be only right and just if God ignored him. But the God of the Bible doesn’t work by rights, thankfully, the God of the Bible is a God who works by grace, verse 2: ‘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.’ We are all sinners, we have all turned away from God. We have all ignored God - just like Jonah - we too deserve nothing from Him, and we can have no expectation of a response. And Lent - this time of reflecting on our lives, and getting rid of the distractions of normal life - is a time to deliberately look those mistakes and sins full in the face, and realise that, like Jonah, our own actions often bring us to our knees. It is when we realise we can’t save ourselves it is then - and only then - that we come to see that only God can save us! If that is you this morning, then this passage from Jonah, should be of great comfort. For in this passage we are again reminded that our God, that Jonah’s God, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a God who hears our voice and responds with grace. Jonah repents. Jonah realises his sins, he realises his mistakes, and he remembers - what he had probably preached himself a thousand times - that, verse 9, ‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Jonah doesn’t save himself, for self help is no help! Jonah doesn’t look inside himself and find the strength to carry on. Jonah cries out to God, and God saves him. And, then, having been saved from drowning - and more importantly having been saved from his own disobedience - Jonah is given a chance at a new life back on the land. A new chance to live the life he should have lived before!
Before we finish, however, we must ask the obvious question? God sent a fish to save Jonah, but who does God send to save us? The answer is hidden away in v9: ‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’. The word for deliverance or salvation in Hebrew is ‘yeshua’. Remember the reading we have ever year at Christmas, when the angel announced to Mary that she would have a son? The angel said ‘you shall call his name Jesus (yeshua), for he will save (will deliver) His people from their sins’. The Christian reader cannot hear this final statement of Jonah without hearing the name of Jesus, the One who is sent to save the peoples of the world. Like Jonah if we would but cry out to God the Father, turning away from the things we have done wrong, and asking for forgiveness then the God of grace will reach down to us in Christ, and rescue us from our self-made grave. Like Jonah, we too can experience the grace of God - for the first time or the ninety-first time - when we turn back to Him, and say ‘sorry’. This Lent, let us make sure to do that again, and find in doing so the God of Grace. Amen (from Rev. Mike).