How God Pursues Prodigals, Part 1

Jonah 1:4-17

Several years ago I ran across the work of a Canadian poet named Ethelwyn Wetherald who lived in the early part of the 20th century. While doing some research on her writings, I found a little-known poem she wrote about what it’s like to be a prodigal on the way back home but with your heart not yet changed.

In just a few sentences “Prodigal Yet” captures the plight of the straying child who isn’t quite ready to give up the high life in the “far country”:

Muck of the sty, reek of the trough,
  Blackened my brow where all might see,
Yet while I was a great way off
  My Father ran with compassion for me.

He put on my hand a ring of gold,
   (There’s no escape from a ring, they say)
He put on my neck a chain to hold
  My passionate spirit from breaking away.

He put on my feet the shoes that miss
  No chance to tread in the narrow path;
He pressed on my lips the burning kiss
  That scorches deeper than fires of wrath.

He filled my body with meat and wine,
  He flooded my heart with love’s white light;
Yet deep in the mire, with sensual swine,
  I long-God help me!-to wallow to-night.

Muck of the sty, reek of the trough,
  Blacken my soul where none may see.
Father, I yet am a long way off-
  Come quickly, Lord! Have compassion on me! 

I read those words and think about how quickly we can fall, how far we can go, and how easy it is to deceive ourselves and others. Those searing words speak to an inner battle we all feel from time to time, a battle we sometimes sing about in more familiar words:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.

I know that many who read my words have prodigals in your life. You have loved ones who are away from the Lord. Some of them grew up in Sunday School. Some went to a Christian college. Some of them you raised to love Jesus. Some of them once could quote hundreds of Bible verses. Some were leaders in their youth group. Some went on mission trips. Some were preachers. Some were missionaries.

Today they are far from God.

The problem is always on the inside. 

Some of them are doing things that would shock us deeply if we knew about them. As we begin to think about those prodigal friends, prodigal parents, and prodigal sons and daughters, remember this one key point. No matter what you may think about the way your friends are living, no matter how angry you may be at the choices they have made, the root problem is never on the outside. The problem is always on the inside. As the poem reminds us, we may be in church every Sunday, smiling and singing and going through the motions, with rebellion deep in our hearts.

He filled my body with meat and wine,
  He flooded my heart with love’s white light;
Yet deep in the mire, with sensual swine,
  I long-God help me!-to wallow to-night.

The problem is always in the heart. That’s really good news because there is only one person in the universe who can change the heart, and he specializes in divine heart surgery. I can preach a thousand sermons, we can all sing a thousand hymns, and together we can attend a thousand church services, but apart from the Lord it will do no good. It’s not outer change we need, but deep, inner transformation by the Holy Spirit.

You Can Help a Prodigal Too Soon

Sometimes in our attempt to reach out to the prodigals we know, we can intervene too soon. Do you remember what happened to the prodigal son in Luke 15? After he had wasted all his inheritance in wild living, he ended up feeding the pigs (Luke 15:15-16). As Eugene Peterson puts it, “He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.” If you saw that, you might think, “That young man is ready for a new life.” Maybe so, maybe not.

Sometimes in our attempt to reach out to the prodigals we know, we can intervene too soon.

In the story Jesus told, the father waited for his son to return and then ran to meet him when he was still far from home. What if the father in the story had gone after his son and tried to bring him back even one day early? The son would have said, “If only you had left me alone for one more day, I would have made all my money back because I was investing in pork bellies."

So it goes. We may think that someone has hit rock bottom when they are still scheming a way out of their problems. It was not until the son “came to his senses” that he decided to return home. That has to happen to every prodigal son and daughter, and it cannot be predicted or forced.

Repentance is first of all a work of God in the human heart. If you come a day too soon, the prodigal will always think, “With one more day, I would have figured out a way to solve my own problems.” As long as the scheming and lying and deceiving continues, the best thing we can do is to pray for God’s Spirit to bring them to their senses and to wait patiently until that day comes.

God’s got your number on Speed Dial. He can ring your phone any time of the day or night. 

Underlying all this are two bits of very important theology:

1. God knows us better than we know ourselves.
2.
God knows how to reach us at the right moment.

People sometimes ask, “Do you think God can speak to me today?” I tell them, “Don’t worry about it. God’s got your number on Speed Dial. He can ring your phone any time of the day or night. And when he calls, you won’t be able to put him on Call Waiting."

He’s got your number written on his heart. He knows exactly how to get in touch with you.

Jonah is about to learn this truth the hard way. When last we left the reluctant prophet, he seemed to be on top of the world. He was on a boat headed for Tarshish, running from the Lord. When God told him, “Go to Nineveh,” he said, “I think I’ll go to Tarshish instead."

God said, “Go east.”
Jonah said, “I think I’ll go west."

And so he did. He went down to Joppa (an ancient port city just south of modern-day Tel Aviv) where he found a boat bound for Tarshish. Amazing, isn’t it, how when you want to run from God, you can always find a boat going where you want to go. Satan has his ships, and they are always ready to take on another passenger.

So Jonah paid his fare, boarded the ship, and as it left the harbor, he went down below to take a nap.

Nice little deal he had going there.
It was all working out like he had planned.

A comfy Mediterranean cruise.
Soon he would be in Tarshish, a beautiful city in Spain.
There he could live the high life, far from the presence of the Lord.

Or so he thought.

No one gets a free ride on the Ship of Fools. 

That’s where we left Jonah in the last message. It was a pretty picture of a self-satisfied man who seemed to have gotten away with disobedience. Whenever you read a story like this in the Bible, you know there has to be a “but” coming. God will not let his straying children live in sin forever.

No one gets a free ride on the Ship of Fools.

Let’s take a look at how God begins the process of bringing Jonah back home. As we see how God deals with Jonah, we’ll discover that God deals with us in the same way when we disobey.

I. He Sends Storms to Get Our Attention.   

“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god” (vv. 4-5).

It must have been a bad storm because these men were professional sailors who had seen it all. They were hardened to the dangers of life at sea. If they were scared, it must have been a truly terrible storm. So they started the first interfaith prayer meeting in the Bible, each man crying out to his own god.

Then they start throwing their profit away by throwing the cargo overboard.

We all know that life can turn on a dime. God knows exactly how to get our attention.

Our God is infinitely creative. He can send the storm in so many different ways

He can send the storm of adverse circumstances.
He can send the storm of the sudden death of a loved one.
He can send the storm of financial collapse.
He can send the storm of trouble in your church.
He can send the storm of a desperately sick child.
He can send the storm of career implosion.

Our God is infinitely creative. He can send the storm in so many different ways. When you’re in the storm, you tend to be fearful, angry and frustrated. It’s only later that your realize the storm was a severe mercy from the Lord.

That’s always step one for the prodigal. The storms come to get our attention.

II. He Allows Others to Suffer Because of Our Sin. 

Everyone on board is endangered by Jonah’s sin. Jonah was the sinner in this situation, and yet his foolish rebellion endangered everyone around him.

Please ponder these four words: We never sin alone. We may be alone when we sin, but we never sin alone. Our sin, our compromise, and our deceit always injures our spouse, our children, our friends, and our family.

Every step we take out of the will of God hurts those around us.

III. He Sends Someone to Challenge Us. 

As the ship groans and creaks under the weight of the wind and the heavy waves, and as the men throw cargo overboard in a desperate attempt to save the ship, where is Jonah? You might think he’d be on deck helping the sailors. Not a chance.

He’s taking a nap down below.

The devil has his sleeping pills too. 

How could a man sleep during a terrible storm like this? The answer is simple. The devil has his sleeping pills too. He has his narcotics. He knows how to put us to sleep while the world crashes in around us. How else can you explain a man’s reckless behavior in having one affair after another? How else can you explain a politician who breaks the law and then lies with impunity? How else you explain a mother who abandons her own children? The devil can put us to sleep while the ship sinks or the house burns or the world falls apart around us.

Look what happens next:

The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish” (v. 6).

At this point the captain (who is no doubt a pagan) has more faith than Jonah does. Seeing the danger, he wants Jonah to wake up and start praying.

The world doesn’t want our sermons. The world wants our prayers.

Ponder that thought for a moment.

The world generally doesn’t care about what we say and do on Sunday morning. It seems so boring and mostly irrelevant, which is why this Sunday and every Sunday most people will not be in any church anywhere. That’s true about every city in America. Take any major American city, including those in the so-called “Bible Belt,” and you can see it for yourself. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Seattle or Atlanta, Chicago or Charlotte, New York or San Antonio, Las Vegas or Louisville. On any given Sunday of the year, most people don’t go to church anywhere. They stay home, stay in bed, wake up late, take a walk, read the paper, watch TV, and in general live as if the church doesn’t exist.

That won’t change no matter how much we preach against it.

A few weeks ago my wife and I led a one-day Pastors Conference in Brunswick, Maine. When we asked about the spiritual temperature of the region, the pastors said that while most people didn’t go to church, it wouldn’t be right to call them hostile. They don’t care enough to be hostile. Mostly they are uninterested in anything the church has to offer.

The world doesn’t care about our religion, but the world wants us to pray. “Get up, Jonah. Call on your god. Maybe he can save us.”

Even if the world doesn’t want our religion, it desperately wants our prayers.

We claim to know the living God.
We claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
We claim to have access to the God of the universe.

The world knows this.
And even if the world doesn’t want our religion, it desperately wants our prayers.

The people of the world say to us, “Can’t you see what is happening? My marriage is falling apart. My kids are in trouble. I just lost my job. My husband has cancer. We can’t pay our bills. You say you know God. If you do, wake up and pray for us!”

O church, why aren’t we praying?

O church, why aren’t we praying?
We can preach a thousand sermons and the world doesn’t care.

But the world wants us to pray.

We all wonder how to reach this generation that seems so turned off to God and “religion.” If we wait for people to come to our services, we will in most cases wait forever. Here is a simple question that can open up a spiritual conversation:

“How can I pray for you?"

Just those six words make such a difference. The world is waiting for the church to pray. Why are we still sleeping?

They can do without our sermons, but they can’t live without our prayers. And if they get our prayers, they might one day listen to our sermons.

That’s Part 1 of “How God Pursues Prodigals.” In Part 2 we’ll discover that being swallowed by a great fish may be the best thing that ever happened to us.

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