How God Pursues Prodigals, Part 2

Jonah 1:4-17

In Part 1 of this sermon, we learned that in dealing with prodigals, God sends storms to get our attention, he allows others to suffer because of our sin, and he sends someone to challenge us. In this case the captain woke up Jonah who was sleeping below deck and told him to start praying. What a rebuke! The people of the world may not want our sermons, but when the storms of life come, they definitely want our prayers.                                               

Let me tell you a story. We attend a Baptist church in Tupelo, Mississippi. Several years ago our youth choir (called the Zamar choir, from the Hebrew word for “praise”) took a summer missions trip to New York City. When I heard about their plans, I was a little bit worried. All those fresh-faced, clean-cut, innocent Mississippi teenagers heading north to evangelize the Big Apple.

I wondered what would happen.

I love New York. Great city, exciting place, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I wasn’t worried about anything bad happening, but I did wonder how the folks in New York would respond to our youngsters from Tupelo who came to town hoping to do some good.

They helped in a soup kitchen, they led a VBS, they worked with some ministries already in the city, and they had a great time. They worked with a church in Spanish Harlem and with a ministry based in Brooklyn.

When it came to Manhattan, the leaders made two decisions that turned out to be very wise. First, they decided to sing a lot. Everyone loves music, and our kids can really sing. That went over well in New York City. They sang in parks and other open areas and gave away 5000 free music CDs.

Second, they decided to pray for people. Here’s what they did. They found various locations in Manhattan where they put up “Prayer Stations.” The young people would set up a card table with a poster than said (in big letters) “Prayer Station."

That was the whole plan.

If people stopped, they just asked, “How can we pray for you?"

That’s it. A table that said “Prayer Station” and a simple question, “How can we pray for you?”

How would the folks of New York City respond to something like this? Would the kids be laughed out of town?

We’re all in the same boat.

As it turned out, people stood in line waiting to be prayed for.

That shouldn’t surprise us because we’re all in the same boat. People are hurting, families are in crisis, people struggle to make ends meet, there is sickness of one sort or another in every family, and everyone is touched by pain and sorrow. It’s no different in the big city than in the small town.

I heard about one man who was stopped at a traffic light near one of the prayer stations. He leaned out the window and said, “I’m having a lot of trouble in my life. I need you to pray for me. I can’t stop right now, but please pray for me.” Then the light turned green. As he pulled away, the teenagers yelled, “We will! We’ll pray for you!”

The world waits for us pray.

The lesson is clear.

The world waits for us pray.
The world wants us to pray.
The world wonders why we don’t pray.

They don’t understand our doctrine. They aren’t that interested in our sermons. The world wants us to pray.

“Wake up! Wake up!”
"You call yourself a Christian. Why aren’t you praying?”
"My life is falling apart. I need you to pray for me.”

IV. He Exposes Our Disobedience. 

Jonah is now found out by the casting of lots (v. 7). That may seem like a chance event but as Proverbs 16:33 reminds us, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." Casting lots sometimes involved using different colored balls or rocks, mixing them together, and then seeing which one fell out of the bag first. In that sense casting lots is like rolling dice. It appears to be a random act of chance, but God is behind those colored stones. He determines which one falls out of the bag first. There are no “accidents” in life, no “random” events, and there is no such thing as “luck.” Even seemingly meaningless things fit into his plan. We might paraphrase Proverbs 16:33 this way: “Life is like a roll of the dice, but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.”

You can be a pagan or you can be a Christian, but you can’t be both at the same time. 

Having thus been “outed” by the casting of lots, Jonah confesses his true identity. He had already told them that he was running from the Lord so now he tells them who he really is:

I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land (v. 9).

Isn’t it amazing how God works? We may run and run and run, but he will bring us again and again to the place where we finally have to tell the truth. Jonah has been living like a pagan, but in truth the pagans are living far above his level.

There’s another way to say this. You can be a pagan or you can be a Christian, but you can’t be both at the same time. Here is a simple application:

“If you’re going to be a Christian, be one!”                                  

If you’re going to be a Christian, put on the uniform and get in the game. And if you’re not going to do that, turn in your uniform and go join another team. The world expects you to act like a Christian. Actually we can strengthen that statement this way. The world wants you to act like what you say you are.

“If you’re going to be a Christian, be one!”          

The world wants you to act like what you say you are.                        

Live like one.
Act like one.
Talk like one.
Pray like one.

If you’re going to call on the name of the Lord, do that. Or alternatively, go join another team. Why confuse things by calling yourself a Christian but not living like one?

The world is waiting for real believers who are not ashamed to stand up for what they believe. The people of the world want Christians to be real.

Now look what happens next. Things are about to get worse for Jonah.

V. He Makes Us Face the Consequences of Our Own Foolish Choices. 

Jonah knows it’s all his fault. So when the sailors ask what they should do to make the seas grow calm again, he offers the only solution that makes sense:

Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you (v. 12).

“If you’re going to be a Christian, be one!”       

But that’s not what they did, at least not immediately.

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before (v. 13).

When Jonah said, “Throw me overboard,” the pagans wouldn’t do it. They started rowing for shore. At this point the ungodly have more compassion than the prophet of God. They care more about him than he does about them.

By the way, be careful about deciding who’s on God’s side and who’s not. Don’t be quick to jump to conclusions about other people. Things aren’t always as they appear on the surface. Consider this story for a moment. There is one prayer and only one recorded in Jonah 1. And it’s not Jonah who does the praying. It’s the pagans.

Don’t assume that you can judge the hearts of all the people around you. Let God do the judging. Sometimes the “pagans” can act with more compassion than the so-called “believers.”

This is how the sailors prayed:

O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased (v. 14).

In the Hebrew language there are a number of different words for God: El, Elohim, Yahweh, and so on. Yahweh was the covenant name of God. It’s the name the Jews used when they spoke of the God who had made promises to Israel. It was the most sacred name for God in the Old Testament. It’s the name of God as he met Moses at Mount Sinai in Exodus 3. Three times the Hebrew word “Yahweh” is used in verse 14:

“They cried to the Lord.”
O Lord.”
"You, O Lord.”

They cried out to the God of the Bible, to the covenant-keeping Lord of Israel. Do you see what has happened here? In verse 5 each man cries out to “his own god,” but by verse 14 the men have started praying to the God of Israel, the one true Lord of Lords. That’s a stupendous change. As Jonah begins to wake up and come to his senses spiritually, God works in the hearts of the pagans so that they begin to cry out in desperation to him.

Thus do we see the great hand of God at work in every part of this situation. The Lord often uses desperate times to wake men up so that they will cry out to him. Here he does that for Jonah and also for the pagan sailors who suddenly don’t look so pagan anymore.  Check out their theology at the end of their prayer:

“For you, O Lord, have done as you pleased” (v. 14).

Not so long ago these men were worshiping their own gods. Now they proclaim the sovereignty of the one true God.

The Lord often uses desperate times to wake men up so that they will cry out to him.

So they throw Jonah overboard and the text says that “the raging sea grew calm” (v. 15). We learn two important points here, one from Jonah and one from the sailors. From Jonah’s side we learn this important truth:  The storms continue until you stop running from God. We generally have smooth sailing when we first go our own way. Things look rosy, and life is good because disobedience brings a temporary reward. But the storms come sooner or later, and those storms are sent by God as a severe mercy to bring us to our senses and lead us to the place of repentance. Though the voyage into sin may start with a celebration, it always ends with a raging storm. God makes sure of that.

From the sailors’ side we see something amazing happen:

At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him (v. 16).

The words here really matter. The Hebrew word for Lord is “Yahweh,” the name for the God of Israel. While Jonah is bobbing up and down in the water, a revival breaks out on the boat. Suddenly that boat is filled with enthusiastic worshipers of the one true God. And where is that boat going? It’s still headed for Tarshish. 

The storms continue until you stop running from God. 

God loves Tarshish too!

Now he’s got a boatload of baby missionaries heading in that direction.

Look how this story turns out. Pagan sailors now worship the Lord while Israel’s reluctant prophet flounders in the ocean.

While the sailors praise God, the boat sails across the horizon, leaving Jonah to do the dog paddle in the middle of the ocean.

Jonah expects to die. That’s actually good place for him to be. He would rather die in the sea than run from God any longer.

VI. He Reveals His Grace in the Midst of Judgment.

This is the part of the story we know best:

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights (v.17).

Note that the text doesn’t say the Lord “created” a great fish. It says that God “appointed” a great fish. It doesn’t say it was a whale. Could have been a whale, but we don’t know for sure. We focus on the identity of the fish when it clearly doesn’t matter.

God loves Tarshish too!

I imagine the Lord saying to the great fish, “I’ve got a job for you to do.” “Yes sir.” So he gave the fish the GPS coordinates and said, “Be there at precisely this time.” “Yes sir.” “A man will flop in front of you. I want you to swallow him whole, but don’t chew him up. And then I’ll give you further instructions later.” “Yes sir.”

As with everything else in this story, the fish obeys God better than Jonah does.

Who sent the great fish? Answer: The same person who arranged the boat, the same person who arranged for the lot to fall on Jonah, and the same person who sent the great storm. God did all of it.

The fish obeys God better than Jonah does.

Why did he send the fish? First, to rescue Jonah from the sea. If he hadn’t sent the fish, Jonah would have died in the ocean. Second, to bring him to repentance.

As I began the message by quoting a poem called “A Prodigal Yet,” let me end by quoting another poem, this one much better known. Here are a few lines from “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat - and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet -
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

If you’ve been running, I’ve got some good news. It is never too late to stop running from God.

Don’t wait for the storm.
Don’t wait for the great fish.

Don’t wait for the great fish.

Here is a word of hope for those who have friends and loved ones who at this very moment are running, running, running from the Lord as fast as they can. When I announced on my Facebook page that I would be preaching on “How God Pursues Prodigals,” a friend wrote these words:

“Does anyone know where we can buy a fatted calf? We want to be ready to celebrate one day.”

That’s exactly the right attitude to have. And in the meantime console yourself with this thought about the prodigals in your life:

God knows where they are.
God knows what they are doing.
God knows how to reach them.
God knows how to bring them back.

Between now and then, never give up.

Never give up.
Keep believing.
Keep on praying.

And go get yourself a fatted calf and put it out to pasture. Feed that fatted calf while you wait for the happy day when God will reach out his mighty hand and bring his prodigal sons and daughters home at last.

Father, as you did for Jonah, do now for our loved ones. Even after a message like this, it’s easy to feel hopeless. They seem so far from you. They seem to be having such a good time. But you know where they are. You know how to touch them. Do whatever it takes to bring them home to you.

Grant us grace to wait and faith to believe and growing confidence that one day that fatted calf will be put to good use at last. May we never give up hope but keep believing that as you brought Jonah back, you’ll do the same thing for the prodigals we love so much.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

2011-06-21-How-God-Pursues-Prodigals-Part-2

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