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Given its size, it’s surprising how much I’ve preached from Jonah over the years.
Here’s a very old sermon from Jonah 1.11-2.1:
I once pastored in the same small town as a man named Robert. His was the Presbyterian church three blocks down. It was a typical small town in that there was a small church on every corner, a church for every two or three who might want to gather.
Robert and I didnʼt have much in common at first. Except- we were the only two pastors in town who werenʼt fundamentalists. He was older than me. Where
Iʼd just graduated from seminary, ministry was a second-career for him. Where he had twin daughters and a minivan, I had a dog and still ate ramen noodles for most meals.
Even so, we became friends. We confided in each other. We commiserated with each other. We advised one another.
As I said, we were at small churches in small towns, where week-to-week, no matter our effort or our skill, our churches were just barely getting by. The margins for error were thin. One bad Sunday or one light offering plate were enough to sink our churches.
During the time I pastored in that town, Robert went through a dark, turbulent period. A series of deaths in his congregation had eroded his attendance. His younger families had moved away. Giving fell, and the church soon couldnʼt pay its bills.
As congregations sometimes do, they took it out on Robert. They cut his already low salary. They blamed him for the churchʼs decline and for everything the church wasnʼt.
We had lunch one day at a smokey BBQ joint. Rain beat against the windows so hard it was difficult to hear. He looked terrible. His eyes looked tired. Heʼd lost weight. His hair had thinned. He looked like anxiety had swallowed him up.
He picked at his food and told me he was afraid he was going to lose his job.
He was afraid that even if he kept it, he couldnʼt afford to feed his family. Things
at home werenʼt good because he never was home. He said he was overwhelmed. All he could see were problems with no solutions. He felt battered from every direction.
I listened and didnʼt really know what to say. I offered something bland like:
ʻHave faith. Youʼll get through it.ʼ
ʻThatʼs just it,ʼ he said.
And he had genuine, honest-to-goodness fear in his eyes.
ʻAll this has shown that I donʼt really have the faith I thought I did. I thought I did, I thought I trusted God, but that was because I didnʼt have to.
Everything was going great.
Now itʼs not and Iʼm scared to death.ʼ
Thereʼs a story in the Gospel-
Jesus and the disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the boat and a storm sweeps down on the lake. The boat fills water. The waves batter it from all sides. The disciples are frantic, convinced theyʼre going to die.
And Jesus keeps on sleeping.
They shake him awake and scream: ʻMaster, weʼre going to die!ʼ
Jesus yawns and calmly stretches. Then he rebukes the wind and he tells the waves to cease their raging. Then he turns to the disciples and he says: ʻWhy are you so afraid? Where is your faith?ʼ
Storms drag things to the surface.
Lack of faith.
Anxiety that hides underneath when things are calm.
The truth about ourselves.
Storms drag things to the surface.
Just about two weeks ago I jogged up the stairs to the ICU at Mt Vernon to see Ray Pace, a friend of many of you. When I got there, a nurse was sitting at the bedside with files and papers on her lap, consulting with Mary, his wife.
She was asking Mary questions about feeding tubes and do-not-resuscitate orders and gently walking Mary through the likelihoods and probabilities of the coming days.
After the nurse left, I sat down next to Ray and I rubbed his shoulder and I talked to Mary. She told me about Ray, about what he was like before I met him, before illness took much of him away.
Iʼve been there many times when families have had to make hard choices about how to care for and how to say goodbye to someone they love. And because theyʼre hard decisions to make, oftentimes families donʼt make the right ones, or the best ones.
And I told Mary I respected her choices, that their love was strong enough for Mary to do what seemed hard so that Ray could enter the next life with the same dignity heʼd lived this one.
Mary wiped her eyes and she said: ʻYou know, Jason, it is hard, but heʼs been with me.ʼ
ʻHeʼs been with me.ʼ
And when she said it she didnʼt point next to her, to Ray. She pointed up, straight up.
ʻHeʼs been with me,ʼ she said, ʻand heʼs been closer to me than ever before.
Heʼs really there and thatʼs been wonderful.ʼ
When Jesus preaches on the mountaintop, he tells the crowds that those who hear the Gospel and donʼt act on it, donʼt make it a part of their life, donʼt ingest it and embody it- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on sand. And the rain falls and the flood comes and the wind blows and beats against it and the house…falls apart.
But those who hear the Gospel and act on it, those who make it a part of their everyday- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on solid rock. And the rain can fall and the floods can come and the wind can blow and beat against it but the house will hold.
Storms reveal what weʼve built our foundation on.
I once had a lawyer in my congregation.
That by itself is no small hardship.
But Pete was an alcoholic, a severe one. Heʼd been drowning himself with a bottle for nearly forty years. His addiction was so bad that his skin had grown sallow. His eyes were yellowed, and his belly was distended.
He was the kind of guy whoʼd always demanded to go in his own direction no matter how destructive it might prove.
Heʼd thrown everything important in his life overboard just to hold on to the one thing that was killing him. His drinking had left marriages and children and friends in its wake. It eventually sunk his career and wrecked his reputation.
Rehab after rehab, intervention after intervention and his friendsʼ desperate pleading- none of it had persuaded him to change. Because of what alcoholism had done to my own family, I always found it hard to minister to him.
I went to see him one day in Charlottesville where he was in the hospital. His body was slowly shutting down after a lifetime of abuse. He kept the curtains in his room pulled tightly shut and the lights turned off, and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him.
That visit- it was one of the only lucid conversations I ever had with him. We talked about UVA and about baseball. Just as Iʼd learned to do as a boy in my own family, we danced around the obvious.
I was surprised when Pete cut me off and asked me to pray. Heʼd never asked me to pray before. In fact, when Iʼd offered at other times heʼd refused. He gave substantial amounts of money to the church but that was it. He didnʼt want to let God into his heart or into any other part of his life.
I started to pray and he interrupted me. He stopped me. He looked at me ferociously and he said: ʻDonʼt you dare pray that I get out of here.ʼ
I asked him why and he told me that, there in the hospital, it was the longest heʼd ever been without drinking, that it was the first time he could remember that heʼd talked to his wife and his daughter sober, that even if it meant he died it was the best thing that couldʼve happened to him.
If you read carefully, after he disobeys God- after he runs away from God-
Jonahʼs story is a series of descents:
Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa to charter a boat.
Jonah goes DOWN into the ship.
Jonah falls DOWN to sleep.
And when they throw him overboard, Jonah sinks DOWN into the depths of the sea.
In other words, the more he tries to control his life, the further Jonah falls, the deeper he sinks.
Hereʼs the thing-
When Jonah hits bottom, when he sinks down to the roots of mountains and he gets swallowed whole- when Jonah hits bottom, he prays for the first time.
He prays the long prayer you find in chapter 2, and the prayer is not composed from his own words. Itʼs made up of snippets from the Psalms.
And if you go back and connect the dots and read those Psalms Jonah prays from, the surprise is that theyʼre Psalms of Thanksgiving. Every one of them.
When the storm strikes, when Jonah sinks and hits bottom, when Jonah gets swallowed up and is surrounded by darkness- he responds by saying: ʻThank
We think Jonah needs to be saved from the storm and from the fish, but the storm and the fish are what saves Jonah.
Sometimes the only thing that can save us is to be thrown overboard, to hit
bottom, to experience darkness, to lose everything we thought was important.
We resist storms in our lives. We do everything we can to avoid them. We come to places like this and we pray for God to rescue us from them. But sometimes…sometimes the storms can be our rescue.
Thereʼs a scene in the Gospels-
The crowds are pressing in on Jesus, and they ask Jesus for a sign.
For something that will make it easier to believe.
For something they can hold on to that will make following him worth it.
For something they can point back to later on…when the storms come.
Jesus, give us a sign, the crowds ask.
And Jesus sighs and he says: The only sign Iʼll give you is the sign of Jonah, who was swallowed up in death and darkness for three days and three nights and yet was saved to live again.
Thatʼs the sign Iʼll give you, Jesus says. Thatʼs the only sign you need.
The sign of Jonah:
The sign that victory can come from what looks like defeat.
The sign that you can never sink so low or fall so far that God canʼt lift you up.
The sign of Jonah:
The sign that light can still shine in the darkest of nights.
The sign that when all hope seems lost God will still provide.
The sign that, sometimes, what looks like a storm can be our rescue.