I’ve been reflecting on the story of Jonah.
You know the one – the one where this guy disobeys God and ends up getting eaten by a whale. Or more accurately by a ‘big fish.’
The story of Jonah is nothing to do with a whale or big fish
The thing is that this story is really nothing to do with the big fish. And it’s certainly not a kids’ story.
It’s a hard-hitting parable – about our very human shortcomings and God’s grace in rescuing us – even when we are at our worst. And forgiving us.
The story has a lot of important messages. But one of the things it tells us about is prayer. Or, in fact, the absence of prayer. And what this leads to.
What the story is about…
So let’s look at the story more closely.
First, Jonah is not a good man.
Although the story opens by saying that ‘the Word of the LORD came to Jonah’ – implying he was a prophet - Jonah is not a godly man.
He hears God call him to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah – before disaster befalls them. And he refuses. Not because he is afraid. But because he hates the Ninevites – they are his enemies and he does not want them to have a chance to repent and be forgiven.
So he runs away – as far from Ninevah as he can get – and ends up on a boat sailing west with a group of pagan sailors.
A fierce storm arises and the sailors all start praying both to the gods they believe in and the gods they don’t. They are terrified and desperate.
But Jonah is asleep and not praying at all.
In the end, the sailors wake him up and tell him to pray too. But Jonah still does nothing. And the sailors start to sense that this calamity they are experiencing may have been brought on by Jonah.
So they start interrogating him. ‘What do you do? Where to you come from? What sort of person are you?’
Jonah says ‘I am a Hebrew. I worship the God of heaven, who created the sea and dry land.’
And the sailors are then even more alarmed.
They remember that Jonah had told them he was fleeing his god. They haven’t seen him worship this god, they haven’t seen him pray. And now he’d telling them that this god is the god who created the sea, the sea that is about to destroy them.
So Jonah says ‘Just chuck me overboard.’ He gives up. He still doesn’t think to pray or repent. He just wants to be done with everything and to give up.
And so the sailors do throw him overboard and he is swallowed by a big fish – in which he dwells for three days and three nights.
And then guess what Jonah does?
Yes, at the very end, he prays!
The story is about prayer
From the belly of the fish, from rock bottom, Jonah prays.
Jonah recognises his sinfulness, his complete helplessness and dependency on God and he prays.
And God hears his prayer and rescues him.
What a story!
But what does it say to us?
The story is about us!
Well, in case you haven’t got there already – Jonah stands for all humanity. For each one of us.
We get on with our lives, scarcely ever praying, not listening to God. And when we get an inkling of what God might want us to do, we say no. We run away. Often not because we are scared but because it has a cost. It inconveniences us. It helps someone else and not us – and maybe that someone else is someone we don’t like. Or someone we don’t think is deserving.
This disobedience and sinfulness builds up and up inside us and in the end starts spilling over and impacting not just ourselves but the people around us. We don’t just suffer the consequences of our sin ourselves but other innocent people around us suffer too. Like the sailors in the story.
And these people -whether Christians or not – see that something’s wrong with us. And they start trying to figure it out. They say, ‘Who are you? What is your life based on? What sort of person are you?’
And we might reply either in words or by the simple act of going to Church, ‘I am a Christian. I follow Jesus - who died to save us from our sins.’
And the people around us may wonder and mutter and say things like, ‘She calls herself a Christian – but just look what she does..’ And they may start to wonder about the mess our lives have created and whether there is something in this person Jesus who recognised sin and gave his life to conquer it. And they may think about what their own lives might be like without the burden of sin. And maybe, through our bad example, they might come to faith themselves. Just as the sailors in the story come to faith in the LORD.
But we, of course, being like Jonah – we would not recognise this. We are spiritually dead. Never praying, never believing.
Until of course we reach rock bottom.
Until our partner leaves us. We lose our job. We become ill. We can’t control our drinking.
And then, at the very bottom of the pit, in the belly of the whale – what do we finally do?
Yes! We pray.
We cry out to God.
And rather than saying ‘Well, you got yourself into this mess, now you can get yourself out.’ Rather than saying ‘Well, this is your punishment for ignoring me.’ Rather than saying ‘This is what you get for allowing your sin to hurt the people around you.’ God rescues us.
He pulls us up out of the pit. He speaks to the fish and commands it to spew us out onto dry land.
And we are given a second chance
The message of this passage
So the message of this opening passage of Jonah is to wake up. Wake up and recognise the danger of not praying. Of living your life out of relationship with God. Both for yourself and for others.
Recognise your helplessness and cry out to God. Know that the prayers he hears first are the prayers of those in the belly of the fish.
And know that he will always answer those prayers.