January 10, 2010

Are You Drowning Yet?

Here’s an interesting question for you this morning: have any of you ever found yourself inside the belly of a giant fish? Now some of you fishermen and –women may be able to better attest to this than me, but I understand there is a particular fishing technique for catching large catfish in the South called noodling. This technique involves finding the hole in the river where the fish is hiding, sticking your arm in the hole, and waiting until the fish decides your arm looks like a nice snack. There is actually an entire Wikipedia entry on noodling. For those noodlers who are feeling particularly brave and find themselves in Southeast Asia, they can try their luck with the Mekong Giant Catfish. Natives are said to catch these beasts by hand, but noodling may not be the most preferred method given that the species can grow up to nine feet long and weigh in at 600 pounds. I can say with great assurance that drowning in the stomach of a huge fish is not the way I would prefer to go. Yet, if you were fishing and using your arm as bait, getting swallowed by a huge fish seems, in a sense, only fitting. Jonah wasn’t fishing though. He was running. He was trying to get as far away from God as he possibly could. Granting a sincere misunderstanding of God’s character on the part of Jonah, I think we can all agree that a person on the run from God is at a point of spiritual weakness. But there’s a funny thing about being spiritually weak: such weakness doesn’t necessarily show through quickly or clearly in other areas of our lives. In fact, many of us are pretty good at faking spiritual strength so convincingly that we fool even ourselves. Why we might even seem to be doing better in other areas of our lives in spite of our spiritual weakness. Just as a table can stand indefinitely on three legs, so can we stand with one of our psychological supports removed…as long as things remain smooth and easy. If you were to add any sort of a burden to that table, though, it would fall. So too our lives. The difference between our lives and this table we are imagining, however, is that our relationship with God isn’t just another leg on which we stand: it’s the whole foundation. We may give the impression that things are going great in our lives when we are on the run from God, that we can in fact get along just fine without Him, but when the winds of life begin to blow and the storms rage, apart from a solid foundation, our house of cards will come tumbling to the ground.

Our journey through the book of Jonah this month brings us this morning to the second chapter. Turn there with me if you would. We know from the end of chapter one that when the sailors tossed Jonah overboard at his insistence, God graciously sent a giant fish to swallow and carry him around for a few days. And for those of you who’ve read Jonah 2 before, you know that Jonah thanks God for saving him while he’s in the belly of the beast. This chapter is kind of the happy, holy-sounding part of the story. Yet two things become clear as we look as the second chapter. First, Jonah isn’t exactly out of the woods yet. He didn’t drown, but he’s in the belly of a giant fish. There’s not much in the way of historical precedence for people being swallowed by animals and living to tell about it. Second, while the literary flow of chapter one gives the impression that Jonah was swallowed up as soon as he hit the water, the text doesn’t actually say that. In fact, from chapter 2 it seems that Jonah was in the water for long enough to be confident of his drowning before he got swallowed. If you read Jonah’s words here very carefully, it appears that God’s help for him didn’t come until he was literally at the point of drowning and further that this help was in the form of being swallowed. In case the subtlety of this isn’t clear, being swallowed means you’re not at the top of the food chain. The picture we get from looking at Jonah’s prayer here is that help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest. As we walk further into this new year with all of its new challenges, we do well to face them with the strong realization that we don’t have what it takes to get through them. And as we are going to see from Jonah’s story this morning, the quicker we can come to acknowledge this fact, the better it will be for us.

The second chapter of Jonah’s story actually begins with kind of a summary of what follows. From v. 1: .Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish: I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me. I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol; You heard my voice.. What do you do when things fall apart? I think it’s pretty safe to say that for Jonah things had fallen completely and totally apart at this point in his life. It’s hard to conclude much other than that when you’re inside the belly of a giant fish. Look at what Jonah says, though. He called to the Lord in his distress. He cried out for help in the belly of Sheol. Sheol was the place of the dead in the Old Testament. Jonah is saying that he was a walking…er, swimming…dead man. The words he uses in Hebrew convey a sense of the pain of childbirth. All the stuff about guys having no concept of that level of pain aside, Jonah’s painful journey of running from God had finally hit the squishy bottom of a fish’s gullet. Have you ever felt like everything was crumbling down around you? Have you ever actually hit rock bottom? What took you there? The affects of this broken world can take us pretty low. How do you respond? How did you respond? How are you responding? Granting he is going to give us more detail in a minute, Jonah gives us a pretty good response here: he cried out to the Lord. But that’s not the most important thing here. God answered him. When he hit the bottom Jonah cried out to God and God answered him. How much better if we could wake up and truly cry out to God before we reach that point, but for so many of us it takes reaching the bottom before we are convinced of our inability to save ourselves. Too often when we reach out for God before then we are merely looking for a hand up. God wants to do it all. His help comes when we finally reach the end of ourselves. Help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest. If we have any inclination of self-sufficiency in us, we are not yet ready for His help.

That was all just to introduce what comes next, though. Let’s go forward together and experience with Jonah the full weight of his circumstances. Let me take you to that point of brokenness. Listen to Jonah’s starting in v. 3: .You threw me into the depths, into the heart of the seas, and the current overcame me. All Your breakers and Your billows swept over me.. When your seas were raging did you go here? Though most folks aren’t as scared to do it as they used to be thanks to the rampant secularization of our culture it still takes a certain level of either guts or anger to exclaim what Jonah does in v. 3. You threw me into the depths. Your breakers and Your billows swept over me. It sure seems like he is laying the blame for his situation right at the feet of God. And when we are angry that is so easy to do. We take a misunderstanding and exaggeration of the convenient parts of God’s character and use them as a weapon against Him. He is supposed to be sovereign and He is supposed to be good. So why are all these bad things happening to us? A sovereign God is both our greatest joy and our fiercest nemesis when the walls of life cave in on us and we find ourselves in the belly of the beast. We vacillate wildly back and forth from praying desperately that God would carry us through on our terms and attempting to damn Him for allowing us to encounter such unbelievably fierce pain. We can hear all of these emotions in Jonah’s words here. There is certainly a tone of lament or complaint to his words, but more than that there is a tone of faith and a cry for help. This is a pathetic picture. Indeed, help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest.

Yet just like we know from experience, things are rarely as simple as that. In v. 4 Jonah continues pouring his heart out to God: .I said: I have been banished from Your sight…. As with the first part of his lament, these words are both a confession of his situation and also an attempt to indict God. The verb tense here is passive. In other words someone or something else was the cause of his being banished from God’s sight. The reality is that while God did banish Jonah from His sight, it was Jonah’s sinful running that led to the banishment. Furthermore, not being able to be in the presence of God doesn’t mean God isn’t still pursuing us or listening to us. The question is whether we have the faith to say with Jonah in the second half of v. 4: .Yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple.. Things were undoubtedly bleak for Jonah. Maybe you have family members who are sick and the outcome is not clear at all. Perhaps your family is struggling financially and you simply don’t know how the next bill is getting paid. Maybe you have so many things going wrong right now you don’t even know where to start. You are mad at God and already halfway out the door on Him. Don’t shy away from the emotions. Just like Jonah does here, direct the frustration and the hurt and the anger and the confusion right to the throne of God. Even if the whole situation is in reality the result of your sinful running, cry out His name. Acknowledge that you are at the end of yourself and reach your arms out to Him. Remember: just because bad things happen to us doesn’t mean God is throwing us under the ocean. Sometimes we experience valleys because we live in a world with an uneven surface and God doesn’t keep His people out of all trouble.

The other day when I was laying on the couch Noah came up and threw one of his toys on to the couch, but on the opposite side of my legs from where he was. He was in a place where he couldn’t get what he wanted on his own. That didn’t stop him from trying though. He tried his best to climb up over my legs to get
it on his own. But eventually he acknowledged his inability to get his toy on his own and came up to me with his arms up as high as they would go, straining with everything in him for me to pick him up and help him reach his goal. In the same way, help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest.

Jonah doesn’t leave any of his situation to our imagination though. He has already expressed his hopefulness in spite of feeling like he has been banished from God’s sight. Yet just because we are hopeful doesn’t mean things are instantly better. I’m sure there were prisoners in Auschwitz who were hopeful for their release yet languished in the death camp for several more months, if not years. Being hopeful didn’t get Jonah out of the water either. From vv. 5-6: .The waters engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. I sank to the foundations of the mountains; the earth with its prison bars closed behind me forever!. Too often we read words like this emotionlessly when we read in Sunday school or even in our personal devotions. Yet as I say so often: don’t miss the emotion. When I was in grade school my cousins were in town and we went to the water park in Kansas City. Like any respectable water park it had a wave pool. It was a crowded summer day and so the wave pool itself was packed with people enjoying riding the waves. The thing about a wave pool is that when the waves are going, you can go out pretty deep in the water without worrying about whether or not you can touch because every time you find yourself in the trough of the wave you can reach the ground to give your arms a break. Well, I had gone out pretty deep without the aid of an innertube and I wasn’t the strongest swimmer in the world. I was having fun as the waves kept me bouncing way up and down, but then the waves stopped and I was in about eight feet of water. I can tell you that the waters engulfed me up to the neck. The watery depths were threatening to overcome me. Innertubes wrapped around my head. I was sinking to the foundations of the pool and the surface with its innertubes piloted by clueless riders closed over me for what seemed like ever. Thankfully and obviously I didn’t drown that day. With Jonah I can proclaim: .But You raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God!. Have you been there? What were your .waters.? Do you remember the panic rising up from your gut through your chest as your tired arms and legs threatened to give out on you letting the water inch closer and closer to your mouth? Can you feel the seaweed wrapping around you as you struggle to stay up where the air is? Can you recall the point you gave up hope of being able to pull yourself up on your own strength? Have you reached that point yet? Help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest.

Come up for air with me for just a minute and realize two important things about the full context of these words of Jonah’s. First, Jonah was writing this about the time he was in the water before he was swallowed by the fish. The storm had stopped, but that didn’t mean he was out of the water. And he wasn’t a swimmer. The Israelites were not seafaring people. Just because the winds of one of the storms in our life cease doesn’t mean we are out of the water. Second, Jonah is saying this prayer from the inside of the fish. Remember: God saved him from drowning in the Mediterranean by having a huge fish swallow him. We know from clear hindsight that things improved significantly for Jonah when he was swallowed, but I imagine Jonah’s second thought was something along the lines of, .Oh great, I’m not going to drown, I’m going to be digested. Hurray.. In the mountains, when you are walking along the bottom of a valley and set your sights on reaching a distant peak simply walking up the next hill doesn’t mean you will magically be there. You may have two or three more valleys to traverse before you reach your goal. The help God sends when we are weak enough to stay out of His way may not instantly resolve all our issues. Pulling something out of the fire doesn’t mean it didn’t get burned and doesn’t mean it will easily or ever get back to the condition it was in before the fire touched it. The refiner’s melted gold may not ever regain its original shape, but the refiner will mold it once it is malleable into the shape he wants it to have. The point is not that we instantly get where we want to go but that we trust God to unfailingly take us where He created us to be. The right place to be is with Jonah in v. 7: .As my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord. My prayer came to You, to Your holy temple.. Sometimes God has to drive to our knees in order to get us to pray. Like training a wild horse, first you have to break them before they can be of great use. Help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest.

Know well, though, that it is no foregone conclusion that people will turn to the Lord when things get rough. There are still many who keep kicking and clawing in hopes of getting up on their own. Or else they reach out to nearby floats which offer only momentary relief. Like an iceberg in the South Pacific, they climb up high on these false sources of help and for a time take a breather, proud of their resourcefulness. Eventually, though, the ice will melt and they will be back in the water thrashing about for help once again. All the while these folks ignore the life-preserver floating peacefully behind them. I think Jonah puts pretty good words to this struggle: .Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love.. Another translation puts it: .Those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs.. For those of you who have seen the movie .The Titanic,. imagine if at the end of the movie when a lifeboat comes back for Rose she had refused, preferring instead to cling to her piece of driftwood. After all, she had quite an emotional attachment to that piece of driftwood. It was the last place she saw her precious Jack. It could have become an idol for her and she would have quietly died there. If we cling to our idols we can boast in our abilities, our resourcefulness until the prison bars of earth close finally and firmly over our heads. Yet in doing so we forsake the faithful love, we forfeit the mercy that could be ours, the chesed that God is waiting to pour out on us if only we will stop fighting, give up our delusions of self-sufficiency, and reach out for Him with every fiber of our beings. In fact, we need only turn with His help and take a baby step in the right direction. In our weak state, that may be all the strength we have left. Praise His name that help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest. We will be able to cry out with Jonah in v. 9: .As for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the Lord!.

Now, Jonah sounds pretty excited at this point and he should be. But notice something here. Throughout this chapter Jonah makes reference to himself almost thirty times in the eight verses of the actual psalm. That’s almost four times a verse if you’re keeping score. On the other hand, only half that many references are made to God. Now maybe someone could argue that it’s because Jonah is confessing his sins and thus is focusing on himself, but I’m not so quick to agree. Notice that though Jonah does spend a lot of time describing what happened to him and thanks God for it, he never actually admits that he’s done anything wrong. As far as confessions for sin go, this one misses out on the whole confessing part. Even in his submission to God he still doesn’t fully get it. Jonah’s problem—and this will become even more clear over the next couple of weeks—is that he thinks God should operate on his terms, not the other way around. This is a lesson for us both on the need to submit ourselves fully to the reality of God as well as of the amazing power of God’s grace. Think how much we short ourselves on when we live apart from the spacious bounds of reality. Yet even the tiniest baby steps toward God merit an amazing response of grace. We don’t have to be perfect or fully .get it. in order to be accepted by God. We just have to be moving in His direction (which He helps us do). We don’t have to understand everything that God is doing. I’m sure that Jonah didn’t immediately fully understand what he was doing in the stomach of a giant fish other than not drowning. As a matter of fact, we don’t even have to like what God is doing and we can tell Him about it. The psalmists did that with a frequency and sometimes a brutal honesty that makes me a little curious as to how they managed to avoid the lightning bolts. But, we do have to accede to it. We can’t run from Him without hurting ourselves, but we can disagree with Him and be very clear about this fact. Now, know well that God is looking for perfection from us. Jesus makes that explicitly clear. Perfection is the only thing that satisfies His standard.

What we must come to realize is that we aren’t perfect and are never going to get there on our own. The problem is that most of us are pretty slow learners. We keep on trying which just gets us in trouble. The harder we struggle against the tide, the further down into the swell we are drawn. Kind of like Jonah in that regard. As long as we have a glimmer of thought that we can somehow do it on our own, we are going to keep on flailing. Help will get us there, but help comes from the Lord when we are at our weakest. Like Jonah, when we acknowledge that we are drowning and that God is the only one who can pull us out of the waters, we will find all the help we need. Maybe this morning you find yourself in