In the winter of 1891 the whale-ship ‘Star of the East was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands when it came within sight of a whale. Two boats were dispatched with harpoons to snare and kill the beast, but the lashing of its tail capsized one of the launches, spilling the crew into the sea. All were accounted for except for one sailor, James Bartley.
Ultimately the whale was killed and the carcass drawn aboard the vessel to begin the process of salvaging valuable resources. By the next day good progress had been made in removing the layers of blubber from the beast, so a tackle was attached to its stomach to hoist it on deck. Sailors were startled by spasmodic life within the belly of the whale, and upon further inspection the missing sailor was found. Bartley was quite mad for two weeks, but upon recovering his senses he recounted what little he could recall of being dragged under the water.
Struggling for his life he had been drawn into darkness within which he felt a terrible and oppressive heat. He found slimy walls that gave slightly to his touch, but could find no exit. When his situation finally dawned on him Bartley lost his senses completely and lapsed into a state of catatonia. During his time inside the whale the gastric juices affected his exposed skin. His face, neck and hands were bleached a deathly white with a texture like parchment, a condition from which the skin never recovered. Bartley believed that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, as breathing was not a problem.
There are, however, reports that suggest that this whole story is nothing more than an early urban-legend. You can find it on the BBC website with something of an open-verdict. Wikipedia calls it an urban-legend; but there is also a story from the 1930’s of a dog lost overboard but found, alive, two days later, when a captured whale was cut open.
It’s been a while since anyone asked me, “Warner; this Jonah bloke in the Bible; Jonah-Lomu’s great great ancestor; Jonah. Did he really get swallowed by a whale?” It’s been a while (or depending on your accent it’s been a whale!), but maybe you’re asking that question. Did it happen? Personally I believe it did, but consider this: Some people visit Israel today and they are delighted to see that they can visit the Inn, the Hotel, the Travelodge where the Good Samaritan took the beaten-up man for food and shelter. There are big brown tourist signs telling you where to find it. Visitors can take pictures of the Inn and the surrounding hills, imagining what it must have been like when the event first happened; and that’s all lovely right up until the point when someone says, “Hang on a minute. Wasn’t that Good Samaritan a parable that Jesus told? And if that’s the case then this isn’t the place at all!” No, it isn’t the place; because the true location of that parable is in our hearts; and out there (in the world).
On the other hand when the disciples met the risen Lord Jesus on Resurrection Sunday that was an actual event in history seen by many people and written down for us; it was an event that many followers of Jesus would later die for because they refused to deny that they had seen the risen Jesus.
What about Jonah and the whale. Is it an attitude-changing parable like the Good Samaritan, or is it a life-changing event like meeting the risen Messiah?
Should ‘Jonah’ be a test of Biblical orthodoxy?
In other words, are you only a ’real’ Christian if you believe that the Jonah story literally happened? No! In the Anglican Church we’ve got much bigger fish to fry! Much more important is this: what does God want to say to us tonight through Jonah chapter two? I believe God speaks to us through his word, and I’ve got no problem with people who believe the book of Jonah is a parable.
We read in Jonah 1:17 that Jonah has been swallowed by a great fish; probably a whale-shark. Jonah is in the belly of the big fish and if I were the fish and I’d just swallowed Jonah-Lomu’s great, great ancestor I think I would have indigestion; acid indigestion. So Jonah is in the midst of acid indigestion and for 3 days he is housed in a stomach.
He is surrounded by acid indigestion and his home for this 3-day ‘escape from the world’ -his house is the belly of a fish; and in that fish Jonah writes a Psalm. He begins to write some poetry, some music. Surrounded by acid indigestion, spending 3 days in the Big Fish-Belly House Jonah writes some music; and here we see very tenuous evidence that Jonah was indeed the founder of acid house music!
In a dark, dark place Jonah is writing a song. Jonah chapter 2 is a Psalm, a song of thanksgiving, contrition and rededication. Jonah is doing the right thing at last! Later in chapter 4 he does yet another about turn when he gets cross because God is gracious and kind to his enemies, but in chapter 2 Jonah is doing the right thing. Are you? He’s in the midst of a yo-yo time and perhaps some of us are too.
Jonah heard God’s word to him (1:2). Perhaps you’ve been waiting on God for direction. Jonah received very clear direction. Go and preach in Nineveh, the capital of your enemies!
What direction have you heard from God? What person or people has God asked you reach out to – to speak the truth to?
Jonah ran away from God’s call on his life. He ran away from the Lord (1:3). He was thrown into the sea to experience death by drowning. Have you, or have our churches run away from God in any way?
During his flight away from God in exactly the opposite direction Jonah’s life and the lives of those around him hit a big storm. Jonah was sacrificed. He was cast overboard. He was sinking into the dark waters. He was heading for sure and certain death. What are you right now? Where are you in your relationship with the Lord? Are you running from him? Are you sinking into deep dark waters with no escape route presenting itself? Are you in danger of death – and by that I mean are you in danger of eternal death? In Jonah 2:8 we read this: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” What or who is the object of your worship?
What or who gets your attention, your devotion. Jonah recognised that worshipping anything or anyone other than God results in believers forfeiting the grace that could be theirs. That is powerful stuff.
I have had to ask myself this week: where am I? Who am I? Who or what do I worship? To whom or to what do I give my time and my attentions?
Jonah was sinking very deep in the dark waters. Some of us are too; but our gracious God did something for Jonah and He’ll do it for you too.
Jonah prayed to the Lord. If you are sinking into something as a result of sin you need to pray and you need to pray right now. You won’t immediately get transferred to dry ground but God will do something or will send someone or something to rescue you.
Jonah’s song is written in a typically Hebrew fashion. He starts with appreciation for the fact that he’s been rescued: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help; and you listened to my cry” (2:2).
Jonah was hurtling towards death, sinking into the waters and God miraculously, graciously saved him. In what ways are we sinking? In what ways is the Church in Billericay rebelling against God? In our distress let’s call to the Lord because he will answer!
In verses 3 to 6 Jonah describes and perhaps even sings about the misery he was in; the hardship he was facing; and in this case the hardship, misery and near death experience is a direct result of Jonah’s deliberate rebellion against God.
Now, let’s be very careful here. Bad things can happen to good people, and good things can happen to bad people. We mustn’t conclude that awful events in our lives are always the result of specific sins, but on this occasion Jonah had indeed brought it all upon himself. Rejecting God’s call has it’s consequences.
Are you in misery or facing potential hardship because of your own actions? If so, call upon the Lord tonight. Do you feel like you’ve been banished from God’s sight? Look again towards the Lord (2:4).
In verse 7 Jonah appeals to the Lord to be rescued: “When my life was ebbing away I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.”
Let’s not stay where we are! If it looks like the life is draining out of our churches; or if life is draining out of our discipleship, or out of our relationships – if life is ebbing away remember the Lord. Let our prayers rise before him! Let’s return to him. Let’s put aside any sense of rivalry between churches if it has ever existed. Let’s remember the Lord.
In verses 8 and 9 Jonah is rededicating his life to the Lord. Jonah had run away from God and his running nearly killed a boat load of other people but God still had a plan and he rescued Jonah from himself. Surrounded by destructive acid, hemmed in by a stinking stomach for a house, Jonah is thankful and Jonah makes music in his heart: “I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord”; and Jonah prays all of this from within the acid house.
Jonah is not sitting on the sand looking back at his near-death experience saying, “Thank God!” No!
Jonah has been rescued from death but he’s still stuck inside a dinosaur fish. He is still ever so slowly being digested and consumed by what’s around him; and yet Jonah is full of praise, full of thanksgiving, fixing his eyes upon the Lord and rededicating his life to him.
Now, I wonder, if you were lost overboard during a storm and you were bobbing around in the sea, preserved only by your life jacket, what would you be praying? Would you be thanking God for the life-jacket, seeing it as a godly provision, calling out to the Lord in distress and recommitting your life to him? Or would you be praying, “God, if you’re really there, get me out of this in one piece and I’ll really live for you in the future, no more playing at church or playing at family life or playing at reaching the lost. Really, truly God – get me out of this one and I’ll be yours forever”? On this occasion Jonah got it right.
Jonah did not try to cut a deal with the Lord. His song was a prayer of thanksgiving, contrition and rededication. I believe we are being called to thanksgiving, contrition and rededication.
Out of his great love the Lord sent Jesus to rescue us from our stinking mess. We can’t try to cut a deal with Jesus because he has already paid off our debts, wiped away our sins and defeated death; but what we can do tonight is to bring to Jesus a prayer of thanksgiving, contrition and rededication.
R T Kendall wrote this: “God is not obligated to any [one]; and, in so far as Jonah is concerned, God did not even have to send wind! But He did. He did not have to prepare the fish. But He did. He did not have to eject Jonah from the fish. But He did. And He certainly did not have to come to Jonah the second time. But He did!”