When God Goes Fishing
June 1, 2008
Updated December 30, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Jonah 2:1-10
Sermon prepared by Rev. Michael Bootsma, Frankford, Ontario
Dear People of God,
Chapter 1 of Jonah’s story left this prophet of God snug in the belly of the whale—or great fish. as our Bibles now translate the word. Our Bibles also tell us that from inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord His God. Since chapter 2 is comprised mostly of Jonah’s prayer, it might be both interesting and helpful if this sermon came from Jonah’s perspective. So, just imagine that I am Jonah and I am reflecting on my experience in the whale’s stomach. (Reader should pause)
“My fish,” as I have come to call that beastly thing in which I was entombed for three very long days, has become rather famous. And since I am still the only man recorded to have survived three days in the belly of a great fish, I too am quite famous. But the truth is, I shouldn’t really be very famous. After all, God had asked me to do a simple thing really. All He asked is that I go to Nineveh and tell the people of that city about God’s coming judgement. Having given the message I would be free to go home, sit by the fire and relax.
That kind of preaching is really the best. You go in, you preach, you let it rip with both barrels and then high tail it out of there. Someone else can clean up the mess afterwards. That’s all I had to do. It’s not like I had to do a lot of preparation. All I needed to do was to walk through the streets and point out all the sinful practices of the residents; break into the king’s palace, go at him for a while and then be gone as quick as I possibly could. Hopefully, I’d be long gone before he realized what I had been talking about.
But no, not me! I realized what God was up to right away. He was hoping those ‘unclean pagans’, (Oh, how I still hate them) would repent. But I did not want them to have that opportunity. So, I did the logical thing: I ran away. If I didn’t warn them, they wouldn’t repent. Then, bang, God would get them good. I thought about going to Nineveh, hide in a cave and watch for Judgement Day. But I knew God could find me there. So, afraid of God, I bought passage on a cargo ship heading to Tarshish, who knows where that is. (No one can find that city on any map so some people think it simply means “the edge of the world”; which is really where I wanted to go).
When the captain woke me up from the dead sleep I was in, it didn’t take me long to realize that God had followed me right out to sea. As I looked at the waves I realized the judgement God had intended for Nineveh… Well, He had sent it down upon me instead. These sailors and their little wooden vessel were caught in the cross fire. That’s why I told them to throw me overboard. I knew God wasn’t after them—just after me.
When I hit the water I fully expected to be sucked under and drown. I had tried to run away from God and now He was making sure I would succeed at that: Death by drowning!
At first I was pleasantly surprised by this dying thing. It really wasn’t so bad. I seemed to be breathing normally. My body seemed in tact. I sure didn’t feel like a ghost. But it sure was dark and the smell… that was the worst. And the moment, it was like being unbuckled in some huge rollercoaster. I kept banging into the sides, and they were hard, like bone. It didn’t take long before I was bruised and battered all over. I thought, “This has got to be hell: being banged around in the dark in a fishy smelling roller coaster for eternity.”
But gradually I realized that I was not dead. I was quite alive. For a moment I thought God was playing one great big practical joke on me. But then I realized that God wanted me very much alive. God still wanted me to go to Nineveh.
Humph! Forget it. I wasn’t going. In my stubborn pride I crossed my arms and sat down as best I could. I wasn’t going to give in that easily. But it’s hard to sit still with your arms folded when you’re in a fish’s stomach. They tend to swim around, up and down, side to side. I’m sure my stomach even did a few flips up in the air.
Finally, I wasn’t sitting down with my arms folded but hanging on for dear life. And slowly the light began to dawn. God was giving to me what He wanted the Ninevites to receive: MERCY. You see, I should have been dead. That fish should have caught me, chewed me up, eaten me; not given me a free ride (still, I would never willingly do it again).
Being inside that fish was an act of God. God had sent that fish. God had made it possible for that fish to become my home for three days, even if my home seemed like a tomb and I was wrapped in sea weed instead of spice-laden burial cloth. God was being merciful. I was really no different than the Ninevites. I didn’t deserve mercy. But God was giving it to me anyway.
I began to realize just how far away from God I really had been living my life. Even though I was God’s prophet, I had to be locked up in a fish’s stomach before I would open my eyes and see who God was. When I was on that ship I could have repented and told God I would go to Nineveh. But no, I didn’t think of God’s mercy. I only thought of running away.
I was consumed by God’s judgement. I wanted God to judge and punish the Ninevites. But since I wouldn’t warn them; since I wouldn’t extend to them a chance to repent, God was judging me. I figured that God had found me guilty and wanted me dead. Of course, He had every right to do away with me. But instead, well, you know what He did.
As an aside, I don’t know if you heard, but I found out later that after the sailors had thrown me over board and the storm had stopped, they immediately worshipped God. And me? It wasn’t until I was practically unconscious from the pain of being rattled around in my bony rollercoaster cage that I began to think about God and His mercy. Those sailors were quicker to respond to God than I was. You have to wonder why God would use someone like me to be His prophet.
So there I was in the heart of the sea when the light began to dawn. God was indeed merciful. As you know, I was down there for three whole days and nights. That’s a really long time. But we Jews believe that it takes that long for the soul to travel down to Sheol, the land of the dead, and back again. (That’s why I included the phrase, “from the depths of the grave” in my prayer). When I finally got back on dry land, I really did believe that God had brought me back from the dead.
But we’re not quit there yet. It was down there, way down there, that I finally began to crack. I finally began to let go of my stubborn, know-it-all attitude. I began to realize that I had been trying to play God. I had figured that I knew better than God how to do this “God thing.” Well, I tell you, I’m pretty thick-headed. It took God some doing before I began to realize what I was doing.
You have to understand, it was not unbelief that sent me running. My problem was this: I didn’t like who God was. I wanted Him to be the God of the Jews. I wanted Him to be for us and against everyone who stood in our way. We should be the greatest nation on earth. Any who stood in our way ought to be annihilated, especially the people of Nineveh. I didn’t like the way He was running the show—giving other nations a chance! That’s why I ran. I didn’t like who God was. I didn’t like His mercy. It wasn’t until I was in a position in which I needed the very thing about God that I didn’t like that I began to break apart. That’s when I began to call out to God.
“In my distress I called out to the Lord, and He answered me.
From the depths of the grave I called for help, and You listened to my cry.”
I know that I told the sailors to throw me overboard. But now I knew that it was God who had conducted affairs in such a way that I would land in the water.
“You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas
and the currents swirled about me; all Your waves and breakers swept over me.”
And so there, in the heart of the sea, I finally acknowledged God as God,
“I have been banished from Your sight…
The engulfing waters threatened me,
The deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
The earth beneath barred me in forever.”
But I also knew that this was not the end. God was not intending to leave me in “my fish.”
“Yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O Lord my God.”
It is really true that you cannot run away from God. Even, there in the depths of the sea, I knew that God was listening to me.
“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
And my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.”
Now let me make clear what I mean by the end of my prayer. I say some things about worthless ideas. God, of course, knows this. It was sort of a muted confession: that my idea of God was like a worthless idol. I missed out on the grace of God because I didn’t want Him to be that kind of God. God has a way of doing that. When we think we have Him all figured out, He breaks out of the box and we discover that He is even more than we thought He was.
A man some of you may have heard about, C.S. Lewis, when he had been a Christian for some time, made this comment, “The image that God has to break over and over again is my image of God. God keeps revealing Himself as much more than I think.” Let me say that again, “The image that God has to break over and over again is my image of God. God keeps revealing Himself as much more than I think.”
My point is this: if we cling to a false idea of God, we miss out on a lot of grace. I don’t mean that we need to have God all figured out to be saved. God has a lot more grace to give us than just getting into heaven. God wants to enjoy living with us now. In order for that to happen, we need to get to know who God really is. When we hang on to our idea of who God is, we miss out on the real God. We miss out on the many blessings of walking with Him. That’s why I included this verse in my prayer,
“Those who cling to worthless idols
Forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
That’s what I was doing: clinging to a false image of God. I suspect that some of you are doing the same.
Did you notice that in my song I follow the example of the sailors? When they had been spared from the storm, they made sacrifices and vows to God. And I promised to do the same.
“But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you
What I have vowed, I will make good.
You see, you can’t receive God’s grace and not do anything in response to it. You cannot simply sit on grace as you sit on a treasure. You have to show it off. Do you know that in your church the offering is almost always at the end of the service? It’s placed there so that you can give thanks to God through gifts of money. When you receive grace, you ought to respond to it in some way. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
By the way, don’t promise God something and then not give it. That’s another recipe for disaster. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” (5:2) And “Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’ Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” (5:6)
I think you should listen to that advice.
I end my prayer with that marvelous declaration, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” My time in the belly of the fish was used by God to show just how great His mercy and grace really are. We usually think of God as saving those who turn to Him. But here I was running away from Him and He ran after me and brought me literally to my knees. Therefore “my fish” story has become a symbol of God’s salvation. Years later, Jesus would refer to “my fish.” He said, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Mt 12:39).
My fish’s belly became a symbol for God’s saving work. He would later save the world through Jesus’ three days in a real tomb. All who hear this good news, believe it and repent from their sin will be saved. This of course was the main point of the whole Nineveh trip. God wanted to go fishing. Not in the sea, but in Nineveh. He wanted the people there to hear, to believe Him, to repent and turn to Him. And I was the bait, so to speak. But I didn’t want God to go fishing. And I did not want to be His bait. So I ran away. But when God wants to go fishing, He’s going to go fishing.
So God first fished me out of the sea. It took Him three days. Talk about a persistent fisherman. Of course, if He had not come after me, I’m sure I would have drowned. But I didn’t drown. God hauled me out of the sea. He wanted me. God’s funny that way. He is God after all. Still, He uses people like you and me to tell others about Him. He really does want others to be saved. It would seem much more effective if He did it Himself. But He doesn’t; He wants to use you and me to fish for Him, so that others can be saved. As I said, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”
And that’s when I felt the muscles of “my fish’s” stomach tighten and squeeze. I thought I was going to die. But then the fish retched. I guess I wasn’t such good food after all. I landed on the shore with the rest of the stomach’s content. Sure glad I hadn’t been able to see all that other stuff any earlier.
When I had gotten myself all cleaned up, I looked around to see if I had made it to Tarshish after all. But I saw that I was home. Running away from God doesn’t work. He has much better plans.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
GOD REMINDS US OF HIS GRACE
GOD SHAPES US THROUGH HIS WORD
WE RESPOND TO GOD’S SHAPING
GOD SENDS US OUT INTO HIS WORLD
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