What’s the worst that could happen? It’s a question that we often ask ourselves, or at least it’s a question that I often ask myself, maybe you never ask yourself that question. Maybe I’m just strange.
But what happens when it’s worse than you could have imagined? When you underestimated the worst that could happen. When it’s even worse than the worst-case scenario. When you couldn’t even imagine ending up where you ended up.
Most times though it’s not that we underestimate, usually our Worst-Case Scenario never actually happens.
A while back I discovered this book, Worst-Case Scenarios a Survival Handbook, and I was intrigued so I bought a copy. And it’s got all kinds of helpful advice if I ever need to run along the top of a moving train, how to escape from a sinking car or how to jump from a building into a dumpster.
For example, on page 46 there are instructions for how to fend off a shark.
1. Hit back. If a shark is coming toward you or attacks you, use anything in your possession, camera, probe, harpoon gun, your fist – to hit the sharks’ eyes or gills.
2. Make quick, sharp, repeated jabs in these areas. Sharks are predators and will usually only follow through on an attack if they have the advantage.
And then there are two pages of ways to avoid being attacked by a shark.
I had a friend in Australia whose policy for that was simply. . . never go swimming in the ocean.
The concept of the book led us to our preaching series for the next couple of months, worst case scenarios in the bible. So, in week one my message was “What to do when you have to fight a giant.” And last week was “What to do if you’ve been left behind.” Perhaps I should have preached on: How to drive in a Nova Scotia Winter.
The scenario we are looking at today is probably one of the most well-known stories of the bible, often called Jonah and the Whale, even many non-believers know the term if not the story. However, if when you think of Jonah and the whale this image comes to mind then you are confusing the book of Jonah with the book of Disney and Jonah with Geppetto. Just saying.
And even if people don’t know the story, most people know what it means to be a “Jonah”, even if they don’t know why being a Jonah means you bring bad luck.
Groucho Marx once said, “Oh, are you from Wales? Do you know a fella named Jonah-He used to live in whales for a while?”
The book of Jonah, which you will find in the section of the bible called the Minor Prophets. They aren’t the Minor Prophets because they are less important than the Major Prophets, they are simply less wordy than the major prophets
Very quickly, to bring you up to speed. Jonah, a prophet of Israel is told by God that he is to go to the city of Nineveh and preach a series of revival services. The problem is that the people of Nineveh are enemies of the Jews and Jonah doesn’t think they are worthy of hearing a message of mercy and grace, so he not only refuses to do as he was commanded, but he tries to run from God.
The bible tells us that Jonah heads in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh and boards a ship that is heading to a city called Tarshish, that many scholars tell us is located in modern Spain.
So, Jonah is not just going in the opposite direction of where he was supposed to be going, but he was heading as far away as was imaginable, Tarshish would have been considered the very edge of the known world for Jonah.
And while on his journey, a great storm comes up and threatens to sink the ship. The sailors cast lots to see who is bringing them bad luck and Jonah, draws the short straw, so to speak. He tells the sailors that he is running from God and the only way they can save themselves is to throw him overboard.
Which they do. We are told that the storm stopped at once and Jonah gets eaten by a big fish.
Which brings us to our Worst-Case scenario for this week. What to do when you end up in the belly of a really big fish.
1. Discover Where You Are I’ve never been inside the belly of a really big fish, but I would suspect it is dark. When I was a kid, and it was really dark, my father would say it was darker than the inside of a cow’s belly, and I’m pretty sure that he’d never been inside a cow’s belly.
Jonah had assumed that the worst-case scenario was that he would be thrown overboard and would drown. I mean, how could it be worse than that?
In 2013 when I was in West Africa, we were heading north on a 16-hour drive to get to where we were teaching, and if you’ve never driven in Africa, you can’t even imagine what it’s like.
And one of our team members said, “I hate sleeping while we are driving here, I’m afraid I’ll wake up dead.” That was his Worst-Case scenario. I replied, “I’m not afraid of waking up dead, I’m afraid of waking up almost dead.” That was my worst-case-scenario. Literally a fate worse than death.
But I don’t even think Jonah could have imagined a scenario worse than drowning in the storm.
But listen to what we are told in the story, Jonah 1:17 Now the LORD had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.
Now, I know that we think of Jonah being inside the belly of a whale, but technically the bible does just say it was a great fish. Now understand, this is not a zoology lesson. I’m not even sure that 3000 years ago that people would have known or cared that a whale was a mammal and not a fish.
If you had of asked one of the sailors who witnessed the entire event, “Was it a fish or a whale that swallowed Jonah?” They probably would have said “Yes”.
So maybe it was a fish and maybe it was a whale. It doesn’t matter. Because either way, you aren’t going to stay alive inside of either one for three days, not without divine intervention.
So maybe it was a really big fish, like a great white shark. Or maybe it was a really big whale, we know it couldn’t have been a Baleen type whale like a right whale or a humpback whale because they have really tiny throats. But it could have been a toothed whale, like a sperm whale or an orca.
Or, God could have created a special fish just for that occasion, after all, that’s one of the perks of being God.
Thomas Paine wrote, “The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvelous; but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle if Jonah had swallowed the whale.”
But, regardless of how Jonah defined his present reality, he knew he wasn’t in a good place.
If we keep reading, we hear the prayer of Jonah, Jonah 2:1-2 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish. He said, “I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and LORD, you heard me!”
The phrase “Land of the Dead” comes from a Hebrew word Sheol, and it was like Jonah was saying, “I’m going through Hell.” And maybe you’ve been there.
When you end up in a bad place, the first thing you need to do is figure out where you are.
Maybe you are grieving the loss of a loved one, maybe your marriage has fallen apart, perhaps you’ve lost your job or your health.
Jonah was in a bad spot, but on the other hand, he wasn’t dead.
It sounds clichéic and pithy, but as long as you have a pulse, your story isn’t over.
2. Determine How you got There
Once you know where you are, you should take the time to figure out how you got there.
Sometimes, there is a clear answer and sometimes there isn’t. In Jonah’s case there was, he knew exactly what had brought him to that spot. After the sailors had cast lot and figured that it was Jonah who was the cause of their storm they confronted him and asked him what was going on, let’s pick up the story in Jonah 1:7-12 Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the LORD. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?” “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.”
Understand, Jonah really was the author of his own misfortune. He was running from God, but even with that realization he would rather die than be obedient. Seems a little extreme.
I wonder what would have happened in our story if instead of asking to be thrown overboard Jonah had of repented and then promised that as soon as his feet touched dry ground that he’d catch the next camel to Nineveh? It might have ruined a good story, but it would have simplified things for Jonah.
Often times, before we can figure out how to move from our present reality to our preferred future, we need to figure out what brought us to this point to begin with.
If you’ve been around Cornerstone for any length of time, you’ve heard me beat this drum before. But at some point, you need to realize that you are where you are in life because of choices you made. I’m not talking about accepting the blame, simply accepting responsibility for your choices.
Choices you made when you were a child about how much effort you’d put into school, choices you made as a teen about who you’d hang out with. Choices that you made as an adult about where you’d go to university, who you would work for and who you would marry.
All of those things, both the bad and the good choices you have made, have brought you to your present reality.
If you spouse has left you or cheated on you, understand that I have yet to meet a perfect couple. People often end or sabotage their marriages when they are looking for something they perceive is missing in their present situation. Whether it’s intimacy or affirmation. I remember when I was in college, my pastor and his wife were talking to the young adults about marriage and Charlene said, “If you serve steak at home, they won’t go looking for hamburger elsewhere?” Well, as much as I love and respect Charlene, some people prefer hamburger to steak.
And maybe you were that perfect spouse, that I haven’t met yet, and your partner still left or cheated on you. You might ask, “What choice did I make that led to this?” Well, you chose to marry them.
Again, accepting responsibility for your choices isn’t accepting blame. But if we can see how yesterday’s choices brought us to today, then we realize that today’s choices will shape where we will be tomorrow.
If you’ve been following the news then you know that a year ago at the request of the United States, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, an executive for China’s largest telecommunication company. In retaliation, China arrested two Canadian businessmen on trumped up charges.
Now understand, that neither of those men were to blame for ending up in prison. But at some point, they had both made the choice to work in a unstable and potentially dangerous country.
So, once you have figured out where you are and how you got there, the third step is 3. Devise a Method to Get Out
If figuring out where you are is defining your present reality, then this step is defining your preferred future. Where do you want to be, a year from now, five years from now, or tomorrow?
Jonah’s response here was twofold, chapter two begins with these words, Jonah 2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish.
And the next eight verses are Jonah’s lament, that’s a fancy word to say that Jonah was whining. And that’s not always wrong. The bible is full of people baring their hearts to God, questioning and complaining. And that’s fine, if God couldn’t handle our laments he wouldn’t be much of a God.
Even Jesus, when he was on the cross, questioned when he cried out Matthew 27:46 At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
God isn’t threatened by your questions. He’s bigger than that, after all he’s God.
But it wasn’t enough for Jonah to lament about where he was and how he got there, he was willing to take the steps necessary to move ahead in a positive direction.
It’s not enough to identify our present reality, we also have to be able to visualize our preferred future. Where it is that you’d prefer to be? And what are the steps that you need to take to get there?
Jonah knew exactly where he was why he was there, and he apparently knew what needed to be done to correct the situation.
And so, he ends his lament with a cry of repentance.
Often, people confuse repentance with simply saying, “I’m sorry”. How often do little kids do something wrong and when confronted with their behavior are quick to say “I’m sorry”. “I’m sorry I hit my sister.” “I’m sorry I didn’t clean my room.” “I’m sorry I told a lie.” But it doesn’t change their behaviour.
True repentance includes changing our behaviour, in one of Peter’s first sermons in the book of Acts, we read, Acts 3:19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away.
Do you see the two actions, there? Repent of your sins and turn to God, and the result is that your sins may be wiped away. That’s repentance and forgiveness. Your part and God’s part.
And so, Jonah repented. He not only saw the need to ask God’s forgiveness, but also saw the need to be obedient to what God had asked him to do. Let’s keep reading in the story, Jonah 2:9 But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone.”
In Jonah’s prayer to God he agreed to do what he had been originally called to do. He knew that he wasn’t getting out of the fish by himself.
Now there are those who would tell us that Jonah wasn’t necessarily alive in the belly of the fish for three days. Their view is that he died and literally cried out to God from the place of the dead.
And that’s fine as a matter of fact, that almost fits better with the narrative that was read earlier, when Jesus said Matthew 12:40 For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.
We know that Jesus died on the cross was buried and rose from the dead, so the fact that God would be able to do the same for Jonah, doesn’t negate the miraculous in the story.
And we’ve all been in Jonah’s spot at some time or another. I don’t necessarily mean that we’ve been swallowed by a really big fish. I mean we’ve been in a spot that they only way out in our mind is the miraculous. Maybe an illness, or a failed relationship, or financial problems or maybe just a point of despair where all you can see is the darkness.
And we call out to God, we ask for his deliverance and we promise to do what he wants us to do. The old adage of there being no atheists in a foxhole holds true, I’m sure there are no atheists in the belly of the fish either.
I love the story of the two old guys talking and one said, “That was an awful nasty storm last night.” And the second one said, “Yep, I bet God heard a lot of unfamiliar voices.”
We cry to God in our storms, but do we follow through with our promises and commitments when the storm passes over?
I wonder how life would be different for each of us, if we did what we promised we’d do, if only God did. . . and you can fill in the blank?
Let’s go back to our story,
Jonah 2:10 & 3:1-3 Then the LORD ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.Then the LORD spoke to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” This time Jonah obeyed the LORD’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all.
4. Be Determined to Follow Through
If you don’t know the rest Jonah’s story, he goes to Nineveh, preaches the message God called him to preach, and the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God. But Jonah wasn’t happy doing it, and he wasn’t happy with the result.
The people of Nineveh were the enemies of the Jews, there probably wasn’t one Ninevehite that Jonah liked.
Jonah didn’t want to warn them of God’s wrath, and he was disappointed when they responded and got right with God.
I hope we never feel that way about a person or a group of people, It was Charles Spurgeon who said, “We think that we do well to be angry with the rebellious, and so we prove ourselves to be more like Jonah than Jesus.”
But God wasn’t concerned with whether or not Jonah was happy with being obedient, he was concerned that Jonah was obedient. There are times that we are called to do things that we really don’t want to do.
Perhaps, when we are called to make a relationship right. They hurt us, they’re a jerk and we don’t want to forgive them, but we are called to.
Maybe it’s when we are called to take the high ground, even though it will cost us. Maybe it will cost us money, or maybe it will cost us relationships.
I don’t know and really don’t care what your political view of Andrew Scheer is, but he was willing to be true to his beliefs, even if it cost him the election and his job.
Sometimes we know what the right thing is to do, but we don’t really want to do it. But that’s what we’ve been called to do.
Maybe there are things in our marriage that need fixing. We know what we should do, but it might mean swallowing our pride, or simply doing something that isn’t our favourite thing.
We aren’t always called to be happy, but we are always called to be obedient. In John 14:15 Jesus said “If you love me, obey my commandments.
Jesus didn’t say, if it makes you feel good, obey my commandments, or if you agree with them, obey my commandments, he said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.”
And it would appear that God wasn’t all that concerned whether Jonah agreed with either the process or the outcome. He was only concerning with Jonah’s obedience.
God loves you, and when he asks you to do something, or not to do something, he’s not doing it because he wants to ruin your fun, he’s doing it ultimately because he loves you.
And sometimes we end up in a tough spot and figure that we are there because God is punishing us.
But, that’s not always the case.
When Daniel was in the Lion’s Den, he was right where he was supposed to be when Shadrack Meshack and Abednego were thrown into the furnace they were right where they were supposed to be. When Jesus was on the cross. . .
Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, wrote, “It is pretty clear in the Bible story that the whale swallowing Jonah wasn’t meant as a punishment from God, it was God saving him from drowning. So it was actually provision to give him a second chance. The whale itself was the start of Jonah’s second chance.”