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Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Cry for Help (Jonah 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - January 27, 2013
 :: Some Music Used
Prelude: "Out of the Depths I Cry to You" (Drishner)
Call to Worship: Jonah video interspersed with "Out of the Depths" choir and cong.(Luther)
The Word in Music: "O Hear My Voice (Ps. 27:7-10)" (Youngblood)
Song of Response: "Shine into Our Night" (Sczebel)
Hymn of Sending: "Blessed Be Your Name (Redman)
Postlude: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen/All Night" (arr. Mark Hayes)
"A Cry for Help"
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Text: Jonah 2

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Last week we looked at Jonah 1, particularly focusing on Jonah’s flight and our own tendency to try to run from the presence of God, despite the absurdity of that.  It was also very evident that Jonah was in a bad place with his back turned to God.  There were many prayers offered in Jonah 1, but none came from Jonah.  There was worship and sacrifice and vows offered to Yahweh, the God of Israel, but it was all from the pagan sailors who came to faith in the powerful God of wind and sea. And there was great mercy shown, when all the lives were spared, not least of which to Jonah, who, despite being thrown into the sea, survived by God’s own hand.  But throughout chapter one Jonah seemed to have no comprehension of the mercy of God, only His judgment.  And Jonah seemed to think the full force of that judgment was coming down on him for his disobedient flight.  We left Jonah having just been swallowed up by the great fish. 

I want to look with you at Jonah’s cry for help.  Do you ever need to cry to God for help?  It may be that you can find in Jonah some direction in how to do that.  In fact, like most of Jesus’ disciples, Jonah is a helpful model for prayer because he isn’t perfect; he’s relatable.  We’ll look at the components of his prayer as well as some of what he missed, and see that it didn’t matter.  Like Moses, Rahab, and David before him and Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul after him, God was in the process of saving and using him for a greater purpose despite his imperfections.


Most of Jonah 2 consists of Jonah’s prayer to God from the stomach of the great fish.  The first and last verse are narration telling us what is going on.  And most of Jonah’s prayer consists of a kind of out-loud, prayed recollection of what has led him to this point.  The bulk of it is past tense.  What Jonah is doing is an important component of good prayer; he is REMEMBERING.  What does he remember?  In this case he is remembering the terrifying consequences of all that was described in chapter one.  Having disobeyed and tried to run from God’s presence, he is found out and has been thrown into the sea.  His prayer here is remembering with vivid imagery what it was like to sink into the sea and think he was about to die.

You can almost picture it as you hear his words, a description of his descent toward death interspersed with his own reflections about what is happening, starting in verse three:

For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,
And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me. (v. 3)
    So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight.
    Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.” (v. 4)
It’s interesting… we can picture him sinking down beneath the surface, but we not only see what is happening, we hear what he is thinking.  He understands it to be judgment: God has expelled him and only now does Jonah consider turning back towards God’s face.  He continues sinking.

I also imagine Jonah exhausted and nearly dead, perhaps fading in and out of consciousness as he remembers.  But he does remember: he almost died, but he has lived.  In good Hebrew fashion, he revisits the whole scene again, but now we get more detail.  He not only remembers his failure, God’s judgment, and his near death; his mind and heart also turns toward God and the future.  That’s what we call repentance!


Listen as I pick up at verse 5.  He is still describing sinking to his death, but a bit more of his change of heart.

    Water encompassed me to the point of death.
    The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head.
    I descended to the roots of the mountains.
    The earth with its bars was around me forever… (vv. 5-6)
    While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord
    And my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple,
    “Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness,
    But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving
    That which I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation is from the Lord.” (vv. 7-9)
It is unclear whether these prayers of repentance and future intent came to him as he neared death or whether that last part is now as he is remembering and praying inside the great fish.  It could just as well be both.  Who hasn’t prayed that prayer, “Lord, if you just get me out of this I will do whatever you want me to!”  At any rate, if we do not see a full-on understanding of God’s mercy and grace, we at least see Jonah recognizing that he indeed did not escape from God and he is willing to obey.  He has been rescued or saved by God – might we even say “caught?” – and is at least willing now to face the presence of God through obedience.


Jonah’s prayer in chapter two offers us a good example of facing the past and turning toward God: remembering and repentance.  What we don’t get to see, at least not in this chapter, is the kind of redemption and grace we might want for Jonah. 

That’s what made me think of Psalm 130.  We sang and prayed at the beginning of the service using language from Psalm 130.  It starts out with very similar language to Jonah’s prayer:

“Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” (vv. 1-2)

And surely like Jonah in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, the Psalmist knows what it is to wait:

 “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait… my soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning…” (vv. 5-6)

But Psalm 130 is also full of faith and hope, not only in God’s mercy, but God’s loving grace.  Just listen; it’s sprinkled throughout the Psalm:

 “…there is forgiveness with You… (v. 4)
“I will wait… in His word do I hope…” (v. 5)
“O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (vv. 7-8)

That’s what comes after remembering and repentance, turning back toward God; God freely and joyfully offers redemption.  That’s what we mean by GRACE.  It is not deserved, but it is lovingly and lavishly given.  God is pleased not only to welcome us back home, but to make a place for us and make us useful again.

For all that he is a prophet of Israel and a prophet of God, Jonah struggles with the idea of God’s mercy and grace.  We saw that in his running from God and we will see it again as he struggles with the repentance of the people of Nineveh and God’s mercy toward them.  But just as God doesn’t give up on the people of Nineveh, who did not know him, but repented; neither did he give up on Jonah, one of His own, who remembered and returned to God.

Crying for Help

So what can we take from all that when we feel like we are drowning or sinking, or when we recognize that we have been running from God?

Several things…

1.    Though God is holy and just, he is merciful and loving.

2.    God is persistent and pursues us, but not to punish and destroy us, but to invite and welcome us back home.

3.    As you pray, if you can pray, it is important to acknowledge and remember the ways you have turned from God.  That is a necessary first step in order to then repent, or turn back to God.  And if you don’t know how to start or what to say, try reading Jonah 2 or Psalm 130 as a prayer to God.  That’s what the Psalms are… they are songs and prayers to God.  They are there for you to use in just that way!

4.    Be encouraged by Jonah; you don’t have to do these magic steps of remembering, repenting, and trusting in God perfectly.  That’s because it is God that saves.  Jonah got that right!  “Salvation is from the Lord!” (v. 9)  But if any of that is going on with you, know that God is working on you and in you!

This is the Good News: the holy God loves you and has and will come after you at great cost, not to do as you fear, but beyond what you could hope.  God is a God who saves.  Amen.

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