On May 27, 1943, an USAF bomber crashed into middle of the Pacific Ocean, killing 8 of the 11 crewmen on board. Only 3 of the crew survived the crash, and they would spend the next 47 days adrift aboard a life raft with little food or water. Finally close to death from starvation, one of those men found himself for the first time in his life, crying out to God to save him. Even though he had never really believed in God, out there on that life raft in the middle of the Pacific, the man made a vow that if God would spare his life and get him back safely home, he would seek him and serve him for the rest of his life.
Well that man’s name was Louie Zamperini, and you may have seen his life portrayed in the Hollywood movie that came out last year entitled “Unbroken’. But what that film doesn’t tell us is that after Louie finally come back home to California after the war, he was a broken man. Every night he would have terrible nightmares, flashing back to the torture and abuse he had endured for 2 years in a Japanese POW camp. He began to drink heavily and his marriage was falling apart. But then his wife invited Louie to go hear a young evangelist by the name of Billy Graham, who was holding services in a big tent in LA. And there for the very first time in his life he heard about the salvation & forgiveness that God had made possible through his son Jesus Christ. He heard Graham say: “When people come to the end of their rope, and they have nowhere else to turn, that’s the place where they can find Christ is waiting for them.” As he listened to the message, his mind flashed back to the promise he had made on that life raft out in the Pacific. That night Louie Zamperini committed his life to Christ, and he was never the same again. He said that from that moment on he never had another nightmare, and eventually he was able to go back to Japan and personally forgive the Japanese guards who had tormented him in that POW camp.
And just as Louie Zamperini cried out to God in desperation on that life raft, we find in our scripture this morning, Jonah crying out to God as he lay inside this great sea creature that had swallowed him.
"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.’”(Jonah 2:2)
Last Sunday as we started to look at the story of Jonah, we heard how he had boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, because he didn't want to obey God's call to go to Ninevah, & preach to the people there. While he was on the ship, God sent a great storm which threatened to sink them all, until the crew threw Jonah into the ocean with the hope that the storm would then abate, & their ship would be saved. That’s exactly what happened. But instead of drowning, we are told that God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah & save his life.
Now as you can imagine, this story of a fish swallowing Jonah has raised a number of questions in peoples' minds. Modern readers often tend to be quite sceptical in the way they look at a story like this in the Bible. Such an event, it is assumed, is simply too fantastic & incredible to have actually taken place. Consequently many modern scholars have argued that Jonah is not meant to be an historical account, but rather a work of literary fiction, either a parable or an allegory. They argue that the odds against such a fish being there at the right place at the right time, & actually swallowing Jonah are just too great to be believable. And even if Jonah was swallowed by a whale or a giant sea creature of some description, it’s simply not possible that he could have remained inside the animal for 3 days and survive such an ordeal. For one thing there wouldn’t be any breathable air inside the creatures stomach.
One well-known account reports that in the early 1900s, a large sperm whale was sighted by the crew of a whaling ship off the Falkland Islands. When one of the small harpoon boats from the ship was upended in the chase, a man named James Bartley disappeared into the ocean, & was presumed drowned. Later however, it was reported that when the captured whale was being disembowelled, the crew was shocked to discover the missing man inside the whale, unconcious but still alive. Eventually he recovered fully, the only lasting effect being that his skin had been permanently bleached white by the acids in the whales stomach.
While this story has been told and retold over the last century, the only problem with it is that it probably never actually happened. Most people now believe that it was a hoax, created to generate publicity for an exhibition of a large whale that had been caught off the coast of England and was being displayed in a museum for the public to see
So did Jonah really get swallowed by a whale, and live to tell about it?
First of all, while the creature described here is often pictured as a giant whale, the Bible doesn’t actually say anything about a whale. The word used here, which is often translated as “a huge fish”, simply means a “great sea creature” of some kind. So we don’t actually know what exactly it was that swallowed Jonah.
People can argue back and forth about the scientific possibility of someone actually surviving an experience like this, and believe me there are many lengthy discussions out there (I’ve read a number this past week) and most of them are pretty skeptical.
But let me just say 2 things here in defense of the story of Jonah being a record of actual events, not a work of fiction.
First of all the arguments against it being true are all based on a presupposition that God does not or could not intervene in the workings of the natural world. In other words, “miracles just don't happen.” While this is a popular worldview today, it is certainly not the Biblical worldview. The Bible talks about a God who again & again intervenes in just this sort of way. And so if you question the historicity of this account, then you must inevitably also bring into question all the other miraculous events that take place in the pages of the Bible, including the resurrection.
The other important thing to note here is that this story is later referred to by none other Jesus himself in the gospels. Notice what Jesus says in Matt 12:40: “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.”
Here Jesus is making a direct comparison between Jonah’s being inside this fish for 3 days, and the time when he will later be in the tomb between his death and his resurrection. And so when Jesus talks about Jonah, he seems to have no problem accepting this story as something that actually happened. So if Jesus accepted this story as true, then why is it that we have such a hard time believing it?
But even more importantly, I believe Jesus in retelling this story, actually unlocks for us one of the key reasons why Jonah is so important. Remember last spring when we looked at how Jesus is portrayed in the OT, we said that one of the key ways he is portrayed there is through the use of “types” or signs. We said that an OT type is “an event, a person, or an object in the OT which foreshadows a pattern of spiritual truth which is later fulfilled in the life of Christ in the NT’. What does Jesus say?:
"A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a 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.”
So here Jesus gives us a deeper insight into this story. He is telling us that Jonah being swallowed by the fish and remaining inside it for 3 days is a sign or a foreshadowing, pointing forward to what will eventually happen to Jesus himself as he is going to be buried for 3 days in the earth after his crucifixion, before he is raised from the dead.
But getting back to our scripture reading in Jonah chap 2, what we need to see is that the important issue here is not what kind of fish this was, or where it came from, or how Jonah survived inside it. The point is rather what was happening in Jonah's heart as he went through this incredible experience. I believe that something very significant happened to Jonah as he lay inside that fish. As Jonah sank into the depths of the ocean, I'm sure in his mind, he was as good as dead. He knew as he went over the side that there was no way he could survive out in the middle of the ocean in this kind of storm.
But as he recounts (2:6-7) "To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.”
And often what happened to Jonah, and in a similar way what happened to Louie Zamperini, is also the way God deals with us, isn’t it? Because he loves us, because his goal is to bring us back to himself, often he will bring us to a crisis moment in our lives which forces us to realize that we have come to the end of our own resources, our ability to handle the situation. As we grow up thru childhood & adolescence, we all develop certain kinds of defense mechanisms or coping strategies which help us to deal with whatever stress or pain or fears we encounter along the way. Some of these are more healthy than others. It seems that Jonah's defense mechanism had been to try to run away, to escape from his problems. Not unlike a lot of us I suppose. But at some point God will bring us to the point where our survival strategies no longer work anymore. That’s when we realize we need something outside of ourselves.
That's why groups like AA & other 12 step recovery programs have been effective in helping people, because the first step to recovery is realizing that in & of ourselves we are powerless to change. And so like Jonah, it is then that we finally cry out to the Lord for help.
And in that moment of crisis, Jonah discovered a new willingness to turn his life over to God. Lying there in the black darkness inside that fish, God suddenly became far more real to Jonah than ever had before in his life. He understood how God had rescued him from certain death, how he had experienced the grace of God in his life, & now he is willing to do whatever God wants him to do.
God in his grace, is giving Jonah a second chance. A chance to live his life differently. Notice what he prays (2:9): "But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, 'Salvation comes from the Lord.' "
And next week we will see how God gives Jonah another opportunity to fulfill his vow to obey the Lord, to do what he was called to do in the first place. But this time his response will be totally different. Instead of running from God, Jonah is willing to submit himself to God's direction for his life, even tho he is not completely sure at this point what the outcome will be.
And maybe you may have had a similar experience in your own life, when you found yourself at the end of your rope, in a place where there didn’t seem to be any way out. Maybe you feel like you’re going through that right now. And I want to say to you this morning, that when find yourself in that place of hopelessness and desperation, you may be in the best place you can be. Because it’s in that moment, that Jesus is there waiting for you to call out to him just as Jonah did.