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When the Outside Gets Messy, The Inside Seeks Change
Scripture: Jonah 1:17
Track 2 of 4 in the Inside~Out: Developing the Heart of God series
Running time: 28 minutes, 27 seconds.

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Chuck Sackett Speaker: Chuck Sackett
Dr. G. Charles Sackett is minister of Madison Park Christian Church.

View all sermons by this speaker.

"When the Outside Gets Messy; the Inside Seeks Change" September 9, 2007

Yesterday started out one of those days when I wondered if it was not better to have just simply stayed in bed. It was hot. It was humid. It was still dark. I was probably five or six minutes down the street in my early morning run when a pit bull came after me. He was tied to a bench in the yard, so I felt reasonably safe until the bench started coming with him. Fortunately, even as an old guy I can outrun a dog pulling a bench.

It wasn't too long after that that a car decided it wanted my side of the street, so I decided I wanted the curb. And then to top it all off, somebody took the other side of the street, which was very kind of them, but then they stopped in the middle of the road, rolled down the window, and said, "You ought to be wearing reflectors." Well, they were probably correct. I wouldn't have denied that. It's just it seemed like an odd place to stop and say it.

You probably have those days when you just weren't so sure that you should have got out of bed. Life doesn't seem to be going quite the way we wanted it. Sometimes life is just sort of messy. That can be literal as well as otherwise. Some of you parents have been in those positions where life got literally messy.

Jonah certainly was. He found himself in the depths of the sea, he found himself surrounded by seaweed, and then he found himself inside the belly of a fish. I don't know what that's like, but I don't want to find out. And then he got vomited up. Just that phraseology alone is enough to make you think that his life was messy. He ended up on the beach, but not way you would want to get there.

You undoubtedly have this those experiences in your life when you find yourself asking, "Why is this happening? Why me? I didn't do anything to deserve this." You might have found yourself thinking, well, no, actually I did do something to deserve this, but I would rather not go through it.

It seems like there are two sources for those kinds of trouble. There are those things that happen that we have no control over. We really didn't do anything to deserve it. It's just the fact that we live in a messy world. Not much you can do about the fact that this is a broken universe and bad things happen. People get sick. Other things happen. Accidents happen. Things occur. It is what life is. It isn't intended to be described as fair. It's just life. It's what goes and what comes with the territory.

But then there are those other issues. They are the ones that we have brought upon ourselves, the choices that we have made that have led to messy situations. I know that you have never done that kind of thing, and none of your relatives ever said to you what my relatives said to me on more than one occasion. "You made your bed. Now lie in it."

Or the one that was probably the most troublesome happened when I was, I'm guessing, 10 or 11 years old. My cousin was over, which in and of itself was trouble. That combination was never good. And there happened to be some neighbor kids, girls out playing, and that just made matters worse for two - or 11-year old guys. The next thing you know we had probably done something really stupid. I don't even remember now what it was about, but whatever it was, we had gotten in trouble with this little group of girls, and they had come after us.

Now, I don't know why we ran in the first place. I mean, after all, it was a bunch of girls. But we did. We ran to my cousin's aunt's trailer, and we jumped in to hide. We were peeking out through the venetian blinds, and what we discovered after a little while was they had recruited help. There were now a whole bunch of girls, and some of them were big, old, like 12 and 13. And I thought for sure we were safe because we were in his aunt's trailer, a haven, when she said, "You are going to have to face the music." I was looking for the back door, didn't have one, and there was one way out, and that was right through that pile of girls.

I don't recall to this day what happened, but I do remember the lesson learned. Sometimes you just got to take your medicine. You got to go with it.

I don't know that that's always true, but I do know this. Life is always full of issues, and sometimes those issues are enough to make you want to know what to do next.

I think that's where Jonah is. We come to the 2nd chapter of Jonah. He finds himself in the belly of a fish. That's the way the first chapter ends. Verse number 17 of Jonah Chapter 1 says, "The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights." That comes over to the New Testament, something to look at on another day. It's an act of God's grace to rescue him from drowning. "And from inside the fish," it says in Chapter 2, Verse 1, "Jonah prayed." I don't know why that would be such a striking comment. You would think that that would just be kind of an automatic, and yet I'm always struck by the fact that people want to point that out.

I grew up in a world where people didn't go to church. Being christian wasn't a particularly unpopular thing. It just was a non-thing. But on a number of occasions my mother would remind me, especially after I had become a christian now, "Don't you think I don't pray." I don't know what she was trying to communicate by that exactly, except that she was reminding me that it's something that seems to be reasonably common to people to pray.

Jonah prayed, and this is his prayer. We have it recorded for us in the 2nd through the 9th verses. "In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called out for help, and you listened to my cry. 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. I said, 'I've been banished from your sight. Yet, I will look again toward your holy temple.' 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 you brought my life up from the pit, oh, Lord, my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord." And then this chapter ends with, "The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry ground."

This prayer is such a fascinating prayer. I mean, after all, he is in a rebellious state, you know that. In Chapter 1 he is invited to pray by the captain of the ship, and he refuses. He doesn't bother to pray. He just simply says, I worship the God that made the earth and the seas, and if you want the storm to stop, toss me overboard. He wasn't interested in having a conversation with God at that point. But when you come to Chapter 2, he is swallowed into the sea, first of all, swallowed second by the fish, which rescues him from the sea. I guess you call that rescue.

He prays, and he prays with such incredible confidence. Did you hear it? He speaks in the past tense. Verse 2, "You answered me." Verse 2, "You listened to me." Verse number 6 he says, "You brought my life up." It's a past tense thing. He is already stating it as if it has happened, and it hasn't happened. He is still in the belly of the fish. Well, he has got three days that he is going to spend there. I don't know when he is praying, but sometime during that time.

The text identifies this sense of his great distance from God. It uses such interesting language as being banished, verse number 4. He was hurled into the deep, verse number 3. And one of the interesting phrases that's used here -- unfortunately we have in our English translations the grave. He says in the middle of verse 2, "From the depths of Sheol I call to you. Sheol is the abode of the dead, almost always in the old testament associated with the sea. But it's the place that you go when you die to await judgment. It's a place of banishment from before God. It's a place, according to the Psalms at least a couple of different times, where worship does not take place, where you have simply been separated from God. And he recognizes that his rebellion against God has placed him in a position where he feels at least totally away from God. I can't imagine any of you have ever felt that, like somewhere God disappeared and you can't find him.

It's interesting to compare in light of our own christian perspective on things the prayer of Jonah and the prayer of the pagans in Chapter 1. They sound an awful lot alike, although we don't have recorded the exact words. The pagan's prayer essentially is, we are drowning in the sea out here and we need some help. You suppose you could help us? And God answers both prayers. And it's a striking contrast in this particular text that you have the prophet of God who has run reluctantly away from God and yet God is answering his prayer also.

The text raises a fascinating prayer questions for me. I don't know the answer to it. I don't know what to make of it. I can tell you what other people say about it. They just haven't convinced me. I do know this, that the prayer from Verses 2 through 9 is a very self-centered prayer. If you look at it and count at least in English, and I take that to be pretty representative, there are 24 references to Jonah; I, me, and my. There are only references to God in the midst of that prayer, and most of those are you and your.

In the midst of this prayer there is this deep sense that Jonah is concerned primarily about himself. That receives a lot of comment from people as if that's not a good thing, that it's way too self-centered a prayer. I'm thinking if I'm in the belly of a whale or a fish, my prayer is going to be fairly self-centered. I'm not sure what to make of that, other than to say it seems to me that it's at least something to be aware of. How much of yourself is the focus of your prayer?

And then there is this wonderful part of this prayer that shows up here. Verse number 6, after describing progressively the tossing overboard, the waves crashing over him, sinking into the depths down to the place that he is nearly hemmed in by the earth beneath and is almost ready to drown. He is at the bottom, and he says in the middle of verse number 6, "But you brought my life up from the pit." I love "but you" phrases in scripture. They occur quite often, and some of them are deeply profound.

For example, in Romans Chapter 5 after describing the mess that we make out of our life it says, "But God demonstrates his love toward us." In spite of the fact that we are still sinners God loves us. Or in Ephesians Chapter 2 after describing us as being absolutely sinful he says, "But God who is rich in mercy." Do you hear the contrast between us and God's grace and God's mercy?

I think when you look at this particular prayer, if nothing else, you ought to be surprised by grace. Jonah deserved nothing. He ran, he disobeyed, he refused, he even invited his own death. "Toss me in the ocean." And yet God is gracious to him. In mercy he does not give him what he deserves and in grace he gives him something he doesn't deserve. He retrieves him from the sea and puts him back on dry ground. I am fascinated by God's grace, and often I have to confess that I don't think about God's grace enough.

There is an old rabbinic story. I may have told you. It has to do with the exodus. Israel is surrounded by the sea in front of them and by the Egyptian army behind them. The scene the rabbi describes is the angels looking down wondering what in the world is going to happen next and hoping that god is going to do something when Moses lays his staff out over the sea and the sea parts and Israel comes through on dry ground. Then the sea comes crashing back over the Egyptian army and destroys them, and the angels erupt in applause and praise and shouting because God has rescued Israel from the Red Sea and from the Egyptian army. And one of them turns around and God is not there, and he says to another, "Where did God go? And the response was, "God is off mourning the death of his children."

Now, I remember being surprised by that perspective of grace because we often become so narrow in our focus, not unlike Jonah, that the only people that God could possibly care about would just be those that we have clearly identified as his people, Israel in that particular case, and yet this particular rabbi's trying to help us understand that God views all people as his children.

Well, what do I learn when I look at this prayer?

There are some things that I think are critically important that we come away from looking. One is that confidence in your prayer is okay. It's all right to start talking in past tense in your prayers as if God has already answered them because you can have such absolute confidence that he is going to. That is the nature of faith, is it not? In Hebrews Chapter 11, the confidence of things hoped for. It is running all the way through the 1th chapter of Hebrews as it talks about the fact that they never did receive the promise in this life but yet they lived as if it were true, because we live in the absolute confidence that God is going to respond.

One of the things that comes through so clearly in this particular text that you wouldn't want to miss is the absolute sovereignty of God. Did you happen to notice that in verse number 3? "You hurled me into the deep." Well, no, he didn't. The sailors did. And yet the perspective of Jonah is that that was the hand of God.

In fact, one of the most profound chapters in all the old testament about the death of Jesus is Isaiah Chapter 53. In Isaiah Chapter 53 God is the one who kills the Messiah. They lay it at the hand of God, because one of the things that is most prominent in the old testament is an understanding and awareness of the absolute sovereignty of God. And while we aren't always able to sort out what that might mean in any particular set of circumstances, we're not always sure exactly how that works out, the one thing that scripture teaches us is that God is never to be easily dismissed, that he is also present, always involved in some way.

We might learn from this particular text that grace, as marvelous as grace is, may sometimes have a very disciplinary feel to it. Grace may mean that you are not getting what you deserve, but it doesn't mean you are necessarily getting off scott free. I think three days in the belly of a fish probably was not pleasant. It did redeem him. It kept him from drowning in the sea. It did drop him back on dry land, but I suspect it was not a particularly pleasant experience of grace, but it was grace nonetheless.

And sometimes when God deals with us, he deals with us graciously. He tries to pull us to himself, but the act of pulling us to himself is the grace. Sometimes the means by which he pulls us to himself can be quite unpleasant, and yet we would still always consider it an act of grace because it draws us closer to Him, even as difficult as it may be to go through the experience of getting there. We would learn the self-righteousness is easy. I am absolutely amazed at verse number 8. Did you catch that as you were reading through it text?

Here Jonah is in the belly of a fish because he has been rebellious against God. He has run from God's presence. He has tried to eliminate himself from God's plan. He has done everything he can to get away from God. God has demonstrated that's not going to happen, and in verse 8 he has the audacity say, "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." It's almost as if he is saying, I don't worship idols. Therefore, I'm okay. Jonah, get a grip, man. Have some honesty here. Just because you don't do the one thing that seems to identify all of those pagans out there doesn't mean you've got your life together.

And yet what I know about me, I don't know this about you, but what I know about me it's really easy to fall into that. I mean, after all, I don't smoke and I don't chew and I don't go with girls that do. Therefore, I'm fine. I may have every other sin under the sun in my life, but because I don't do the thing that's expected of pagans, therefore I'm all right. Do you know how easy that is to fall into? I went to church on Sunday morning. Therefore, what I do on Friday doesn't matter. Goodness sakes.

But maybe the most important thing that happens is the very last thing that Jonah says in his prayer. Salvation comes from the Lord. This book is all about that, you know. In some sense of the word in Chapter 1 the sailors are the recipients of salvation. I don't mean that as an eternal. I mean that as in God comes in and redeems them from that storm, and Jonah experiences salvation from drowning in Chapter 2, and Nineveh experiences salvation from the calamity the Lord was going to send in Chapter 3. Salvation does, in fact, come from the Lord, and Jonah captures that.

And it is the heart, I think, of what we are supposed to understand as we read the book of Jonah. Salvation comes from the Lord, and we have a world around us that is messy and needs to hear that message. That salvation comes from the Lord. But I think it's really more focused on Jonah and it's more focused on you than any other thing. It's this reminder that when your life is really messy there is a place for you to go. When life just gets totally fouled up, whether it's somebody else's choice or your own stupidity, there is a place to turn, and Jonah got that part right. He turned to the one place that he could get the kind of help that he needed. He turned to the Lord.

And if we don't learn anything else looking at this particular text, we learn that when life is messed up we need to seek change by looking to the right place, by looking to the right person, and prayer is the natural response. When your life is a mess, that's not the time to turn and run from God. That is the time to turn and run to Him. You may not know how to pray, you may not know whether or not there should be more personal pronouns that refer to you than God, you may not know the right words to say, but you ought to know at least this: When life is a mess, turn to the one who can fix it. Pray. Turn to the Father and don't be afraid to believe that God will change things, or he will change you, one of the two, or both.

I try to imagine what it would be like if those of us who are Christ's followers, if those of us who claim to know Jesus, if those of us who are supposed to already have this answer sorted out, I just can't help wonder what life would be like in our family, in our christian community, what life would be like if all of us understood that when life gets a little messy the first do thing you is you turn to the Father as the source of the one, as the source of how to get things fixed. What would happen if a church really did become a praying community? What would happen if our first response to life's messiness was to go to the one who can fix it? What would happen if you didn't have to call a prayer meeting to have 65 people show up and pray? What would happen if a body of people who come together on a Wednesday night to clean up streets and are invited to pray would take that seriously enough to realize that you don't have to be walking down the street in some kind of formal fashion picking up trash to pray, you could just do that while you are driving down the street? You could just ask God what he is doing in that particular life or how you might be useful to him as you go by.

I don't consider myself to be a good prayer. I'm the last person on the face of the earth that I would ever invite you to follow when it comes to praying. I really am. But it's a rare day that I go by Quanada that I don't pray for Susan Goodwin and her ministry there, and it's a rare time that I go by the dry cleaners that I don't pray for you guys when I go by. It is a rare day that I go by your home and if I am near you when I am driving and I know that's your house that I pray that God would be working in your life. It's not because I'm such a disciplined prayer. It's because I'm not.

But I do know this. I want to be a better prayer, and I want us to be better prayers. I want us to understand that fixing the world is not our job. That's God's job. Our job is to go to the one who can fix it, and that's what we are really inviting you to today, is a deep abiding commitment that messiness will not trouble you because you know where to go when it gets messy. It's a commitment that we are asking you to make to pray consistently and persistently for our community, to ask God to do something here that will change us all, shape us into what he needs us to be. Can you imagine what we would become like if we just made that one fundamental commitment to pray?

I don't know what you need to do. I don't even know where you are in your spiritual life. I do know where God is and we do know how to point you in his direction. If we can help with that, we want to do that. So we are inviting you to commit yourself to Him, whatever He calls for, not to turn and run, but come into His presence and trust Him. It we can help with that, talk to us. Don't hesitate. Let us work with you. Let's stand and sing this song together.

[Transcribedby GN12]