One of my earliest childhood memories is of my first holiday abroad in San Remo, Italy. I was about 4 years’ old. My younger brother and I were paddling in the water and mum had told us to be careful because the shallow water dipped dramatically a few feet into the sea.
Of course, we didn’t ever pay a blind bit of notice to anything our mum ever said and both of us started to sink as the sea bed under our feet suddenly disappeared. I remember looking up, my mouth starting to fill with water, and seeing two hands plunging into the sea - to my dismay - pulling my brother to safety, while I was abandoned and just left to die. And of course, she pulled me out immediately afterwards, but it seemed, from my perspective, to take her all day.
I totally understand why, for many people, the fear of drowning is the greatest fear of them all. The sense of panic and anxiety as all your airways fill with water is really quite terrifying.
For the last two weeks, we’ve been thinking about the story of Jonah, this children’s favourite from the Bible about a man who tries to run away from God and ends up in a watery grave.
Why does he run away? Because God calls him to go on a mission trip to a city, many miles from home, called Nineveh. But would you run away from that? What could be better?
The glamour of global travel, a chance to discover the world, to sample the delights of international cuisine, to see the sights and come home with some souvenirs…
Like Jonah, the Church has been given a message, but often today, it isn’t preaching it. Our message is simple. Here it is. God loves you so much that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not eternally perish but eternal live.
He calls everyone here to respond to that by turning away from a me-first life, and towards a God-first life, following Jesus.
Following Jesus can be costly. Jesus himself said it would be. But it’s the key to life in all its fullness. And that’s what Annie and Nick did today is all about.
For Jonah, the issue is that Nineveh, the place God calls him to go, is a tough gig. It’s the town we now call Mosul, in Iraq. It's been in the news this past year. The people living there then were the direct ancestors of IS and the Taliban. They routinely impale and flay alive anyone they don’t like.
God’s call to Jonah would be like someone saying to you, “I want you go to the Middle East with an ‘I Love Jesus’ tee shirt, a truck full of Bible leaflets and a portable PA, then I want you to set up in the town square and tell everyone they’re doing it all wrong.” How many of you would say, “Sounds great”?
Jonah doesn’t fancy that any more than you would, so he buys a ticket and boards a ship heading as far as it is possible to go in the opposite direction. While he’s on the ship, God sends an almighty storm, and Jonah gets thrown overboard into the raging sea.
Prayer in Times of Crisis
Tony Bullimore was one of Britain’s most experienced transatlantic yachtsmen. He died in July this year. On 5 January 1997 his sixty-foot sailing boat, Exide Challenger, capsized in the icy waters between Australia and Antarctica, two months into the Vendée Globe single-handed round-the-world yacht race. The keel snapped off in fifty-foot waves, rendering the boat unstable so it turned over, upside down.
For four days, he was stuck in a dark, noisy, wet, upside-down world with massive waves and a temperature just above freezing. All his food supplies were lost except one bar of chocolate. He suffered terribly from seasickness and had to draw breath from only a few feet of air between the water level and the floor of his upturned boat.
He was more than a thousand miles from the nearest land. As his air supply slowly diminished he began to pray that he would be rescued. The Royal Australian Navy’s satellite surveillance pinpointed the position of all the yachts, and noticed his wasn’t advancing, so they sent out a rescue team. Four days after capsizing, he heard a tapping sound on the side of his boat.
His first words when he emerged were, “Thank God, it’s a miracle. I feel like I have been born all over again. I feel like a new man. I feel I have been brought back to life again.”
I tell that story, because Jonah, like Tony Bullimore, faced with almost certain death, also turned to prayer as his chances of survival looked hopeless.
People pray in a crisis like that. Almost everyone does. Sometimes it takes a crisis to get them to pray.
And Jonah 2, what we had read earlier, is the words of a man Who is face to face with certain death. It includes parts from about a dozen different Psalms in the Bible. It’s amazing how scriptures or words of a hymn often come to mind and can carry you through in times of distress.
Jonah’s prayer is the language of a drowning man. It’s the cry of a man who has stared into the abyss and accepted that his time is up. He’s resigned to the inevitable. He’s been hurled into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, he says.
“Waves and breakers sweep over me again and again.” His head bobs up and down until the waters finally engulf him and he feels himself sinking Dow, down, down, then the sensation of brushing against seaweed and touching the sea bed.
And as Jonah gives up the fight to stay alive, he describes what goes though his mind. He really thinks, “this is it, I am going to die.” He feels that he has been cast out from God's presence and it’s all his fault.
But crucially, this is the moment he decides to stop running, and turn back. This is his turning point, his moment of surrender. He comes to senses. I was going one way, running away from the presence of God. I’m going to stop doing that and go the right way, even if it’s the last thing I do.
The Bible says, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” That moment of insight Jonah had was actually a gift from God. It’s not that Jonah pulls himself up by his bootstraps and turns himself around. It is when Jonah says “I am in the pit and utterly helpless” that God steps in and lifts him out.
As we know, the story goes that he was swallowed up and was in the belly of a great fish for three days. An extended period of claustrophobic darkness in a fish. That probably won’t happen to you.
But your “belly of the fish experience” can be just as traumatic and dark. It can be dealing with failure. It can be living with a chronic illness that God has not yet healed. It can be the anxiety of crushing financial worries. It can be the prolonged and deep sorrow of bereavement. It can be fighting to recover happiness in a marriage gone stale. It can be unwanted singleness. It can be an assault on your reputation by someone determined to discredit you. (We’ve had a bit of that as a church just this week in fact).
Jesus said, “blessed are you when people hate you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” When, not if. As a Christian you can expect it. The thing is this; God will never keep you in the belly of whatever fish you’re in longer than you need. And the Bible says that in every test you endure, God provides a way of salvation.
People often think that we know we’re children of God if everything is going great and all our problems are sorted. But that is not how it works. The book of Hebrews says that we know we are children of God because he takes us through times of chastening and discipline. That’s how you know you’re a child of God.
Some people believe that it was a miracle that this man stayed alive for three days and three nights in a fish with little or no air to breathe, to say nothing of his exposure to digestive juices.
But I don’t think Jonah was alive in the fish. When you read this chapter carefully, you see that the water overwhelms him and he sinks to the seabed. You can’t descend to the bottom of the Mediterranean in one breath.
“When my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord…” he says. He talks about finding himself deep in the realm of the departed.
No, I think it says here that Jonah is already dead before he hits the bottom of the sea and is swallowed lifeless.
When he was 24 in 1980, atheist New Zealander Ian McCormack got stung by a box jellyfish on a diving holiday in Mauritius. The box jellyfish is one of the most venomous creatures in the world and death from its stings can occur within minutes. Ian was rushed to hospital, and they tried to save him, but after a while his ECG line went flat and he was pronounced dead.
15-20 minutes later, to the astonishment of the medical staff there, his heart monitor started again. And Ian describes being conscious during that time when his heart had stopped, in a dreamy state in which his life flashed before him and in which he felt detached from his body.
He says he met with God and promised to turn the direction of his life around. Only later did he discover that his mum, a devout Christian, was praying for him in New Zealand at that exact time, not knowing of the grave danger he was in.
Well, I’ll let you decide whether you believe that story. Look it up online; there's plenty of information about it. But it reminds me of what Jonah went through.
People came to Jesus once and said, “Give us a sign to prove you are the Son of God.” And he replied, “The only sign you’ll get is the sign of Jonah. He came out of a fish with the marks of death, and so will I from the grave.”
Several people have tried to rubbish the resurrection of Jesus by researching it and writing a book to explain how it was a big misunderstanding or a fabrication. Oxford Professor Gilbert West did it in 1747. Lawyer Frank Morison did it in 1930. Investigative journalist Lee Strobel did it in 1998.
All three began as atheists. All three meticulously sifted the evidence. All three changed their minds during the course of their research. All three became Christians. And all three wrote a completely different book than the one they had planned, defending the Bible’s assertion that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive today.
Annie and Nick have gone down into the waters today and come up again afterwards as a visual testimony of what has happened in their lives.
The old life they lived before they encountered Jesus Christ with all its values and ideas has been left at the bottom of that pool, and as they’ve come up out of the water, they’ve started to breathe again. A whole new life has started.
I’ve told this story before, so apologies if you’ve heard it already but I like it. Following the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, the ship’s owners, the White Star Line, placed two noticeboards outside its offices. They were marked “Known to be saved” and “Known to be lost.”
And as the fate of each passenger was confirmed, their name was added to one or other of the boards. People would wait and watch to see if their loved ones’ names would go on the “saved” or “lost” board.
The thing is, you had to be either one or the other; saved or lost. The same is true spiritually for a world drifting from God and drowning in sin: either your name is in the Book of Life (known to be saved) or it is not (in which case you're known to be lost).
Which board is your name on? Do you know? And could this be the day for you, like Jonah, when you turn round and start again?
Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 16 September 2018