‘Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said: I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and he answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice’ (Jonah 2:1-2).
Prayer is a sacred act. It is not meant to be a flippant afterthought or a casual thinking out aloud. It is approaching the throne of grace, mindful both of the one doing the praying and the One doing the listening. Prayer is a holy activity that gives us immense access to God. Jonah’s example tells us that we can pray from anywhere. If I am in church, I can pray; if I am at work, I can pray; if I am in the car, I can pray; if I am in the depths of despair, I can pray.
We are often reminded that the prayer meeting is the ‘boiler room’ of the church, but we are also often reminded that the prayer meeting is perhaps the most neglected of all of our meetings in church.
I am a motivated person. I believe in the military adage, ‘Improvise, adapt and overcome’; obstacles can be scaled, hindrances removed and doors gloriously opened. We see this kind of attitude in many churches today with their different evangelistic initiatives for young and old, their various invitational events.
All of these are praiseworthy, and I have tried to be creative in my own ministry in developing such initiatives. However, in any godly initiative, prayer will always trump programmes. Prayer is utterly vital to the life of the church.
Here, Jonah returns to this great truth as he calls out to God before he ‘cries out’ to Nineveh: ‘For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; all your billows and your waves passed over me. Then I said, I have been cast out of your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.
‘The waters surrounded me, even to my soul. The deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer went up to you, into your holy temple’ (2:3-7).
Jonah was right in saying that it was God who had him thrown overboard into the raging sea, but mistaken in saying that God had banished him from his sight. He still found mercy in his hour of deepest need.
It has been argued that, due to Jonah sinking to the feet of the mountains in the water, he actually died and was resurrected. This is a possibility and, if so, would clearly not be the only actual resurrection we read of in Scripture. Whether Jonah died or was on the verge of death, one thing is for sure, he was rescued by the God of grace.
We need to remind ourselves that God is the God of resurrection. He can resurrect hope, faith, relationships and the very power of his church. Let us never lose sight of the fact that God could, in one day and even in our time, cause his wind to blow amongst us once more and speak into the heart of the United Kingdom church.
Is Jonah still expecting the judgment of God to destroy the people of Nineveh in his statement that idol worship forfeits mercy? It certainly seems to be his slant on what God should do.Jonah is ‘resurrected’ as a changed man, and yet not a perfect man. He says, ‘Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord’ (2:8-9).
I listened recently to George Verwer stating that we should not, as Christians, wait until the day our lives are perfect before we serve God. The Lord still uses us with all of our flaws. There is certainly a clear call to holiness in Scripture, and, while we live in this flesh, we will always carry the need for sanctification, at one level or another. Jonah is resurrected, but not yet perfected.
‘So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land’ (2:10). Jonah did not begin his ministry to the Ninevites from a private jet, in a white suit and smelling of aftershave. He stank of fish vomit!
Standing on the seashore, he looks nothing like what you might imagine the choice of God to look like. Yet he is God’s chosen person to speak to a city of around 100,000 people. The choices of God are beyond our comprehension.
What church body today would choose as its minister someone like John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jonah — or even Jesus (Revelation 3:20)? And yet Scripture tells us of the people God has chosen in the past and may yet choose in the future.
This is good news for those of God’s servants who feel unqualified, ill prepared and flawed; God can still use you! The lesson of Jonah chapter 2 is that, when a person repents and places themselves in the hand of God, anything can happen!
It seems for many today that unless a Christian has a university degree, comes from the middle class and has all the right connections, he or she is not the right ‘fit’ to serve God. But Scripture thankfully tells us otherwise.
William Wade is an Army Scripture Reader, with SASRA, in Colchester.