Jonah: Head Above Water

When we left off, our rebellious prophet was recruiting the pagan Gentile sailors to assist him in committing suicide.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12)

But the sailors didn’t buy into this crazy scheme and tried for Plan A.2 – row to shore. But they couldn’t. God/the storm wouldn’t let them. Jonah tried to force God’s hand in overthrowing the Assyrians by running from the mission. Now God is forcing the sailors’ hands to throw Jonah overboard – Jonah’s idea, not God’s, just so we’re clear. God never asked this of Jonah.

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm…Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:15, 17)

FINALLY! Here’s the fish! Now we get to pull out the flannel graph board and sick a kneeling/fetal-position Jonah onto a cutaway felt image of a whale fish. We get to sing the songs and put in the Veggie Tales movie!

This is where so many of us stop with the story of Jonah. It’s always David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale Fish. But the story of Jonah is not about a big fish. The story of Jonah is about a God who is big with a big plan. The fish is mentioned in a whopping 3 verses – 1:17; 2:1; and 2:10. That’s it. And the whole fish scene isn’t even the most impressive miracle of the story. But we’ll get to that later.

JONAH’S PRAYER

Can you imagine drowning in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Drowning is one of the top fears among humans. A lot of people are hesitant to swim or get in a large body of water for fear of drowning. What a terrible way to die! I get panicky just thinking about it.

Jonah wanted to die. It wasn’t a heroic self-sacrifice to save the lives of the sailors. It was a selfish get-out-of-mission-work-free card. It was a last ditch effort to run from God. It wasn’t martyrdom, it was suicide.

So God gave him a taste of what Jonah said he wanted. Sometimes the worst thing God can do is to give us what we want. Look at this prayer of Jonah’s that we have recorded in chapter 2.

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have 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.”
(Jonah 2:2-6a)

Maybe we have a hard time feeling sorry for Jonah, but I think we’ve all been there. Maybe you haven’t had the physical experience of drowning, but most of us have felt like we’re drowning figuratively – from stress, depression, broken relationships, pressure from school or work, the demands of everyday life that keep adding up. Maybe you’ve felt like you were drowning under the weight of some sin that has pulled you down – addictions, anger, lies, etc.

Every sin has a consequence. Sometimes we bring them on ourselves, and we have to face the natural consequences of our own dumb choices. Other times we have to pay for our actions through punishment or retribution. Or maybe we’re suffering under the consequences of generational/societal sin that we really didn’t have anything to do with, but we’re still negatively affected by it.

Every sin has a consequence.

I’ll say this. I don’t think God causes bad things to happen. But I believe God allows bad things to happen as a wakeup call. God didn’t cause Jonah to be thrown overboard. But God used this experience of drowning as a wakeup call to this rebellious prophet. God definitely got Jonah’s attention. It only took a trip to literal rock bottom. But for some people, like Jonah and like the younger brother in the Story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), that’s what it takes for them to come to their senses.

UNEXPECTED SALVATION

FINALLY the prophet of God actually prays to God – the first time in the whole book so far. Even when the sailors were crying out to their own gods and urged Jonah to do the same, Jonah kept silent. Jonah refused to even utter a word in prayer to God until his life was on the line. And when he finally decides to pray, what does he talk about?

He thanks God for saving him. He recounts his terrifying experience of drowning, sinking down to the “roots of the mountains.” The imagery Jonah uses to describe his underwater experience is quite similar to how other writers and poets describe Sheol, aka the grave or realm of the dead. Jonah is coming to terms with the reality of his watery grave.

But not so fast. What’s that? A giant mouth opening in my direction and sucking me in like a spaghetti noodle!

“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.
Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
(Jonah 2:6b-9)

The punishment was the near death experience as he was sinking into the salt water. The salvation came in the form of fish guts. The “great fish” was God’s chosen means of salvation for his runaway prophet.

What a weird story.

And what a testament to the fact that God’s modus operandi for saving people is constantly changing. I’m glad this story never caught on in religious rituals. “In order to experience God’s salvation you must be swallowed and vomited up by a fish.”

PRAYING FROM ROCK BOTTOM

Anyway, God saves Jonah. Jonah at least has the decency to acknowledge his need for God and his utter helplessness apart from God.

When you feel like you’re drowning – by sin, by stress, by life – this is a great prayer to go to. Read it. Reflect on it. Make it your own. We all have been at rock bottom before. We all know what it’s like to desperately cry out to God. This prayer in Jonah 2 is a great way to find the words if you don’t have them.

In fact, a song came out recently by Avril Lavigne. I hadn’t heard anything from her in years. Turns out she was battling Lyme Disease, an absolutely debilitating illness. In an interview she recalled a time in the hospital when the disease affected her lungs in such a way that it literally felt like she was drowning in that hospital bed. She fought through the disease, and is in a much better place now. But her first single released is called “Head Above Water.” The first time I heard it, I thought this is straight from Jonah’s prayer. If you haven’t heard it, check it out. It’s amazing.

More posts in the Jonah series:

3 Life Traps to Avoid

Idolatry is a trap.

An idol, as we saw last time, is something that makes big promises, takes all it can, and gives nothing in return. This video from I Am Second featuring hit singer Tori Kelly does a fantastic job illustrating this point. Check it out:

Tori Kelly was promised the world. She was promised everything she could want – fame, fortune, success as a singer. But her “idol” deemed her not good/pretty/bubbly enough. So long, see you later. Next!

She had to learn not to tie her identity to anything other than Christ. Kelly had to learn to let go and gain her freedom (remember the Monkey Trap?).

THE THREE TRAPS

If idolatry is a trap, it’s helpful to know what kind of traps to specifically be on the lookout for. The Bible identifies three main traps, and life has confirmed this to be true. Here’s exactly what we need to watch for:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Did you see the traps? 1) Craving for physical pleasure, 2) Craving for everything we see, and 3) Pride in our achievements and possessions. These are the tools Satan uses to draw us away from God and trap us in idolatry. We fall for them all the time. Every single one of us has been trapped by at least one of these tricks. And they are literally as old as human history.

LITERALLY, THE OLDEST TRICK IN THE BOOK

The Bible opens with the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. God creates the world and everything in it. God crowns his creation with God’s masterpiece – humanity, God’s own image bearers. God places the first man and woman in a garden called Eden. It’s a paradise – free of sin, pain, death, and I assume mosquitoes. They have one God-given rule, only one! Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s it. There’s one tree you can’t eat from. Everything else is fair game. How could they possibly mess that up?

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”
“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”
“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”
The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. (Genesis 3:1-7)

Did you see the traps? Look more closely. She saw that the fruit 1. looked delicious (cravings for physical pleasure), 2. looked beautiful (cravings for everything we see), and 3. would grant her the wisdom that she wanted (pride in our achievements and possessions). The Serpent (aka Satan) pulled out all the stops. He set all three traps in place, and she fell for every single one.

**Notice, by the way, that she gave the fruit to her husband “who was with her.” Adam wasn’t some innocent bystander. It’s not like he was off somewhere else completely unaware of what was happening. Adam was fooled just as much as Eve.**

And with all three traps set and then sprung, sin and idolatry entered the world.

At the end of Genesis 3, however, God makes a promise that some day one of Eve’s offspring would crush the head of the serpent once and for all.

BREAKING FREE

Fast forward to the 1st Century CE in Palestine. A Jewish Rabbi is on the scene named Yeshua (or Jesus to us Westerners). Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. As he came up out of the water, the heavens part and the voice of God could be heard proclaiming “You are my Son whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. This is a literal re-creation story.

And just as with the creation story in Genesis, so it is with Jesus. He is immediately led into the Judean wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and faces temptations from Satan. Imagine fasting for 40 days! That’s about the limit for the human body to survive without food. Some of us get hangry after 40 minutes without eating. Picture being on-the-brink-of-literal-starvation-hangry…and then literal Satan shows up. Ugh…. Just read this passage while I go get a snack.

Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.
Then the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.”
Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say,
‘You must worship the Lord your God
    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say,
‘He will order his angels to protect and guard you.
And they will hold you up with their hands
    so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”
Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’”
When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came. (Luke 4:1-13)

Ok, did you see the traps that time? Really, Satan couldn’t make it any more obvious. It’s the same three traps as he used in the Garden all those thousands of years before.

  1. Turn these stones to bread = cravings for physical pleasure
  2. I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world = cravings for everything we see
  3. Throw yourself down from the Temple in front of all these crowds of people, proving to everyone who you truly are and what you’re capable of = pride in our achievements or possessions

However, where Adam and Eve failed, Jesus successfully avoided the traps and exposed them for what they truly were – empty promises.

UNHOLY TRINITY

These three traps can be thought of like this:

“Cravings for Physical Pleasure” = Self-Centeredness – only caring about my needs, my physical cravings, my appearance, my schedule, my success, me – me – me

“Cravings for Everything We See” = Greed – never being satisfied with what I have, always wanting more things, new, shiny, latest and greatest, trendy, jealous, more – more – more

“Pride in Our Achievements and Possessions” = Pride – success, achievement, and being the best are the only things that matter. Second place is first loser. I have to be the best me, and I need other people to know it. Failure is not an option, win – win – win

Self-Centeredness, Greed, and Pride are the core tricks of the trade for Satan. They are the main ways our idols keep us trapped. Here’s what that looks like in real life.

My relationships become an idol when I make it all about me – what I can get out it, how my needs are being met, how that person make me feel.
Relationships become an idol when I’m greedy – always wanting more time, more devotion, or simply moving on to the next person if you aren’t good enough for me anymore.
And relationships become an idol when I become prideful – I have to have the best relationship, or at the very least we have to appear successful. I keep score of who does more for the other person and become resentful when the other person isn’t pulling their weight.

Work can become an idol when I’m self-centered – looking out for my own interests instead of the good of the company, doing anything to get more money or more promotions, making everything a competition with my coworkers.
Work can become an idol when I fall into greed – working longer hours for more overtime to bring home a bigger pay check to a wife and kids I never see so we can buy more stuff we never use.
Work can become an idol when I let my pride get in the way – making sure everyone knows how good I am, making myself indispensable, getting jealous of anyone else who gets promotions, always self-promoting and emphasizing my own achievements and successes.

FOLLOW THE GUIDE

These are the traps of idolatry. They aren’t always easy to see. Sometimes navigating life feels like that scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. The only way we know how to avoid the traps is by learning from those who have gone before us. Self-centeredness, Greed, and Pride can suck you in, keep you trapped, and totally derail your life. Maybe now that we know what to look out for, we can follow in the steps of Jesus and avoid these snares of life.

Which of the three traps is most difficult for you to avoid? How might these traps be lying in wait for us even in the church? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss a post!

Saints and Sinners

In my teen class last night we were discussing holiness. What is holiness? What things/people are holy? What’s the opposite of holy? Questions like that.

And then I asked, “Do you feel holy?”

As I looked around the room at all the shaking heads, it hit me. If we don’t buy it for ourselves, how can we possibly convince others of it??

If we don’t believe that we are holy and that we share in a holy experience through Jesus, how can we possibly take that message to others?

Peter reassures us that we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

When Paul addressed his letters, he often addresses them to the “saints” in a certain place (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). This word “saint” literally means holy one. These letters were written to the holy ones gathered in Ephesus, Collosae, Rome, etc.

The opposite of holy is common. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to pull us out of our common life, this common human experience plagued by sin, pain, rebellion, etc., and to catapult us into an existence unlike any other human experience. We have been taken out of the common and placed into the holy. We have been called “out of the darkness and into his wonderful light.”

But this doesn’t mean that we are free and clear when it comes to sin. I can testify that I have sinned WAY more after becoming and Christian than I did before. But that doesn’t mean we are sinners. That doesn’t mean we aren’t holy. That doesn’t mean we should give up, throw in the towel, and quit trying.

You are HOLY. I am HOLY. Even though we don’t always feel like it. That’s why Paul kept reminding them over and over that those Christians to whom he was writing were saints. They were holy. They were sanctified, set apart, called by God.

God has made us holy though the blood of Jesus. This is the truth to which we are trying to win people. So let’s start believing it. Let’s start living it.

You are holy.

Why did God do that?

In our Sunday morning youth class we’ve been walking very slowly through the opening chapters of Genesis. It’s been 6 Sundays and we’re just now into chapter 3. There’s just so much there!

Anyway, it’s incredible how we often have those aha! moments in passages that we’ve read and read and read and have even taught and written about.

I had one of those last week.

I have often heard the question: Why did God put the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” there in the first place?

The assumption is that the tree itself was bad. The first humans were not allowed to eat of it. Ever. Never ever were they supposed to touch or eat of this tree because it was bad. God must have put it there because there could be no free will where there was temptation, i.e. God created temptation…?

But throughout the first chapter of Genesis, EVERYTHING God created was declared “good.” In fact, the only thing that was labeled as “not good” was the fact that the first man was alone. So follow this: 1. God created everything; 2. Everything God created was good; 3. God created the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; 4. The tree itself was created GOOD.

God did not create anything bad or evil. So the Tree was good. But how can that be?

Listen to the language used to describe the first humans. They were naked and they felt no shame. They had no knowledge of good and evil. Their understanding of cause/effect and action/punishment were not highly developed. All of this sounds very child-like.

And notice in God’s command concerning the tree that he does not say, “For if you eat of it,” but “when you eat of it.” When the woman relays the command to the serpent, her version is very different. She says they aren’t supposed to eat it or even touch it or they will die.

So our first false assumption is that the tree was somehow bad or evil itself, thus God created temptation. Our second false assumption is that the garden was meant to be a permanent dwelling. We assume that the humans were never supposed to eat of the tree and thus live a blissfully ignorant, childlike existence forever in paradise.

On this assumption we fall more in line with the woman’s understanding of the world and less in line with God’s bigger picture. There would come a time when the humans would be ready to eat of the tree, leave the garden, and face the world on there own. Much like there comes a time when it’s up to the child to leave his parents and make it on his own out in the world.

So the tree was good, and there is indication that they would one day be ready to eat of it and leave the garden. The real problem came when they were enticed by the serpent to eat of the tree before it was time. They didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. They didn’t truly grasp cause and effect. They weren’t ready.

The good news is that the garden makes a reappearance. All the way at the end of Revelation, John describes his vision of a city coming down from heaven. The tree of life was at its center. The garden has now become a city. So not only was the garden not intended to be a permanent dwelling place, but the garden itself had changed and grown and evolved into a city – which is a permanent dwelling.

The tree of life is there, but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This city is built for those who have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge but have proved themselves worthy to eat of the the tree of life once again.