The night before Thanksgiving a new bride called her mother in tears.
“Oh Mom, I tried to make Grandma’s meat loaf for dinner tonight. I thought it would make for a light meal before our big meal tomorrow. But the meat loaf is just awful! I followed the recipe exactly, and I know I have the recipe right because it’s the one you gave me. But it just didn’t come out right, and I’m so upset. I wanted this to be so special for George because he loves meat loaf – and this is our first Thanksgiving eve together. What could have gone wrong?”
Her mother replied soothingly, “Well, dear, let’s go through the recipe. You read it out loud and tell me exactly what you did at each step, and together we’ll figure it out.”
“Okay,” the bride sniffled. “Well, it starts out: ‘Take fifty cents worth of ground beef…’”
The story of Jonah, for most of us, is a very familiar one. In fact, one could say that the story goes from the familiar to the unfamiliar. There is a young man. He gets told to go one way. He goes another way. He gets thrown off a ship. He gets swallowed up by a WHALE – well, maybe a “great fish”. He tells God he is sorry. He gets spit out of the whale – well, actually “vomited”! He goes to where he is supposed to go. End of story.
Or is it?
Look at Jonah 2:9: “But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”
Wait! How did Jonah get to the point where he was willing to say to God that he would offer to Him the “sacrifice of thanksgiving”? That’s, well, impossible, isn’t it?
Let’s see how this happens.
First is the description of his situation. Look at the first 6 verses of Chapter 2 – again they are MOST familiar. Jonah describes his heart. He “cried out to the Lord”… “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried”…”I have been cast out of Your sight.” His situation is pretty bleak!
He had been given an assignment from the Lord Himself. He was to go to Nineveh and “preach the gospel”, as it were. Nineveh? Weren’t they the enemies of the people of Israel? Gentiles? Yet that fact was not a concern to the Lord.
What WAS a concern was Jonah’s obedience to God’s directive. In the big picture of things, Jonah did NOT want to go to Nineveh. He knew, he just KNEW the power of the Word of God. He KNEW that if he proclaimed the salvation of the Lord, the heathen Ninevites would repent and trust the Lord and His Word! We know the story of Chapter One. As he was in a ship with seasoned sailors, they found themselves in the heart of a violent storm.
From their experiences they knew that the source of this storm was not only God Himself. The cause of this storm was someone’s disobedience to the Lord. It did not take the convicted Jonah long to share his guilt. At his word, they threw him overboard. To the sailors’ amazement, the storm settled down. And no doubt, to Jonah’s amazement, he was swallowed by a great fish.
And that’s where the story gets interesting. What was more powerful than the mighty storm was the one-on-one connection with the Lord in the great fish’s belly. There was no escape – neither from the belly nor from the Lord Himself.
Jonah was not only in the heart of the fish’s belly. He was inside his own heart, seeing himself for who he was before a holy God. He was in the “belly of the grave” (v. 2), as it were.
Into the deep, into the heart of the seas, surrounded by floods, passed over by billows and waves, cast out of God’s sight.” No hope. In verse 4 he petitions the Lord, “I will look again toward Your holy temple.” In the Hebrew, scholars say the verse implies a question, “WILL I ever see your temple again?”.
When one is seemingly without the presence of the personal God, without Him and without hope of escaping his circumstances, he has two choices. Only two. No others. Stay there and die. Or look up and hope.
Even so, Jonah’s situation was without any visible hope. Verse 6 is most descriptive. It is said of the iceberg that crippled the Titanic that only a portion of the mighty iceberg was visible above water. It was the majesty of what was not visible below the sea level into which the great ship met its demise. “The Unsinkable” found its match and then some.
Look again at verse 6. Jonah observes that he “went down to the moorings of the mountains.” Can you even begin to imagine? What people saw above the water line he was looking at what was below the water line. And apparently what was below was greater than what was above. He was starring at the very base of these grand mountains of the earth.
The New Living Translation says that Jonah was “locked up out of life.” No hope. Without God. “To the point of death”, as one version says.” Ephesians 2:12 says of the unsaved, that he is “…without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
No hope. Without God. One commentator said that inside the belly of the great fish, the rebellious Jonah would be surrounded by foul smelling, big fish (whale?) belly acid, and LOTS of seaweed. It is surprising that if the acid didn’t drown him, the seaweed would have suffocated him. No hope. Without God.
And on a lighter note: you DO know why Jonah didn’t perish in the belly of the great fish, don’t you? Because God wasn’t ready for Jonah to die just yet. Hmmm…
But the gracious Lord has a way to put a few words of kindness together, In Psalm 40:1, David writes “He inclined to me”. In Ephesians 2:1-4, after telling the readers from Ephesus that they had been “dead in trespasses and sins” (v, 1), Paul writes two life changing words: “but God” (v. 4a). He “is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…made us alive.” Can I hear a “WOW”?
Look back again at Jonah 2, because here God does it again! Near the end of verse 6, after describing vividly Jonah’s surroundings in the stomach of the great fish, Jonah writes of God, “Yet YOU…”.
“You have brought up my life from the pit…”. Jonah declared these amazing words of faith WHILE he was still in the belly of the great fish! Words of faith! Could we do this?
He remembers the ross – yes, even in the Old Testament! Note verse 7: once again, from the belly of the great fish Jonah’s prayer goes up to God’s holy temple! The veil of the temple has been rent in two – and now his prayer can go right up to God’s Most Holy Place! Can I hear another Wow!”?
The Message says, “my prayer made it through, all the way to You”. The author of Hebrews writes, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We can do BY FAITH what Jonah did BY FAITH”. Another “Wow” dear people?
Don’t forget that this all is happening within the belly of the great fish, and in the heart of Jonah. He closes his prayer with…THANKSGIVING! His heart is hungry now, for God Himself. He sees the difference between the true God of Israel and the false gods of Nineveh. At this stage in the story he recognizes that the Ninevites are worshiping “worthless idols” (v. 8). In contrast, Jonah pledges that he “will sacrifice [to the true God] with the voice of thanksgiving” (v. 9a). The worship of anything false not only bypasses, it eliminates the cross.
He gives a song of praise coupled with a hope of a life of obedience. Notice his pledge of the heart: “I will pay what I have vowed.”
And he then makes a declaration of faith: “salvation is of the Lord.” (v. 9b)
In turn, God does what at the start would appear to be most impossible: He speaks to the great fish and causes it to, well, “vomit” Jonah on to the dry land..
You know, God delights in doing the unexpected. He honors the life that honors Him.
“Salvation is of the Lord”. We of New Testament faith understand this all too well. For John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten [His “one and only”] Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
This story is also one of surrender. True surrender is evident when the song of praise comes, as declared in the prayer of THANKSGIVING. Jonah calls this a “sacrifice”. It is his surrender.
This Thanksgiving season, wouldn’t it be something if each one of us pauses from the busy-ness of the fuss of the meal? Wouldn’t it be something if each one of us gets by ourselves and raises up a “Sacrifice of Thanksgiving” to the living God for Who He is, what He has done for each of us through the cross, and then for all His displays of grace with which He overflows each day of our lives?
Will you offer your Sacrifice of Thanksgiving this holiday season?