THE PERFECT STORM
September 10, 2000
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by sharks. Even before it was popular, before Jaws swam onto the silver screen, I loved these fish. During my lifetime, I’ve had the opportunity to swim with sharks, actually hold live sharks, and even catch several sharks.
And speaking of catching sharks, about fifteen years ago I went fishing with a close friend of mine, Bob Craig, from Houston. He had a boat called the Action 2I. We were off shore maybe seventeen or eighteen miles. We anchored next to a shrimp boat called The Chuck Wagon. After three hours on the ocean, it became “The Up-Chuck Wagon,” but that’s a whole other story.
Anyway, we were catching fish in the eight- to twenty-pound range, like the King Mackerel and Bonito. Being a shark lover, I brought my big game shark outfit with me. I took one of the fish we were catching, put in a couple of hooks, and chunked the entire fish overboard. I just had a feeling that there were sharks in the area.
This fish floated in the water for thirty minutes. We kind of forgot the fish was there, until suddenly, the reel began to scream. We picked the reel up from the rod holder, strapped my harness on my back, hooked it into the reel, and I was locked into a behemoth of a shark.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever stood up and fought something stronger than you, but this fish was so big that I had my uncle actually hold me from behind, so I would not go overboard. We fought this fish for well over an hour in the triple-degree Texas heat. Finally, we got it close to the boat, and to my amazement, my friend Bob Craig pulled out a gun and began firing shots at this big bull shark, subduing it somewhat. Then, we kind of lost all of our brainpower and reasoning. We lassoed the shark’s tail, and we began to drag this thrashing shark into the boat.
When this nine- or ten-foot bull shark hit the deck of the boat, we scattered. We all said this in unison, “I wonder what it’s like to be eaten by a fish?” Well, today, we’re gong to meet someone who knew the answer to that question. His name was Jonah. Jonah was eaten by a fish, and amazingly, he lived to tell about it.
Jonah’s story is preserved for us in the Old Testament. I believe God has given it to us in order to show us the “dos” and the “don’ts” of negotiating the storms of life. I’m in a series called “The Perfect Storm.” We’ve said throughout this series that life is full of storms. What happens, though, when we cause the storm? What happens when because of our behavior a storm strikes? And then, what happens when we do the wrong thing in the midst of the storm? Where is God? What’s He thinking? Do we have another shot at the deal, or what?
Let’s get up close and personal with Jonah. I think we can learn some things and download some things that can revolutionize our lives and the way we handle these storms.
If you have your Bibles, turn to the book of Jonah, Chapter 1, and I’ll begin to read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.” We’re not sure by what medium or how this word came to Jonah, but God spoke to him. We’ve all felt God speaking to us. We’ve all felt the word of the Lord coming to us, maybe through a message, a song, a drama, a quiet time, or prayer. I don’t know, but we’ve all felt it before.
Here is what God told Jonah to do. He said, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me. But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.” Don’t you love that name. “He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”
God said, “Go.” “Jonah,” God said, “go to Nineveh.” Nineveh was going east. Nineveh was a 500-mile trek through the Arabian Desert. The Assyrians who made up this great city were evil people. They skinned their enemies alive. And God tapped His man on the shoulder and said, “Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh. I’ll give you the resources. I’ll give you the octane to preach my word. But I want you to go.”
I’m sure Jonah freaked. I’m sure he began to wig out. He thought to himself, “Nineveh—1500 guard towers. Nineveh—walls 100 feet thick. Man, I don’t want to have any part of Nineveh.” God said, “Go.”
I have a friend who has been a mentor to me in the ministry. His name is Dr. Jim Deloach, and we call Dr. Deloach, affectionately, Brother Jim. Now, Jim Deloach is from Opelika, Alabama, and he has a unique, one-of-a-kind speaking voice. He’s one of those guys that when he talks to you, invades your private space. You want to back up because he’s right in your face. Jim Deloach kind of juts out his bottom lip, drawls a little bit, and slurs his “s’s.” When he talks, he’s kind of a cross between Festus on Gunsmoke and Marlon Brando as the Godfather.
We love to kid Jim about his suits. One day a few of us saw him in this really fashion-forward suit. We said, “Brother Jim, where did you get that suit? You’re looking lean today.”
He said, “Hey, come here.” He said, “When your good friend tells you to go to a very exclusive men’s store and pick out a new suit, you GO!” When God tells us to do something, when God says “Go,” you GO!
God said, “Go.” Jonah said, “No.” God said, “East.” Jonah said, “No, I’m going west.” Nineveh represents obedience. Jonah did not go to Nineveh. He did a 180 and went toward Tarshish, the most remote city in the known world at that time. Tarshish represents disobedience. In God’s geography, we’re either going toward Nineveh, toward obedience, or we’re going toward Tarshish, toward disobedience. We can’t straddle one city or another. We’re either going toward obedience or disobedience.
Husbands, you’re either loving your wife like Christ loved the Church—supporting her, nurturing her, romancing her—sailing toward Nineveh, toward obedience, or you’re sailing toward disobedience. If you’re sailing toward Tarshish, you’re doing the opposite of what God wants you to do.
Maybe you’re in the corporate world. You’re either sailing toward Nineveh—being open, honest, telling the truth, living your life with integrity—or you’re sailing toward Tarshish in disobedience. You’re receiving kickbacks, doing those gray-area deals, lying to your clients, and fudging on those expense accounts.
Hey, student, when you take the exam, you’re either saying that you’re going to study and do the best of your ability—you’re in Nineveh; or you’re saying, “Wow, I’ve got to do good on this test, so I’ll take a little cheat sheet, and I’ll live in Tarshish.”
The Bible said—I hope you picked it up—that Jonah went down to Joppa, found a ship bound for Tarshish, and paid the fare. Whenever I’ve run from God—and I have before—whenever I’ve done a 180, whenever I’ve said, “I’m not going to Nineveh, I’m going to Tarshish,” I’ve always gone down. It’s always a downward spiral when you move away from God.
Some of us are probably looking at this text for the first time, or maybe we’ve read about Jonah before, and we’re saying to ourselves, “Hey, this is probably no problem for Jonah. He just went down to Joppa. There were probably ships leaving all over the place, every thirty minutes, like DFW Airport.” Wrong. Back in this ancient time period, a ship left for Tarshish about every four to six months. Jonah was looking for one.
Just for a second, let’s take Jonah and move him into the modern world. Maybe Jonah, when he felt God saying, “Go,” was thumbing through a newspaper and saw an ad in the travel section. And maybe the ad read, “Cruise aboard the Disobedience 2 to tantalizing Tarshish with sugar white beaches, crystal clear water, away from the plans, the purposes, and the will of God.” And maybe, just maybe, Jonah picked up his cell phone, talked to his travel agent, paid the fare, and set sail. Maybe he did.
Here’s the first principle that I want us to download into our daily lives: When you sail away from God, you always pay the fare. When you sail away from God, you never get to your ultimate destination, and you always pick up the tab. Conversely, if you sail toward God, you get to where you’re going. But He, God, always picks up the tab. It’s a cool deal.
Jonah, that running man…Jonah, that guy on the cruise ship Disobedience 2…Jonah, all the circumstances have fallen into place for him. Everything is just moving along. Just because the circumstances fall into place, does not mean it is the will of God. The evil one is always providing transportation away from God. The evil one will always present to you that attractive co-worker or that neighbor. The evil one will always present to you that opportunity to do something wrong in the business world. The evil one will always present to you that chance and that moment to cheat on the exam. He’s in the mass transit business. He’s the ultimate travel agent. He’s always there.
There will always be a ship bound for Tarshish in your life and mine. So, don’t say, “Well, it must be God’s will. Everything is just hunky-dory. Everything is just fitting together like a puzzle. Wow, this is incredible.”
Do you know what Jonah did? Jonah had such a false sense of security that he went to sleep on the Disobedience 2. How could the guy sleep? He was in complete rebellion before God. The evil one gives us that false security, that false sleep. Even though you might be rebelling against God, you may be saying, “I don’t really feel guilty.” Just wait.
Let’s continue reading in Jonah 1:15. “Then they,” they being the sailors aboard the Disobedience 2, “took Jonah and threw him overboard.” Well, here’s what happened. Everything looked calm and smooth. They were sailing toward Tarshish, sailing toward disobedience. This hurricane hits, and the sailors freaked out. It almost killed them. They figured out Jonah was running from God. Jonah told them to throw him overboard, so they took him and threw him into the raging sea. Once he hit the raging waters of the Mediterranean, the seas were calm.
When I rebel against God, when I’m disobedient toward Him, when I set sail toward Tarshish, it can hurt and damage innocent bystanders. These sailors almost lost their lives. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just aboard the Disobedience 2.
“Ed, you mean to tell me that my rebellion, my disobedience, can hurt others.” I’ll give you an example: Divorce. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin, but the Bible says that God hates divorce. Divorce hurts, scars, and damages children. They are just there on the decks of the Disobedience 2. If you don’t believe me, just do any kind of research—I’m talking about secular research—and you’ll see the hurt of divorce, the damage of innocent bystanders.
Let’s go to Chapter 1, Verse 17. Our man Jonah is in the raging water. It finally calms down. Then, what happens? Verse 17: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” Do you think Jonah knew, just like that, that he was swallowed by a fish? I don’t necessarily think so. I think at first he probably thought, “Whoa, it’s dark and wet and slimy. Maybe I’m in hell.” But then, probably after awhile, he began to smell and see all of this junk sloshing around. Those digestive juices began to eat away at his skin. Then he might have thought, “I’m in some serious, serious trouble.”
Some of you at this point are saying, “Ed, come on, man. I’m an educated woman or educated man. Do you really believe a literal fish swallowed this man, and he lived to tell about it? Give me a massive break. Call me a taxi.”
In his book, entitled Sixty-Three Years of Engineering, Sir Francis Fox relates the following:
In February 1891, the whale ship Star of the East was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands when the lookout saw a large sperm whale thrashing about. Two whaling vessels converged on the whale. The tail slapped one of the boats with two sailors going overboard. One drowned. The other seemingly disappeared. After harpooning the whale, it was towed to shore. Twenty-four hours later, the men were dissecting it when they saw something moving in its stomach. They opened it, and there was Frank Bartlett, the sailor who had disappeared. They revived him, and he lived to sail again.
Sometimes those storms swallow us up, don’t they?
Could it be that you feel like you’re in the belly of a fish right now? Could it be that you don’t know which way to turn. You’re saying, “Ed, I can really connect with Jonah. I feel just eaten up by this situation.” Jonah brought this deal on himself.
I’ve been praying for a man for the last eight years and talking to him about this very thing. Right now, this man, who does not know Christ personally, is in the belly of a fish. God has caused a storm and this problem to swallow him up. Just a few days a go, I had dinner with him. I said, “God is causing this. Turn toward Him.” He’s still saying, “No.” He’s still sailing toward Tarshish.
Let’s talk about the next big principle we must download into our daily lives from this account. When you sail away from God, you become a human fishing lure. I’ve felt like a human fishing lure before, haven’t you? I’ve run from God and brought this storm on myself. I’ve done the overboard thing. I’m like a lure, and I’m waiting for this thing to eat me up. Well, what did Jonah do? He was the lure. He was inside the fish. What did he do?
Do you know what he did? The Bible says, “Jonah prayed….” How many of you would not have prayed inside the belly of the fish? That’s what I want to know. Do you know what Jonah realized? He realized that you can’t sail away from God. If you run from God, you’ll run right into Him. You can’t get away from God. You can’t fake Him out. You can’t do the “Jonah juke”. He’s going to be right there on you. You can’t get away from Him.
For ten years, Owen Goff has faithfully served Fellowship Church. When he was fifty-two years of age, he sold his own insurance company and went into the ministry. He’s taken it upon himself to make sure that I’m always on time for every service. He makes sure I’m wired up with two lavaliere packs. If one goes out, I’ve got another one. He thinks of everything.
Before the Saturday evening service, before the Sunday services, I’m usually in my office tweaking the dials on my message, and I always hear this tap, tap, tap on my door. I know it’s Owen. He always knocks three times. He says this, “Uh, Pastor, the service is going to start in about forty-three seconds. Are you ready?” This has gone on for ten years, week in and week out. I’ve never been late.
But the other day, I decided to play a joke on Owen. I hid from him. I cruised up into the balcony and sat with some people up there. And I just watched Owen, before the service, walk around frantically looking for me. Finally, at the last minute, I said, “Owen, I’m here.” He said, “Pastor, you scare me when you do that. I can’t stand up there and preach. I’m not ready. I haven’t studied or anything.” I can’t get away from Owen.
You can’t get away from God. You run away from Him, and you’ll run right into Him. Jonah 2:1 says, “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” That’s deep, isn’t it? From the belly of a fish, he prayed. He did a confession thing. He prayed Scripture. Look what happened in Jonah 2:10, “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Now, this is cool. The fish responded the first time God spoke to him, but it took Jonah a long, long time to respond.
I love this next verse. This is the theme of the entire Bible. Jonah 3:1, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” Let’s read that again together, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I am so thankful that we serve a God of the second time, a second chance. If we didn’t, we would all be in trouble.
How many golfers do we have? Lift your hands. Is this what happens when you’re playing golf? Let’s say you go out with a foursome and walk up to the first tee box. It’s hilarious to watch how different people address the ball, isn’t it? Some people do all of this wild stuff. Let’s say that you tee off on a par four hole. And after teeing off, instead of your foursome saying, “You the man!” they say, “Oh, no.” You slice it or hook it or smash out a window, or your ball goes swimming. It’s a terrible feeling. Golf is a very humbling game.
You messed up the shot. What do you say? You say, “Uh, I’ll take a mulligan.” Now, for those of you who don’t play golf, a mulligan is a do-over. It’s like the first one didn’t matter.
Here’s the third principle we must download into our daily lives: When we sail away from God, remember, He will give you a mulligan. He’ll give you a mulligan. Notice, though, that Jonah turned from his sin. He turned from Tarshish toward Nineveh. He repented. The word “repent” means to do a 180. God gave him a mulligan.
Here’s what he did. He went back to Nineveh, back to obedience. In a way, he jumped aboard a new vessel. He left the Disobedience 2 and jumped onto the Mulligan 2, and then he walked into the city of the Assyrians. Now, I’ll bet they smelled him coming from miles away. He was probably sporting that gastric juice tan. Here we pay all of this money for tanning booths and stuff. Just get swallowed by a fish. You can have a gastric juice tan that’ll last for a long, long time, I’ll bet.
He preached, and 120,000 people bowed the knee and turned toward God. Amazing! I want you to write three names down, if you can. If not, just remember them: Moses, David, and Sampson. Three mulligan men, you could say. Moses had the Ten Commandments written down for him, got mad, smashed them. God gave him a mulligan. David committed adultery and had this girl’s husband killed. God gave him a mulligan. Sampson had such potential and a bright future. He messed up, repented, and God gave him a mulligan. When you cruise away from God, He’ll give you a mulligan.
You would think that Jonah—after experiencing the forgiveness of God, the grace of God, receiving a mulligan, going through all that stuff and having his life saved, after preaching this great revival where the whole city turned toward God—would be saying, “Yeah, God, thank you so much. This is incredible. I’m so excited. Woo! Yeah!”
If I had been Jonah, I would have stopped writing this book at Chapter 3, Verse 10. It would have ended so much better that way. But Jonah is so human—something I can connect with, and you can resonate with—that the guy loses it. He had this little narrow perspective. He thought God was just a Hebrew God, a Jew God. He thought God was just limited. He forgot the original purpose for mankind, for the Jewish nation. It was to be a blessing to all mankind, to other nations, other creeds, other nationalities, other people groups. They were to share the good news with them. They were to love them and talk about the mercy and grace of God. He forgot that.
Do you know what he did? I’ll tell you what he did. Let’s let the Bible talk here. Jonah 4:1, “Now Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.” I’ll say it one more time. He had just been forgiven, vomited up on land, had preached a great message where 120,000 people repented. Now, Jonah is displeased and angry.
The Bible says he went up on a hill, and he wanted God to nuke the Ninevites. He became displeased and angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Oh, Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious….” Let me stop there. The word gracious comes from the word grace, which means God’s attitude toward people who are not in covenant relationship with Him. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God….” The word compassion here comes from the word womb, which means the kind of compassion a mother has for her child.
That’s the kind of God we serve—a God of grace, a God mercy, a God of compassion, and a God slow to anger. The New Testament book of 2 Peter says that God is slow to anger. He’s slow to judge, because He wants everyone to come to repentance. Jonah continues in Verse 2, “…slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Poor guy, he’s throwing a black-tie-invitation pity-party. He wanted God to waste the Ninevites. Here is the last principle I want us to download into our daily lives, my favorite one of the whole bunch: When you sail away from God, don’t call a “whaa-ambulance”. What happens when an ambulance flies through your neighborhood? Every dog on the street howls. When you call a “whaa-ambulance”, it’ll cause people in your life to howl. “Get him out of here.” “I’m tired of her howling, her whining, her complaining.” Some people will cry over the death of a pet. They’ll cry over losing a sentimental object. Yet, they never shed one tear for their neighbor who’s facing an eternal hell. Doesn’t make sense.
People will moan and groan about this and that—a misspelled word in the bulletin, maybe the music was too loud, they had to walk too far from the parking lot—when thousands of people are coming to Christ, and thousands more are being baptized, and thousands more are growing and using their spiritual gifts. And we’re concerned about those little things, those Jonah-type things, instead of the big things. It’s so easy for me, it’s so easy for you to call a “whaa-ambulance”, just to whine and moan and groan.
We’re not sure what happened to Jonah. It just ends like this. But I do have to ask you one question: Which way are you sailing? Are you aboard the Disobedience 2 toward Tarshish, or are you aboard the Mulligan 2 toward Nineveh. When you’re going toward obedience, toward Nineveh, you’ll never get seasick.