(Originally preached at Alger First United Methodist Church on June 12, 2016)
I’d like to start off with something pretty personal. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s related again to what I’ll be talking about today. When I was in high school, I had a weakness for pornography. Now, looking back, I can honestly say it wasn’t a hard core addiction; it didn’t derail my life. But that’s exactly what made the problem so insidious.
Because there was always someone worse than me.
Whenever I would feel guilty, my self-talk would go like this: I don’t look very often. I don’t download anything – I’m not that stupid; It’s just a few times a month. It’s not like I’m coming home from school and filling my mind with it every day like I knew a few of my friends were. There was always someone worse than me who I could use to stave off the guilt.
This was the persistent sin in my life for a while in high school, and not just because I damaged myself. Women were being exploited through this industry and I was creating more demand for it just so that I could feel good, without a care for the damage it did to other people, without a care for the harm done to my thought life and the unhealthy perception it created of the real females in my life outside of the computer screen.
It was the persistent sin that I kept returning to, no matter how often I heard that I shouldn’t do it, no matter how often I heard that this is not what God would have me do. The Holy Spirit would convict me to stop, and I would ignore it.
Now I can honestly say that I left that behind years ago. But it’s still the part of my life that I’m most ashamed of. It seemed like I was almost trying to sin myself away from God’s grace.
Now, I’m sure I’m the only one here who’s ever done something I’m ashamed of, right?
I’m not asking for a confession here, I’m certainly not asking you to raise any hands, but reflect with me: Do you have anything like this in your life? A period of time that you’re ashamed of, that you don’t even like to think about, much less talk about? A time when you hit rock bottom?
Maybe you’re going through a time like that right now, you or maybe someone close to you? A time when you felt like you hit rock bottom, that you sank down into the pit; it doesn’t feel like there’s any way out, you’re trapped, and it seems like God isn’t there. Or if God is there, then he’s angry at you and doesn’t really love you anymore.
We are in the midst of our series on Jonah. And in the part of the story we’re focusing on today, Jonah went through something similar to the types of situations I just described.
Before I read the Scripture passage for today, I want to remind you of the context. We heard Part 1 last week. God called Jonah to go to the evil town of Nineveh, capital of the archenemy of the Jewish people, Assyria. Jonah didn’t want to go and instead ran literally as far away as possible in literally the opposite direction. But despite his best efforts to escape God’s call, he couldn’t do it. God sent a storm upon the ship he was in, and Jonah was thrown into the sea to get God to let up on the storm. And that’s where we find Jonah today.
Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish:
“I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me.
From the belly of the underworld[b] I cried out for help;
you have heard my voice.
You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounds me.
All your strong waves and rushing water passed over me.
So I said, ‘I have been driven away from your sight.
Will I ever again look on your holy temple?
Waters have grasped me to the point of death;
the deep surrounds me.
Seaweed is wrapped around my head
at the base of the undersea[c] mountains.
I have sunk down to the underworld;
its bars held me with no end in sight.
But you brought me out of the pit.’
When my endurance[d] was weakening,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
to your holy temple.
Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.[e]
But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks.
That which I have promised, I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. (Jonah 1:17-2:10, CEB)
So this is the part of the story where some people get kind of weirded out: “Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days? You’re telling me the digestion and stomach acid didn’t kill him?” I will say that we have no way of knowing how historically accurate and factual this story of Jonah is. We don’t know if this story actually happened or if it was a fable – we just don’t know.
But in a way, that doesn’t actually matter because whether or not this story is historically accurate and factual, there is truth in this story that’s deeper and more important than questions of historical accuracy. Part of the truth that we get from this story is printed in your bulletins, after “Core Message.” Can we read it together?
[For my online-only readers: we read this sentence together: We can never sin ourselves away from God’s grace.]
Now, it seems like we have the capacity to do exactly that, it seems that humanity does have the capacity to sin ourselves away from God’s grace. Just look at the Creation story we have at the beginning of Genesis.
God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and placed them in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. And God gave them one rule: Don’t eat the fruit from this one tree. And what did they do? They ate the fruit.
In Christian theology, Adam and Eve eating the fruit became known as the Original Sin, the eating of the fruit that undid paradise.
But there was dude named Irenaeus who had a bit different of an idea. Irenaeus was a father of the early church and lived in the 2nd century. He saw Adam and Eve eating the apple as just a colossal mistake, he didn’t see it as such an awful action. But he looked at where humanity went from there:
First sin: Eating the fruit they weren’t supposed to eat.
Second sin: Lying to God and trying to cover it up.
Third sin: Murder – Cain murdering his brother Abel.
In a single generation, humanity had gone from taking fruit to killing another human being.
Irenaeus read his Bible and saw that steep trajectory, and believed that if humanity had continued on that trajectory, we would sin our way to a point where we could never find our way back. With that trajectory, we would sin ourselves away from God.
Western Christian thought has a name for this: “Sinful nature.” This is the idea that without the grace of God, left on our own, we would only make decisions that hurt ourselves and hurt others – in other words, sin.
But if we look at it like Irenaeus, the idea gets expanded – without God’s grace, if we were left on our own, it’s not that we would just sin, we would sin our way into oblivion.
But Jonah’s story, especially what I just read, gives us good news: God’s grace is a constant reality that we live with in all areas of our life: It is not possible to live apart from the grace of God.
So it is not possible to sin ourselves away from God, no matter how far away we get.
We hear this in Jonah’s prayer or song from the belly of the fish, what I just read for you. “I called out to the Lord in my distress and God answered me. From the belly of the underworld I cried out for help; you [God] have heard my voice…waters have grasped me to the point of death…I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight.”
This is serious stuff. Jonah thought he was dying. There’s no Gospel choir in the belly of the fish like Veggie Tales tells us – this is a dark time.
Jonah thought he was dying, this was a dark night for his soul. He had run literally as far away as he could in literally the opposite direction from where God called him to go, and he probably thought this was his punishment.
I’ll return to the question I asked at the beginning: Have we ever gotten ourselves into a pit? Have we ever hit rock bottom like this? Maybe it was because of an addiction: alcohol, narcotics, drugs, or some other kind of substance abuse. Maybe it was because of a more socially acceptable addiction: workaholism, over-eating, something that eats up our life and doesn’t let us live the blessed life God has called us into. Maybe it was through some kind of willful disobedience – God called you one way, and you ran in the opposite direction. Have you ever found yourself stuck in a pit of your own creation?
When Jonah had hit his own rock bottom, in the belly of the fish, he prayed these amazing words to God: “I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks. That which I have promised, I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.” When we are in the pit, God’s grace is still with us.
Now we’re talking about God’s grace, and that deserves some explanation so we’re all on the same page. When we talk about the grace of God, we’re talking about the gift of God’s love and acceptance of us. God loves us and God accepts us as a gift – it doesn’t matter whether or not we love God or accept God, God still loves and accepts us.
The word we usually hear with grace is “unmerited,” meaning that we didn’t earn God’s grace, and we cannot, do not, and will not earn God’s grace. It was given to us.
I heard another pastor explain God’s grace this week in a really interesting way. Who all has eaten at a Mexican restaurant? Most of us, right? El Campo over in Ada, anyone?
When you go to a Mexican restaurant, what do they always bring to your table before you order anything? Chips and salsa, right? You can count on it. It doesn’t matter what you order, and you don’t even have to order any food to have them bring it out in the first place. It’s just always brought out and placed before you for you to enjoy. Now, no one makes you eat the chips and salsa. You could refuse this gift – I have no idea why you would, but theoretically, you could refuse the chips and salsa and not eat them. But they’re always offered to you.
God’s grace is kind of like those chips and salsa – God always offers it to us, places it before us, before we do or say or think anything – it’s just there. We don’t have to accept God’s grace, but God always offers it to us, and will continue offering it to us, no matter what we do to run away from the love and acceptance offered to us by God, no matter how hard we try to refuse it – it’s always offered to us.
We are god’s children. And we can never mess up enough to not be God’s children. God is not in the business of disowning anybody. We might run away from home, but God will ceaselessly search us out.
We can never mess up so badly that God gives up on us. Plenty have tried, Jonah tried, but it’s not possible – God will not give up on us, despite our best efforts.
Now, that doesn’t mean that God won’t be disappointed or angry or sad at or with us. But God feels those emotions in relationship with us, and the relationship cannot be broken.
No matter how hard we try, we can never sin ourselves away from God’s grace. No matter how deeply we fall into the shadowy pit of our own creation, no matter how hard we hit rock bottom, God will always be there and will deliver us when we accept God’s grace and stop running away.
When you hit rock bottom, you are still a child of God. When you feel so guilty about something you’ve done or said or thought, you are still a child of God. When you are ashamed of your self and wonder anyone could ever love you again, you are still a child of God, holy and dearly loved.
So there are two truths I want you to take from this
First, you can never sin yourself away from the grace of God. You can never screw up enough to not be a child of God.
Second, neither can anyone else.
As I think and pray and speak about this, the words of Psalm 139 keep coming back to me. When I planned this series, I wasn’t planning on this, but the Holy Spirit seems to be moving to make Psalm 139 kind of the theme song for this series on Jonah. So you should have selections from Psalm 139 in a bulletin insert. Could you get that out so that we can read it together?
[For my online-only readers: We proceeded to read together portions of Psalm 139 which the congregation had as a bulletin insert. I encourage you to read the whole thing here.]