I really should have read the directions. Hold on, I did read them. I just didn’t follow them. And that hurt.
A week ago, I got this heavy-duty cleaner from D&B Tile to use in a shower at home. It did say that it was strong, that you should wear some protection. So, I got rubber gloves for my hands, and a pair of old jeans to wear too. I thought. That should be fine. I mean, how strong can the stuff be?
I was taking care of some serious cleaning, getting down on my knees, scrubbing away. And the stuff worked great. But then I noticed a little tingling in my knees. I thought. It’s probably nothing. Then it got a bit worse. My knees started to, well, burn. I decided. Maybe these solution soaked jeans need to come off. That didn’t help. And that’s how I found myself running to the shower in our other bathroom, yelling ouch, ouch all the way. Still the damage was done. I have the scabs to prove it. That stuff sure got rid of the dirt in our shower. And it even got rid of some of the skin on me too.
Still, I’ll survive. The scabs will eventually come off. And I’ll have grown a little wiser as a result. But in life, mistakes don’t always get resolved so easily. You can make mistakes that cost more than a few scabs. Some mistakes really mess up your life. Those types of failures, they don’t only wound you, they often wound others too. If you let them, they’ll even cripple you, for years, even a lifetime. But in this story, God shows a different way. God shows you that even the greatest failures of your life can become opportunities for God to work more powerfully than ever. How can your worst failures, not only become opportunities for growth, but doors that open you to greater things than you could have imagined? In this story, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Life can bring some bad things your way. But what about when you know those bad things hit because of you? What if it was your mistake that brought them your way, even brought them to others too? How do you rebound from failures like that? In this story, God shows you the way. God tells you. When your mistakes wound you, even wound others. What do you do? First, you face them. You face the failures, and you face the consequences. But then, you fall. You fall into the only One who can, not only, redeem your mistakes, but who alone can redeem you.
In this story, God gives Jonah a clear order. Go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and tell them their mistakes, how their evil has caused harm to so many. But Jonah doesn’t do that. Jonah does the exact opposite. Jonah books a ship literally in the opposite direction, as far from Nineveh and he thinks, from God, as he can get.
But why does Jonah do that? To understand that, you need to understand who Jonah is. Jonah doesn’t only appear in the Bible here. In the stories about Jeroboam II, one of the kings of Israel, Jonah pops up too. Now, Jeroboam was an awful, evil king, but the Bible says he did do one thing right. As the book of 2 Kings puts it. But he (Jeroboam) did restore the borders of Israel to Lebo Hamath in the far north and to the Dead Sea in the south, according to what God, the God of Israel, had pronounced through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher. Jonah served as personal prophet to King Jeroboam, and while this king might have restored the border, this is what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t throw off the chains of Assyrian bondage. For forty years, Assyria had taken tribute from Israel, basically protection money. You pay us, and we don’t send an army to destroy you. The leaders in Nineveh had humiliated Israel for years, and Jonah hated their guts. He didn’t want God to warm them about their wicked ways. He wanted God to destroy them for their wicked ways. And he wasn’t going to be the one to give them any chance to get out of the judgment they so richly deserved.
So, what does he do? He gets out of Dodge, and he thinks, at the same time, he is getting away from God. Why does he think that? It’s because Jonah believes God only has power in Israel. If he goes to Tarshish, it will be like an outlaw crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. God can’t touch him there. Jonah feels so confident in that belief that even when the storm hits, it doesn’t bother him. He’s sleeping. He thinks. This can’t be God. God’s back in Israel. God can’t reach me here.
But Jonah finds out. God can reach him here. And God isn’t just reaching Jonah. God’s way of reaching, this huge storm, is putting everyone on the ship at risk.
Now, if you’re honest, you can’t bash Jonah too badly. Everyone has had a Jonah moment, a time when you denied just how bad your mistake was. Heck, when I was kneeling in that shower, I did that, until I realized that burning sensation was not going to go away.
The first step in coming back from a mistake is acknowledging you made one, and that can be hard.
This past week, it came out that the pastor of a big mega-church in Tennessee, had years before when he was a youth pastor coerced one of the teenagers in his youth group to sleep with him. When it came out, he went before his congregation, and confessed that an incident had occurred some years ago but said little else. The church even gave him a standing ovation, something I’m still trying to figure out. Ok, maybe you appreciated his supposed honesty, but a standing ovation, really? Then it came out, she was 17, and he was her pastor. And how did he respond to that? He said, well technically, since she was 17, and he was 22, it was legal in the state where he was. Now finally, the church has suspended him, and is doing a full-scale investigation. But I worry that this pastor still doesn’t get the depth of his mistake. When you coerce a teenager in your youth group to sleep with you, it’s not an incident, it’s abuse.
Now hopefully, you’ve never had to face a mistake like that one. But have you ever ignored a mistake in a relationship or with your family until it blew into a storm that rocked everything? Have you ever not faced a self-destructive habit or obsession or practice that was not only hurting you but everyone around you until the mess it created was too big to ignore? The list could go on. How do you make a mistake worse? You don’t admit you made one.
But Jonah doesn’t simply admit his mistake, he takes responsibility for it. He says. This is on me. In fact, he even offers up his own life to save his shipmates.
When you make a mistake, making it right goes beyond acknowledging the truth. It means accepting the consequences of that truth. That’s why folks in AA do what they call a fearless moral inventory. They write down a list of all the folks that they have wronged through their drinking. And they don’t stop there. They go to those folks, face how they failed them, and do what they can to make amends. That practice doesn’t just work for alcoholics. It works for everyone. My dad used to say the church should be called sinners anonymous. He’s right. You can’t simply face the mistakes you make, you’ve got to own them. And Jonah does.
Even so, the sailors think Jonah’s way to resolve the issue is crazy. They think. This guy is going to commit suicide. They try to do everything they can to not take Jonah up on his offer. But in the end, they have no choice. They throw Jonah into the raging sea.
And in this final seemingly suicidal act, Jonah does the most crucial step of all, when it comes to redeeming the mess-ups of your life. He lets go and lets God. Or as the folks in AA put it, you realize that only a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity. You see. Too often people can acknowledge their mistakes, even try to remedy them. What they can’t do is let go, is realize that they alone can never move themselves to the place they need to be. They try the whole self-salvation route, a route that ultimately leads nowhere.
When a life-guard goes to save someone who is drowning, often the person panics. They think they’re helping the lifeguard, when all they are doing is making it worse. The only way the lifeguard can help them is if they let go, if they place their life totally in the lifeguard’s hands. And this is so crucial, that if they can’t let go, the lifeguard will leave them to drown to avoid being drowned herself. She can’t save them if they won’t let go.
So, Jonah lets go, and God saves him. God provides a fish to deliver him from the storm. The sailors think. Death lies beneath those waves. But something else entirely lives there. Love does. And out of love, God rescues the runaway Jonah, and in doing so, God prepares him for the most significant act of his entire life.
Here’s the irony. Jonah hated the Ninevites so much. He had such an exalted impression of his own righteousness. Even if he had gone to Nineveh, he would have been useless. Only now, humbled out of his own self-righteous arrogance, can he become the great prophet God has destined him to be.
One of the verses I love most in the Bible comes from Romans. It goes like this. God works all things together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose. What that means is even when God doesn’t bring the storms that hit your life, that doesn’t mean God won’t use them. God can use anything, even your worst mistakes, to move you forward, to even save you. God will work it for good, but for God to do it, you’ve gotta let go.
And if you doubt that God will save you, then look beyond Jonah. Look to who Jonah points to, to the ultimate Jonah. And that Jonah, instead of running away from God’s call to save, ran towards it. And he went into the ultimate storm, the one created not by his failure but by ours, our mistakes, our brokenness. And Jesus willingly gave up his life to that storm, so that he might still those waves, so that he might save us. And he went beyond the belly of a whale. He went into the belly of death itself, so that you might never have to go there, that instead you might have life now and forever.
And when you let go into the love and grace of this one who threw himself into the storm for you, then Jesus will redeem every broken place, every moral failure, every mistake you have made no matter how bad. He will save you. And what do you need to do? All you need to do is face the truth, that you need it. Yes, you need to face your mistakes. Yes, you need to own them. But then you need to let go and let God do what only God can do, use them as the door that leads to your salvation, to the very life of significance God created you to have. So, where do you need to let go today?