“God’s anonymous: the crew on Jonah’s boat”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
They say that sailing on a cruise ship isn’t just a vacation--it’s a special kind of vacation. Any other vacation makes you decide, plan, worry, exchange currency, and get a tetanus shot. But not a cruise. It’s like no other vacation in the world!
I mean, think about it. For three or ten or a hundred and twenty days, you could visit Mexico or the Bahamas or Alaska or Europe--almost anywhere in the world.
And thanks to your more-than-happy-to-help-you crew, you can feast on foods of all kinds, twenty-four hours a day, and enjoy activities of all kinds, like bumper cars, water slides, even sky-diving in a specially designed wind tunnel.
Life is good on a cruise.
But sometimes, things don’t go the way that anyone planned.
Take, for example, the ship Carnival Triumph in February of 2013. Apparently, early one Sunday at right about 5:30 in the morning, one of the generators caught fire in the engine room. And while, thankfully, no one was injured and the flames were immediately put out, all of a sudden, that three- football-field-long, 102,000-ton boat, with its more than four thousand passengers and crew, was reduced to Huck Finn’s raft--no food, no water, no lights, and no air conditioning. And worst of all, no working toilets. Needless to say, in one-hundred-degree tropical heat and humidity, that is not a good thing.
It was so bad that, three days later, when tugboats finally pulled the ship to shore, some kissed the ground and said, “United States. Ain’t nothin’ better.” Another said, “It was, like, a post-natural disaster. But stuck on a boat.”
And, strangely enough, in the book of Jonah, we hear about another cruise that didn’t go the way that anyone planned.
I’ll read the words of chapter 1: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3).
If you know the story, and I’m sure you do, you know that God called His prophet Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. As He said in verse 2: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me.”
So how evil were they? Let’s just say that they’ve gone down in history as being one of the cruelest and most heartless people of all time. In fact, historians tell us that they were so cruel, they not only skinned their prisoners alive, they pulled out their tongues and made mounds of human skulls just to inspire fear in the hearts of their enemies.
And Israel was one of their favorites. Assyrian records mention the names of ten Hebrew kings who were absolutely terrified of them. Archaeologists have even found a stone showing the people of Israel starving and their king, King Hezekiah, caged up like a bird. As the prophet Nahum once wrote, they were “a den of ravaging lions, feeding on the blood of the nations.”
And it was Jonah, poor lonely Jonah, who was commanded by the Lord to share the gospel with them. It would be as if God sent a Jew, in 1942, to Berlin, Germany, to tell Adolf Hitler that, if he’d repent, God would have mercy on him. It’s just not going to happen!
So what did Jonah do? What would you do? He hopped in a boat and went the other way.
But Jonah, how could you? You know God will be with you and you know what He’s called you to do. Why run the other way?
Maybe he was afraid. Maybe he knew it was a suicide mission, because once he went in, there was no way he was ever coming out.
Or maybe Jonah thought the message was a little harsh—preach against Nineveh’s wickedness? Who wants to hear that—fire and brimstone from some Hebrew preacher? They’ll laugh him off the city streets!
Or maybe he thought it was a lost cause. After all, what could one man do in a city of six hundred thousand?
But none of those are the reasons the Bible gives. The real reason was this—Jonah hated the people of Nineveh. If it were up to him, the whole world would be a whole lot better off, (thank you very much!), if the almighty God would just burn them off the face of the earth. That’s why he hopped in a boat and went the other way.
But things didn’t go quite as well as he had planned.
Let me stop there for just a moment. It’s easy to say that the Bible is, in many ways, an absolutely amazing book. It tells of both the tragedies and the triumphs of countless men, women and even children. Some were sailors or soldiers, others were scribes or servants, still others were kings or slaves.
And while it often gives us their names, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or David and Solomon, there are countless others for whom we have no name.
Still, there’s one thing that unites them all--whether they were rich or poor, famous or practically unknown--each had a special moment that’s been immortalized in Scripture. Each and every one of them did something that was deemed worthy of being recorded in the Bible, the most widely-read book of all time.
And though we may not know some of their names, what they did so long ago can still instruct, inspire and guide us even today.
So it was for the men we’re about to meet in this text: God’s anonymous--the crew on Jonah’s boat.
Let’s look again at the text. Chapter 1, verse 4: “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish’” (Jonah 1:4-6).
Can you picture the scene for me? Just as soon as Jonah stepped foot on that boat and it sailed out to sea, the Bible says “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4).
Now to be clear, we’re talking “storm” here--white-knuckled, ship-breaking-apart, throw-cargo- overboard kind of storm. It was so bad that even the crew, that band of well-seasoned men, was afraid. And when sailors are afraid, you know you’ve got yourself one wicked storm!
And where was Jonah? Not on deck with the men where he should have been, rowing and bailing and throwing cargo overboard. He was below deck, hiding under a blanket, sound asleep.
And when the captain(!) finally tracked him down and woke him up, he said, “Jonah, you gotta wake up! We’re in trouble here! Bob prayed, Steve prayed, Jim prayed, everybody prayed, and still the storm is tearing this ship apart. Now would you please, get up like the rest of us and pray!”
Now let me stop once more, because this is just too important to miss. It’s been said that, for the most part, the world doesn’t care about what we say or do on Sunday mornings, whether we preach our sermons or sing our songs. That’s why on this Sunday and on any other Sunday throughout the year, most people won’t be in any church anywhere. You could go to Seattle or Atlanta, New York or San Antonio, even the “Bible Belt,” and on any given Sunday, most stay home, stay in bed, wake up late, check their phone, and in general live and act as if the church doesn’t even exist. We could preach a hundred sermons and sing a thousand songs, but the world doesn’t care.
But do you know what it does care about? It cares if we pray. It needs us to pray. And if we pray, it might one day care about our sermons and songs.
Let’s get back to the text.
So rowing didn’t help, and bailing didn’t help. Even praying didn’t help, because the storm still raged on. So they knew there was only one thing left to do--cast lots to see who was at fault. And sure enough, the lot fell on Jonah.
Verse 10: “Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’” Or to put it another way, “Let’s get this straight here--the God of all heaven and earth told you to go to Nineveh and you got in our boat to go the other way?! What were you thinking?! How dare you put our lives and our ship at risk!”
So having no other choice, they prayed to God for mercy and threw him overboard. And immediately, the Bible says, the wind stopped its howling and the sea “ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:15). Then verse 16: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
Back in May of 1996, a man named Harley Sheffield was riding his bike across the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge, and nestled in a holder on his rear fender was the Olympic torch.
But as he rode along, filmed by cameras in almost every direction, his back tire got caught in a grate on the bridge and blew. And immediately he lost control of his bike, and the torch, with its flame, came crashing to the ground. And went out.
But as everyone gasped in disbelief, the attenders of that torch knew exactly what to do. They simply reached into the van that accompanied the traveling torch, and lit a new one from the “mother flame.” And within moments, Harley Sheffield, not to mention the Olympic flame, were back on their way again.
What happened on that Washington bridge happens all the time in our Christian pilgrimage. We stumble, we fall, and our spiritual flame goes out. And we wonder if it’ll ever burn again.
But when we turn in faith and repentance, we find that the Holy Spirit has been with us all along, and His fire never goes out. And with His help and grace and blessing, we can burn so bright again.
So what does all this mean to teach us? I’ll leave you with this--whether we like it or not, we too, just like Jonah, are caught in a storm. In fact, the moment you were born, you became part of a mess. And with every passing year, the storm grows only worse and worse.
And what can help us? It won’t help in the least bit to row or bail or throw cargo overboard. You could never, in a million years, save yourself.
But wonder of wonders, there is One, one Innocent One, who stands on the deck of humanity’s ship, and it’s His innocence before God and man that makes Him a worthy sacrifice on our behalf. As Peter once said in the book of Acts: “There is no other name by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12).
And maybe just one more thing. It’s funny if you think about it. You know what happened just as soon as those sailors threw Jonah over the side? Of course, a great fish swallowed him, and over the sea there was a great calm.
But what about the sailors? What happened to them?
Well, they kept sailing toward the horizon to the port of Tarshish. And let me tell you, suddenly in awe of the power and the grace of the God of Israel, as His newborn missionaries, boy did they ever have a story to tell!
And that’s a whale of a tale!
Dear Father, in the place of loss You provide hope, and in the place of judgment You provide mercy. Help us to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, never doubting, but finding strength in You and You alone, for His sake. Amen