Have you ever been inside the carnival “house of mirrors”? The idea of a “house of mirrors” or “hall of mirrors” appears to have originated as an extension of the visit of then Governor Peter Stuyvesant to the Palace of Versailles north of Paris in France in the mid-seventeenth century. Peter went to discuss colonial land agreements and was amazed at the Baroque architecture in general, and in particular the so called “hall of mirrors” in the palace. He determined to bring this amazement to the newly founded colonial city of New Amsterdam, which he later built and charged one Dutch gulden for admission. In time, the oddity became a part of carnivals and amusement parks. The basic idea was to build a small maze of mirrors including some that were bent and distorted with convex or concave curves that would give the visitors odd and confusing reflections of themselves. It was an exercise in deception and obstacle.
I mention this because there have been times in my life that have been filled with confusion and obscured views of reality. Things looked to me like I was gazing into mirrors of a fun house – but it was NOT fun. You see, in those times I was not right in my heart, and I was running from God’s conviction. When I snatch away my soul from God’s uses in my arrogance and selfishness, I am forgetting God and running from His care. In those days, I am unable to see clearly for a time, things in my life as they truly are. I see life through dark glass, and I see myself in the bend of a convex or concave fun house mirror. I am deceived and darkened inside. What holds me back from swift repentance is the deception of the distorted images. Some aid for the lies come from the enemy who feeds into me more trickery – making complex the return to the arms of my Creator. He finds in my fallen flesh an ally, abhorring the discomfort of guilt and being trained to instinctively avoid any humbling. In my broken and fallen state the simplicity of the process of return to God is obscured.
The problem isn’t new to me- and it isn’t unique to you, either. Long ago, the prophet Jonah found himself in the bottom of the ocean, in the belly of a fish – with a seaweed headband. He learned it didn’t matter what he had done – he could repent. It didn’t matter where he was at the time – God would hear. It didn’t matter how he felt – his distress could be resolved. It didn’t matter how much time he felt he had left – the proximity of the grave need not slow his restoration. It did not matter how far from God he felt – the deepest sea was but a minute distance from the hand of an ever present Creator. In the end, he held a life changing prayer meeting on his knees in a fish – because he saw through the distortions he had followed. He recognized the singular truth of it all:
The only wall separating me from God in sin is the one that I built. Humbly, all I need to do is take it down…
Key Principle: The way back to God is not a long one or complex one – but I must understand and respond as God requires.
When I resist repentance, I allow false walls to keeping me from repentance:
Most of what holds people back from repentance is really well camouflaged deception –distorted ideas about God and tangled images of what He truly desires. The enemy feeds us trickery – making complex the return to the arms of our Creator. Our fallen flesh, abhorring discomfort of guilt and being trained to avoid any humbling, obscures the simplicity of the process of return to God. We make things harder than they are because a mirage makes repentance look tougher than it truly is. Let’s see what God’s Word says to clarify the simplicity, and blow away the fog:
First, it doesn’t matter what you have done, you can turn back to God.
Jonah 2:1 Then Jonah prayed…
Jonah knew God, and Jonah HAD times in his life sometime of real obedience. People may have KNOWN he was a prophet – that isn’t clear. What IS clear is that he knew the voice of God, he knew the call of God, and He knew the purpose of God for his life – and he didn’t want any part of it. He ran from God – as if that were even possible. The truth is that is what makes his character to so common – so believable. He didn’t just hear from God and march lock step into his future. Those kinds of stories only work in the surreal Sunday School environment. Here is the real “kicker” to the story: Even when it was apparent that God wanted him to turn around, in the rocking of the boat and the wind on the water – Jonah opted to get tossed into the water rather than turn the boat and drop to his knees. It wasn’t until he found himself on stomach gases for life support, and suffered the supreme humiliation of a seaweed headband that he re-thought the course of his life –but then, I guess you would too.
The fact is that it simply didn’t matter what went before. Jonah, just like you and I, was born into the world at enmity with a Holy God. He had to START a relationship with God intentionally. That same relationship required obedience to make his life work. Without following God, finding God will only make you miserable. Let me explain:
When Jonah was born – he needed a relationship with God – because he wasn’t ready to face God. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a nice guy, and it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a good guy – it means he was not acceptable to an absolutely Perfect and Holy God. Many people without a relationship with God do nice things. They give to the less fortunate. They recycle. But that isn’t enough. After the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden – the sinfulness of man excluded him from walking with God without a restored relationship. That is why the Bible says that “all are sinners” and “there is none righteous”. It doesn’t mean that “there is no one nice” and “no one pleasant”. The issue in those passages is our acceptability before a spotless and Holy God. That was provided for all of us by God at Jesus’ death on Calvary.
Now even though the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God made it possible for me to have a relationship with God – it still requires my deliberate acceptance of His gift. No one is saved without knowing it – they choose to surrender to Jesus and let Him pay their way to acceptance before God. No one gets a relationship with God without asking for it intentionally and believing in His conditions truly.
What about Jonah? Jonah didn’t get a relationship through Jesus – since he predated the Master. Yet still, salvation was always by God’s grace, accepted through faith. Jonah had to choose to know God. Jonah accepted that God looked past his sins when he offered a sacrifice on schedule. Jonah’s salvation didn’t come from the animal he killed – but from his acceptance in God’s Word that this act would satisfy God – because God’s Word declared it so. Salvation is about acceptance of God’s terms – and not about how good or worthy I am. It is about belief that what God said is true. That has never changed.”
Wouldn’t it be great if knowing God was the same as FOLLOWING God? Sure, but it isn’t. Jonah KNEW God, but Jonah wasn’t WALKING WITH GOD. Wait, does that mean he sinned too much to call on God? Not at all!
God is only a word away from one who will humble themselves – there are no wrong times to call on God!
It doesn’t matter where you are, you can turn back to God.
Jonah 2:1 “…from the stomach of the fish,”
There are probably no other testimonies in this room more unique when it comes to “weird places I have prayed” – but the stomach of the fish wasn’t too far from God for Him to hear the prayer. In fact, the fish was prepared by God as the personal repentance CHAPEL for Jonah’s restoration.
Let me ask you: “Do you need a personally prepared chapel to get back to your knees?”
What will God have to do to get you to really be ready to fall on your face before Him and recognize that following Him is the only way you will ever accomplish what you were meant to complete? You may not need much of a reminder, but I will offer this – God didn’t meet Jonah until he was at the bottom of the sea and in the middle of a fish. The place stunk. The place wasn’t pleasant. That is what running gets you – a fish motel. When your life stinks, and the view around you is half digested waste – remember this – God is waiting to hear from you.
One young man who sat where you sit right now didn’t want to follow God. He walked away from a God that saved him. He knows God, but he didn’t want to follow him. Now, from a jail cell, he wished that he would have listened. He thought he was untouchable, and now he has nothing but God. Another young woman I know grew up with a fine testimony. She got out in the world and went crazy for a time. Now, with three children from two different men, she is facing a terrible disease. Her life has been stripped away because of disobedience…
I am not trying to scare you. I wish I could – but sin is far too strong for my words to really be effective. What I am trying to do is caution you. Running is hazardous to your health. When you figure that out – no matter WHERE you are – drop to your knees and turn back to the God that made you.
It doesn’t matter how deep you are in it – He can hear you. There are no wrong places to call on God!
It doesn’t matter how you feel, you can turn back to God.
Jonah 2:2 “…and he said, “I called out of my distress to the LORD, and He answered me…”
Some people stress out early. We have to give some credit to Jonah for his high pain tolerance. Jonah got truly stressed only after the long “voyage to the bottom of the sea”. On the ship he was able to sleep. Now he was well rested and fully crushed. He was completely broken inside and his prospects for the future outside clearly looked like NOTHING AHEAD. It would have been easy to simply accept that there was nothing more to do than lie down and let the fish juices do their work. Can we call this DEPRESSED? Even without my clinical education – I don’t think it is too much a stretch. In the end, it didn’t matter how he felt – God was ready when HE was ready.
It doesn’t matter how LOW your heart has sunk – there are no feelings that can block God from hearing your heart beat.
It doesn’t matter how much time you think you have left, you can turn back to God.
Jonah 2:2b “…I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice.
The Hebrew word “Sheol” in this case is an idiom for the grave – as in “from death’s door”. Jonah didn’t believe that Nineveh was his future. Jonah didn’t believe he had a future in this life… I have thought of this passage when I sat at the bedside of dying friends. I remember a young man in Ft. Lauderdale who was watching AIDS take away what was left of his body. His lifestyle choices brought him low – right into Hospice care. At that time, I worked with patients that did not have a church or Pastor, but requested spiritual care. He was a neat guy, and life choices aside – I truly liked him. As we watched his weight descend steadily and his infections rage – I asked him repeatedly to turn to God. He kept saying: “It is too late, I am nearly dead.” Sadly, one day it was too late.
While you breathe and can respond to God – you still have hope.
It doesn’t matter how far from God you are, you can turn back to God.
Jonah 2:3 “For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me.
You can feel like God took you to the woodshed. You can feel crushed and disciplined by God’s mighty hand. Even so – you can still turn to Him. He is not a man that harbors our wrongs when we have hurt him. Listen to what God said about Himself – this is His own Divine autobiography:
Exodus 34:4 “So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. 6 Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth; 7 who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.”
God said it clearly: “If you want restoration, I am ready. If you want to challenge Me, fight Me and try to get your own way – I am also ready. Remember, God isn’t too far away. The only wall keeping you from restoration to God is your own stubbornness!
When I face reality, I tear down the walls of deception, grasp the truth, and return:
I recognize it is God’s right to judge the violation of His Word and Person
Jonah 2:4 “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
When you really come to God – standing before Him you will very quickly see that you are NOT GOOD. No one who truly worships leaves feeling big in themselves. At the foot of the cross there are no tall men and women. The presence of the Holy One makes all of us who are unholy bow down. We know why Isaiah said when he saw God: “Woe is me! I am a man undone!” Worship is, and was intended to be an act that pulls our selfishness out like stuffing from an old ripped teddy bear. We aren’t supposed to feel big in God’s presence – we are supposed to grow to stand BECAUSE of God’s presence.
He resists the arrogant, but takes the one who is aware of his own brokenness, and lifts his spirit with mighty and powerful grace. He has the right to judge me – and when He declares me righteous because of the payment of Jesus, my eyes well up with tears. I am not GOOD, but I am now FULLY ACCEPTED.
I recognize the reality of my utter helplessness apart from God – be humbled before God.
Jonah 2:5 “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head. 6 “I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever…:
At the bottom of the sea and inside a fish is a wise time to conclude that you have no hope unless God shows up. It is a good time to review the choices that got you there. It is a good time to feel TRULY HELPLESS – because YOU ARE! Americans aren’t given to seeing the truth about our own condition. We prefer to live life with the image of wealth on borrowed money, and success based on a never ending series of overestimations we come to later call “bubbles”. Just remember this about bubbles – they burst leaving nothing because they are really much of anything even when we see them floating. They are an abstraction – and so is our view of ourselves a lot of the time.
Stop for a moment and really look at your life. I don’t care how much you have made, you are ONE ILLNESS from having a bill you cannot pay. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have, none of them can keep you from aging, getting sick, and eventually leaving this life. It doesn’t matter how many people know you – our current graduates cannot even name more than a few of the US Presidents of the past – so the likelihood that you will be remembered is pretty slim. We are one breath from helpless – and yet we live like we are kings and “strut our stuff” like the Mummers on Broad Street – feathers flying.
Remember this: If you think you are GOOD ENOUGH to deserve God’s help, you aren’t seeing the truth yet. If you can’t think of any reason why God would want to take your calls – He is waiting to hear from you!
I recognize God is being merciful in salvation – I am NOT deserving.
Jonah 2:6b “… But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
I am not truly ready to follow God with my whole heart as long as I believe I can manage and fix things apart from Him. If I believe I am clever enough to break into Heaven – I am deluded. MacGyver and duct tape won’t do for this episode – I am going to need Him. Chuck Norris can’t break the door down!
God has to open it… and He doesn’t budge for the self-satisfied.
I recognize the true source of the problem – forgetting God.
When I wake up from self-delusion, and the spiritual smelling salts of the Word do their work in me, I will see it clearly. I will recognize that I FORGOT GOD WAS GOD. It happened in daily choices that were so simple, I missed them:
First, I neglected prayer.
Jonah 2:7 “While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple.
As fish food Jonah was ready to pray. At the port, he was paying the fare with resources God enabled him to gain. Jonah didn’t NEED to pray when he didn’t WANT to hear the answer – and that is why he didn’t. Could that be the problem with prayer meetings now? Are we unconvinced that we need them, or could it be that we really don’t WANT God to deal with us in such a quiet and focused setting?
Second, I became as unreliable as one who doesn’t really believe.
Jonah 2:8 “Those who regard vain idols, Forsake their faithfulness,
Jonah makes the point that pagans aren’t reliable, because their gods aren’t real. Could that be the problem? Could it be that I really don’t believe what I say I do? Maybe simple doubts mixed with the powder of self will is the perfect recipe to keep me from truly following God!
Third, I became more selfish and unthankful.
Jonah 2:9 But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving…”
In the fish, Jonah says that he will return to obedience and return to thankfulness in the process. Could that be my problem? Am I unwilling to do what God has said, and frankly a bit ticked off that He won’t let it go?
Finally, I justified my actions as I cheated you out of what I promised you.
Jonah 2:9b “…That which I have vowed I will pay.”
You can hear it in the tone of Jonah’s statement – he hasn’t been WILLING to give God what was HIS DUE. He didn’t want to surrender all of himself to God. He wanted to hold back a part of his life. Just a small part… like his future. Oh, yes, and his travel plans. Oh, and also his ministry – just that…not too much. Do you see how quickly we slip into justification and ROB GOD of His due?
I recognize the ONLY HOPE is in Him.
Jonah 2:9b “…Salvation is from the LORD.”
Finally, Jonah recites the truth! As long as I kept thinking I could fix things myself, I kept going DOWN, and away from the peace and strength found in following you.
My rescue depends to WHOM I am willing to reach! Jonah said it repeatedly…
• 2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God
• 2:2 I called out of my distress to the LORD
• 2:6b “… But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
• 2:9 But I will sacrifice to You…Salvation is from the LORD.”
If you came to this lesson hoping that encouragement and blessing would mean that you would hear that you are self-sufficient and personally special – I am truly sorry. This hasn’t been your message. There are places you can go and be affirmed, but I am not sure that is what most of us need. Our salvation isn’t going to happen in our own hands. God WILL deal with us, but not if we think our hope is found in GOOD FEELING. He will not move in to build up those who are already too big for their spiritual britches.
• If I am depending on God for my walk – I am hungry to listen to His Word.
• If I am depending on God for my walk – I am not satisfied unless others are being blessed by my gifts and abilities.
• If I am depending on God for my walk – I am excited to seek Him for my future. I refuse to make up my mind and then tack His name on the process.
In my return, God restores my life and I surrender to His purposes.
Jonah 2:10 Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
As Jonah finished his prayer of surrender, the fish got an upset stomach. The journey wasn’t wasted – God got him much closer to where he needed to be – both on land and in his heart.
Don’t miss an important part of the story though. He wasn’t deposited back on the land to run his own life as he chose. He was SAVED to SERVE. God delivers a man for the purpose of SERVING HIM in obedience. God did not send him back to ship he was running on, but onward to the place of his mission! I DON’T KNOW if he kept the seaweed headband. I don’t know if he walked into Nineveh with prune-like bumpy skin, and white from digesting juices. I don’t know how, if it is even possible, he got rid of that awful smell. What I do know is that fish cleared up his eyesight. Jonah could see clearer than he had in many days. Following God wasn’t complicated – it was just hard.