The story so far: God has asked Jonah to do something he doesn’t want to do and Jonah has run in the opposite direction. God has sent a storm to bring Jonah to his senses and Jonah is sleeping through it. Today, we see how the sailors respond to Jonah and to His God. This is all about response. Response to the storms in our life. Because storms come whether we like it or not, whether we’ve done anything to cause them or not. And the only thing we can control is our response.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.’
Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’
He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’
This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’
‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. Jonah 1:5-16
- the captain’s response to the situation
The captain has a responsibility to his crew, his ship and his passengers. He’s done all that he can do. He’s prayed to his gods and has thrown all the cargo into the seas to lighten the ship. Still the storm is raging. He’s run out of his ideas. He’s afraid – which is natural and right because they’re all about to die – but his fear has spurred him on to act. Now he reaches out for help to the only one left, the stranger asleep below deck. And to his god. This is a man of faith, a man who believes in the power of the divine, a man who is open to the help of a foreign god if that is what is going to save him and his men.
- Jonah’s response to being woken up
Nothing. He says nothing. He does nothing.
- The sailors’ response to the unrelenting storm
They cast lots. Which seems odd and superstitious to us, but it is something people did at that time. Even people of God. Casting lots as a way of discerning God’s will is mentioned 70 times in the Old Testament and 7 times in the New Testament. It’s the way the Promised Land was divided up under Joshua. The disciples cast lots to find out who would replace Judas.
- The sailors’ response to discovering this may all have something to do with Jonah
When the lot falls on Jonah, they don’t react with violence and anger. They’re not quick to apportion blame. But they do have a lot of questions. They ask him where he’s from and what he does. And most importantly, they ask him who he thinks is responsible for this situation they find themselves in. They’re motivated to understand so that they can do something about it, the right thing.
- Jonah’s response
His response is brief. He doesn’t actually answer any of their questions directly. Jonah doesn’t rush in to take the blame or apologise or sort things, but he gives them all the information they need. This is about God. The one true God.
- the sailors’ response to finding out the God of the Hebrews is involved
Terrified. Even more terrified. This God has a reputation. Everyone will have heard about this God and what He is capable of. Jonah had already told them that he was running away from his god – I can’t imagine how that had come up in conversation! – but they hadn’t made the connection between Jonah’s disobedience and this storm. And so they continue with the questions. ‘What have you done?’ ‘What should we do to you?’
- Jonah’s response
Now Jonah steps up. Now Jonah accepts the blame for what he has done. He knows exactly what the sailors need to do to resolve the situation. He doesn’t waste time trying to find a way round it, a way out of it. He needs to take the blame on him, the responsibility for his disobedience. He needs to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of the sailors. He needs to go willingly to his own death.
- the sailors’ response to this suggestion
They can’t bring themselves to do it. They’re scared of how this God will react to them killing one of His people. They try to find another way. They try to row to shore. And then they pray to Jonah’s God for mercy. They’ve exhausted all other possibilities. This is the only way to be saved.
- God’s response
The raging sea grew calm. God has controlled the seas before and will do so again. When Jesus stands up in the boat and calms the storm in Matthew 8, his disciples ask in amazement ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’ (v27). This is the God of all creation. This is the God who created the seas in the first place. This is God.
- the sailors’ response to seeing what God is capable of
They fear God. They’re in awe of what He has done. They recognise His power over the sea, over all creation. They give. They offer sacrifices. They’re grateful and they want to show it. And they make promises. This is a God worth following. This is a God worth devoting their lives to.
So there you have it. A lot of responses right there. I wonder what spoke to you as you read through that analysis. Here’s what spoke to me.
- Even though they were afraid, everyone stayed calm. Their fear did not result in anger and violence and panic.
- They prayed and they acted. Not one or the other.
- They were open to the help of any god who could save them.
- Jonah stepped up and took responsibility for the situation he had caused.
- Sacrificing Jonah’s life was the last resort, for every life is precious.
- God is God.
- When we see God in action, it demands a response – awe, gratitude, offering.
I am not great in a crisis. I have real admiration for these sailors, because I can imagine how I would act. I freeze completely. I can’t move, I can’t think straight. I can see how they took one step at a time, calmly and logically I can’t imagine ever being able to do that. When I find myself in a storm, I react out of fear and panic. It’s not pretty and it’s definitely not helpful.
I’m not saying Jonah is anything like Jesus – he’s running away from God and refusing to do what He’s asking of him – but while the storm is raging, Jonah is asleep in the boat, just as Jesus sleeps during the storm in Matthew 8. In both cases, the others have to wake them up. Maybe there’s something in that. An assurance that the God of all creation is in control (whether we like it or not) and there’s nothing we can do about it. Whilst Jonah is running in this instance, he’s rooted in his faith. It’s part of who he is. He does not doubt that God knows what He’s doing and that God can make it stop.
And I admire that in Jonah. That depth of relationship that rests on the sure foundation that God is who He says He is. So this story is based on Jonah getting it wrong, but He knows. He knows who God is. His faith in God is never questioned. That’s why he can tell the sailors exactly what they need to do. It’s simple. There’s no getting away from it. This is all about one man and his God. No one else need be involved.
It’s time for Jonah to throw himself on the love and mercy of the one true God.