Which Way? Finding God's Way in the Maze of Life: Is There Such a Thing As Plan B

Sermon by Derek Thomas on August 8, 2004

The Lord’s Day

August 8, 2004

Jonah 1

“Is There Such a Thing As Plan B?”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now, turn with me to the Book of Jonah. We are continuing
now in our series that will take us to the end of August on “Guidance.” We’ve
looked at some general principles of guidance, and I want us, in the four
remaining sessions that we have together, to look at some examples, and
practical examples, biographical examples, of guidance–both good and bad–from
Scripture itself. The Book of Jonah is number five in the Minor Prophets.
Let’s read together, Jonah, chapter one. This is God’s holy and inerrant word:

“The word of the Lord came to Johan the son of Ammitai
saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it, for their
wickedness has come up before Me.” But Johan rose up to flee to Tarshish from
the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was
going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to
Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. And the Lord hurled a great wind on the
sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break
up. Then the sailors became afraid, and every man cried to his god, and they
threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But
Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down, and fallen asleep.
So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get
up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we
will not perish.” And each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we
may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.” So they cast lots and
the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account
has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come
from? What is your country? From what people are you?” And he said to them, “I
am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry
land.” Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How
could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of
the Lord, because he had told them. So they said to him, “What should we do to
you that the sea may become calm for us?”–for the sea was becoming increasingly
stormy. And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the
sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm
has come upon you.” However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but
they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. Then they
called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on
account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for Thou, O
Lord, hast done as Thou hast pleased.” So they picked up Jonah, threw him into
the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men feared the Lord greatly,
and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. And the Lord appointed
a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three
days and three nights.”

May God add His blessing to the
reading of His holy and inerrant word. Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You for this
Your word. We trust Your blessing as we read it together. We need Your help
now to understand it, and more than that, to know what it is You’d have us do as
a result of reading and understanding what it means. So bless us by Your
Spirit, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

It’s all too easy to convince ourselves, isn’t it,
that we’re at the center of God’s will, when in fact, we’re at the center of our
comfort zone. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves, isn’t it, that God
wouldn’t want me to do that, because it involves me in some discomfort. And the
illustration of that, of course, is this great story of Jonah. Poor man, we
remember him as the man who ran away from the will of God. That’s how we
remember Jonah. As we look at him tonight, and bearing in mind the theme of the
will of God and the guidance of God, let’s ask ourselves the question, do we see
something of Jonah in ourselves?

As we turn to this story, remember, too, the
principles that emerge for us out of the New Testament Scriptures. The first
one is in Romans 15:4: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our
instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the
Scriptures, we might have hope.” This story of Jonah is for our instruction.
It’s for our edification. It’s to help us discern the will of God and do it.

The other one is I Corinthians 10:11–“Now these
things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our
instruction.” Well, what is it that God is instructing us from this great story
of Jonah?

I. Jonah had clear guidance.

I want us to see several things. First of all, I
want us to see that Jonah was given clear guidance as to the will of God. Jonah
was given clear guidance as to the will of God. Now, we need to set Jonah in
something of a context. There’s a reference to Jonah in II Kings 14. You needn’t
turn to it now, but just be aware and know that there is a reference to a
‘Jonah’ in II Kings 14, and it’s probably the same Jonah. And if so, it helps
us date Jonah. It would put Jonah somewhere towards the beginning of the eighth
century; somewhere between 750 BC and, say, 795 BC.

The key words–just as perhaps the key words now,
today, are …well, two words. “Al-Qaida” is probably a key word to locate us
in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Everybody knows the buzzword. You
know what I mean when I say the words “al-Qaida” Well, in the beginning of the
eighth century BC, in Jonah’s time, the key word was “Assyria.” The great
empire of Assyria–it had been around for about eighty or ninety years or so at
the beginning of Jonah’s ministry, over a century by the end of Jonah’s
century–it was going to last at lest for another hundred years before
eventually, of course, it would collapse to the mighty empire of Babylon. Great
names that Jonah would have been familiar with would have been Assurbanipal, one
of the great emperors. Actually, there were two of them: Assurbanipal I and
Assurbanipal II–your senior minister is a III, and you’re all very familiar with
how all of that works. There was a Tiglath Pileser III. Presumably there was a
Tiglath Pileser I and II. These were mighty, fearsome emperors of the empire of

Now just at the point where Jonah comes on the
surface of history, the empire of Assyria is in a little bit of a lull. There
are local governors and kings who are rising in importance. In chapter three
of Jonah there’s a reference to a certain king, which isn’t the emperor of the
Assyrian empire, giving rise to the fact that there may just have been some
measure of instability in the Assyrian empire at the time of Jonah’s ministry.
Nineveh would become the great capital city of the Assyrian empire. It wasn’t
at this point the capital of the Assyrian empire, but by the year 700 or so,
during the reign of the emperor Sennacherib, Assyria would become the mighty and
colossal city, capital city, of the Assyrian empire.

The Assyrian empire was feared. It was ruthless.
It engaged in building works of astonishing proportion and beauty. Nineveh
itself had gardens, and canals, and aqueducts–a complex water system, the envy
of…Jackson!–bringing water, so it is said, from fifty miles away from
surrounding hills, and beautiful walled gardens.

And Jonah, the first verse, introduces us to Jonah,
the son of Ammitai, and God’s word to him: “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great
city, and cry against it.” That’s God’s will for Jonah. It’s very clear. He’s
to go to the capital city, what will become the capital city of Assyria.
Nineveh today is just on the outskirts (it’s not there, of course, but the ruins
of it) …are just on the outskirts of Mosul. And you’re familiar with that, of
course, with all of the news in Iraq. And it’s like saying, “Jonah, I want you
to go to Mosul”…or, if that doesn’t do anything for you, just swap the name
“Baghdad” or something like that …and you’ve got something of the context,
something of the picture.

He was to go to the capital city of an enemy
occupying empire, and take God’s word. True, God’s word of judgment, in verse
two, but as you know from the story of Jonah, there are going to be folks, many
folks in Nineveh who are actually going to be converted. They are going to see
something of the mercy of God. God’s will for Jonah is very clear. The word of
the Lord came to Jonah.

You know, there is an expression that occurs in the
prophets of the Old Testament over a hundred times. “The word of the Lord came
to….” It came in a very precise way. It came in a way that Jonah didn’t
have to go and consult lexicons and
Motyer’s commentary on Jonah, and all
kinds of other books and literature in order to discern and uncover what is
God’s will for me. It was clear. It was precise. There was no argument or
debate about it. He was to go from the place where he dwelt to Nineveh, to this
would-be capital city of the Assyrian empire. The word of God came to him.

prophets describe that process in different ways. Zechariah, for example,
speaks of “the burden of the word of the Lord,” like a burden that you’ve sort
of got to get rid of. You’ve got to put down. Zechariah uses that metaphor,
then, of a burden. Jeremiah speaks of the word of God coming like a fire,
coming like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces. The point is, it was
clear. It was not only clear, it was perfectly understood. There was no debate
as to what it was God wanted Jonah to do.

Now, there
are times for us when we are genuinely confused about the will of God. Some of
you have written e-mails and sent little notes and spoken to me in the last few
weeks about how appropriate this little series on guidance is for you. You’re
struggling with this issue. You’re not a prophet like Jonah. The word of God
doesn’t come to you as it came to Jonah, as a prophet. You’ve got to study the
Bible, and sometimes there are some things hard to be understood in the
Scriptures. You ask your friends, your wise friends, your best friends, and
perhaps you’ve got conflicting responses, and you’re confused. You’re genuinely
confused. You don’t know the word of God, the will of God, in as clear a
fashion as Jonah knew it.

It’s not
only necessary, of course, to read the Scriptures. We’re to understand the
Scriptures. You know, Jesus speaks of that in the parable of the sower, the
parable of the soils. When anyone “hears the word of the Kingdom and does not
understand it,” there’s the possibility of reading the word of God but not
understanding it, of not having sufficient maturity and insight into some of the
depths and some of the intricacies. We’ve been establishing some of these
principles in previous weeks. God doesn’t tell us everything about all that we
need to do. Sometimes He just gives us general principles; moral, ethical
guidelines: we’re to use our minds, we’re to use discernment. We’re to weigh
certain things. We’re to ask advice of others.

But none of that is relevant for Jonah
Jonah knew the will of God.
He knew it perfectly.
He knew it without any sort of contradiction. It was perfectly clear to him.
And Jonah responds to this will of God. What we have here is a clash of wills,
isn’t it? You’ve got the will of God, which is perfectly clear, and what we
shall see is the will of Jonah. And Jonah exerts his will, and Jonah weighs
what it is that God has said. And you can discern, perhaps, between verses two
and three something of the struggle of the flesh lusting against the spirit, the
spirit against the flesh. And Jonah is involved in this struggle.

Now let me
pause there, because there’s an important pastoral point that needs to be
underscored at this particular point: that when the will of God is clear to us,
it’s not necessarily a sin to struggle with that will of God. Now, that has to
be fleshed out very carefully. It’s very difficult for us to do anything, of
course, without sinning in some form or fashion. But we do need to remember
that Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, knew what God’s will was for Him, His
Father’s will. You remember the struggle: “Father, if it be possible let this
cup pass from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Thy will be done.” Now, Jesus
resolutely and steadfastly bows in obedience to the will of His Father. But
there’s also evidence of struggle, this inner struggle in His mind, in His soul,
as He weighs the burden of the word, the will, the guidance of God for Him as a
servant of the Lord.

God may be
asking you to do something, and you know what it is. It’s perfectly clear to
you. You don’t need to write Ligon an e-mail and ask him, because you know
exactly what it is you need to do. God has spoken to you through His word, and
it’s clear. And everybody is confirming it in the advice that they’re giving to
you, but there’s a struggle, because it’s a burdensome thing. It’s going to be,
perhaps, a costly thing. It’s perhaps something that you don’t naturally want
to do; it’s outside of your comfort zone. And I’m saying that that struggle in
and of itself is not necessarily a sin.

But here in
the case of Jonah, it most certainly is. It most certainly is. So there’s the
first thing. Jonah knew precisely what the will of God was.

II. Jonah rebelled against God’s will.

The second thing I want us to see is
that Jonah rebelled against God’s will. He rebelled against God’s will. Look
at verse three. It’s breath taking, isn’t it? Jonah rose up to flee to
Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. It’s staggering, isn’t it? God says to
him, “Get up…” and indeed, he does get up, in verse three. But he gets up and
turns around and goes in the opposite direction! He flees to Tarshish. He runs

Now, don’t
be too hard on Jonah, because if you’re hard on Jonah, you’re going to be hard
on yourself, too. You know, some of the emperors of Assyria have been
tyrants. One of them, Assurbanipal, fighting against the Egyptians apparently
skinned them, and hung up their skins on the city wall. Another of the
emperors, that Jonah no doubt would have known and heard of, slew his victims
and gathered the skulls of his victims and piled them up at the city gate.
There are horrible stories about cutting off bits of people’s bodies, which I
don’t even want to go into. You perhaps can understand. Before we get too
critical and negative about Jonah, you can understand the difficulty of what God
was asking him to do. These were Israel’s enemies. In a few short years,
Assyria would capture the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In that great year, 722
BC, the capital of Israel, Samaria, would be overrun by the Assyrians. They
would make their way down to the land of Judah. They would even threaten the
capital city of Jerusalem. Jonah had every cause to be afraid of going to

Now, it’s
not important for us to be meticulous about geography here, but where is
Tarshish? And the consensus of scholarship seems to be that Tarshish is
probably Tartessus,
and Tartessus
can be identified–particularly if you’re British–by the Rock of Gibraltar.
Because the Rock of Gibraltar, the southernmost tip of Spain (I hope I haven’t
trodden on anybody’s toes, now, but that is still a British colony to this very
day. There was a big hoo-ha about it just about a week ago…) and just about
there, on the southern tip of Spain. Now you understand, Jonah is in northern
Galilee. Assyria is over there, and Tarshish is way over here! God is saying,
“I want you to get up, I want you to go that way,” and Jonah gets up and he goes
the other way.

It doesn’t
get clearer than that, does it? You notice the language of Scripture here.
It’s very interesting. “He flees.” Do you note at the end of verse three, he
flees from the “presence of the Lord.” Jonah was too good a prophet, he knew
his Bible too well, to know that he could even for a moment think that he could
flee from the presence of God. Because wherever he went, even if he went, as he
did, into the very bowels of this ship, he couldn’t escape the very presence of
God. Isn’t it interesting that even if he makes his place in the depths of the
sea, behold, God is there. So when Jonah, chapter one and verse three, is
saying that he fled from the presence of the Lord, it’s not the omnipresence of
God. You can’t escape the omnipresence of God. Thank God that we can’t escape
the omnipresence of God! Even in our folly and stupidity, the omnipresence of
God is what saves us.

he fled from the gracious presence of
. He fled from the nearer
presence of God, that presence where the face of God is shining and smiling upon
you. He fled from that.

Now there are two very important
things that we need to see here, and important in this whole subject of
guidance. And the first is this: that
God made it easy for him to rebel
It was easy for him to rebel. He goes down to Joppa, the modern city of Jaffa,
and finds a ship–it’s there! He doesn’t have to wait–it’s not like waiting for
a train. The ship was there, and it was about to sail, and it was about to sail
in the very opposite direction to the direction that God had asked Jonah to go.
And not only that, but he seems to have the money, the shekels, the wherewithal,
to buy this one-way Mediterranean cruise ticket to southern Spain. Maybe he
spent his entire life’s savings, but at least he had it to spend.

Maybe some
of you think that when it comes down to it, God wouldn’t allow you to sin.
Maybe you feel that you can dip your toes in the water, because when it really
comes down to it, God won’t let you sink to the bottom. And don’t you believe
it, my friend. Don’t believe it. This is one of God’s prophets, and God allows
this prophet to run a thousand miles away from the direction in which he ought
to have gone. He made it easy for him.

You know,
Spurgeon tells this story of a time when he was in school, of a boy who would
get angry, and when he got angry he would throw things. And Spurgeon says what
amazed him was not that he got angry, and not even that he when he got angry he
threw things; but what amazed him was, there were things there to throw. There
were always things there to throw.

I’ve spoken
to young men–and for that matter, I’ve spoken to young women–who have justified
having sex outside of marriage, because they reason “God made it possible for us
to do this.” They reasoned “God wouldn’t have allowed these circumstances to
occur, if He didn’t want us to do this.” Do you see the folly of that kind of
reasoning, my friends?

And there’s a second pastoral thing
that we need to learn here, and it’s equally important:
that evidence of usefulness is no
guarantee that we’re not in an act of rebellion
It is a remarkable thing. Look at verses five and sixteen. In verse five, the
sailors on board this ship are talking about their own gods. And then in verse
fourteen, what are they doing? They’re crying to the Lord, and it’s in capital
letters, it’s the covenant name: it’s Jehovah, it’s Yahweh of Israel. Suddenly
they’re praying to the God of Israel! What’s brought that about? It’s the
testimony; it’s the life of this man Jonah. They’re in the presence of a man of
God. It’s frightening, isn’t it, that here is a man of God, and he evidently
has had some usefulness in his ministry to these sailors on board ship, but at
the same time, he’s in an act of rebellion.

I spoke this
week to a friend of mine across the ocean, of someone we both knew: an elder in
the church, who has been dismissed from his office. We both knew him well. And
for eighteen months or more, he’d been engaging in an illicit relationship with
another woman, causing havoc to his family and children. And for the best part
of a year, the church was wholly unaware of it. And during that time, I could
bring you dozens of people who could probably testify to the usefulness of his
ministry, of his prayers. And at the same time, he’s in an act of rebellion!
Maybe that’s you tonight. Pray God that isn’t you tonight. Just because God may
be using you to bless others is no guarantee that you may be in an act of
rebellion against Him.

III. Jonah’s act of rebellion brought
harm to himself and others.

Well, there’s a third thing I want
us to see, and it’s this: that Jonah’s act of rebellion brought harm to himself
and others. We’ve just seen how Jonah was brought to a point where he brought
blessing to others, but there’s an equally important reverse side to this.
Jonah’s companions found themselves, of course, in a violent storm; a storm,
apparently, the like of which they’d not seen before. He’d brought harm to

You know,
your sins and mine, our acts of rebellion, invariably harm other people. An
illicit affair with another woman or another man harms those whom you love,
harms them indelibly, irrevocably.

But look at
something: the harm it brought Jonah himself. Look at verse five. It says an
interesting thing. Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down,
and fallen sound asleep. I don’t want to quote Hebrew–Ligon can get away with
quoting Greek this morning, but I don’t want to quote Hebrew–but the word is a
very strong word, and it sort
of implies that he was snoring.

Now think of it, my friends. He’s a
prophet; he knows the word of God. He knows the will of God, he knows the
guidance of God. It’s perfectly clear to him. He knows he’s in an act of
rebellion. And what is he doing? You see, you’d think he’d be up all night.
You know, you’d think his conscience would keep him awake. You’d think the
voice of his mother in his head would keep him awake! But he’s sleeping. And
he’s not just sleeping; he’s snoring. When it comes down to it, and there’s
probably a psychological reason as to why, when we’re in the depths of guilt, we
can also sleep the hardest.

You see, you
might be reasoning, when it really comes down to it, I’d walk away. You know,
when the realization of what I’d done has really dawned on me…and here is
Jonah in the midst of this severe storm. He knows it’s the judgment of God, and
he’s fast asleep, and the sailors have to wake him up.

And there’s
nothing for it, but that he be cast into the sea. “Throw me into the sea.” Is
there a lower point in all of Scripture than that? The despair of this godly
man, this prophet of God…and there’s no future for him now. The only
thing….he can’t even talk about repentance. He can’t pray a prayer, pleading
with God to forgive him his folly and stupidity! There’s nothing for it but to
be thrown into the very depths of the sea and to his doom.

It doesn’t
end there, of course, does it? My title for this sermon is “Is There Such a
Thing As Plan B?” And I ask that question for two very distinct, but related,
reasons. First, I’m asking the question for the sake of Jonah. You see,
if you take the wrong path, like
Jonah did, not because we didn’t know what God’s will is, but in a deliberate
way. We deliberately rebel against God, like Jonah did. If we take the wrong
path, does that mean that we’re doomed for the rest of our lives to live out a
second-rate Christian experience
We can never get back to where we were. Is that it?

It’s a bit
like, you know, losing your way in the underground. Some of you have been
teasing me about something I wrote in London. You miss the train, and you can’t
get back to where you were. Is that it? And the wonderful thing…and it is a
wonderful thing, it’s an astonishing thing about the Book of Jonah, and it’s
such an encouraging thing…that
yes, you can commit an act of gross
disobedience against God, but God can still bring you back, and bring you to the
place He wants you to be
Isn’t that a wonderful thing?
Isn’t that an astonishing thing? That in the grace, the mercy, the
long-suffering-ness of God, God is determined, you see, He’s determined that
His servants will serve Him, no matter what it costs.

And one of
the things that emerges here in the story of Jonah is that God sometimes doesn’t
do things by half measures.
God pursues him.
know…turn with me, to just one verse in Jonah. To chapter three, and verse
one. It’s a beautiful, beautiful verse:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a
second time.”
Isn’t that a
beautiful thing? God gives you a second chance. You know, He comes to you
again, He says, ‘”Look, let’s start all over again. Here’s My will. Here’s My
guidance. Now, this time obey it, and do it.” Isn’t that a beautiful,
beautiful thing?

I asked the
question, “Is there such a thing as plan B?” for the sake of Jonah, but I also
asked it for the sake of God. Because
even though Jonah rebels against the
will of God
and the guidance
of God, was the ultimate will
and plan of God thwarted as a result of it
No. Even our folly and
even our stupidity, and even our acts of rebellion are part of the sovereign
will and plan of God

And that, my friends, is perhaps
the most amazing truth of all. God allowed this godly man to rebel against Him,
but brought him back to the place where He wants him to be. May that be an
encouragement to those of you who perhaps are struggling with bad decisions that
you may have made in the past. There is forgiveness with God, that He may be

Let’s stand
and pray, and receive the Lord’s benediction. Let’s stand. Let’s pray

Father, we thank
You for Your word. We bless You for the story of Jonah. We thank You for the
principles of guidance that it contains. Now deal with us, we pray, and give us
obedience to all that You teach us to do, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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