A sermon by Rod Benson
When I typed the title of today’s sermon into an internet search engine, the first link that appeared was the Hot Chocolate song, “You sexy thing,” which played as the recessional for our wedding in January (2017). The first line goes, “I believe in miracles.”
“Yes, I do!” (as I said to Emma on exchanging vows).
Meeting and marrying Emma was unexpected, and exciting, and enormously fulfilling, and wonderfully providential, and it has often felt miraculous. God was certainly in it, and at work in both of our lives in an active way, and has blessed us beyond our imagining.
But a real miracle is something different. Take, for example, the prophet Jonah, hard of hearing God’s command, fleet of foot running in the wrong direction, asleep when he should have been praying for deliverance from a supernatural storm, tossed overboard by the desperate sailors.
Jonah has confessed to them that the God in whom he believes, the God he is foolishly disobeying, is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9).
Now Jonah is in the raging sea, far from dry land, out of breath, salt water in his eyes and mouth, his body temperature falling, waves breaking over his head. Perhaps he can’t swim. He is helpless, hopeless. He had hoped to snatch freedom from the jaws of prophetic fate. Now his life is about to be snatched from him by an act of an angry God.
Or so he thinks. And then he feels a powerful upward surge, and the grey light turns to black, as a huge fish snatches Jonah from the jaws of certain death. It was no accident. It’s a miracle. God is on the move.
Strange as it may sound to our post-Enlightenment ears, Jonah 1:17 clearly says, “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah.”
The author is asking us to believe what it seems foolish to believe. Perhaps you privately share the scepticism that many have felt on hearing this story.
But let me invite you to suspend your disbelief and think about what is going on. Jonah believes in God. He believes in just one God. He believes that this God has created everything we can see, and hear, and touch, and smell, and taste. God created the wood in which the sailors are trusting for safety, and the water in which Jonah is drowning, and all the dry land he longs for. God also created the huge fish, and providentially arranged for it to be swimming near the ship as it founders in the storm. He “provided” the huge fish.
Later, God issues a command to the fish, and (unlike Jonah) it responds as directed by its Creator, and deposits Jonah on dry land (2:10).
If God can create a universe, he can save Jonah from drowning by providing a huge fish to swallow him, and then preserve him inside the fish for three days, and send him on his way to Nineveh.
God is the ultimate sovereign. He orders and sustains the universe, and every aspect of it. He is in ultimate control of the forces of nature: wind and storm, sea and sea monsters.
God has not finished with Jonah. He has a plan for him, and God is not going to let him slip away from his presence, and deny his commission. In rescuing Jonah in this way, God demonstrates his mercy, and indicates his forgiveness for Jonah’s self-centredness, disobedience, and hard-heartedness toward the faithless, rebellious and violent Ninevites who (Jonah says) don’t deserve the mercy and forgiveness of God, and who (God says) need his salvation and blessing just as much as Israel does.
The fact of Jonah’s miraculous rescue, and eventual beaching, shows one thing above all others: God really loves Jonah, as he really loves the people of Nineveh, and as he really loves you and me. We are all totally undeserving of God’s grace. We are saved from a fate far worse than Jonah’s.
The miracle that brought about our salvation, both objectively in the cross and the resurrection, and subjectively through regeneration and union with Christ, is far more wonderful than Jonah’s deliverance. We have so much for which to be thankful to God. As Sinclair B. Ferguson writes,
Few principles are more important in the Christian life than the practical recognition of the sovereign God, and his gracious determination to draw us near to himself, whatever the cost might be.
You might be surprised to learn that biblical scholars disagree about whether the great fish actually swallowed Jonah, and whether he survived three days and three nights inside it, and whether it finally deposited him on the shore, as the Bible declares. It’s not essentially about mistrust of Scripture, but whether the whole book of Jonah was intended as an account of history, or as an allegory.
The ancient world generally seems to have accepted the existence of the supernatural, and the intervention of supra-human powers in human affairs.
While there is widespread scepticism over the possibility of miracles today, belief in miracles has always been a central feature of Christian faith – often as an element of divine providence and, through personal experience, proof of a reality deeper and wider and more mysterious than what we perceive of the world with our five senses, and what we discover through rational thought.
But times have changed. Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued in 1748 that a miracles is a violation of the laws of nature, and that, since “firm and unalterable experience has established these laws,” miracles are impossible.
Sadly for Hume, times keep on changing, and today no reputable scientist holds Hume’s concept of unalterable “laws of nature.”
Moreover, radical developments in our understanding of physics, and advances in the philosophy of science mean that most scientists today have a far more “open texture” understanding of the way in which the natural world operates than the caricatured eighteenth-century “clockwork universe” view. Further,
the debate on the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, between science and religion, has opened new ways of accommodating one to the other … Rather than trying to find ways in which God is enabled to break in to an autonomous natural process, we are more inclined to view the process itself as the action of God, who incorporates the specific ‘miraculous’ events into the whole.
The story of Jonah being swallowed by a divinely appointed organic submarine, and his preservation inside the fish for three days, and his emergence onto dry land, strikes me as miraculous. Either you believe it or you don’t.
For those willing to suspend disbelief, both Scripture and experience declare that God is present and active within nature, human nature, and history.
What we call the “laws of nature” are God’s habits of operation in the natural world. Theologians sometimes call this “general” providence. The more unusual acts of God, which seem to interrupt the ordinary course of nature, are described as “special” providence – or the miraculous.
God is not bound to the ordinary; he is not bound by the habitual. Just as there is nothing too hard for the Lord, so there is nothing too extraordinary for him to do, or to oversee, or to command.
Where the so-called laws of nature appear to have been contravened; where general providence gives way to special providence; where God’s habits of operation in the natural world are temporarily suspended, you can be sure that God is at work, for a specific purpose, either in revelation or redemption.
The Old Testament records some 80 miracles, and the New Testament describes many more, most (as we might expect) in the context of the public ministry of Jesus.
The two greatest biblical miracles, without doubt, are the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, through the miraculous preservation from judgment at the hand of the angel of death, and the subsequent opening up of the Red Sea as the Israelites fled from the pursuing Egyptian army; and the resurrection of Jesus.
But of course it is easy to apply the label “miracle” to anything and everything we do not fully understand or cannot adequately explain. Precisely what is a miracle, and what purpose do miracles serve?
As Baptist theologian Millard Erickson states, a miracle is an intervention in the ‘natural’ course of events in the world, secured by divine providence. Their purpose is threefold:
- Compassion: miracles meet basic human needs;
- Signification: they may establish the supernatural basis of the revelation accompanying them;
- Glorification: miracles large and small bring glory to God, both directly and indirectly.
If you look closely at the strange event described in Jonah 1-2, I believe you will perceive all three purposes at work.
Let me ask you a question as I close: What miracle might God be about to perform in your life? Keep your eyes open, your heart receptive, your mind attentive, and your spirit in harmony with the Spirit of God.
Sermon 748 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 17 September 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008 ), p. 39.
 P.A. Hicks, “Miracle,” in Martin Davie, Tim Grass, Stephen R. Holmes, John McDowell & T.A. Noble (eds), New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (second edn; London: IVP, 2016), p. 579.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (3rd edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), p. 382.