Jonah #1: Running from God?

I preached this message on Sunday, September 11, 2022. I use Power Point sometimes when I preach and you will notice at the start I get my slides mixed up–because I sound a little confused. I get back on track eventually. I wasn’t sure how to edit that mix-up out of the audio file, so left it as it was.

Here’s the link to Jonah 1.

And here is the actual text of my sermon, which on occasion doesn’t exactly match the audio.

Introduction

When we think of the Book of Jonah, what’s usually the first thing that comes to mind?

The great fish, of course! But there’s much more to Jonah than this!

In 2 Kings 14:23—25 we see the only reference to Jonah: In the fifteenth year of Judah’s King Amaziah son of Joash, Jeroboam son of Jehoash became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years . . . He restored Israel’s border from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word the Lord, the God of Israel, had spoken through his servant, the prophet Jonah son of Amittai from Gath-hepher. 

Jeroboam reigned over Israel from 793—753 BC. This places Jonah in the middle of the 8th century BC.

Ninevah was a major Assyrian city, a cruel, warlike people, and longtime enemies of the people of Israel.

“Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence”

So basically, at the heart of our story is a prophet called by God to preach repentance to hated enemies of his people—and how he tries to run from God rather than obey his calling.

Consider what it says in 2 Peter 3:9: The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. God wants all to come to repentance, including the evil Ninevites.

And we see later in chapter 4 that Jonah knows that God is like this. Here’s what he says there: That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster.

Notice that Jonah tries to run from God because he knows what God is like. He knows that God is willing to show mercy to the enemies of Israel. And he doesn’t like this.

Because by calling Jonah to preach in Ninevah, the Lord is asking him to reflect his heart and will. Because God’s people are called to reflect God’s character into the world. As Christians, we can think of it as becoming more like Jesus.

But what does Jonah do? Not only does he not go to Ninevah, he goes in precisely the opposite direction to a city called Tarchish (quite possibly in Spain). You can see that on the map below.

Jonah’s Journey

Now, I know none of us has ever been or ever will be in the same kind of situation as Jonah. But that doesn’t mean we will never have Jonah’s attitude. Nor does it mean we will never try to run from God.

Jonah literally tried running from God. What about us? How might we try to run from God? And why might we?

I read an article on the Our Daily Bread website that said it this way: “People have different reasons for running away from God. Perhaps they fear it is dangerous to get too close to Him, as He might ask them questions they cannot or do not want to answer, or He may ask them to do things that they are unwilling or afraid to do. He might even ask them to give up precious possessions, habits, or relationships that are not right in His sight. They also run away from God in different ways: by keeping their distance, by freezing in disobedience, or by indulging in false piety.”

We run from God because we either don’t want what God wants for our lives or because we’re afraid of what he wants for our lives. Running from God also means we’re trying to run from ourselves.

So let’s ask ourselves:  Am I even aware that I try to run from God? Have I ever found myself running from God? What does that look like in my life? What’s made me want to run from God? What am I afraid of? What might God want to change about my life that I don’t want to have to change?

“But the Lord threw a great wind onto the sea”

Of course, it’s not really possible to run from God, is it? What is it that happens to Jonah again?

After he boards the ship to Tarshish, our text says that the Lord threw a great wind onto the sea, and such a great storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart.

When this begins to happen, Jonah is asleep in the lowest part of the vessel. It’s as though even on the ship he’s trying to get as far as away as he can from God and everyone else.  

But the sailors, after having cried out to their gods, decide to cast lots to find out who is to blame the storm. The lot indicates that Jonah is the guilty party—perhaps God intervened here too—and so they confront him—clearly angry and upset. What have you done?

Jonah confesses that he is trying to run from God. I love how he tells the sailors that he worships the God who made the land and the sea. And yet he’s trying to run from the God who made the seas—how?—by getting on a boat!

What’s interesting to note, too, is that these pagan sailors show more reverence towards God than Jonah ever does. Jonah says he worships God; his actions, however, say otherwise.

Jonah then explains that if they toss him overboard, the storm will stop. God has it in for him, not for them. So they reluctantly throw Jonah into the sea, the storm stops, and, then, in perhaps the most famous part of the story, God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. And there he wallows for three days and three nights. We’ll look at that next time.

So here’s the thing: despite all of Jonah’s efforts to run from God, he can’t. And this is because God is sovereign over—in control of—all things and is present everywhere.

In other words: Running from God is impossible because he is present everywhere we are. We can choose to ignore God or to reject him; but there is no getting away from him. 

Think about these words from Psalm 139:7-8: Where can I go to escape your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. There is no place to go where God is not also there.

And not only that, but there will be times when God brings circumstances about in order to get our attention. Or he might allow us to go through certain circumstances in order to get our attention.

In other words: God will speak into our lives in whatever way necessary to get our attention. Sometimes God is the storm. Or at the very least, God is in the storm.

Look at our story again. Look at how disruptive Jonah’s choice to run from God is. Those poor sailors got caught up in his attempt to flee too. In other words, running from God always gets us into trouble one way or another. Because it means our lives are out of alignment with his will.

Think of the importance of getting the tires on your vehicle aligned. Why is that important? Because I’m already such a car expert, I looked this up: “It’s important that wheels and tires are aligned. If they aren’t, you could be damaging your tires and affecting the vehicle’s handling characteristics. If the suspension is out of alignment, there is uneven pressure on the tires that can cause your car to work harder on the tires than it needs to.” Bottom line? Having unaligned tires on your car can damage your car.

So imagine what it does to us and our lives if we’re out of alignment with what God wants for us. Being out of alignment with God will damage us and our lives. You don’t want to find yourself on a stormy sea with your ship threatening to break apart.

 So let’s ask ourselves: Is my life out of alignment with God’s will anywhere? How can I tell? Has God ever used my circumstances to get my attention when I’ve been trying to ignore him?

“You are a gracious and compassionate God”

And maybe now the question is: if I have been trying to run from God and my life is out of alignment with his will, what do I do?

Well, the first thing I would say is that Jonah is not a positive example for us. Look at what he does when he’s found out: he tells the sailors to throw him into the sea. This is not an act of heroism or selflessness on his part. It’s an act of cowardice and despair.

Because could he not have confessed and repented to God right then and there? Could he not have asked the sailors to go back to port so he could start traveling towards Ninevah?

But that’s not what he did. He couldn’t get away from the God who was calling him but he also wanted nothing to do with this God either. Not if it meant doing what God had asked him to do. So he called it quits. Completely.

So, no, Jonah is not a positive example for us. Or if he is it’s only in an ironic way. Think again about the way Jonah describes God in the verses I read earlier from chapter 4: I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster.

This is a classic definition of God. We find around it 7 times in the OT. In Psalm 103:8—9 it says this: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. He will not always accuse us or be angry forever.

Jonah either doesn’t really believe this deep down or he simply doesn’t like that God is this way. Because if it were true, he would have to change. In his case, his attitude towards the people of Ninevah would have to change.

But even though Jonah did not want a gracious, compassionate God, isn’t that what makes it all the easier to stop running from God?

On the one occasion Jesus mentions the story of Jonah, he says this: For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.

With these words, Jesus points us to his death and resurrection. He points us to what he did in order to bring us to God. He points us towards the precise way he demonstrated grace and compassion. This is how we know our God is one who is, as Jonah himself points out, abounding in faithful love.

As we’ve seen, this is not a God we can actually run away from. And because of who God is, what he is like, and on the basis of what he has done for us in Jesus, we do not have to try running away from him.

Let’s put it this way: We can stop running from God because we have a God that in Jesus runs to us.

Conclusion

Have you heard the story of Franklin Graham, son of Rev. As a youngster, Franklin said, he was attracted not to the gospel, but to guns and motorcycles, cigarettes and alcohol. He says he tried marijuana (just once). He was thrown out of high school and college. “I wanted to be a hell raiser that lived my own life. And if it made people mad, tough. If it disappointed people, tough. It’s my life, I’m going to live it the way I want to live it, and if you don’t like it, get out of my way. That was kind of my attitude . . . and it was rebellion against God,” he said. “I wanted to be free and I wanted to have fun.” Finally, at age 22, his father gave him a choice: “He looked at me, and he said, ‘Franklin, your mother and I sense that there is a struggle for the soul of your life. And there’s no halfway. Either you’re going to have to accept Jesus Christ and what he says and obey him and follow him, or you’ll have to reject him. There’s no middle ground.’”

While a young man Franklin Graham was running from the God he was raised to believe in, worship, and serve. Eventually he came to Christ. And he’s been serving the Lord ever since.  In his own way, he was much like Jonah.

We all need to understand that we have a God who begins running to us before we ever start running back to him. That’s what happened in Jesus.

1 John 4:9 says this: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. What about you today? Are you running from God or towards him? There are only two directions. In which one are you headed?

Because remember: We can stop running from God because we have a God that in Jesus is already running to us.

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