1 Pentecost 2 ~ June 22, 2003 Jonah 1-2 Running Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Have you ever been on the run? Running away from things you wanted to avoid? Running from people you didn’t want to face, or situations you didn’t want to confront? Perhaps some of you have even tried, at one time or another, to run away from home because you thought you couldn’t stand it any longer, because you wanted to be alone, or maybe because you just didn’t want to be bothered. Our sermon for today, in fact, for the next three weeks, is about one such runaway— Jonah. He left his home in Israel, but he wasn’t trying to get away from his parents. Nor was he fleeing some mess he’d made. Oh, no! Until recently, Jonah had been a law-abiding citizen, enjoying a happy and quiet life. But now he was running away from God Himself. Running as fast and as far as he could. I know it makes you want to ask, “Try to run away from God? What on earth was he thinking? You can’t run away from God!” Well, let’s take a look. The book opens with God telling Jonah to “go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (v.2). To appreciate how shocking this command must have been, we need to understand that Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the archenemy of Israel. All the neighboring peoples hated and feared the Assyrians because of their brutality. For example, when they conquered a nation, they would run fishhooks through people’s noses and lead them off as slaves into captivity! Their soldiers would normally rip open pregnant women and kill their unborn babies. The Assyrians had little regard for life, especially the life of it conquered victims. These were the people to whom Jonah was to preach! Obviously, Jonah didn’t want the job! There was no love lost between the Assyrians and the Jews. By the way, ancient Nineveh sat on the Tigris River, near what is now the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Only a couple hundred miles to the north of Baghdad. To get a feeling for what Jonah was going through, imagine that you were living in Israel during the Gulf War. One of your friends was killed in a Scud missile attack ordered by Saddam Hussein. Then the Lord calls you to go to Baghdad and invite Saddam to repent. I’m sure you’d be so delighted you couldn’t wait to set out, right? Jonah didn’t want the job either. But it wasn’t so much because he was frightened of the Ninevites. He knew what would happen. Jonah was afraid of success. Later on in the book he confesses, “I knew that you are gracious, compassionate God!” Jonah was well aware that if he preached against the city and, by God’s miracle, its inhabitants repented, God wouldn’t punish them. And he didn’t want to be known as the prophet who helped Assyria! As far as he was concerned, the Assyrians should be wiped off the face of the earth. They should be destroyed, not shown mercy! Oh, Jonah knew that lost people mattered to God. The trouble was lost people didn’t matter that much to Jonah! Jonah despised the Assyrians. The last thing he wanted to do was to share heaven with any scumball Ninevite! Isn’t there a little of Jonah in each of us? Don’t we all have our own prejudices against certain people or certain groups of people? If we honestly look at ourselves, we will have to
2 admit that there are some people who don’t matter all that much to us. We may not even want them to know the grace and forgiveness of God! For Jonah, it was the Assyrians. His heart grew cold every time he heard about them. Our heart isn’t that much different, is it? We may be okay with Assyrians (who, in any case, are no longer around), but maybe you think African Americans have their place and should stick to it. Or maybe you resent the Hispanics or Native Americans who go to school with you or who work with you. Maybe you have negative feelings about those of Jewish descent. Or maybe you dislike Japanese people because someone you cared about lost his live in World War II. That kind of bitterness can take over your heart! Is there some race or group you fail to love as God does? Or is it some individual you despise? Does it warm your heart to think about God’s judgment on a stepparent who mistreated you or on the ex-wife who ran out on you? Or the guy who used you and left you? Or on someone at work who treated you unfairly? Well, say hello to Jonah. Perhaps the Lord’s been calling you to go to that person and say, “You’ve gone far enough. It’s time for you to change things.” Perhaps God has been telling you that you need to reach out to him or her with His forgiveness. But you don’t want to do that—not so much because you’re afraid, but because that person may repent and enjoy the forgiveness and peace of God. And maybe you don’t want that to happen, because that would require you to forgive them, too! Resentment towards God’s plan often stands between God and us. God wants very much to have everyone be saved. And, sometimes, we just don’t think those other people are all that deserving of God’s mercy and grace. So when He calls us to speak His Word of forgiveness to them, we hem and haw and stammer and stall. The simplest solution seems to be for us to run away! That’s what Jonah did—he headed for Tarshish (which is another name for Spain). In other words, instead of going east, Jonah rebelled and headed west as far as he could possibly go. Unwilling to order his life according to God’s will, Jonah ran away from the Lord! He went down to Joppa, boarded a ship where he paid the fare, and went down below deck to sleep. Whenever you or I choose to live life our own way, when we rebel against the Lord’s direction, we too, end up paying the fare. We end up paying a price—often a very heavy price! For example, when someone hurts us, Satan may tell us we can remain bitter, angry, and bear grudges in our hearts. We may think that it won’t cost us, but the truth is, there’s no such thing as free sin. When we harden our hearts towards others, it costs us physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. And sadly, some of us have been paying the fare just like Jonah. Yet running way from the Lord did not affect just Jonah. It also placed those around him in danger. After the ship had left the harbor, the Lord sent a violent storm on the sea that battered the ship. And because of Jonah’s rebellion everyone on board was paying the price. The same thing happens to you and me when we run away from the Lord. When we remain deaf and blind to God’s will, very often some innocent bystander will be affected. Our sins can leave our friends and families neglected, and deprive them of the time and love they deserve from us. The consequences of our sins often affect others as much as, even more than, they do us. Jonah seemed oblivious to all that was going on above him. While the ship was coming apart at the seams, Jonah lay fast asleep below deck. As the storm worsened, the sailors all prayed to their gods. But not Jonah! They had to wake him up and plead with him to call on his God, too. Did you get that? Unbelievers had to call the believer to live out his faith!
3 That can happen to us too! We can claim to be Christians until the cows come home, but when we rebel against the Lord, and as that rebellion worsens, it may become evident that many unbelievers are living more godly lives than we do. Finally, the sailors decided to cast lots to see who’d angered the gods. The lot fell on Jonah. He then explained that he was running away from “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and land” (v. 9). This terrified them, for Jonah’s God was not some local deity. This was the God who had made and who controlled the sea! The sailors did their best to row back to land, but it did no good. They even cried out to Jonah’s God—but nothing worked. When the storm did not lessen, Jonah finally told the sailors, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” But these pagans still hesitated. It seems they cared about the welfare of this one stranger, Jonah, more than the prophet cared for all those thousands of lost souls in Nineveh. At last, reluctantly, the sailors threw Jonah overboard, and instantly the sea grew calm. The sailors offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows to Him. As Jonah sank into the depths of the sea, he became—for the first time—desperate for God. Drowning in the ocean depths tends to do that to a person. In chapter 2, we read that water surrounded Jonah and the whitecaps swept over him. Seaweed became wrapped around his head, and he sank to the bottom of the sea. But God hadn’t forgotten this rebellious man. He had been with him all along and, at the last moment, He sent a great fish to swallow Jonah! Three days later, the hapless prophet found himself vomited onto dry land. The good news here is that if you’ve been walking down the path of rebellion, if you’ve been paying the fare and endangering others, even if your life seems no holier than your unbelieving neighbor’s, God never gives up on you. Even when you stand face-to-face with death because of your sinful rebellion, God’s not so powerless that He can’t save you! God loves you so much that He’ll chase you down to the ends of the earth, just as He chased Jonah! This was the whole point of Jesus’ coming down to earth: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus came seeking, chasing down, your salvation the only place you could be found—at the cross. Death is how far Jesus went to pursue Jonah, those pagan sailors, the thousands of Ninevites, even you and me and the enemies we would rather runaway from. Jonah’s biggest mistake was to assume God was going to send him to the Assyrians by himself, weak and defenseless. The prophet had to personally experience his need for God and God’s salvation, in order to understand that the Lord was always with him, caring for him and protecting him, even in the midst of his running away, even in the midst of his smug selfdeception. Jonah had to taste the deadly consequences of his rebellion to learn how loving and forgiving his God is. Jonah loved the Lord, yet he failed to love and care about certain people. People mattered to God, but not everyone mattered to Jonah. That rebelliousness got him into a lot of salt water. But God dealt kindly with Jonah. He rescued him and then used him to do a great mission work among the Ninevites. A poet once wrote: “When I panic, I run. When I run, I lose. When I lose, God waits.” God waits patiently for us as we run from His will. And, even as we run, He acts to bring us back. In Jesus Christ, God has acted in patient kindness toward us. For although we run from Him, our fleeing does not cause Him to give up the pursuit. And when we have to face the bitter and deadly consequences of our own wayward actions, He steps in to restore us through His love.
4 Out of love, our Lord Jesus Christ died the death we deserved, and rose to life to give us new life. He paid the price of our sin so that, in spite of it all, He is always with us—wherever we run—till the end of the age and the end of the earth. In His love and mercy, He wants all to be saved. May we always remember that and heed His command when He calls us. Amen. Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.