Sermon: Jonah Runs from God (Jonah part 2)
Sermon by Matt Kennedy
Sunday, November 20th, 2011
The “word of the Lord” came to Jonah the Son of Amittai. (v.1) When we refer to the “word of the Lord” we mean scripture. Jonah would’ve had access to the first five books, maybe Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel, Job, some of the psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and perhaps some of the other books and some of the early prophets.
But scripture is not what the “word of the Lord” means here. This is God’s spoken word. From the beginning of history to the time the last Apostle died, God revealed his Word, his truth to and through living people, prophets in the OT and Apostles in the New, specially set apart for that purpose. They, guided by the Holy Spirit, proclaimed it and/or wrote it inerrantly.
Jonah was one of the God appointed prophets of the OT. Jonah knew God’s word. He would’ve read what there was of it, and he’d heard God speak directly to him. God gave Jonah a message for King Jeroboam II: “I’ll extend Israel’s borders”. Jonah at that time recognized God’s word and gladly proclaimed it.
So when, sometime later, Jonah hears “Arise, go to Nineveh” he recognizes the voice. He can’t plead ignorance. He doesn’t mishear or misunderstand. He knows. He hears…but the content, “Go to Nineveh” fills his heart with dread.
I say dread. Not fear.
Nineveh was a great and terrible city and the Assyrians were a ruthless, cruel, and violent people but Jonah’s not a fearful guy. He’s willing (in v.12) to be thrown into the raging sea, to his death, for the sake of pagan sailors. There’s no indication anywhere that Jonah is afraid of Nineveh.
He is, however, full of dread—the kind of dread that comes from knowing that you must do something, that God wants you to do something, and yet the thing is so painful to contemplate that it sets your heart into turmoil.
When Anne and I graduated from seminary we had two bishops. Anne entered the ordination process through the Episcopal Church chapter at Cornell University. Her bishop, Skip Adams, is based in Syracuse. I entered through Ascension church in Houston TX. My bishop was there in Houston. In the Episcopal Church upon seminary graduation, you go back to the bishop who sent you. But if you get married to a seminarian from somewhere else, two bishops have a claim on you.
Sometimes they just decide where you go. But our bishops, graciously, gave us the decision.
Anne and I are opposites in many ways but there were 3 things we agreed about.
1. We both hated cold weather— She’s from Africa. I’m from south Texas, “cold” was anything below 50 degrees
2. We’re both political conservatives. So we assumed that the lands north of Virginia were populated by godless liberals bent social revolution and corrupting our virtue.
3. Anne was very pregnant with Emma. We wanted to have our baby surrounded by family not strangers.
Also, added to these, I’d met a few Yankees in my life up to that point and, according to southern manners, they’re just plain rude. They talk too loud, to fast. They say “yeah” rather than yes sir to their parents. You say hello to a northerner on the street, he grunts.
So we decided God was calling us to Texas.
And sure enough, there was a nice big church in Houston that offered me the assistant pastor position. Assistant pastors have it sweet. They get to sit back and be the golden boy while the rector makes all the hard decisions while the boss takes all the flack.
But it would’ve looked bad if we didn’t even appear to consider CNY. The only position available was rector of a tiny church called Good Shepherd in the tiny town of Binghamton.
We visited in April. It snowed. In April in Texas its 90 degrees.
Anyway, we met Bob, Cookie, John, Pauline, Chris Jones and they were nice people for yankees. But our minds were made up.
They showed us around town—we saw empty shops, crumbling factories. Compared with shiny, sunny, cosmopolitan Houston—we couldn’t imagine moving here.
They took us to eat. That’s when the wheels started to come off. They asked a huge number of questions about the bible, about knowing God’s will, about what it means to be a Christian. They weren’t testing us—they were honest questions. They were hungry for God.
The next day was Sunday. We went to the 10:00am service. 30 people. No bibles in the pews. Nobody brought a bible. No bible studies listed in the bulletin. No adult education. There was one Sunday school class for the kids and there weren’t many of them.
That’s when I started to be concerned. The church in Texas was in great shape—they had a faithful pastor who taught the bible well, lots of small groups.
Good Shepherd was a hungry place with no pastor. On the drive home we did everything we could to rationalize that fact away but it was unavoidable. We knew our bibles well. We knew God’s purpose in the world is to make disciples and extend his kingdom—so we knew what following Jesus would mean. God’s will was abundantly clear.
I wish I could say that we made up our minds to cheerfully trust and obey because there is no other way. But that’s not what happened. I felt ambushed by God. I couldn’t understand why God would send me to this tiny church in this tiny town far from family and friends. I called my pastor. I hoped he’d give me an out, tell me that it wasn’t so cut and dry. Instead “I don’t know why you’re asking. It seems pretty clear what God wants you to do.” It did. And I dreaded it.
That’s the kind of dread I’m talking about. If you’ve not felt it in your life with Christ yet, you will.
God’s word has come to you. He’s revealed his will and purpose for his disciples very clearly—make disciples, extend my kingdom. His word to you is, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. That means you shape your life around his revealed will and purposes.
That’s how you think through where to go to grad school, where to live, who to marry, what career to pursue, what you should do after retirement—you know God’s word, you know his purposes. Look at your life and ask: what do I need to do, to get on board? Sometimes, often, the answer to that question is not what you want to hear.
Your response will make all the difference. Not so much for the world. God’s got that under control with or without you. God wanted Good Shepherd out of the Episcopal Church, he wanted the people of Good Shepherd to hear the gospel, learn his word. He wanted to use tiny Good Shepherd to extend his Kingdom in Binghamton. He would’ve done that with me or without me. The question is not whether God’s will, will be done. The question is whether you’ll do the hard thing, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him, and say yes when for whatever reason, your heart is set on “no”. The irony is that the “easy” no always turns out to be harder than even the most difficult yes.
Jonah knows God’s will and purpose is to have mercy on Nineveh—the home of idolatry, human sacrifice, and cruelty, the archenemy of Israel. That thought fills him with dread. He decides to follow his heart. He “rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”
Jonah’s story begins with a “no” a defiant, sinful, no to God.
But his actions seem odd. Does Jonah really think he can escape God’s presence? Some commentators say Jonah shared the religious assumptions of the ancient world that different gods inhabited different regions. So Jonah believed going to Tarshish…far from Israel…would enable him to escape YHWH’s jurisdiction.
I don’t think so. First, Jonah’s flight only makes sense if Jonah knows God to be sovereign not only over Israel but over Nineveh. Second, when the sailors ask Jonah to explain the cause of the storm—had he believed in a localized diety, he would’ve said, I don’t know. Instead He says, “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah knows that his God rules over the entire cosmos. He knows no storm rises, no wind blows, no rain falls, apart from God’s will and appointment. He knows good and well that God is in Tarshish as well as in Israel.
But if Jonah knows these things about God, surely he knows there is no escape. It doesn’t make any sense to run from God.
Right. It makes no sense. I know. And so do you.
So, why do we do it?
That’s the point of this first part of the book. Jonah’s acting like a fool. His is not a logical plan. But when we ask: why does Jonah think he can flee from God’s presence? We hear the question echoing back—“And you, why do you think you can flee from my presence?”
Let’s notice how he flees.
“He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” (v3)
He goes down, he finds, he pays, he goes down again, he gets in, he goes…there’s a busyness, a “bustle”, to “find” to “do” to “go” that gives insight into Jonah’s “fleeing”. He’s given himself a project, getting to Tarshish, that requires all his time, money, and energy. He’s set an agenda for himself that demands everything he has—that purposefully leaves him no time to hear God speak, no time or means to do God’s will.
Nineveh is in present day Iraq. Tarshish is in Spain. It wasn’t even on last week’s map. It’s harder to get to Nineveh from Tarshish than anywhere else known to Jonah. It’s like knowing you should be Toronto and chartering a boat to Antartica. He’s putting himself in a position from which he thinks God will be forced to choose someone else.
This is how we “flee from God” too isn’t it? If I’m running from God I’m going to set up some practical barriers in my life to keep me safe—to give me a “legitimate” reason not to do what I know God would have me do. I sink myself into all kinds of self-appointed tasks…so that I’m so consumed by them I cannot hear, I cannot read, I cannot attend to God’s word because I’m just so busy. In those times quiet prayer is my enemy. Scripture is my adversary. Church is my opponent. Spare moments are dangerous. We focus on building a relationship, building a career, learning a subject, getting the kids to this practice or that lesson. That way you think you never have to face God, face ourselves, and deal with things.
So Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord has other plans.