Here is last Sunday's sermon, the second in our Jonah series. You can catch the audio here.
It’s easy for us to think of the Bible as a book of heroes. These people we’re to aspire to become. These heroes, that, in our most honest moments, we realize we could never, ever measure up to. But, in actuality, the Bible gives portrait after portrait of messed up folks - rebels and fools who look at lot like you and me. My favorite musician, Rich Mullins, once put it this way:
“The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart. It is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that benefits mankind. It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice. It does not so much nibble at our shoe as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from bone to bone. It does not give us answers fitted to our smaller minded questions but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask.” (Rich Mullins)
Now the fact that God uses despicable, pitiful men and women gives us hope. And there may not be any Bible character that comes across quite as ridiculous as does the prophet Jonah. Last week, we introduced this book that we’ll spend eleven weeks or so in. I talked about how gracious and kind the Lord is for inviting Jonah into this work- this revival He’s going to bring to Nineveh. But it’s striking just how rebellious the prophet is here. He doesn’t try to fight. Maybe he knows he can’t battle with God and win.
But surely Jonah knows that flight won’t work, either. Attempt to get away from Usain Bolt. Just try to outrun a freight train. We certainly can’t get away from the God of heaven and earth. Jonah had to know that, but he tries it anyway. He tries to run from God. He’s a runaway prophet. Soon, he’ll see just how foolish that is. But today, he runs. And that’s the message I want us to contemplate together today. Don’t run from the Lord of heaven and earth.
Jonah’s Great Sin
Let’s jump into the passage now and take a close look at what Jonah tries to get away with. Verse 1 tells us that God’s word comes to this prophet of God, a man that the Lord has used in the past. Now, when we hear those words in the Bible - “now the word of the LORD came” - we expect something following. We expect either a message the prophet is to carry or, as here, an assignment as to where he is to go. But what we don’t expect is that word “but” in verse 3. And what follows. Jonah, it says, “rose to flee.” I’ll tell you what this is like. Imagine one of our Karis weddings. I wrap up my message, I turn to the bride, and I ask her, “Do you take this man to be your husband?” And she doesn’t even shout, “No!” She runs out. That’s what this is like. But far, far worse. Jonah skips town here.
Instead of going to Nineveh, he buys a ticket to Tarshish. Again, we think Jonah wrote this book, and it seems he wanted us to gasp at this choice. He could have been more vague as he described what happened. But he repeats the name of his intended destination three times. He speaks of Tarshish three times in this one verse. The prophet wants us to get that God tells him to go to Nineveh, and he goes to Tarshish instead.
Now what’s significant about that city? Well, Tarshish is likely on the west coast of the Mediterranean in what is now modern-day Spain. Jonah is in Israel, in Galilee. Now if I had a map here and showed you all three of these places, something would strike you. You would see Nineveh on the right, to the east, Tarshish on the left, to the west, with Israel - right in the middle. What does this mean? Jonah, when called to go to Nineveh, does everything he can to do the exact opposite. God calls him to go east and he deliberately goes west. As The Jesus Storybook Bible puts it, Jonah strolls up to the docks in Joppa, the nearest seaport, and says, “One ticket for not-Nineveh, please!”
Now, although we have difficulty nailing down precisely where Tarshish is, it’s no doubt a literal, historical place. But as a rabbi, Sheldon Blank, says, it represents something bigger. He writes,
“What is Tarshish?… In the story it is anywhere - anywhere but the right place; it is the opposite direction, the direction a person takes when he turns his back on his destiny… it is the excuse we give - our rationalizations.” (Sheldon Blank)
Tarsish is the farthest known geographical point in that day. A teenage boy decides he’s running away. “Where are you going?” “Egypt!” “What do you think you’re doing, son?” “Moving to China! Anywhere but here with you!” That’s what Jonah is doing here. There’s no doubt that he really wants to get away from God. But you just don’t run from the Lord of heaven and earth.
What Jonah Tries To Do
But from what exactly is Jonah running? Let’s think for a few moments about what Jonah tries to do. First, he’s running from God’s word. Jonah again is a part of the nation of Israel. Those people, led by a bunch of crazy, wicked kings, refuse time and time again to obey the words of God.
Now surely at the top of Jonah’s job description is this: go where the Lord says and say whatever He asks. Why? So the people of Israel might be obedient to God. And here we have a prophet hearing his assignment, absorbing his message, and turning and running the other way. He rebels just like his people. He runs from God’s word. But, not for long.
Second, he’s running from God’s calling. What does God’s word tell him to do? To hop up and head to Nineveh. Those words at the beginning of verse 2, “arise, go,” no doubt are meant to elicit a prompt response. “Get up and go. IMMEDIATELY!” Now Jonah gets up right then. But he flees from his assignment. That’s because it involves carrying a tough message into a tough place.
Nineveh again is the capital of the wicked Assyrian Empire. They aren’t an easy audience. And Jonah’s told to “call out against it.” He’s supposed to point out their sin and call them to repentance. As we see over in chapter 3, verse 4, he’s supposed to tell them that their destruction is near. The Lord says here, “their evil has come up before me.” Friends, back then, even today, the Lord sees all the wickedness in our city, in our world. One day, He will certainly judge.
But today there stands an opportunity for repentance. And that’s how the Lord wants to use the prophet here in Nineveh. He’s not only meant to obey God’s word. He’s meant to carry God’s word to these pagan people. But Jonah wants nothing to do with it. Therefore, he tries to quit his job as a prophet. He runs from God’s calling. But the Lord’s not accepting His resignation.
Third, he’s running from God’s presence. You probably noticed, but twice in verse 3, we see that Jonah tries to flee “from the presence of the Lord.” The author - again, probably the prophet - is trying to show us, not only his objective, but just how stupid it is. Jonah knows God. He’s one of His prophets. He doesn’t worship one of these territorial, false gods the other nations believed in. He knows He’s the Lord of heaven and earth. As Psalm 139 puts it,
Psa. 139:7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
Jonah isn’t ignorant to these truths. But nevertheless, he still tries. He attempts to distance himself geographically from what God wants Him to do. But he also tries to spiritually distance himself from his Lord. He tries to run from God’s presence. But Yahweh isn’t gonna let that happen.
Fourth, he runs from God’s life. What do I mean here? In verse 2, God tells him to “arise” but Jonah chooses to go down. That idea is repeated twice in verse 3. He first goes down to Joppa, a port city near modern-day Tel Aviv in Jerusalem, to catch a boat. This would have taken him on a path downhill to the coast. And second, he goes down into the boat. That’s how the author describes him getting on the ship. Going down. See where this is headed?
Now that same same idea is repeated again in verse 5 when it speaks of the prophet going down into the bottom of the boat. Jonah is trying to make a point here. Most of us use the word “literally” all the time today. Yes, he’s literally going down, but that images something else going on. He’s spiraling downward. His life is going down, down the tubes. Here’s just a preview of next week, in verses 5 and 6 of chapter 2.
Jonah 2:5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
Jonah 2:6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
Picture a kid who’s convinced he is going to run away from home. You see him walk out the door. He’s only go the clothes on his back. No money. No job. No food. He heads down your street. But you know this isn’t going well. This is going to go nowhere. He’ll be back. He won’t survive. That’s Jonah.
Jonah is going down. In fact, going down is a euphemism for death in the Bible. Each step away from God’s word, from the Lord’s calling, from His King’s presence, is a step toward death. It’s away from the source of life. He may not know it, but Jonah is running toward the grave. It soon will look like he’s gonna get his wish, but the Lord of heaven and earth won’t let that happen.
Why Jonah Does This
Jonah’s sin is on full display here. He runs from God’s word. He runs from God’s call. He runs from God’s presence. He runs from God’s life. But why? We talk often here in Karis about trying to get to the “sin beneath the sin.” It’s easy for us to just focus on our actions - our sins in this case - but never try to get underneath them and see why we’re doing these things. That’s the only path to true change. It doesn’t do much good to just yell at other people or tell ourselves in the mirror, “Stop it! Stop it already!” That accomplishes nothing. We’ve got to peel off the layers and get down to the level of motivation. Why?
We can see at least four possible motivations here in Jonah. Here’s the first: fear. Jewish writer Hayyim Lewis said this about Nineveh and Assyria, the place God told him to go and preach:
“The Assyrians were the Nazi storm-troopers of the ancient world. They were the pitiless power-crazed foe. They showed no quarter in battle, uprooting entire peoples in their fury for conquest. They extinguished the Northern Kingdom of Israel... For Jonah, Nineveh, then, was no ordinary city; it carried doom-laden, tragic memories, it stood as a symbol of evil incarnate.” (Hayyim Lewis)
The Assyrians were brutal, wicked people. Now, as we’ll see later in our study here, they weren’t at the height of their power at this moment. But they had been cruel before. They would be cruel again. As Lewis writes, they would soon be God’s instrument of justice on the wicked nation of Israel.
Now that empire was infamous for their brutality and violence. They would rip off the lips and tear out the tongues of their victims. They would dismember and flay their prisoners alive. They’d make family members of the deceased march around with their loved ones’ heads on poles. That’s the reputation of the Assyrians. Now are you maybe a bit more sympathetic to Jonah?
Let’s say I announced our next Karis mission trip - to Aleppo. We’re all headed to Syria, and there’s at least a 75% chance that you’ll be apprehended by ISIS, thrown in front of a camera, and decapitated by the sword. Who’s signing up? Not only that, but here’s our strategy. We’re going to just walk through the streets and cry out, “Allah is a false god. You’re all going to hell.” Ready to go?
That’s Jonah’s assignment. He didn’t just have to go face a tough audience. He has to bring a hard message. “God sees your evil! Repent! Or be destroyed!” Fear no doubt has something to do with why Jonah runs. This is an intimidating task.
Here’s a second reason: hate. Now I think this is main reason, although they’re closely tied together. Here is Jonah’s main fear, the one we see over in chapter 4, verse 2. He’s afraid they’re going to listen! Check out the first two verses of that chapter with me.
Jonah 4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
Jonah looks down on these people. He hates the Assyrians. He’s mad about their sin - just like God is. But unlike the Lord, he doesn’t want to see them rescued. He wants them to pay.
Jonah thinks they are beyond God’s love. He is filled with hatred for them. They had harmed his people before. They would again. That’s why he doesn’t want to go. That’s why he gets so angry later when they repent. They’re his enemies.
Many of you have seen the film Hotel Rwanda. It chronicles the mass slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda by the other people group, the Hutus. As many as one million Tutsis were brutally killed in only about 100 days back in the summer of 1994. Now imagine that you were one of the 30% of that tribe that survived. Don’t you think you might struggle a bit with hatred toward the Hutus? Doesn’t that make you identify with our boy Jonah just a bit? To him, the Ninevites are an undeserving enemy.
Here’s a third possible motivation. It’s pride. Now this is a different kind of pride than what I just mentioned. Here, I’m not talking about pride as he looks down at the Assyrians. I’m talking about pride as he looks up at his God. What do I mean? Well, this motivation is a bit harder to verify, but it’s one that’s hard for me to shake. In just a few decades, do you know what happens? The Assyrian stormtroopers march into Israel. They come to the capital, Samaria, and besiege it. They cart off over 27,000 people into exile.
Now another prophet in Jonah’s day, Hosea, prophesies that the Assyrians will do all of this very shortly. Hear these words in his prophecy:
Hos. 9:3 They shall not remain in the land of the Lord, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria.
Hos. 10:6 The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria as tribute to the great king. Ephraim shall be put to shame, and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.
Hos. 11:5 They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
Now think about this for a second. What might Jonah be thinking about this assignment? Here’s a possibility: “If I go preach to those guys, and they repent, and God blesses them as a result, then I’m going to be the one directly responsible for the downfall of my nation. I’m going to be the reason they survive long enough to take out my people Israel. Not interested at all! I’m out!”
Jonah may be thinking that he has a better plan than God. Maybe he wants to seize control of the situation. He doesn’t trust God for the future. So He tries to take things into His own hands. He’s trying to avoid an undesirable outcome.
Here’s one more motivation no doubt Jonah wrestles with. Fourth, comfort. The prophet seems to have a fairly cushy life, at least compared with the other prophets we read about. Most of them are getting mocked and killed. Jonah, though, is living large. I mentioned this last week, but our only other mention of Jonah in the Scriptures is in 2 Kings 14. There he gets to bring some good news to the King of Israel, Jeroboam the 2nd.
In 2 Kings 14:25, it tells us that king successfully reclaims some border towns that had been captured by Syrian armies. And we learn that this comes about through Jonah’s prediction. Therefore, the prophet is no doubt a popular dude. And he’s living in a time when things are pretty easy in Israel. You think Jonah wants to give all that up and go get slaughtered in Nineveh? Or, even worse in his book, go keep those nasty Ninevites from getting slaughtered? Jonah wants no part of that. He’s trying to cling to a comfortable lifestyle.
Now there’s our guy Jonah. Again, he’s a different kind of prophet compared to these other Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. His book isn’t filled with a bunch of divine rants against other nations. The book of Jonah tells his story. It showcases all his sin. It puts him forth as an example. And a very negative example at that. We’ve seen what he tries to do, and why he likely tries to do it. Now let’s turn the spotlight on us.
What We Try To Do
First, do you ever try to run from God’s word? I know I do. Where do we primarily hear God’s word today? In the Bible, right? First of all, do you ever even hear it? Do you read it? But when you do, do you do what it says? Do you put it in practice? When brothers or sisters approach us, reminding us of what God has said, do we listen to them? Do we heed God’s gracious self-revelation?
Second, do you ever try to run from God’s calling? You bet you do. Maybe it’s a vocation God has clearly equipped you for. Maybe it’s some kind of ministry, some event, some task, that you sense God pushing you toward, and you’re refusing to budge. Maybe it’s a difficult conversation you’re refusing to have. Maybe it’s an open door for the gospel you just won’t walk through. Are you missing the opportunity to see God work powerfully in and through you?
Third, do you ever try to run from God’s presence? Now we believe in the omnipresence of God. He’s everywhere at the same time. And, if we’re believers, we have God within us. He’s present in a special way. But as Sinclair Ferguson explains it, Jonah isn’t fleeing from God’s omnipresence. He’s fleeing from his “felt presence,” “from the God who had made himself known in grace and power.” Do you try to turn inward? To neglect God’s word and work? Do you turn from God’s people, the church? Maybe avoid places that remind you of God. Maybe remove yourselves from people who remind you He’s near? Why would we want to remove ourselves from God’s presence? From His blessing?
Fourth, do you ever try to run from God’s life? We all do, right? His word, His calling, His presence are all there for our good, for our joy, and we go the other direction. We find ourselves spiraling downward like Jonah.
Do you choose cheap replacements over the food of the word? Do you settle for second-best over what God calls you to do? Do you choose loneliness and isolation? I know I do. We inch closer and closer to death. Sometimes literally and physically. Usually metaphorically and spiritually.
Jonah pays the fare for that ride over the sea. Some think he charters the boat by himself and sells all he has to do so. But that’s cheap compared to the price he’s about to pay. He almost pays with his very life. Why would we want to turn from our Lord? Apart from Him, we have no meaning. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. Why turn from our source of life? From our Lord Jesus?
Why We Try to Do This
Let’s turn to why we try to do this. Again, we are far too much like Jonah. We also run from God out of fear. We worry what people will think. We fear what they might do to us. Therefore, we run. But we forget just like Jonah that the Lord is the One to be feared. He’s the powerful one.
We also run from God out of hatred. We all have people we think are too far gone. We all have people in our city we would rather just avoid. There are segments of our population that we tend to look down upon. There are groups of people we unfairly stereotype. This is every one of us. We forget that He is the Lord of grace. And we’ve experienced his kindness time and time again.
We, too, run from God out of pride. Don’t we often want to do things our way? Don’t we want to seize and maintain control? Rather than letting go and submitting to God’s will? We try to manipulate situations. We view prayer as a last resort. We run through the what-ifs and the if-thens in our heads until we make ourselves crazy. He’s the king of the earth. His plan is better than ours. He wants us to see that and rest.
We also see ourselves run from God out of comfort. We don’t get out of the car. We don’t cross the street. We don’t speak up. We don’t help out. We avoid anything hard. We don’t try that ministry. We don’t test our gifts. We don’t develop our gifts. We waste away in ease and luxury, while the nations need to hear the gospel, while people suffer across the globe. Comfort keeps us from doing what we know God wants us to do. But Jesus wants us to know that following Him is better. It’s far more satisfying. It’s far more exhilarating.
When troubles hit us. When we find ourselves in sin. When God leads us to do something hard - as here with Jonah, here’s what our Lord wants us to do. He wants us to run to Him. He wants us to throw ourselves into His arms and let us be enveloped in His love.
Our Great Sin
But typically, we run headlong in the other direction. We rebel against God. We throw ourselves into sin. We are far too much like Jonah. And before we get anywhere, we have to recognize that.
One of my favorite authors, Tim Keller, explained it this way in a Christmas article. He said, yes, as many have said, salvation - the gospel - is a gift. But it’s unlike any other gift you’ve seen. Imagine unwrapping a mirror and holding it up to your face. Yeah, your acne is breaking out again. Or you take a look at your posterior and realize just how much you’ve gained.
That’s the kind of gift the gospel is. It lets us see who we really are. But the good news is that we are truly embraced for who we really are. We are far more flawed than we could ever imagine. We are far more accepted than we could ever dare hope. We are cowards and racists and control freaks and addicts, but the Lord still loves us just the same. And He wants to make us to look more and more like Him.
Yes, He wants us to repent from all of those acts and attitudes. No doubt. But if we belong to Him, like Jonah, there’s no other option. We’re either going to learn it the fun way. Or the hard way. You may flee from Him with all our might. But you can’t outrun grace.
Our God Comes Running
Thankfully, as we’ll see here next week, the Lord comes running. He doesn’t give up on His people. I’ll never forget our friend Ryan Davis trying to run from God. Holed up in his mom’s house. Spiraling downward. But God came after him. He used many of us here. He doesn’t move on from Jonah. He didn’t with Ryan. If we are His, He won’t give up on us. But He may have to come after us. He may be forced to lovingly discipline us.
His grace runs after us - sinners like you and me. You see, we fit in well with the idiots and losers spread throughout the Scriptures. It turns out they’re not much count as heroes at all. They run, just like us. There’s really only one true hero, and that’s Jesus. That’s the point of the Bible. He came after us. He heard the voice of His Father. He spoke the very words of God. He embraced the call of His Father. He called those around Him as disciples. He relied on the presence of the Spirit. He was the presence of God with us. He trusted in His Father as the source of life. He opened up the pathway for us to experience the same. He didn’t preserve His life, but He gave it, dying alone on a cross.
See the message isn’t, “Do better. Try harder. Be a hero.” It’s, “Look in the mirror. Take that mess in. Believe you might be loved. Let him transform you.” Own who you are. Reach up to Him. Don’t run from the Lord of heaven and earth. Run to Him, to your Father, to your friend. Let me tell you: this may be the hardest ministry week for me in the ten years of Karis. I’ve wanted to run. But life is so much better in His loving arms.