Please take a seat. It's great to be back with you this morning. I'm hoping that you're as eager as I am to get stuck into the Book of Jonah which we're starting a new series in, over the next few weeks. It's probably one of the most famous books in the Bible. It's the classic Sunday School story of Jonah and the Whale. So in order to focus us for that I thought it would be a good idea to have to do a little quiz about fish.
So, what do you think – is this True or False?
- To this day in Oklahoma state, USA there is a law that forbids you to give alcohol to fish – TRUE
- I used to eat fish fingers raw from the freezer when I was at university – TRUE
- Some sharks can switch off their digestive system – TRUE
- In 1891 James Bartley was cut out of the stomach of a Sperm Whale by fellow crew members of the Whaleship Star of the East after having fallen overboard and been swallowed by it nearly two days earlier – TRUE
- In 1926, Dr. Rimmer a well-known research scientist reported that he met a man who had survived for 48 hours after being swallowed by a gigantic Whale Shark. He was bald, but slightly yellow. – TRUE
Well hopefully by now you can see where I'm going with this, as many of us find we have a big problem when opening up the book of Jonah - a problem as big as a whale! For many modern, thinking grown-ups this whole business of a bloke getting swallowed by a big fish and thrown up again on a beach ready for action is… a bit too much to swallow. The book of Jonah is about as believable as the five days of solid sunshine we had last week on Holiday in Scotland. Yet, just as that little miracle actually happened, I want right from the start of this series to dismantle your incredulity, by bringing to your attention those two documented cases of a big fish swallowing a man and then living to tell the tale. And then I want to push it a little further by pointing out that there is historical context for Jonah, as in 2 Kings 14.25 a prophet called "Jonah the son of Amittai" is mentioned, suggesting that he was a real prophet, in a real time and place. And then I want to remind you of that reading from Matthew 12.38-40 which was read for us earlier, where Jesus treats Jonah as a real life historical figure.
But most of all I want to point out that this book isn't actually about a big fish – which is why we mustn't let it get in the way. This book isn't even about Jonah! No! It's about God. And God's power stretches beyond the realms of what we think is natural or possible in this world. He is supernatural. And we must not make any excuse for the supernatural when we're talking about God. You see the book of Jonah is not just a kids' story about a crazy prophet and an even crazier whale. No! It is ultimately about God and his amazing pursuing grace. It's about God's holy stubbornness to accomplish his will for us and others, regardless of how hard we try to thwart it. So let's call on God to help us understand the message of this book as we try to open and unpack it now.
"Father God, we have read here of a time when your word came to someone and they turned and ran. We pray that as your word comes to us now and over the next few weeks that you would help us not to run, but to hear and obey. Amen."
So what do we learn from Jonah chapter 1? Well let me highlight three lessons from the life of Jonah that I think we would do well to consider in our own lives:
1. The Reason for Running Away from God
Let's dive straight in at verse 1:
"Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD."
"The word of the Lord came to Jonah" – verse 1. Jonah, as a prophet of God, had the incredible privilege of hearing God speak to him directly. He had probably been a prophet for about 20 years by now – and that mention of him in 2 Kings 14 shows that he had been used by God to give a prophecy of immense blessing to God's people in Israel. What an encouragement to know that your gifts have been used as part of a great work - just as you may have been encouraged by your involvement in launching St Joseph's, or the holiday club at Jesmond Parish Church earlier this summer, or the youth Houseparty last week, or maybe the many years you have been in faithful and fruitful service of the Lord. Jonah enjoyed similar encouragements in God's service and yet his story stands as a warning to us that no privileges or fruitfulness that you have ever enjoyed in the past, can substitute for obedience to the Lord in the present. Life is never static, you are either running with God, or you are running away from God.
And as the word of the Lord comes to Jonah he chooses to run away. God says: "Go!" Jonah says: "No!" As this map on the screen shows, God sends Jonah on a mission trip East to Nineveh, and Jonah heads West to Tarshish for a Club Med holiday in Spain. How could that happen? Well, it is not as if he didn't understand the message. God's word came to Jonah with great clarity. "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it..." It is not as if he had to get out his theology books in order to get to grips with what this means – preach judgment. And it's not as if he couldn't find Nineveh on a map – it was a "great city", it was well known! This message is crystal clear. And yet... I think we can relate to Jonah, can't we? You see, it is not the parts of scripture that we find difficult to understand that bother us so much, it's the parts of scripture that none of us could conceivably misunderstand!
- "Take up your cross and follow me." (Matthew 16.24)
- "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3.12)
- "Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32)
This is the really irritating thing about God's word. If it just came to us in the areas where we are seeking to be obedient it would be so easy! But it has a way of getting deep down inside of us and uncovering the hidden parts – the hidden resistance of which there is layer, upon layer, upon layer in my life and yours. Jonah resists the word of the Lord, and like us it's not because he didn't understand it; it's because he didn't like it! Nineveh was the great capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, the greatest world power of that day, and the most disturbing long-term threat to God's people, the Israelities. Moreover, Nineveh was "sin city". They and their culture were against God and his word in every way.
Why should God worry about one of Israel's fiercest enemies? Why should he even attempt to save people like that? It would be a tragedy if God, heaven forbid, were to forgive them! Well as the story unfolds over the next few chapters we discover that this is what was going through Jonah's mind as he rejects the mission and runs to Tarshish. Jonah thinks he's got good reason for not going to Nineveh. And I find that that is usually the case when I want to disobey the Lord – I can usually justify it. If you see me doing something that I shouldn't do, I will sadly have little or no problem cooking up a very good excuse for it. And it's not just me! I've found this with others when they've been disobeying the Lord too:
- I remember speaking to a student some years ago who argued that getting drunk at parties shows unbelievers that Christians are normal.
- I got to know a business man around about the same time whose business practices were dubious to say the least, but he told me that it was just the game you had to play to get to the top and when he did then he'd be able to influence more people for Christ. You see, we can justify our actions.
- Think of the preacher who won't speak of judgement or the Bible's views on money or sex because he doesn't want to put people off. It sounds loving; it sounds really kind.
But all these excuses are actually unbelievably arrogant, as we're essentially saying, 'I won't do things God's way, because I think I know better'. That's what was going on with Jonah – he didn't believe that God knew what was best for his world. He was like the Arsenal fans on the opening day of the Premier League season. If the start of the football season has taken you by surprise then you might not know or even be interested to hear that Liverpool beat Arsenal on that opening day – and at one point Arsenal were getting beaten so badly that their fans started chanted at their manager: "You don't know what you're doing! You don't know what you're doing!" And seeing as we have a good handful of Arsenal fans who come to the church, let me say in brotherly love as a Liverpool fan that I am so sorry for your loss. When we resist God's word and do our own thing, that is what we're saying to God: "You don't know what you're doing! You don't know what you're doing!" And no matter how well we seem to pull it off, there will be consequences to our doing that. And that's the second thing to highlight here:
2. The Consequences of Running Away from God
Jonah now goes into freefall. Firstly we see that he is entirely untroubled by his actions. As the storm rages around the ship, what is Jonah doing in verse 5? He is sleeping like a baby! Does he look like a man troubled by his conscience? Maybe he was at first. Maybe he felt an uneasiness as in verse 3 he "…rose to flee to Tarshish". Maybe he heard a little voice inside him saying: "You really shouldn't be doing this." But that soon fades as he goes down to the port in Joppa and… what does he find? A ship going to Tarshish! What are the chances of that?! And as they drop anchor and sail on out into the Mediterranean, Jonah must have thought: "Brilliant! It's all going swimmingly!"
Well little does Jonah know, but swimming is exactly what he will shortly be required to do! Yet at this point he looks at his circumstances and thinks that he is getting away with it. His conscience is silenced. And once his conscience is silenced, so are his prayers. Who is it who is praying in the midst of the storm? It is not the man of God. No! Jonah is fast asleep! It is the pagan sailors who are praying in verse 5! What is the most caring thing that you can ever do for someone? You can bring them before the Lord God Almighty in prayer. But Jonah, even though he is the source of all the trouble for those around him, does not pray for them.
And then tragically, Jonah's witness is silenced too. For as the sailors draw lots to see who's to blame, Jonah's drawing of the short straw prompts a barrage of questions in verse 8. And if you work your way through the sailors' questions and match them up with Jonah's answers, you find intriguingly that there is one question he doesn't actually answer… "What is your occupation?" "Well actually, I encourage people to be obedient to God's word." He can't say that now, as he no longer speaks for the Lord.
I don't know if you've ever been on a Helter Skelter. Once you've climbed all the way to the top and sat yourself down there in your hessian bag, you launch yourself off and after that there's nothing you can do to stop yourself. You're in a downward spiral, and it's a lot of fun! That's what has happened to Jonah here, only it's not nearly so much fun! Everything that follows his decision to ignore God's word speaks of his downward descent. Verse 3: "He went down to Joppa..." Verse 5: He went "down into the ship" and "laid himself down to go to sleep." He is spiralling down out of control and… he doesn't even realise it! For we see here, that those running from God become increasingly less alive the farther they run. Have you found that? When you drift away from God you are:
- Less alive to your conscience – as you wander through life unchallenged.
- Less alive to others' needs – as you won't bring yourself to pray for them.
- Less alive to God's calling to speak for him – because you've turned down so many opportunities in the past that you just get used to saying nothing. If our witness is silenced, then maybe it's because our conscience and our prayers were silenced first.
Then finally let me highlight:
3. The Futility of Running Away from God
In our old house one of my favourite games to play with the kids when they were little was a game with the slightly spooky title of... "I'm coming to get you!" If you've spent any time with small children then you've probably done something similar. So unsurprisingly it would all start when I would shout "I'm coming to get you!" and they would giggle and run away from me. But because the rooms in our house went round in a circuit while they ran one way, I would run the other. So that whatever way they tried to run, they would always find me waiting for them round the corner! And among the many helpful lessons Jonah's story offers, this is the most obvious one.... that you can't outrun God! Wherever you end up, he is always one step ahead of you, waiting for you. We see this time and time again in this chapter:
- Jonah does a runner on a ship to Tarshish and, verse 4: "…the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up."
- Then the sailors cast lots to see who is to blame for the terrible storm; Jonah stays silent to see if he can bluff it out. I mean what are the chances for the lot falling on him? Verse 7: "So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah."
- And then when the sailors try to protect Jonah we get verse 13: "Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them."
- And then as Jonah eventually gets thrown overboard and glugs his way to the bottom of the sea, even there God is one step ahead of him, as verse 17 tells us that: "…the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." Now I'm no expert in the migration patterns of whales, but even I know you don't tend to find them in the Mediterranean. But what we see here is the Lord's power over all creation, which means he even directs the creatures of the sea.
Do you see? You can't outrun God! Even if you're Usain Bolt! It's futile to even try. Trying to get away from God is like trying to get away from air. It's impossible to outpace his pursuing affection. God will not abandon Jonah, despite the best efforts of Jonah to abandon him. He will not abandon the Ninevites despite their appalling wickedness. And he will not abandon you wherever you find yourself this morning.
You may feel right now like there is something, someone pursuing you. You feel this intrigue, this pull towards God that you maybe don't even want, but you're struggling to resist! And if you are a believer then be reassured that God will never let you go. He will never let you out of his sight. And he will use all things, even painful things to keep you, because he is determined to love you for all eternity. None of us likes to find ourselves caught up in a storm, but sometimes this is the only way that God can get our attention.
I mean, we might consider it petulant of God to have chased Jonah when he wanted to get away. And sometimes God's disciplines may seem harsh and unkind to us, but behind them is a heart that beats with love. He loves us too much to let us go. So the next time that you feel that God is bullying you into submission, remember this: if he didn't love you so much he would not persist with the divine compliment of giving you so many reminders of his awesome sovereign power.
And this is the other big lesson from this first chapter of Jonah – That God's mercy is massive! It's not just the size of the fish and what God can do with it that is big here – it's the size of his forgiveness, that he would give Jonah a second chance after all he's done. When we first read this chapter it's easy to assume that the storm and the fish are punishments from God for disobedience. But they are not! They are divine interventions. God sends them not to put Jonah in his place, but to save him. He uses them to hunt Jonah down and corner him, so that Jonah will repent of his sin and turn back to his Lord. It was an act of mercy.
No matter what happens God loves us and wants the best for us. No matter what happens, God is in total control. And it is those two great truths that we need to have in place if we're going to learn to trust and obey him. For if we don't think that he's really in control, then we'll always think we need to give him a helping hand or do it our way. And if we don't think that he really has our best interests at heart then we're not going to obey him when he calls us to do anything that puts us out of our comfort zone. But he is in control. He is loving. So let's call on him to help us to learn to trust him enough, so that we run with him rather than from him. Why not take a few moments to respond to God in prayer yourself? Let's have a few moments silence to do that right now. Let's pray.
"Lord, in Your mercy – hear our prayers. Amen."