Jonah for Ash Wednesday

First in a sermon series for Lent on The Sign of Jonah

Text: Jonah 1:1-3

How often do you hit the ignore button on your cell phone? Admit it, we all know we do this. Caller ID has completely revolutionized the communications industry. It provides you with an instant opportunity to pretend like you’re not available. On your home phone or cell phone, either way, you can tell at a glance who is trying to reach you and make a decision as to whether or not you want to answer that call. No longer can we call someone six or seven times in a row just to catch them as soon as they get home. No longer can little girls and boys call that special person upon whom they have their latest crush and hang up just as they answer because with caller ID……they’ll know who did it! All this thanks to the little invention that shows us who is calling. We can ignore anyone that we do not want to deal with at the moment.

I’ll bet Jonah wished he had caller ID. How great would that have been for him? So, there Jonah is sitting at home, minding his own business, doing his ‘prophet thing’ on a Saturday night. His cell goes off and you know the ringtone would certainly something along the lines of the refrain from “For Those In Peril On The Sea”. Jonah picks up his cell to see whose calling.

Ah, geez, he says, it’s YHWY again! Man, I do not have time for you right now. <ignore>

Ten minutes later…”For Those In Peril On The Sea”….<ignore>…

ten minutes later….For those in….<ignore>. 

Places phone on silence. Ten minutes later, phone starts silently flashing. Jonah takes phone, turns it off altogether.

Oh if only it were that easy to ignore God! But God is persistent.

But Jonah’s story doesn’t start with his avoiding God. When we think of Jonah, we think of the book of the bible named for him and a whale or big fish that swallowed him, but Jonah’s story actually starts back in the book of Kings.

It was a time of great turmoil for the people of Israel. King after King had been raised up by God to rule over the people. It seemed like it was a rollercoaster ride with one good king followed by one bad king. The people who recorded this in the history books even had a special phrase for those bad kings. “They did Evil in the sight of God.” The very worst thing a king could do was to not only do evil things themselves but to make his subjects to do evil as well. One such king was Jeroboam.

God never completely gave up on the Israelites, even when they turned to worshiping other gods, and the time of King Jeroboam was no different. He sent his prophets to speak to the people and to the king to remind them of how they were supposed to live and who their God really was. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Jonah was one of those prophets.

God sent his prophet Jonah, whose name means the dove, to King Jeroboam and although we do not know for certain if he made a complete turnaround, we do know that the writers of the Book of the Kings say he listened to Jonah and managed to do some good before the end of his reign.

By the time we meet Jonah in his very own book, he has already had some experience in prophecy. He was not unfamiliar with being called by God to go tell someone in power that they were way off the mark. God was already programmed into his speed dial. So when God’s name came up on his cell phone, he knew what he was in for.

‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’

Maybe that’s why he kept pushing ignore. Maybe that’s why he ran away. He wasn’t just some guy who had no idea who God was or what he wanted. He knew EXACTLY what God wanted! God was calling him to go to a place that didn’t want him and didn’t want to hear from him and to tell them God wasn’t happy with their lives and they’d better change.  You can imagine, thanks to their unwelcome presence and even more unwelcome message, prophets didn’t always get the red carpet treatment in some towns.

But here’s the problem for Jonah. God is like one of those friends who, if you keep ignoring their calls, comes over to look for you. So when he hears God say: ‘Jonah, go immediately to Nineveh and tell them they’d better get their act together because their bad way of living has gotten to such a state I just cannot ignore it any more’  he knows that he’s either got to get to Nineveh or get out of town.

And Jonah chooses to run.

Instead of heading to Nineveh he heads the opposite direction altogether. He goes to the harbor town of Joppa and it is there he finds a merchant ship heading for Tarshish on the coast of what is now Spain. He buys his way on board and heads down into the boat as they weigh anchor and set sail. Heading for Tarshish and away from the presence of the Lord.

Away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah is running away from God.

But God is persistent.

And you cannot out run him.

He does not care whether your cell has service out there on the ocean or not. He does not care how far he has to go to catch up with you. He’ll do what it takes.

So what’s going to happen to Jonah? Will he outrun God and make it to shore? Will God catch up with him and convince him to do what he wants? What’s the real reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place? Well, to find out the answers to these questions you’ll just have to come back next week! Perhaps most of all we may be asking: why are we talking about Jonah during Lent?

This series is called “The Sign of Jonah”.  This is a phrase Jesus used at one point in his earthly ministry. When so many were clamoring around him begging for a sign from Heaven that he was, indeed, the Messiah, this was his response to them, “the only Sign you will receive is the Sign of Jonah.” Now what on earth could a runaway prophet, attempting to evade God have to do with the Son of God who saved the world? Quite a lot, actually. Once again, you’ll have to come back next week to learn more.

The story of Jonah reminds us that God does not let us go even when we are trying our best to get away from him. It is a story about a man who runs away and a people who are lost, seemingly without hope. Tonight, as we begin our Lenten journey together, we are reminded that often times we run away from God; we feel lost and maybe even without hope. We bear crosses of ash on our foreheads this night and remember our mortality and our human frailty. There are many sides to Lent but perhaps the most important is that it is a season which reminds us of what hope we have in God. He does not give up on us and, in the words of Jonah himself later in his book, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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