This is part of a Lenten sermon series on The Sign of Jonah
Text: Jonah 1:-1-16
Jonah left us with several questions last week, didn’t he? Last Wednesday, Jonah had received his call from God to go to Nineveh to be a prophet once again. But Jonah kept hitting the ignore button on his cell phone and ran the opposite direction. Making it to the harbor town of Joppa, he got into a boat and headed to Tarshish on the coast of what is now Spain. He was running away from the presence of the Lord. Will he outrun God and make it to shore? Will God catch up with him and convince him to do what he wants? And what’s the real reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place?
Oh Jonah! What a feather head! Actually his name means ‘the dove’ and, while we often think of doves as being symbolic of peace, people also used to think of doves as flighty, unreliable and unpredictable. This dove is trying to fly away. But as we said last week, God is persistent.
The psalmist writes: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in [the land of the dead], you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’,12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (psalm 139)
God is not fooled by Jonah’s departure. He sends a great wind upon the sea and a huge storm is stirred up. Actually, it says that God hurled a wind at the sea! The boat is in great jeopardy and the other men on board are terrified. This must have been quite a storm because this probably wasn’t just a local fishing boat but more likely it was a trading vessel which would have been back and forth over what were typically difficult seas between Joppa and Tarshish. It must have been something big for these men to be so afraid! Each of the men pleads with his gods to save them. These sailors weren’t Hebrews and they had many gods…sea gods and wind gods and thunder gods…and these men were praying to any and all of them to save them from this storm!
Now imagine you are the captain of this boat. All Hades is breaking loose! You order your men to dump the cargo which probably would cost you a pretty penny but it just might give you the chance to save the boat and your men. It is complete chaos and everyone on the boat is crying out to their gods for mercy and help! Everyone, that is, except that last passenger you picked up.
You could tell he was not from around Joppa at all. He looked like he was a Jew. But where is he now? Where was he when it seemed that all the gods known to man must have been trying to crush them with wind and waves and pull them to the blackened depths below? You go down into the belly of the boat and find him…..sleeping. Sleeping!!?? In the middle of all of this! What is wrong with this guy??!!
Yes, that is exactly what Jonah was doing. Sleeping. I believe I would have thrown him overboard myself at that very moment. What are you doing down here sound asleep? the captain demands. Get up there and pray to your god! We’ve all tried ours and no one’s helping so maybe your god will give us a thought, show us some mercy, and keep us all from drowning.
Now, about this same time, the sailors are beginning to believe there must be a curse upon them. Or at least one of them on the boat must be cursed. They say to one another, let’s cast lots—sort of like drawing straws—to see who among us is the cursed one. Someone here has truly made one god or another angry and we need to do something to make this stop! They cast lots and Jonah drew the short straw. Of course.
Tell us! Why has this happened? They demand answers from Jonah and fire one question after another at him. Who are you? What do you do for a living? Where do you come from? Who are your people?
‘I am a Hebrew,’ Jonah tells them, ‘I worship YHWY, the maker of heaven and earth, the ruler of land and sea.’
Well, for heaven’s sake, there’s our problem right here! Look what you have done to us!! You’re running away from your God and he’s the Lord of everything! Where’d you think you were going to hide?? Now you’ve made him mad and this storm is going to take us all down with you! What can we do to you that will make this right? We have to do something! Jonah tells the men to throw him into the sea. I know it is because of me this is happening, he tells them. Do this and the storm will stop.
This looks so very altruistic here. We are just getting to know Jonah and it sounds like he’s being very sacrificial for the sake of the others. Toss me over into the welcoming arms of these cruel waves and this will save you!
Yeah. Truth is, as we will get to know Jonah better, we will learn that this might not be so much for their sake as his own self-destructive tendency. He’s really quite a grumpy guy and often says things like, well this makes me so mad I just want to die. So, while it is possible that he does care a lot about the fate of these men, it is also quite likely that he just doesn’t care about much of anything at all.
Yet, the men on the boat do not want to throw him over. What if throwing him in the sea is the wrong thing to do? What if killing him makes this YHWY God even angrier! They might have thought they’d never escape him then! They try to row back to shore, perhaps to return him to Joppa. But the storm is so fierce they cannot make it. As a last resort, they all begin to pray to Jonah’s God. To the Lord God creator of heaven and earth. Please, they beg, forgive us if this is shedding innocent blood! We do not know what else to do, so we are going to throw him over!
Over the side he goes and into the churning tide. The sea’s anger subsides. It is calm. The men are all the more amazed and begin to worship this God. Clearly, no one else in all creation is more powerful than he; this God who has saved them!
God is persistent.
There is a poem about God’s persistence written by Francis Thompson called The Hound of Heaven. It begins, “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him. From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.”
The truth is that probably the most frightening part of the story of Jonah is just this. Not the whale or fish, not the impending destruction of Nineveh, not even the terrible storm at sea….but God himself. For many Christians, the only way to think of God is as a great and mighty being with a large hammer waiting to crush all those who are not good enough. Sort of like a pagan god of thunder and lightning ready to hurl down his weapons on the vulnerable ones below. For others, the only way to think of God is meek and nearly powerless or as a giant vending machine of trinkets in the sky. A Willie Wonka in a cosmic chocolate factory waiting to give everything to his good little girls and boys. But the truth is God is neither of those things because he is not a two dimensional character in a play. God is more complicated than that.
Many years ago, when I was a little girl and had just learned to ride a bicycle, I was riding down the hill in front of my grandmother’s house in the mountains. The hill was quite steep and I was not so steady. As I started down the hill, one of the neighbor’s dogs charged down their driveway and started barking at me. I didn’t see him but I heard him and I was scared. I peddled faster and faster, my heart pounding, my feet pumping as fast as I could. The dog behind, barking barking barking. At the bottom of the hill was a busy street. It was late afternoon heavy traffic and I knew I should stop because everything was out of control. But I was so afraid of the dog barking barking barking. I heard the dog circle to my right and I jerked the bike hard left. Off the road, into a large pile of brush, over the handlebars. As I went all I could think was: the dog is going to get me! I landed, face down. Shaken. Dirt and gravel imbedded in my hands and legs though nothing broken. A small dog licking my face and wagging his tail with pure joy at finally catching me.
The irony of that moment has never left me and as an adult, I see it all the more clearly. I was so afraid of that dog. But the real danger was the traffic at the bottom of the hill—the danger I was being driven blindly into not by the dog but by my own fear. The dog sought to love me.
God does follow us like a hound on the trail when we run from him. And run from him we surely do. We are like kids who don’t want our parents following us on facebook to see what we’re doing, like teenagers who do not want to check in or follow a curfew on a Friday night. Yet parents know what storms are out there; how deep the depths into which their children sail. We might run and escape from parents or family or friends or even society and the law, but there is no real running from God.
It is not just because God wants to know where we are at all times or to control our every move like someone obsessed. God has purpose for us and he knows that purpose matters. It matters to him, to us and to others. God follows Jonah not because no one else can do the job of prophet, (he could just make another Jonah or find another prophet if he wished) not because he is obsessed with forcing Jonah to do his bidding. But God hounds him on the sea because Jonah has been given this purpose in life. God knows that even the lives of feather headed doves, of little girls on bicycles, of you and me all matter.
So what will happen to Jonah next? We’ve answered the first of our questions: Will he outrun God and make it to shore? Nope, he won’t. The hound of heaven has found him. Now what? Will he drown in the sea? Has God found him only to punish him for running away? Or will God convince him to do what he asks? And what’s the real reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place? Well, you’ll have to come back next week to find out! But one thing is for certain. The theme of Jonah’s story is this: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and overflowing in steadfast love. What do you think this God and Jonah will do?