Earlier this year at Shepparton Baptist Church, we took a look at the book of Jonah from the Old Testament in the Bible. This is the first part of a series of four sermons. As is usually the case, this is the manuscript I worked from but I did go off on tangents at different times. If you're interested in tangents our services are at 10.00am on Sunday's!!!
Bible reading: Jonah 1:1-16
Jonah Flees From the Lord
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
New International Version (NIV)
This morning we look at Jonah chapter 1:1-16. To begin with though, let me tell you a brief story;
A battleship was on exercise at sea in bad weather. The captain was on the bridge. It was foggy. Just after dark, the lookout spotted a light on the starboard side. The captain asked if it was steady or moving. The lookout replied the light was steady meaning they were on direct collision course with that ship! The captain ordered the lookout signal to the other ship:
"Change course 20 degrees. We are on a collision course."
The signal came back ‘"Advisable for you to change course."
The captain signalled ‘"I am a captain. Change course 20 degrees."
"I am a seaman second class. You had better change course 20 degrees" came the reply.
The captain was furious. He sent back ‘"I am a battleship. Change course!"
Back came the signal, "I am a lighthouse. Your call."
This story is quite common. Hands up who have never heard that before this morning?
The beauty of the story for this morning is that it highlights two significant points I want to bring up that relate directly to the story of Jonah.
Did it happen?
The first point…well, the question is this "did it really happen?" Did a prophet called Jonah really hear from Got to go to Ninevah? Did Jonah really head east instead of west? Did a big fish swallow him? Did he end up doing as he was asked?
The answer to that question will depend on who you ask. Many Christians will tell you that it is all true. There is nothing in this story that didn't happen. Then we have theologians who will tell you that it appears to be more of a parable than a historic recording of an actual event. There are lots of reasons that they tell us that. Part of it is the way it was written. The style of writing is very different from other prophetic books. Instead of a collection of prophetic oracles to the nation of Israel, it is a story about a man named Jonah. And from being a mouthpiece of God, he is a disobedient and angry servant. All these things make Jonah quite unique and raise lots of questions. The risk of taking Jonah as a kind of parable is that it somehow weakens the message of God's amazing intervention in the world. If it didn't happen, it's just one person's idea of how God's judgement, persistence, grace and mercy can look. When I reflect on the question of whether Jonah is historical or more parable, I come down to this. As fact, it is not impossible but improbable. If it is improbable, then I believe that God can and did do it. Despite our scientific understanding of fish (or whales) and our vague understanding of the location.
So is the book of Jonah fact or fiction? I take the position of "It's extraordinarily factual".
All the evidence to suggest that the book of Jonah is purely a parable takes the assumption that God doesn't intervene. The same way that people try and rationalise the parting of the sea by Moses, the same way that people try and rationalise the creation of the world in seven days or all land animals going into the ark. When we try and take these events and rationalise them, we are also trying to rationalise God. Now, as a sort of disclaimer, I am not saying that everything in the bible is literal. We know that the parables Jesus spoke were not actual events. We also know that apocalyptic writings are not to be taken as literally what will happen. The moment we try and rationalise God and His word, we do have a problem. It is better to be different to the captain of the battleship and be prepared to move in our understanding. Let's not tell God to move out of the way.
Jonah did a runner
The second point is that Jonah did a runner.
Jonah's instructions were crystal clear. There were no excuses that he didn't get the message or that he didn't understand what was meant by the instructions or that he was confused by what he was being told to do. God told Jonah to "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me'. Simple words and crystal clear.
While Jonah is one of the "minor prophets," and while we tend to downplay his contributions, the revival that came to Nineveh as a result of the message God gave Jonah to preach is the greatest recorded in scripture. Jesus used the example of the prophet when He said in Luke 11:29 – 30, "As the crowds increased, Jesus said, "This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation." Two of the synoptic gospel writers mention occasions where Jesus used the example of Jonah. (Matt. 12:39 -41, 16:4 and Luke 11:20 -32)
Jonah prophesied during the reign of wicked King Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25). Jeroboam was a wicked king. Scripture says " He did evil in the eyes of the Lord" (2 Kings 14:24)
So that we might have an idea about the geography of our story, the ruins of Nineveh have been located directly across the Tigris River from the modern day city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Many a recent news story can help us locate that city in northern Iraq.
God said Jonah, go down to Nineveh and preach the Word to them because they are a wicked city, and we all know what Jonah did…he did exactly the opposite of what God had told him to do. Now we ought to consider all the facts before we get down too hard on Jonah. God was telling Jonah to go to a place where the people were hated enemies of the Israelites
Many people I know would say "what a great assignment." Wow LORD send me but, Jonah did not want to go. Assyria was the bitter enemy of Israel. They were a cruel people who had often abused Israel. Jonah knew that God's sending him was an expression of God's love and that God would save them if they repented, Jonah obviously did not want that. Jonah knows that if they repent, his gracious, merciful and slow to anger God will save them. (Jonah 4:2)
Instead of booking passage to Nineveh, Jonah flees in the opposite direction for a place called Tarshish. We do not know exactly where Tarshish is, but we do know that it is a port on the Mediterranean perhaps in southern Spain or Carthage in North Africa. Scripture says here in VS. 3 "But Jonah ran away from the Lord."
Most of us are asking ourselves here does Jonah really think he can run away from God? I mean this man is a prophet of God, doesn't he know that God sees and knows all things? It might help us to understand the answer though if we would instead ask ourselves the question ‘what do I think when I am disobedient to God." Do I somehow think that God doesn't see when I pass on an opportunity to witness to my neighbour or when I fail to love my neighbour as I do myself? That really is what Jonah is doing here isn't it? Jonah is acting in direct disobedience to what he knows God's will is for his life. Do we always act in the way that we know is God's will for our lives? Are we actively seeking God's will for our lives? If we are not, then we can say we are acting much like Jonah acted, and we should not be surprised when we find ourselves in the belly of the whale. Verse three makes it sound like Jonah had very little trouble finding a ship going to Tarshish. Remember that place that we didn't know exactly where it was? Verse three also makes it sound like Jonah had very little trouble paying the fare to this far-away place. From the language used, many have concluded that Jonah would have hired the whole ship for his use. The fare Jonah paid, whether or not this is the case, would have been substantial. It was obviously a great journey because in Solomon's day round trip to Tarshish took three years. (2 Chron. 9:21)
Now when God tells us what he wants us to do, it's a pretty good idea to get onto it! Jonah, much like us, can grab another ship in the other direction, head down into the ship and fall asleep. While Jonah was asleep, God sent out a mighty storm. How bad was the storm? The sailors on the ship had already resorted to throwing their cargo over the side. By doing that the ship would float higher up in the water, the waves were less likely to fill the boat with water…that didn't satisfy them though. How bad was the storm? It says the sailors were crying out to their god. Which gods were they crying out to? The sailors were probably calling out to their gods in the hope that one of their patron deities might be able to exert some influence on whichever god has become disturbed enough to send the storm. They are calling out for assistance, not in repentance. The more, the better and so the captain awakens Jonah so he too can cry out to his god. The captain had no idea that Jonah knew the real God, the one that had created the ocean and the tempest too for that matter.
Jonah, sound asleep and oblivious to the storm is shaken awake by a seemingly angry captain that demands Jonah get up and cry out to his God. "Who knows," the captain says, "your God might take notice of us so that we won't be killed."
Jonah doesn't seem to be the least bit afraid. Good thing too, because they are about to throw sleeping beauty into the deep blue sea. No, I think that even in disobedience Jonah knows the security of his eternal salvation. In contrast, notice the fear in the sailors. Too, the sailors are confused about what to do next, but Jonah knows the answer.
When the sailors find out that they have a Hebrew on board, the situation changes. Does the world recognise you by the name you wear? I mean are you showing the world that you belong to Christ? As soon as these sailors knew that Jonah was a Hebrew and that he fled from the presence of God, they really became afraid. What should we do to you they said, so that the sea will be calm for us?
If we have not seen Jonah's true colours before, here they are on full display. Throw me overboard says Jonah. Jonah tells them without reservation…this storm is upon them because he has been disobedient to the will of God.
Jonah might have jumped overboard but notice that he did not. He allowed the sailors to try and save him. He left his responsibility to others. So, the sailors rowed as hard as they could, not wanting to throw Jonah into the sea but there is no value in working against God, NONE. Note their cry to God in verse 14 "Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased." They throw him overboard and still, Jonah allowed someone else to take on what he should have done. Disobedience is a trail that ends up very messy, doesn't it?
After tossing Jonah into the ocean, the seas calm and the sailors get even more fearful. So fearful in fact that they offer up sacrifices to God and made vows.
We end the story of Jonah there, just before we hear about the great fish swallowing him up. We stop short because it's a moment of tension and we often miss it when we read through it. It's a cliffhanger. At this point, Jonah had attempted to run away from God, but God had found him and caused him to be thrown into the sea. Being stubborn and disobedient looks like it has cost Jonah his life. That's the point when we do a runner from God. We deserve what we get. But how often do we get what we deserve? How often does God send a great fish to save us? How often does God's amazing grace save us from our actions? As Christians, we don't live a life of karma. We live a life of grace. Today is a good day to receive that grace. Today is a good day to call out to God and ask for forgiveness of our disobedient ways. Today is a good day to listen to the lighthouse and move yourself 20 degrees to avoid the crash.
This week, let's commit to asking God "what is it I'm avoiding?". Let's also commit to decide to stop avoiding what God has planned for us.