Jonah - Stormy Seas
If you’ve ever spent time with a baby at a dinner table you may have experienced the joy of them dropping something, then you pick it up, then they drop it again, then you pick it up, then they drop it again. It’s the never-ending story.
It turns out that Babies are amazing scientists…they are constantly doing little experiments as they figure out how the world works. One of their favourites is testing the theory of gravity, and their parent’s patience.
What children figure out pretty quickly is that each action has a reaction. There are consequences to actions.
As we get older, we continue to figure this out, it’s only that the actions and consequences get more complex.
Today as we continue exploring the book of Jonah, we see the consequences of Jonah’s actions catching up with him…
Last week we looked at how God called Jonah to preach to the city of Nineveh, a city known for its wickedness. God called Jonah to ask them to repent, to turn their lives around and turn to God that they might live and flourish. Yet Jonah found this hard to take. Jonah sets out to run away from God.
(He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.)
Jonah has heard God’s call to go Nineveh, but he just can’t bear it. He gets up and goes in the very opposite direction to where God called him.
We hear that Jonah goes down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. S
This movement downward is interesting. Jonah goes down to Joppa, he goes down into the ship to sleep and eventually down into the sea.
There is a geographical movement downward which indicates a broader theme of Jonah going away from God.
This is a movement downward, ultimately toward death, a movement way from God.
So, we get a clue about Jonah’s direction at this point, and it doesn’t look good.
Jonah goes to a place called Joppa, a small harbour town on the coast of Palestine.
This was a largely non-Jewish place. I wonder if in Jonah’s mind he thought at least in this place he might get away from the obligations of being part of a people who were in a special covenant relationship with God. Perhaps here in Joppa he could hide and get away. In this sense going to Joppa was sort of the equivalent of finding a town with no church, no pesky reminders of God and his call on Jonah’s life.
Commenting on this Martin Luther said:
“It is therefore possible to flee from God in the sense that we may run off to a place where there is neither Word, faith, and Spirit nor the knowledge of God. In that way Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord, that is, he ran away from the people and the land of Judah, in which God’s Word and Spirt and faith and knowledge were present; he fled to the sea among the Gentiles, where there was no faith, Word, and Spirit of God.”
Jonah runs from the community that kept him accountable, the community of faith which reminded him of who God is and the call to love and obey the Lord. In this way Jonah takes the first step to distance himself from God.
The Bible is a book for community, it always reminds us that our faith is not isolated from relationship with others. We are called to worship and be faithful to God together. Often when we want to run from God or distance ourselves from God, one of the first obvious things to go is church, a worshipping community that reminds us of who God is, God’s call on our lives and the work God has given us in the world to bring his light and love to others.
We can’t run from God of course. Jonah finds that out. But we can more easily run from the community called God’s people, the church. This is how Jonah starts his journey away from God, he runs to Joppa to get away from it all, and conveniently it is a port with lots of boats.
And so the next part of the plot unfolds…
Jonah finds a ship going to Tarshish.
Bible scholars have argued about where Tarshish is, some saying it is a place in the South of Spain, but it was more likely referring to a place known as Tarsus in Cilicia, modern day Turkey.
Due to mining in the nearby Taurus Mountains it was likely a rich and exciting place.
One commentator says:
“In Jonah it is also possible to understand Tarshish as functioning in a double entendre – as a specific geographical location but also as any place of luxury, desire, and delight…For Jonah therefore Tarshish may be both a place in Asia Minor and a pleasant place of security.”
So, Jonah seeks to get away from God’s call to a place of comfort and refuge.
In doing so he goes to great lengths. This isn’t half baked. Jonah presumably forks out a fair amount of money to hire a ship and the fact that he gets on a ship in the first place is a huge surprise. The Jewish people were mostly a people of the land, and they viewed the open sea with some fear, as a place of chaos and terror. The fact that Jonah crosses the sea is a sign of his mad determination to run from God.
What we see in Jonah is utter determination to disobey God.
Jonah is very intentional about his running.
The phrase is repeated once again that Jonah was moving “away from the presence of the Lord.”
This is a basic pattern in the Bible that describes the essence of sin.
In the creation poem of Genesis, we hear about the first rebellion of humanity. Seeking independence from God, Adam and Eve refuse to do as God has told them and they go their own way. We are told in this story that God searches for them in the Garden and out of shame they hide. God asks: “Where are you?”
This is the question God has asked of humanity ever since. Where are you?
God takes the initiative in the story of Adam and Eve and he takes the initiative in the story of Jonah because what we see happen next is that we see God acts to pursue Jonah.
We hear that…
…the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.
The image is powerful. God throws a storm upon the sea. It is the same kind of language that was used to describe a warrior throwing a spear. God is not about to be mocked by Jonah.
He won’t be ignored, and neither will He ignore Jonah’s blatant sin.
We might think of Jeremiah 23 (v19-20) which says:
See, the storm of the Lord
will burst out in wrath,
a whirlwind swirling down
on the heads of the wicked.
20 The anger of the Lord will not turn back
until he fully accomplishes
the purposes of his heart.
This kind of language might make us feel uncomfortable right?
This is imagery of God’s wrath and God’s anger.
But whether we like it or not it is Biblical language.
God brings a storm upon Jonah to stop Him in his tracks. Jonah’s act of disobedience has brought a storm upon him.
Jonah has discovered his actions have consequences.
Commenting on this passage Tim Keller says:
“The Bible does not say that every difficulty is the result of sin – but it does teach that every sin will bring you into difficulty”
The point here is that Jonah gets caught in the storm as a consequence of his running.
When we sin, that is, when we run away from God and his intentions for our lives we push against the way things are meant to be, God’s desire for us and who we were created to be. The natural consequences are that things get messy.
Take for example a lie. We start to bend the truth with those around us just a little perhaps because it makes us look better. What began small starts to become a habit and the consequence is that we lose the trust of those around us, relationships are tainted and soured.
Or we might indulge in greed putting our interest before everyone else. Slowly the focus of our lives will turn in on itself until we face the loneliness, isolation and a life that is full of possessions but very little else.
Sin causes storms not just for us related to our own actions but it spills out all over the place. The sailors are caught up in Jonah’s storm (we will hear more about them next week), yet they aren’t specifically culpable for what is going on.
Sin tends to spill out all over the place. Many of the storms we experience in life are a result of others poor choices and brokenness, not just our own. We might think of violence or abuse committed against us, spouses who cheat or community groups that exclude and harm.
The point is that there are consequences for sin.
Let me just make a really important point here for a moment.
There are all kinds of storms.
Jonah wanders into one through a very deliberate act of disobedience.
Not all storms are thrown upon the sea by God. In the book of Job, Job’s friends try to tell him that he is suffering because he has done something wrong and God is punishing him. It turns out that this is rubbish advice and not at all true.
I’ve heard many Christians say such things.
Yet it seems to me that there are lots of kinds of storms. Some storms seem to have no particular or clear reason that we can discern. They seem to me to exist as a result of living in a fallen and broken world. Or other storms we encounter seem to have an element of spiritual evil, the very opposite of God sending it upon us.
What happens next in the story of Jonah is important in how we interpret this storm.
We see that God doesn’t intend to drown Jonah, or punish him just because he can. The storm that God whips up for Jonah is one that is to teach him.
God seeks to restore Jonah.
God’s anger is grounded in his love.
The Bible when defining God says that “God is love.” (1 Jn 4) It doesn’t say “God is anger.” God gets angry with Jonah because of his love for him.
God sends the storm because he doesn’t want Jonah to run from him. He doesn’t want to lose Jonah, and he doesn’t want to lose Nineveh. God’s plan to heal and restore both Jonah and Nineveh won’t be thwarted!
This isn’t a punitive storm but rather a restorative one.
What we see as the story develops is that God actually protects Jonah, first with a ship, then with a big fish, and later with a plan to cover him from the sun.
God provides for Jonah through the storm and he works on changing Jonah’s heart through the storm.
There are other stories in Scripture that might come to mind, like the stories of Moses and Joseph, who both go through all kinds of trials yet in the end we see God at work in the midst of it all.
Tim Keller says:
“Storms can wake us up to truths we would otherwise never see. Storms can develop faith, hope, love, patience, humility, and self-control in us that nothing else can…as hard as it is to discern God’s loving and wise purposes behind many of our trials and difficulties, it would be even more hopeless to imagine that God has no control over them or that our sufferings are random and meaningless.”
The point is that during the storm God’s mercy is at work on Jonah’s heart and in the midst of our storms God is at work too.
Hundreds of years after Jonah’s storm we encounter the story of another storm, where the disciples find themselves in a boat with Jesus.
In this story God doesn’t hurl the storm upon the sea, but rather God is present in the boat with the disciples in the midst of the stormy sea.
The Gospel story is that God pursues us with his untameable love to redeem us from sin.
For Jonah this means God chases him down in a storm, God stops him in his tracks. There are times in our lives where although we don’t want this, we might just need this kind of intervention from God.
But what we also see is that God is in the boat with the disciples, and God is in the boat with us too.
This story with all its anger and drama is a story of God’s wild mercy – the love that will not let us go. The love that ultimately will take the consequences of our sin upon Himself on the cross. May we cease to run and instead give our hearts up to the one who pursues us with his love this day.