Jonah 1 - Running from God
When I say the word Jonah, what is the first thing that pops into your mind?
Did you see a whale? You might have imagined a Moby Dick like scene in which Jonah is swallowed by a big old fish.
This is where most of our imaginations go when we think of Jonah.
If we grew up in church, we might imagine flannel graphs, picture books, or cartoons, and in all of these it’s often as if the main character is the big fish.
Somehow over the years the fish has become the star of the show. But in the actual book of Jonah the fish only gets a handful of verses.
This book is about so much more and it has so much more to offer us.
In fact, the key character isn’t the fish, rather the key characters are God and Jonah and the drama is all about how they see the world very differently from one another.
The book of Jonah gives us a whole theology of God’s judgement, God’s mercy, and God’s grace. It gives us insights into God’s character and it gives us insights into who God calls us to be in response. There are a total of 48 verses in Jonah and in this there are 39 references to God.
Throughout history this book has been one of central importance in the life of the church and its worship. Jonah until recently was part of the Catholic church’s readings during Easter on Holy Saturday and in the Orthodox church it still is.
This is because of what is called “The Sign of Jonah” when Jesus pointed to Jonah as a sign of what he would do in his death and resurrection, saying:
“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)
Christians have interpreted Jonah with Jesus in mind, seeing the link between the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus with themes of death and resurrection, sin and repentance, judgement and grace.
Jonah is anything but a simple Sunday school story. It is a hearty theological meal to digest that touches on deep themes about God but also deep themes on what it means to be human.
This book probes Jonah’s heart and the human heart in general looking at themes of fear, racism, violence, despair, avoidance, guilt, faith, trust, and humility.
Scholars over recent years have argued a bit about this book and many modern interpreters have found it hard to believe that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish.
The assumption that this is impossible is built on the idea the unlikely historical events are unlikely to have happened because they don’t usually happen. Yet this is hardly a verifiable truth in itself. Just because something is unique or strange doesn’t make it impossible.
But because of this some recent interpreters have seen this book as merely allegorical or a kind of fiction trying to send a message.
This isn’t how the book has been read by the majority of the church over the centuries. It has been widely read as an historical narrative that is connected with a real person who is identified in the book of Kings as “Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet.” (2 kings 14:25 )
There are real people and places through this book and it connects with a time in history roughly around the 8th century BC.
Why this book has been queried as fictional perhaps is because of its highly stylized quality. It is full of irony and wit. It is a kind of satire really. It is full of humour and shock factor.
The opening lines of the story which we look at this morning are a clear illustration of this.
The Hebrew Scriptures are full of amazing examples of Prophets who do the will of God. Elijah is considered one of the greatest and wonderful example:
1 Kings 17:1-5
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbea in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2 The word of the Lord came to him, saying, 3 “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 So he went and did according to the word of the Lord
Now compare this with Jonah…
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3a)
As Jewish hearers first listened to the story of Jonah the first couple of lines would have drawn them in like a familiar plot. God calls a Prophet to go and then the Prophet goes. It would be like us watching a predictable romantic comedy = guy meets girl, they fall in love, guy does something to ruin the whole thing, then they reconcile and all is well.
The plotline is familiar, yet the shock happens in the 3rd verse when the story takes an unfamiliar twist.
Jonah doesn’t say yes God, he runs as far as he can in the opposite direction. Here we are introduced to a very different kind of story than a usual story about a prophet. Here the trajectory is set for the whole book – it all begins with Jonah running away from God and by the end of the book we know why – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today we will explore the theme that sets the scene for this book – running from God.
I can still remember the first time that I ran away from home. I was sent to my room for behaving badly. So I slunk off sulking about whatever it is that I had done. I can’t quite remember now but it must have been bad.
I sat in my room brooding, when a cunning thought came into my head. What if I just ran away? My parents would be terrified, they would wonder where I had gone and that would really show them. So I grabbed my backpack and I snuck down to the kitchen. I filled my drink bottle with water and rifled through the cupboards for something that would sustain me for the long haul. What caught my eye was a packet of wine biscuits! That would do the trick. So I jam them in my bag and I head out on my epic journey. I head down the driveway, I go across the street to the park and then I lose my nerve. Well, I don’t want to get too far otherwise search and rescue might get called. I don’t want a chopper coming in to get me, I imagine the most dramatic scenario possible and decide that the park across the road might be the best place to hide. So I find a large tree, and I climb right to the top. And then I wait…and wait…and wait. After half an hour I am pretty bored so I crank the biscuits…and my long vigil to get my parents attention begins…
You know what is amazing. I don’t think they ever really took it seriously. I thought nothing says business more than “packing the wine biscuits” but all I remember is a few mumbled threats via my brother and me coming home with my tail between my legs.
Have any of you guys run away from home before? (You don’t have to put up your hands). Perhaps you haven’t run away so literally but have run from something before? Maybe a situation you don’t want to face at work? Maybe a difficult conflict? What about God? Or perhaps something God has called us to do?
This morning we read about Jonah running away. Like me, Jonah does the bolt except Jonah was much more committed to his running.
God asks Jonah to do something.
Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.
The city of Nineveh, the place that God was calling Jonah to go, was a great city. This doesn’t refer to its reputation but rather its size and significance.
It was surrounded by walls 100ft high and 50ft thick. About 600,000 people lived there. It was a city occupied by the Assyrian people – foreigners to Jonah. As an Israelite, Jonah would consider these Assyrian’s as enemies, as a threat in fact.
The Assyrian’s weren’t known for their kindness and hospitality. In the Bible they are presented as ruthless and violent. Archaeology confirms the witness of the Bible too.
Scholars tell us about Ashurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib (one of the famous Assyrian kings of the Bible). Ashurbanipal was known for tearing the lips and hands of his victims off. His old mate, another King Tiglath-Pileser was famous for flaying his victims and making great piles of their skulls. One commentator has gone as far to call Assyria of Jonah’s time a “terrorist state.”
Not only this but from a Jewish perspective, the Assyrian’s worship of various idols would have been an offence and a threat.
So, God calls Jonah to go to this place – the home of a violent and wicked enemy and what does he ask Jonah to do?
He says: “Cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
He asks Jonah to go preaching judgement and repentance. He wants Jonah to tell them to turn from evil and toward the living God so that they may be saved.
And Jonah just can’t stomach this.
Maybe he is afraid? I’m sure to a large extent he was.
But it’s much more likely that he just doesn’t like the sound of God’s plan. As we read on we will discover this.
Right at the beginning of Jonah we get our first glimpse of God’s character – God is holy and good. He loves the world enough he is willing to judge it, to set what is wrong right and to heal what is broken. He takes sin seriously and He deals to it. So, he chooses Jonah to send on a mission to call the people to change. This implies that God is willing to forgive and offer mercy, but it seems as this is just all too much for Jonah.
In a kind of parody of the usual prophetic call where the prophet would get up and go as God has said, Jonah gets up and he goes – but in the very opposite direction.
We are told that Jonah set out to flee from the presences of the Lord.
Surely as a good Jew who knew the stories of God and sung the songs of the people would know the wisdom of Psalm 139 which says:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
I don’t think Jonah literally thought he could get away from God.
In Genesis chapter 4, Cain murders his brother Abel and after this we hear “that Cain went away from the presence of the Lord.”
To go from the presence of the Lord is to step outside of good relationship with God and outside of his service.
Jonah was trying to break relationship, he was unwilling to serve God and he is rebelling from God in his actions.
Today’s Gospel reading was from Luke 15. In this story we hear of a Father who represents God and two sons of this Father who are lost.
One son breaks relationship and runs away from home to spend his inheritance on pleasure and partying until his cup runs dry and he comes home disillusioned and broken.
His Father, delighted that he is back runs to greet him, gives him new clothes and hosts as party for him.
The older brother watches from a distance full of scorn and envy and shames his Father by not coming to the party. He can’t believe it – all this time he has been good, done what is right, and he has never got a party like this. Full of jealousy and self-righteousness he sulks.
The story paints a picture of two lost boys.
They both run from their Father, breaking relationship, but in very different ways.
Tim Keller, whose book I am drawing from for this series on Jonah has entitled his book “The Prodigal Prophet” because he sees the direct link between the running Jonah and the story of the Prodigal.
Keller points out that in Jonah in in the story of the Prodigal we see two ways of running from God.
In the first half of the book of Jonah, Jonah plays the part of the younger prodigal. He blatantly disobeys God and runs away. In the last half of the book Jonah obeys God and goes to Nineveh. When the Ninevites repent, he acts like the older brother. He can’t handle the mercy and love of God toward these people who have run so far and been so wicked.
Keller says: “We all know we can run from God by becoming immoral and irreligious…but it is also possible to avoid God by becoming very religious and moral.”
Who do we resonate with? The younger prodigal and Jonah in the first half of this story? Or the older brother and Jonah in the second half?
That question isn’t easy.
We are all “prone to wander” as a wonderful old hymn puts it. (Come Thou Fount of every blessing)
But the good news for Jonah is that God is always a step ahead of Him. That’s good news for us too by the way.
What we will see as the story unfolds is that God will pursue Jonah with his relentless grace and mercy and that this grace and mercy will ask deep questions of Jonah’s heart.
In Jonah we find a wildly loving God who pursues people with his love. He pursues the Assyrian’s, as wicked as they are, because he doesn’t want to lose them. And he pursues Jonah, a self-righteous, nationalist prophet who doesn’t do what he is told.
Dieterich Bonhoeffer captures the wild love of God well when he says:
“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.”
Today we have been introduced once more to this God as we reflect on the story of Jonah.
If we’ve been running may we know the good news that God hasn’t given up on us. He pursues us with love.
If we are struggling to follow and be faithful may we know that even though we are weak, God is much stronger than we might think.
If we feel satisfied and self-righteous, may we know that like Jonah and the older brother, God doesn’t owe us anything – we’re not perfect, and we need his mercy and forgiveness as much as anyone.