January 3, 2010

Running to Nowhere

Have you ever gotten a word from the Lord that you didn.t particularly like? Or perhaps some event happened in your life that made you mad at God. I think most of us go through an experience or twenty in our lives that we blame on God and for which we stay mad at Him for a good long while. Some people recover from this, some don.t. Yet it.s not the end of the journey that I want to talk about this morning, but the reason for it and the journey itself. You see, when something happens in the course of our relationship with God that we don.t like our tendency is to try and run from Him. Running from God can take all kinds of different forms. Some folks run from God specifically to somewhere else. They run to a bottle of alcohol or some other destructive lifestyle that is obviously not honoring of Him. But, they also run and try to hide from Him in the church. They immerse themselves in “righteous” activities in hopes of figuring it out on their own. Other folks run from God but not to anywhere special. They just seem to drift lifelessly from place to place without much in the way of purpose. They may seem like pretty decent people as far as most of their friends and acquaintances are concerned, yet something always seems to be missing from their lives. And again, the reasons for the running are manifold. Maybe someone died and we never got past the anger of God taking them from us. Perhaps a relationship went south and we couldn.t understand why God would tolerate such disharmony in our lives. It could be that we simply feel like everything is falling apart and God isn.t doing a very good job of holding them together. Or maybe, God has clearly said something to us that we don.t like and don.t have any intention of obeying. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: we run.

At this point, I recognize that I may have some of you wondering why I would broach such an unholy-sounding topic as the first sermon of the new year. Well, for several reasons actually. First, because it reflects reality and most good preaching starts with where we are. Second, and more importantly, because this is the time of year when people tend to get reflective and introspective. This is the time of year for resolutions to better ourselves in one way or another. But in order to make realistic goals, we have to first realize where we are. This means that for many of us, we stop running from God for a minute to decide whether or not to continue in the direction we.ve been going. And so while you pause this morning in your journeys, I want to tell you a story about another man who ran from God. In fact, all this month we are going to look at different parts of his story. Open your Bibles with me to the first chapter of the book of Jonah. You.ll find it in that maze of short books in the back of the Old Testament. If you find Amos, go a bit further; if you get to Micah, you.ve gone too far. The story of Jonah is one of the most familiar yet most misunderstood stories in all of Scripture. People tend to fixate on Jonah and the Whale almost to the point of turning it into a litmus test for fidelity to the Word and even the entire Christian faith. This majoring on a truly minor point, however, has led to people overlooking the real power and intent of this story about a man.s rocky relationship with God and what it has to teach us about our own stories. And so with all this in mind, let.s look together this morning at the first part of this story to see if we can understand what happened when Jonah ran from God and in this the fruits of our own flights from reality.

Let me begin, then, by stating the obvious: nearly everybody knows the story of Jonah. God tells him to go preach to the Ninevites, but instead he gets on a boat headed in the other direction. As a result God sends a storm to stop the boat, Jonah gets tossed overboard, swallowed by a whale, and eventually spit back out on the shore. In the end he obeys God and everybody is happy. Or at least that.s the version we learned in Sunday school when we were kids. But just as at some point we graduate from Gerber to real meals, we also need to grow up in our understanding of stories like this one. Jonah.s story is action-packed, dramatic, speaks of a tumultuous relationship with God, and ends in a manner that is bizarre but definitely not happy. It is a story about second chances and leaves us wondering whether or not the hero (and I use that designation loosely) ever really gets it. I.m getting ahead of myself, though. The story begins like most of the other Minor Prophets. books: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.” Were it not for 2 Kings 14:25 we would not know anything else about this man. We know that he was a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel after it split off from Judah. We also know that his previous prophetic assignment was to proclaim good news to Israel about a time of peace for the land. This time of peace was during an historical period in which the powerful Assyrians, whom God later used to punish Israel for their perennial disobedience, were relatively weak.

This political weakness, however, did not lessen the extent of their spiritual crimes. Thus in v. 2 God gives Jonah his mission: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me.” Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians. It was an enormous city by the standards of the day—so big it took three days to walk across we are later told. It was also not at the top of the list of tourist destinations for most folks. The Assyrians were famed for their shocking brutality. One could forgive Jonah for not wanting to go to a place from which he might not return in one piece. Yet this is exactly where God sent Him to literally “cry out against.” In other words, go tell them that they are way off base and need to get back on the right track. In the next verse we see Jonah.s response: he gets up and goes…to the non-Israelite seaport Joppa…in order to go to Tarshish which was on the other side of the known world from Nineveh. As the text says in v. 3: “However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord.s presence. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, from the Lord.s presence.” Remembering that in a day before writers had clever ways to draw attention to important points repetition was a common rhetorical tool, Tarshish is repeated three times here and the fact of his fleeing from the Lord.s presence is repeated twice. If you write in your Bibles you might want to underline those words with a permanent marker. Though we are not told why Jonah reacts like this, the text makes it clear that he goes out of his way to do the diametrical opposite of what God tells him to do. In other words, he takes off running from God because he pretty clearly didn.t like what God told him to do.

Do we ever do this? I think we.ve pretty well already established that we do. But it.s not really something we broadcast in polite company. In the same vein, why would there be a book in the Bible about a guy who runs from God? It doesn.t seem like a very holy thing to include. And indeed it isn.t, but it.s reality. And when you remember that true reality is found only in God, reality can actually be a pretty holy place to be. I remember a time when I was walking back to my dorm in college from practice with the worship team at the BSU and God laid it on my heart to go apologize to a friend towards whom I.d had a pretty bad attitude lately. I wasn.t too interested in following through on that let me tell you. If you.ll recall, when David came to an understanding of God.s character in Psalm 139:7 his first instinct was to run from God: “Where can I escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?” The reality is that at some point in our lives we all run from God. The reason Jonah ran was because God was sending him somewhere he didn.t want to go. The reason we ran might be dramatically different from that, but we still run. The important question to address in both situations is what happens when we run. So: what happened when Jonah ran from God? Let.s stay on this journey and find out.

Look at the text with me starting in v. 4 as we see what happened: “Then the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart. The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship.s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep. The captain approached him and said, „What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won.t perish..” Can you imagine the chaos on board when this huge storm came up out of nowhere? All the sailors were running around battening down the hatches. When it became clear that wasn.t going to help they started throwing everything overboard whose weight might cause the boat to sink. During all of this panic they were each crying out to their god. Few people understand that there are forces in this world simply beyond our control better than professional sailors. And in a day when people were generally much quicker than we are to attribute natural phenomena to divine sources, this group of brave and burly sailors were crying to every god and goddess they could think of in order to appease them so that the storm would stop.

Somewhere in the midst of all this hustle and bustle the captain remembered the passenger who was stowed away in the bowels of the ship because he was running from his god. Perhaps he knew which god was causing this and could end it. Imagine his shock, then, when the man was sound asleep. Don.t miss the emotion of the captain here. “What are you doing sound asleep?!?” And then he uses words that would have caught Jonah.s attention like a flashing neon sign: “Get up! Cry out!” Those were the very same words God had spoken to Jonah to start this whole adventure. You see, sometimes God uses what we would consider “worldly” means to speak to us. I.m sure Balaam never expected to hear a word from the Lord out of the mouth of his donkey. Perhaps you have been having a bad day and it was an unchurched friend that spoke a word from the Lord to encourage you. God is not limited to “His” people to accomplish His purposes. Yet how interesting that in Jonah.s running from God he found these pagan men were begging him to run back.

So the simple answer to our question of what happened when Jonah ran from God is that God caused this incredible storm to stop the boat in its tracks. Yet surely this can.t be paradigmatic. Surely God doesn.t throw up road blocks for us that impact others. From this story, and I suspect from our own lives, we know this is the case. Isn.t this unfair of Him, though? From our limited perspective of the situation it sure seems like it. Yet we never know the full story and in any case, we can rest assured that God is rarely fair, but always just. In fairness, God should have struck Jonah down on the spot for his gratuitous disobedience and willingness to let a huge city of people face His wrath with no warning. Instead He graciously called him back into the game and did so in such a manner that alerted some pagan sailors to His power and glory along the way. So then is everything bad that happens in our lives God trying to get our attention when we are running from Him? For example, did my grandpa die when I was ten because I didn.t pray enough or wasn.t good enough that year? No. But don.t forget that we live in a broken world which includes a lot of bad things happening that don.t make any sense. In His wisdom God sometimes prevents these and sometimes doesn.t. We simply aren.t privy to the whys of this, but we must be very careful not to let a lack of understanding turn into a misunderstanding. We must never forget God.s character. This story is descriptive of God.s actions, not prescriptive. But like stopping a body in motion generates friction, when God stops us, it can create friction in our lives. If you.ve ever been given an “Indian Burn” you know that friction can hurt. Friction can generate sufficient heat to start a fire which if not handled properly can burn down a forest. Also, when we run from the only source of life and goodness in the world we will only find death and evil. You see, when Jonah ran from God he set out on a path of destruction that left victims everywhere he went. Indeed: Running from God is a painful journey.

Once the sailors had all hands on deck and could make sure they were able to account for as many gods and goddesses as they had men on the ship they turned to a tried and true method for determining whose god was upset: they drew straws, or cast lots. They essentially asked all the gods to make sure the lot fell to the responsible party. We laugh at such a technique today, but in a time before the Holy Spirit was in the world this really was how people (including Israelites) determined the will of the gods. They essentially flipped a coin or drew straws and believed the gods would direct the proper outcome. Indeed, Proverbs 16:33 says: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” From v. 7: “„Come on!. the sailors said to each other. „Let.s cast lots. Then we will know who is to blame for this trouble we.re in.. So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah.” Can you imagine this scene in your minds? The lot falls to Jonah and one by one all eyes are raised from the dice to him as the storm rages around them; eyes filled with questions and anger and pain. “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we.re in. What is your business and where are you from? What is your country and what people are you from?” They want to know what he.s really doing on their ship. They want to know where he came from which would tell them what god he worshiped as gods were worshiped regionally. And they wanted to know what he had done to make some god mad enough at him to provoke this storm that was causing so much trouble for them. Running from God is a painful journey.

And then his answer: “I am a Hebrew. I worship Yahweh, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” Don.t hear that so much as a bold confession as an admission of guilt. Jonah knew from the moment the captain woke him up the reason for the storm. He was running from God and didn.t want to face the reality of his situation. But God wasn.t letting him go that easily. So he begrudgingly and only under pressure revealed his knowledge of the situation. His admission would have further enraged and terrified the pagan sailors. This guy worshiped an all-powerful god and he had the gall to disobey him! It.s no wonder they ask him in vv. 10-11: “What is this you.ve done?…What should we do to you to calm this sea that.s against us?” Jonah tells them, but they don.t like it. He wanted them to toss him overboard but they couldn.t justify killing this man who was innocent as far as they were concerned. If his god really was this powerful he might avenge Jonah.s death by sinking their ship.

Have you been here? Have you been in the place where your life has spiraled out of control because you have run from the only true source of balance? You see, we are never the only ones affected when storms are raging in our lives. Our bad attitudes offend those around us. Our lack of organization causes others trouble. Our anger impacts our dealings with people we meet. Running from God is a painful journey. Jonah.s storm caused by his running was threatening the lives of these unsuspecting sailors. All they knew was that this stranger wanted passage on their ship to the edge of the world because he was angry with his god and wanted to go to a place where he couldn.t be found. They were kindhearted men who had no intentions of taking a life without warrant. How ironic that Jonah is shown mercy by some of the very people—pagans—he had abandoned to the wrath of God. Yet in the end, the will of the storm prevailed. From vv. 14 and following: “So they called out to the Lord: “„Please, Yahweh, don.t let us perish because of this man.s life, and don.t charge us with innocent blood! For You, Yahweh, have done just as You pleased.. Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. The men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”

Friends, make no mistake: Running from God is a painful journey. Whatever the reason, when we try and run from God we are setting ourselves up for a journey filled with hurt. When we abandon righteousness for sin we hamstring our ability to find any joy in life. And know well that we are never the only victims when we choose to sin. Jonah wasn.t. He lost his investment in the boat, which was probably sizable. The sailors endured perhaps the most terrifying storm of their lives. They lost all their cargo to the sea. They had to bear the awful conscience prick of casting a man they presumed innocent to his death. And Jonah had the unenviable privilege of being that sacrifice.

“But,” you might protest, “where God has me right now hurts too much.” Surely Jonah thought something along those lines. After all, God wanted him to go proclaim judgment against a people who would as soon chop off his head as look at him…or so he thought. This idea makes an assumption that may not be true. first assumes that God has put us in the pain we are facing. It may be that God is allowing us to go through some hard times in order to grow and strengthen our faith. But it may be that we have done something to separate ourselves from God and apart from God there is only pain. If the hurt we are fleeing is the result of the former situation—truly God-allowed pain—then running will get us nowhere. When God allows us to walk through some of the brokenness of this world it is with the goal of teaching us to rely more heavily on Him. Like a refiner of gold, He must heat us up until we melt so that the impurities might float to the top in order to be scooped out, leaving only the purest material behind. On the other hand, if the hurt is the result of the latter situation then running from God is not going to solve anything either. Running from God is a painful journey. God is our hope of a way out and we need to be running to Him. What we need in this situation is to step up and take ownership of our failings—like Jonah does, if begrudgingly. We must put ourselves in a place of faithful dependence upon Him as Jonah does in telling the sailors to throw him overboard. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, whether or not God delivered him was beside the point. The point was submission to God.s plans for him regardless of the cost. And in this case, as we learn at the end of the chapter, God was merciful to deliver him, if not in the most preferred of ways: “Then the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights.” You see, at this point in his running, Jonah finally acknowledges reality. He takes the plunge of faith, so-to-speak, and embraces life in the arms of God. In the same way, whatever the reason for our running, when we too come to the point of acknowledging reality—that God is unfailingly good and will carry us to life out of the storms if we let Him—we will find that our running can lead us back into His arms. The running itself can turn out to be an opportunity to prove to ourselves just how much we need Him. So know this well as we take together our first baby steps into this new year: Running from God is a painful journey. If this morning you find yourselves on the road out of the kingdom stop and turn around. You.ll find your Father.s open arms ready to welcome you back to life.