Running From GodRev. Philip Miller | October 9, 2022
Selected highlights from this sermon
When you think of the story of Jonah, what do you think of first? The whale, right? But the story of Jonah is, first and foremost, about God. It’s a story showing God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people. And, it’s a story for people like us, people who run from God and need second chances.
In this message, Pastor Miller explores three themes from this story: an uncomfortable call, and unexpected flight, and an unrelenting grace.
God was pursuing Jonah, and He is pursuing you. He may even send a storm to wake you up.
Today we begin Relentless, a new study in the Old Testament book of Jonah. I want to do a quick word association game with you, so warm up your vocal chords. I’m going to say, “Jonah.” You say, “Whale.” Yeah! Jonah and the whale! And if those of you know your Bibles will know it’s not actually a whale it’s a great fish, a small technicality there. But it’s not really a story about the fish, and it's not really a story about Jonah either. It’s a story that is first and foremost about God.
It's a story about God. It’s a story that shows us God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people. That’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people. It’s a story for people like us, people who run from God, people who need second chances, people whose only hope is in grace. And this story of Jonah shows us a God whose love will never stop (it never quits), who is an always and forever God, who is pursuing us, redeeming us, forgiving us.
So let’s dive in and explore God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people. If you have your Bibles we’re going to be in Jonah, chapter 1. We’re going to look at the first six verses today. You’ll find today’s reading on page 774 in the pew Bible, if you want to pull that out.
We’re going to see three things this morning. We’re going to find:
- an uncomfortable call,
- an unexpected flight, and
- unrelenting grace.
An uncomfortable call, an unexpected flight, and unrelenting grace. That’s our outline for this morning.
Would you bow your heads. Let’s pray, and ask the Lord to be our teacher this morning.
Heavenly Father, we ask you to come and teach us what it means to obey you no matter what. This story shows us ourselves. It exposes our hearts and our desperate need for your unrelenting grace. So help us cling to you in the beauty of all that you are. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen. Amen.
So first of all, we see an uncomfortable call, an uncomfortable call. Jonah 1:1, “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying...”
Pause for just a moment. This introduction here is what we know as a prophetic formula. All through the Old Testament, the Word of the Lord, we get this phrase, “The word of the Lord came to Abraham, or Moses, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah.” It’s a formula. A divine oracle of God is being given to His prophet. And notice here, “the LORD” is in all caps, and whenever see that, especially in the Old Testament, you will know that what lies behind that translation is the four-letter name for the covenant name of God, the name that God gave to Moses, Yahweh [YHWH], the covenant-keeping name of God. Israel is in a covenant relationship with God. He watches over them and they are to obey Him. And now this covenant-keeping God, the God of Israel, is speaking to His chosen prophet.
This is a big deal. When God speaks, everyone is supposed to listen. And this is the second time, as far as we know, that Jonah received an oracle like this, a divine revelation or word from the Lord. The first prophecy he received is recorded for us in 2 Kings 14, and we’re going to read that in just a moment, but by way of background, Jonah’s ministry took place during the reign of a king called Jeroboam the Second. He reigned from 793 to 753 B.C., so we’re in the eighth century, 2,800 years ago.
Israel was a divided nation at that time. And Jeroboam the Second was one of the kings in the Northern Kingdom. He wasn’t a very good king overall, but even good kings God can use to get to do good things, and so Jonah was in his council, and here’s the prophecy that Jonah received.
Second Kings 14:25-27: “He (this is Jeroboam the sSecond) restored the border of Israel from Lebo Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah (there’s our man), the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher. For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. But the LORD had said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Jehoash.”
So Jonah’s first assignment led to the salvation of Israel here. The Lord told Jonah, Jonah told Jeroboam the Second, “You’ve got to fortify the northern border against your enemies,” which resulted in economic stability and nationwide prosperity.
Now, how do you think Jonah felt to have been given this assignment, this first assignment? The Word of the LORD, conveyed through him, saved his people, gave him a future. He became a national hero, but this now, this second assignment is very different, isn’t it?
Verse 2 in Jonah, “Arise. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
So instead of Israel, this oracle is now for Nineveh. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which is in modern day Northern Iraq. It is some 500 miles away to the northeast of Israel. The Assyrians were the dominant super power in the Ancient Near East from the nineth century down to the seventh century B.C. and in Jonah’s day they had just been completing a 300-year military campaign, bullying all the surrounding nations of their day, including Israel. They were known throughout the world as a brutal, cruel, vicious, terrible people.
I don’t want to be too graphic but we have accounts from the ancient world of the Assyrians skinning their enemies alive, of hoisting their bodies on pikes that they would ram through their bodies, and leave then writhing in the air. They would cut off limbs, gouge out eyes, cut out tongues. We have a famous relief of the Assyrians hauling off prisoners of war with fish hooks through their cheeks, chained together in a gang, and they hauled them off that way.
Their conquering was brutal. Everyone feared them. They would be, in our words today, terrorists. They were terrorists. And the people of Israel lived in constant fear, dread of the Assyrians’ brutality and violence. And God looks down and He sees man’s inhumanity against man, and He says, “Enough, enough! Jonah, arise. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
Now, no doubt this caught Jonah by surprise. His first prophecy had been to Israel. This is for Assyria. His first word was to allies. This is to his terrorist enemies. His first assignment was when God sent Jonah to pursue his own nation’s best interest, but now God sends Jonah to pursue his worst enemies.
This is an uncomfortable call. “Go to those people who are ruining everything, ruining everything that’s good in the world. I want you to warn them that judgment is coming.”
Now, Jonah is the prophet of the Lord. His job is to do exactly what God tells him to do. And since God has spoken, we would fully expect Jonah to get up, go to Nineveh, call out against it, just what God says. But instead we get an unexpected flight, an unexpected flight.
Verse 3, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish, far from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and he found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down to it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”
So Jonah’s assignment is Nineveh, 500 miles inland to the northeast where modern Iraq is. He heads west, over the sea, the Mediterranean Sea, 2,500 miles away to Tarshish. So a three thousand mile gap between where he’s supposed to be and where he books a ticket. Jonah runs as far as he can possibly get in the known world of his day, away from where he’s supposed to go.
This is shocking. Why? Why? Friends, this is career suicide. Isn’t it? I mean he’s basically turning in his resignation as a prophet. God says, “Here’s what I want you to do.” He says, “No thank you. I’ll do my own thing. Forget it.” He’s flat out disobeying God. He should know better, but now he’s a rebel. And you notice this recurring phrase here, “away from the presence of the LORD” – away from the presence of the LORD. In other words, Jonah is running from God. He’s not just running from an assignment. He is running from his God.
In the ancient near-eastern world they conceived of the sea as the place where chaos reigned. The gods didn’t have power over the sea. This is how they thought. And so when Jonah goes to the sea, he’s hoping to go somewhere where God cannot reach him. So not only is he abandoning his post, in many ways he’s disowning his faith. He’s saying, “Look, I’m done, God. I’m done serving you, I’m done obeying you, I’m done with you.”
Now, why? Why this drastic reaction here? Something clearly broke in Jonah, something clearly broke in Jonah, something hit a nerve. He goes off the deep end. Right? What is he thinking? Now the good news is we don’t have to guess because in chapter 4 Jonah tells us exactly what he was thinking.
Now this is just a “spoiler alert.” This is after Jonah does all the running away, and God gives him a second chance, and he warns Nineveh, and they respond in repentance, and God extends mercy to Nineveh.
And Jonah, in chapter 4, is griping in prayer at God about this whole situation. This is what he says in Jonah 4:2-3: “And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Oh Lord, is this not what I said when I was yet in my country, that this is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster? Therefore, now, oh Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Ho-ho, what an attitude! Right? But we begin to see what Jonah’s issue is. When God says, “Look, I see Nineveh’s evil,” Jonah’s like, “Finally.” God says, “Judgment is coming,” and Jonah’s like, “Hear, hear.” And then God says, “So you go warn them,” and he’s like, “Over my dead body. Are you kidding me, God? Are you going to give the most feared terrorist nation on the planet a warning? These people are ruining everything that’s good in the world. They don’t deserve a warning. God, just fry ‘em. Drop the hammer. Take ‘em out. Good riddance! Who needs ‘em anyway? Don’t give them a warning, God. If you warn them they have a chance to repent.” And Jonah won’t give his enemies a second chance.
Jonah won’t give his enemies a second chance. “God, is this is one of those moments where you go all ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, bounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster, then I’m turning in my resignation. I’m going to take my chances on my own. I don’t want a God who gives second chances to my enemies. If you’re going to be gracious and merciful to enemies, my enemies, I’m out. I’m out.”
Now, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and from our perspective it’s really easy to be hard on Jonah. Right? But if we’re honest, disobedience to God is something we all deal with, isn’t it? It’s in our hearts. It’s in our own lives.
So let’s do a little autopsy on Jonah’s disobedience in hopes that it helps us see ourselves. Okay?
So three reasons that I think that Jonah disobeyed here.
Number 1: His autonomy was threatened. His autonomy was threatened. Autonomy, self-rule! God told Jonah to do something he didn’t want to do. Jonah resented that. He wanted to be his own boss. He wanted to do life his own way. And when God crossed his will Jonah got cross. Right?
Has that ever happened to you? Do you ever dig in your heels and just do your own thing in spite of what God says? I do.
Secondly, Jonah’s identity was threatened. His identity was threatened. Remember Jonah’s a national hero. He’s a defender of Israel. He’s an agent of prosperity. He’s a political champion in the land, and now God is telling Jonah to do something that will be deeply unpopular, that will likely undermine his political and nationalistic dreams. You see, his nationalism and his political influence have become kind of idols to him. They were his self-identity, an identity that turned out to be more important than being faithful to God. Jonah was okay to serve God as long as it went along with his national interests and his political agenda, but the moment serving God required he love his enemies or do something that wasn’t going to benefit his nation (Wow!), he backed out.
And friends, that can happen to us too. We can make our own self-identity for ourselves that’s more important than faithfulness to God. We can build our identity on popularity and then we find it really hard to be holy. We can build our identity on our own nationalism and then struggle to live for the kingdom of heaven. We can build our own identity around our political tribe, and find it hard to go out and love our enemies. His identity was threatened.
Third, his prejudice was threatened. His prejudice was threatened. Jonah hated the Assyrians, and his prejudice wasn’t without cause. He had good reason to hate them. After all, they were pagans. They were immoral, they were brutal, they were savage. All of that was true. No question! But Jonah took it a step further, you see. To him these people were irredeemable. They were beyond the pale, undeserving, unwelcome, unwanted, undesirable. Jonah could not imagine that God would love his enemies, that God’s heart would be bigger than his political agenda. Friends, and this kind of disposition can creep into our hearts too. If those people, those people out there, the ones ruining everything that is good in this world, those people ruining our city, those people ruining our country, those people ruining our politics, those people ruining our society, surely they’re beyond the pale of God’s redeeming love. Surely God’s mercy couldn’t possibly extend as far as those people. They don’t deserve a second chance.
See, I’m afraid we’re more like Jonah than we realize. Running from God isn’t just an ancient problem. It’s our problem as well.
So we have an uncomfortable call here, an unexpected flight, and now unrelenting grace, unrelenting grace. I love how this story unfurls. Any other god would have been done with Jonah. Right? Just written him off, moved on. “I can get another prophet!” But not our God!
Verse 4, “But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the God will give a thought to us, that we might not perish.”
I love this. The Lord hurls a great wind, like a javelin, and it hits its mark, stirring up a mighty tempest that shivers the timbers of the ship. And again the LORD, it’s capital L O R D, who throws the storm. Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God who keeps His promises to a thousand generations, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and quick to relent from calamity, who is faithful when we are faithless. Friends, Jonah may have given up on God, but God never gave up on Jonah. Amen?
So Jonah runs from God, and then God runs after Jonah. That’s what’s going on. Friends, if God loved Jonah less, He would have just let him go, but the fact that God pursues Jonah with this storm proves how much God loves him. God is unrelenting in His grace for undeserving people. Don’t you see that? Not just Ninevites, but Jonahs well. This storm is designed to stop Jonah in his tracks. It’s a warning shot. It’s a call to repentance. Jonah is to cry out for mercy and come home to God. It's a wake-up call. And where is Jonah? Snoozing! Sleeping! The lower deck!
So above deck you’ve got the soldiers. They’re hurling the cargo. God hurls the storm. They’re hurling the cargo. Do you see that? Everyone is crying out to their gods, everyone, that is, except for one guy, Jonah, the prophet of the LORD who is not on speaking terms with God. He is not praying. He is dead asleep.
How could he sleep at a time like this? Well, my guess is he’s in the grips of guilty despair. Have you ever felt despair that just made you want to stay in bed? He’s thrown everything in his life away, hasn’t he? His life is over. He’s sulking himself to sleep. I think that’s what’s going on. And then the captain comes down, probably to get more cargo to see if there’s anything else he can throw overboard, and he finds Jonah down in the hole. “What do you mean, you sleeper?” It’s not a compliment. (laughs)
“Arise.” Same word! Same word God used in verse two! “Arise! Call out…” What is Jonah to do in Nineveh? Call out! Arise. Call out to your God. Perhaps your God will give a thought to us that we may not perish.”
See, this pagan captain of this ship sees this is no ordinary storm. He perceives that the gods must be angry. The tide of judgment has come and it’s time to throw ourselves on the mercy of the God, whoever He may be. There’s not a lot of hope in this statement, of the captain’s statement. It’s a desperate gamble that somewhere, some place, anywhere there just might be an ounce of mercy in the universe, if we could just find it. But Jonah knows better.
Do you see this? Jonah knows better. He knows there’s mercy and grace in the universe. He knows there’s a gracious God who is merciful, and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and rich in mercy, who will relent from disaster. Jonah knows he can turn and find mercy at any given moment if he would just turn around, but he doesn’t. His pride won’t let him. He doesn’t pray, he doesn’t repent, he doesn’t cry out for mercy. You see, in his heart he’s still running. He’s still running from God, so he follows the captain up above the deck, as the storm rages and continues to thrash the ship to the point where it almost breaks apart. And that’s where our story ends for today. (laughs) You have to stay tuned for next time.
Well, I just want to show you three takeaways as we drive this home. First of all, running from God is normal and nuts. (laugh) Running from God is normal and nuts. Each of us in our own way runs from God, don’t we? God gives us His instructions in His Word. He gives us good counsel through mentors and friends. He speaks to our conscience. He gives us the Holy Spirit to direct us in His ways, and yet none of us fully obey God in every aspect of our lives, do we? We’re more like Jonah than we care to admit. We don’t want God telling us what to do. We don’t want to lay down our self-identity in order to be faithful to God. We don’t want to see God’s mercy go to our enemies, those people who are ruining our world.
Friends, running from God is normal. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Everybody does it, and running from God is nuts. It doesn’t make any sense. It cannot be done. Even in the middle of the sea there is nowhere you can go from the presence of the Lord God. He sees all, He knows all, He is always near.
Secondly, God may send a storm to wake you up. God may send a storm to wake you up. If you are running from God, He may send a storm to get your attention.
My own experience is that when I run from God, life tends to get stormy. The winds of life batter me because I’m living cross-grain to the universe as God designed it. And so misery as our companion as long as we run, and God sends storms to chase us down, to wake us up, and maybe you’re here this morning, or you are watching online or listening, and maybe there’s a storm in your life. Maybe there are marriage problems, or an eviction, or a crisis in your life, and you’re trying to sleep through it, and ignore the storm and close your eyes and go numb and pretend it isn’t happening. But my question for you is this. Could it be that God is calling out to you in the middle of that storm? Could it be the storm is designed to wake you up, to bring you to your senses so that you might cry out for mercy and come home to Him, because, friends, third, God will never stop pursuing you. God will never stop pursuing you.
Well that sounds negative or positive, depending on how you receive it. Right? If you are intent on avoiding God at all cost, the fact that He’ll never stop pursuing you sounds like a threat. You can run but you can’t hide, and that’s true. But on the flip side it means no matter what happens, you can never outrun God. That’s a huge positive because no matter how far you run, friends, His grace runs further. No matter how much you sin, His forgiveness is greater. No matter how undeserving you become, His mercy is more.
Remember the captain’s statement, “Perhaps the god will give his thought to us that we might not perish?” Just blind hope, gambling on mercy being out there somewhere in the universe! But friends, you and I don’t have to gamble, do we? We don’t have to gamble because we know that God so loved the world that He gave (not just a thought) His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.”
See, friends, Jesus is the Jonah who should have been. When our evil came up before God, Jesus arose and He crossed over space and time into our sin-cursed world with a message of salvation, and He loves His enemies. He didn’t run away from His enemies. He ran toward His enemies, the people who were ruining everything good in this universe, in this world. He came not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him, and on the cross Jesus died in our place and for our sake, carrying all of our sin and shame, and rose again to make us right with God now and forever as children of God, adopted into His family forever.
Don’t you see that Jesus is proof positive that God will never stop pursuing you, that God is unrelenting in His grace for undeserving people, that if we would just admit that we are sinners far from God, believe that Jesus has done everything to make us right with God, and commit ourselves to Him, saying, “Be my Savior, be my Lord, be my everything,” even today we can come home in the grace and mercy of God. All we have to do is do what Jonah was too proud to do. Cry out for mercy in the middle of the storm. And no matter how far you’ve run, it’s just one quick turn, and you’re home. No matter how far you’ve run, it’s just one quick turn and you’re home because God is running after you.
Friends, this is the beautiful reality of the Gospel. God knows you completely. He loves you utterly, and in Jesus Christ He has forgiven you entirely, and all you have to do is turn around, cry out for mercy, and you’ll be home.
This is God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people. Amen? Amen.
Let’s bow our heads. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank you that Jesus is the Jonah who should have been. You could have been done with us. You could have had Jonah’s heart and said, “They’ve just been too evil. They’ve been too bad. They’ve ruined too much. They’re not worthy of a second chance. But that’s not your heart. You are a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. You are quick to relent from disaster. You come running after undeserving people, Ninevites, Jonahs, Philips, Sallys, Charlottes. You come running after all of us.
Father, thank you that when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, that while we were enemies, you came for us. Your mercy is amazing to us. So, Father, we cling to you, and we pray that we would share your heart for the undeserving around us because your mercy is more. We pray this in Jesus’ beautiful name, our Savior.
And all of God’s people said? Amen and Amen.