It was first in 1979 when a Welshman named Gordon Green began an argument with his equestrian friend about the differing strengths of horses and men as distance runners. It honestly all seemed like a silly argument at the time; but, defiantly, Green maintained that a man could beat a horse in a marathon race. So, in an attempt to prove his point, he instituted the annual Man vs. Horse Marathon in Wales the very next year. Unfortunately for Green’s argument, the horseback riders defeated the human runners every single year for the next 24 years.
But, then it happened. Green’s argument gained new traction when in 2004 a British man named Huw Lobb won the race—not only outpacing fellow human beings, but horseback riders alike. Then, just three years later, German athlete Florian Holzinger did it again. Even with the 16:1 odds, the human runners had actually defeated the horses. But, how in the world is that even possible?
Honestly, though I am definitely not one of them, human beings make remarkable runners. For example, elite marathon runners can sustain speeds of approximately 20 feet per second (or, nearly 12 miles an hour). Even your average runner sustains speeds of 10-12 feet per second, which outpaces dogs at distances greater than a mile. We’re fast, and our sustainable distance is rather impressive, too. Runners will routinely run marathons, which come in at a little over 26 miles, in a matter of just a few hours. Still, extreme athletes will complete ultra-marathons of 100 kilometers (over 60 miles) or more. Realistically, only a few animals can match that distance and typically only under special circumstances.
We’ve always been good runners. Now, you may be like me and never have displayed any sort of penchant for the physical activity, but running has still been hardwired into our DNA. It doesn’t take much observation to realize this is true. One can easily see how our mind chases after certain thoughts or how our hearts run toward their desires swiftly and, at times, almost relentlessly. Our legs are not the only things that make us great runners. We are runners through and through. And, for the past several weeks, as we have studied the life of Gideon, we have taken a hard look at a man who ran toward the call of God even when it seemingly made no sense at all. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our running capabilities as they were intended to be used. Sometimes we hear the call of God and choose to run the other direction. So, this morning, in contrast to Gideon, we now turn to a familiar story—the story of Jonah, the man who ran from God.
If we are fair though, this story isn’t just about Jonah. In this book’s short 48 verses is contained something rather reminiscent of our own lives. True, you may never have tried to physically outrun God, but our hearts are certainly familiar with our attempts to escape the call of God, to outrun His presence, and to evade His commands. Like I said, we’re runners through and through. So, this morning as we dive into our text, realize that Jonah is not just the story of an ancient wayward prophet. It’s my story; and, it’s your story, too.
In fact, this reality has resonated so deeply within the hearts of the Jewish culture that every Yom Kippur afternoon, congregations routinely read through the book of Jonah to remind them that we are all Jonah. We run; we get swallowed up; we get spit out. We don’t ask for it, but we definitely know the feeling of the weight of the world being suddenly thrust upon us and the loneliness that ensues. We know the terrible feeling that life is just too much for us to handle. We’re forced to encounter the same questions as Jonah does in our text this morning:. Who am I? What are my fears? What am I running from? Where am I going? Yes, I believe if we’re honest with ourselves this morning, we are Jonah.
DIRECTION: RUN THAT BY ME ONE MORE TIME
So, we let’s begin in our text and read in Jonah 1:1-2, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me.’” We don’t know much about this man with whom we identify ourselves this morning. We’re simply told Jonah is the son of Amittai which means truth or Yahweh is faithful. And, as we will discover over the next several weeks, this proves to be a central message in the heart of this book. And, there’s really only one other reference to this prophet which we find in 2 Kings 14:25. So, we don’t know much about the man who is Jonah, but we very soon get a clear picture of the heart of Jonah.
Then, there is this call to go to Nineveh. “Arise, go, and call out.” Scripture is full of narratives regarding prophets who were called to speak out judgment against other nations. They were free to declare their messages from afar, but Jonah stands unique in that he is the only prophet called to leave the comfort of his home to deliver this message to such a strange land. And, of course, it just has to be to the city of Nineveh. From Scripture and historical records, we know quite a lot about Nineveh. It was a wicked city; they were the ultimate picture of ancient cruelty. I’ll tame this down for you this morning, but Nineveh was known to take their enemies and skin them, lining their city walls with them. Then, they would bury that individual while they were still alive up to their heads in the sand just to watch them be scorched and dehydrated by the sun. Nineveh was the city that would behead their enemies and make mountains of decapitated heads simply to declare, “This is what happens to those who dare oppose the Assyrians.” And, Jonah has to go there.
And, in case you haven’t realized it, one of Nineveh’s primary enemies is this small nation to its south—the nation of Israel, Jonah’s home. So, in his mind, Jonah played out the possible outcomes of obedience and realized one of two things could happen. Nineveh could reject Jonah’s message and kill him. Or, Nineveh could accept Jonah’s message, repent, and God would save them. And, it was actually this second possibility that terrified Jonah the most. How dare God forgive the people who had tortured Jonah’s friends and family? How could God send an Israelite to offer grace to those barbarians? There was no way the Ninevites deserved that sort of message. So, for Jonah, this command wasn’t only an inconvenience, but it screamed injustice. It wasn’t right to Jonah. But, nevertheless, Jonah is called to arise, go, and call out.
But, then, we read in Jonah 1:3, “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the Lord.” Did you catch that? Jonah was called to arise, but the very next verse deliberately tells us Jonah goes down. And, this is where Jonah begins to lose his sense of direction. See, what we do know from 2 Kings 14:25 is that Jonah had a record of obedience with the Lord. He was given messages to pass along and had done so with obedience. And, through his faithful ministry, Israel saw their borders increase and enjoyed a time of prosperity under his leadership. Jonah had been a faithful mouthpiece for God. Yet, here, we find Jonah in rebellion as he says, well, actually nothing at all. And, this proves to be a caution to us this morning: Yesterday’s obedience does not justify today’s behavior. Just because Jonah had previously arose and obeyed does not excuse his disobedience here. You cannot live on yesterday’s success; you must choose in each moment if you will obediently respond to God’s call.
Yesterday’s obedience does not justify today’s behavior.
But, now, we can’t be too hard on Jonah, can we? I mean, would you go? Would you go to the person who has hurt you the most, damaged you the most, and wants to destroy you and, then, embrace them with the love of God? Would you go? Would you cross the great rift between you and that person even if you knew they had no interest for your well-being? See, the call of God is often dangerous and uncomfortable. Sometimes I think we don’t really expect that. It catches us off-guard. It’s like we just expect smooth sailing; we expect things to neatly fall into place. But, God often calls us to do things we would have never planned for ourselves. And, it can get uncomfortably difficult real quick. It’s not going to be Nineveh this morning, but what is God calling you to? He is calling you; that’s not the question. But, what is He calling you to? Then, my next question for you is: Will you go?
The call of God is often dangerous and uncomfortable.
Jonah’s response is immediate and clear. Unfortunately, it was not the same immediate obedience we saw last week in Gideon. No, Jonah runs to Joppa and finds a ship going to Tarshish. And, don’t let the extent of Jonah’s running be missed. Joppa was approximately 50 miles away by foot. Tarshish was, then, another 1,500 miles away from Nineveh. Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that Jonah didn’t just intend to run from a location or from the call of God. He intended to flee the very presence of the Lord. As a reader, we almost laugh to ourselves thinking, “Jonah, you can’t run away from God’s presence. What are you thinking?” Yet, he goes to Tarshish and Jonah, honestly, couldn’t run any further away if he had tried.
But, again, maybe we’re not too dissimilar really. I mean, is it possible that, in some way, you’ve tried to escape the presence of God this week even? Were there conversations you would not have had if you were aware of the presence of God? Were there thoughts you entertained that you would not have if you were aware of the presence of God? Were there decisions you would not have made had you been aware of the presence of God? Even as a believer, is it possible you tried to deny the reality of God’s presence this week? Or, to phrase the question as pastor and author Paul David Tripp has, “Is your life a picture of what it means to live with a steady, constant, consciousness of the presence of God?” A steady, constant, consciousness of the presence of God. I admit to you this morning that I fall short. Unfortunately, my Jonah-side shows all too frequently.
Is your life a picture of what it means to live with a steady, constant, consciousness of the presence of God?Paul David Tripp
So, I’ve certainly lost my direction before. Jonah has lost his direction. And, the heart behind it all is our selfish ambition. We read in James 3:16, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Jonah desired more for the Lord to validate his thoughts and desires than to redeem the hearts of the Ninevites. Jonah was convinced that Nineveh was his problem; but, God desired to reveal to Jonah that it was the very heart within his chest. His heart was not the heart of God. He thought Nineveh was Israel’s greatest problem and so he wanted to withhold God’s grace from them; but, the Lord was demonstrating to Jonah, “No, you are your problem, and it’s time that we deal with that.”
It is so easy to lose our direction when we flee the presence of God. Truthfully, if you’re looking, you will always find a ship that’s ready to go in the opposite direction of where God has called you. We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that since all the pieces fell into place—the boat was ready, the destination was perfect, the price was right—that this must be God’s stamp of approval. But, friends, listen to this: If you want to run from God, there will always be a ship that’s ready. Our enemy’s job description is to ready the ship for your departure. So, when we flee from the presence of God we also easily lose our sense of direction. But, Jonah was about to lose a whole lot more.
If you’re looking, you will always find a ship that’s ready to go in the opposite direction of where God has called you.
IDENTITY: MAKE A RUN FOR IT
Our story continues as we read in Jonah 1:4-6, “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 may not perish.’” I want to again make very clear the wordplay that is occurring in Jonah. What was his calling again? Arise, go and call out. So far, we have seen Jonah go down to Tarshish and down into the ship. Now, we read he goes down into the inner part of the ship and goes down to sleep. Hey, the poor guy is tired! He just walked 50 miles to get onto the ship, right?
Really, what we’re getting is a word picture of the downward spiral of sin. It may begin with a seemingly small act of disobedience, but it continues to pull us down deeper into it. And, frankly, we don’t even realize it has happened most of the time. I love how C.S. Lewis said it in the Screwtape Letters, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing… Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Jonah’s journey downward hasn’t even reached its most critical point yet when the great storm comes against the ship and its passengers. The storm came suddenly and in full force, but readers and sailors alike understood that this was no ordinary storm; this was clearly a divine storm. Yet, Jonah remains remarkably calm, sleeping like a baby below the deck.
It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing… Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
And, where we clearly saw Jonah lose sight of his direction, we now see how lost his identity truly was. There is some irony in the responses of the crew here. I mean, the pagan sailors are crying out to their various gods (which clearly doesn’t work because there is only one true God) while the mouthpiece of that one true God is silently asleep below deck. And, did you see what the captain said to Jonah when he woke him up? “Arise and call out.” There it is again. No matter what he has tried to do, Jonah cannot escape that calling. And, truthfully, neither can we.
Jonah is surrounded by a group of men grasping at straws, trying to figure out what in the world is going on and what they can do about it. They know they’re in trouble, but they have no clue about the hope Jonah himself is running from. Likewise, we find ourselves throughout the week surrounded by people going through the storms of life. Maybe our response has been like Jonah’s, and we’re just trying to coast through—sleep it off—until we get through it. Maybe, like Jonah, we have treated the sin in our own lives so casually that we don’t even know what to say to those who are in need of God. What I do know is that we should not approach the storms of this life in the same way as the world. We have a Hope that they need to know about. We cannot remain asleep below the deck any longer. Yes, we encounter storms, too, but we know hope. So, like Jonah, we are challenged to arise and call out.
But, I get it. The excuses begin to well up as to why we can’t obediently respond to God’s calling. They don’t want to hear about it. I’m tired. I’m too busy. I have my own things to worry about. They asked for it; let them self-destruct. Friends, there will come a time when you will have to decide if your convenience or His calling is your priority. Which will it be? As pastor and author Steven Furtick has put it, “Today’s excuses are tomorrow’s regrets in disguise.” Wake up. Arise and call out. Jonah’s calling is the same calling for us today.
Today’s excuses are tomorrow’s regrets in disguise.Steven Furtick
The storm continues, and we read in Jonah 1:7-10, “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” I love that: The men knew that he was running from the presence of God. How? Well, because he had told them. I mean, you have to give Jonah some credit again. He’s running from God; he’s the reason these guys are fearing for their lives, but at least he’s honest about it all. Honestly, that’s better than we do sometimes, isn’t it?
And, speaking of brutal honesty, don’t you love the irony in Jonah’s response to the interrogation. Who are you? Where do you come from? And, he replies, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” These are Jonah’s first recorded words, and they’re spot on. But, this is coming from the same guy who’s running away from God. That doesn’t make much sense, right? It only goes to show us that we can say all of the right things, but if our actions are not in alignment with what we believe, it’s all pointless. Jonah! You say all the right things, but you are heading the wrong direction. You have forgotten who you are. And, friends, I wonder if the same couldn’t be said about us this morning. It is not enough for us to sing catchy choruses or crack open the Word for a moment on a Sunday morning and to shout amen if our theology does not affect the way we live throughout the week. He is the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, so why are you running from Him?
Friends, are the things you profess to believe congruent with the way that you live your life? I wish I could tell you that I had this nailed down. I wish I could tell you that my actions always match what I believe, but I fall short because I see more of Jonah within my own heart that I honestly care to admit. But, we cannot become comfortable and complacent with these contradictions of our hearts. It’s not enough to know it in your mind if it hasn’t transformed your heart. And, when we flee from the presence of the Lord we run into the danger of losing sight of our identity and who we are called to be.
GRACE: COMPLETELY RUN DOWN
And, as our look at Jonah this morning comes to an end, we read in Jonah 1:11-17, “Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?’ For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’ Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, ‘O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.’ So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Jonah’s answer as to what the sailors needed to do here is rather interesting. They were faced with their mortality, and they know Jonah is the one to blame. So, what are they to do? Jonah knows the answer. He should turn the boat around. He should start heading the right direction again. But, Jonah so desperately wants to escape this calling that he asks them to hurl him over the boat, to almost certain death. Death was a better option than obedience for Jonah. Can I you tell you something? I understand that sort of stubbornness. I understand that sort of hardheadedness that screams for things to be done my way. I mean, have you ever been just so convinced that you were right that you didn’t care what it would cost you?
So, Jonah is thrown overboard, but God is not done with him yet. Honestly, there’s this part of me that wants to cry out, “God, just leave Jonah alone! He doesn’t want to do it! Find someone else, man!” But, if we’re not careful, we can easily read only the anger of God at the sin of man and completely miss the grace of God toward Jonah. See, the narrative of Jonah isn’t chiefly about human disobedience. It is about the grace of God that operates through even our human disobedience to produce a result for His glory.
See, the storm was not payback for Jonah’s sin; it wasn’t meant for retribution. It was meant for redemption. It was meant to bring Jonah back from his sin to the heart of God. God will not simply cut His losses. His grace is greater than that. But, just as Jonah had lost sight of his direction and his identity as he fled the presence of the Lord, he also lost sight of God’s grace.
And, finally, when Jonah thinks he can just die and be done with all of this, God sends a large fish. See, we can easily look at the storms of life that overwhelm us and the whales of life that swallow us up and see nothing else. We can easily allow our circumstances and situations to blind our view of God’s grace for us in that moment. But, God may be using those very storms and whales to rescue your heart from a place you didn’t know it needed to be saved from. Friends, understand this: Even when the enemy provides a ship to get away from the will of God, God has a way of providing something even greater than a ship to bring you back. God’s grace operates through the storm and the whales. But, if we run from His presence, we grow blind to His grace and our very own need for it.
Even when the enemy provides a ship to get away from the will of God, God has a way of providing something even greater than a ship to bring you back.
Toward the beginning of this morning’s message, I mentioned that Jewish culture reads Jonah each evening during Yom Kippur and declares, “We are Jonah.” But, they also add an additional passage each evening from Micah 7:18-20, which reads, “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as You have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” See, Jonah is the story of grace. We find it among the prophetic books of the Old Testament, but it may be more rightly viewed as the Gospel according to Jonah.
This morning, there are Jonah’s sitting in these pews. You may have been intentionally running from the very presence of God, not wanting anything to do with Him in your life. Yet, you find yourself here this morning. Perhaps you didn’t realize your heart’s propensity to run from His presence, but you find yourself in a position this morning unable to see your direction, your identity, or His grace. Perhaps you’ve been confused for some time what it is that God wants to do with your life. You’ve been asking God to show you your calling and purpose. Or, perhaps there are situations you haven’t asked for that have been unloaded onto your shoulders and you simply want to run away this morning. Maybe you’ve been struggling to know who you are in Christ. You feel unprepared and unequipped to do what He has called you to do. You feel overwhelmed and beaten down by the task at hand. Perhaps you are struggling with guilt and shame and condemnation this morning, and you need to know that there’s grace for you. Can I tell you something amazing this morning? All of this—all that you are seeking—is found in the presence of the Lord. As the Apostle Paul reminded us in Acts 17:28, it’s “in Him we live and move and have our being.”
So, if that describes you this morning, there’s some good news today. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Something greater than Jonah is here,” and He’s, of course, referring to Himself. Jesus is our true Jonah. What He meant was this: Someday He is going to calm all storms and still all waves. He is going to destroy destruction, break brokenness, and kill death. But, how? How is He going to do that?
See, though Jonah was cast into the stormy sea to save the sailors, Jesus was thrown into the ultimate storm of our sin and death to save us. Though Jonah was in the whale three days and three nights for his disobedience, Jesus was in the grave for three days and three nights for ours. Though Jonah came out of the retching whale to be given a second chance, Jesus came out of the grave to give you and me a second chance. Jesus is greater. He is what Jonah could not be, and He is what we are not. If Jesus Christ did not abandon you in that ultimate storm, what in the world makes you think He would abandon you now in the comparably much smaller storms you’re experiencing? Something greater than Jonah is here, and His name is Jesus.
So, this morning, I want to encourage you to come to His presence. Run to Him. What you lack this morning, find it in Him. And, since the Father gives generously to those who are lacking, we can use feeling stuck as an opportunity to run to Him with our questions and doubt, not away from Him. So, maybe you’re in the whale this morning. You feel stuck; you have doubts; you need grace; you need vision and purpose; you need His presence. I invite you to run to Him.