Jonah 1:1-10

The May/June 2000 issue of Preaching published an article by Rev. Timothy J. Peck called “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon” that responded to recent criticisms of biographical preaching. Also included in that issue was a book excerpt from Dr. Sidney Greidanus’ Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999). Dr. Greidanus advocates abandonment of biographical preaching, and Rev. Peck’s article drew on this text as his basis for appealing for preservation of biographical preaching.

In the November/December 2000 issue of Preaching, Dr. Greidanus offered a rejoinder to Rev. Peck’s article, “Biographical Preaching Revisited.” One of Dr. Greidanus’ specific criticisms was that Rev. Peck did not provide any concrete examples of how biographical preaching on an Old Testament narrative can avoid the hazards of anthropocentrism, moralizing and ignoring authorial intention.
This biographical sermon based on the character of Jonah is presented as Rev. Peck’s attempted approach outlined in “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon.”
Being Jerry’s friend is like riding a roller coaster. As long as I’ve known Jerry, he’s battled an addiction to drugs. Whenever life gets too tough, my friend Jerry begins to talk incessantly about moving away. Fortunately Jerry is working a recovery program today. For the last few years he has been trying to put the pieces of his broken life back together, after losing his job, his marriage, his financial security and many of his friends. In Narcotics Anonymous Jerry has come to understand the concept of a “geographic.” A geographic, according to the 12-step recovery movement is moving to a new town in hopes to a new setting will help the addictive per-son regain a sense of happiness lost due to his or her addictive behavior. When the bills start piling up, relationships begin falling apart, the job starts bearing down, new scenery begins to look very attractive.
I think the notion of a “geographic” is also a helpful way of describing our tendency to run away from God’s calling in our lives. And I think the clearest example we find of a “spiritual geographic” in the Bible is the story of Jonah. The story of Jonah is a story about God and his compassion for those outside of God’s covenant community. But it’s a also a story about Israel and her failure to embrace the vocation God had called them into existence for. Many scholars believe that the character of Jonah in the story represents the typical Hebrew of his generation, a kind of “everyman” character who embodied the attitudes that were rampant in ancient Israel. But the story of Jonah is also a story about us.
As a book, the story of Jonah is a literary masterpiece, filled with irony, satire, and the absurd. The characters of Jonah are provocative, and the action commands a reader’s attention. This is why I view Jonah as a historical parable, a real story that also becomes our story as we encounter God through the biblical text. Approaching the book of Jonah in this way, the prophet Jonah becomes a archetype of every person who seeks to fulfill God’s plan for his or her life. As we reflect on Jonah, his story becomes a mirror where we see our own image reflected back.
In the story of Jonah we find four consequences of running away from God’s calling. Just as God had a calling for Jonah, God also has a calling for us as his people today. More often than not, however, our response minors Jonah’s response, for God calls us out of our comfort zone and into situations we’ve never been in before. Most of us don’t do a literal “geographic” like Jonah did, but we do decide to live life our own way. We run. These consequences are clearly illustrated from the life of Jonah, and we also encounter them in the lives of many people today who run from God’s calling.
God called Jonah to take God’s message to the people of Nineveh. This calling was clear and specific. However, Jonah’s reaction is telling: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3). Slipping out of a port in the city of Joppa–modern day Tel Aviv-Jonah attempts the impossible: To escape from God’s presence. So Jonah heads for Tarshish, which was located in modern day Spain. From Joppa, Tarshish was about a year’s journey by sea, so Jonah wasn’t just taking a brief vacation or long weekend. He was contemplating retirement as a prophet of God.
According to Eugene Peterson, “Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was adventure … in popular imagination it became ‘a distant paradise.’ A Shangra-la.” People went to Tarshish to disappear. It was an ancient version of Club Med, where you could spend the rest of your life sipping Pina Coladas, lounging on the beach, playing golf, and trying to forget whatever brought you there. Jonah had decided to retire from God’s service. This is the same Jonah who had previously helped King Jeroboam II restore the boundaries of Judah (2 Kings 14:25). God had worked powerfully through Jonah’s life in the past, but this time God was asking too much at least to Jonah’s way of thinking. So he calls it quits and heads for Tarshish. One wonders what might have happened to Jonah had he arrived in Tarshish.
Would he have slipped into obscurity? Would he have joined in the pagan practices of Tarsish and abandoned the God of Israel completely? Of course, we will never know because God loved Jonah too much to let him get that far.
Storms
When one of my children disobeys me, I have two basic ways to approach discipline. I can either allow the natural consequence of his action to run its course, or I can impose an artificial consequence. Natural consequences are woven into the fabric of life. If I touch a hot stove, my hand gets burned. As popular author Stephen Covey is so fond of saying, “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions.” Natural consequences show no mercy, but they are very persuasive teachers. The problem with natural consequences is that they can be far too permanent. For instance, if I warn my two year old not to run out into the street yet he persists, a natural consequence would be letting him get run over by a car. This might teach him lesson, but then again he might not live to learn the lesson! My other option is to impose an artificial consequence, such as telling him, “No” and making him go inside for the rest of the day. In many situations, a loving parent’s best response is to protect his or her child from natural consequences and to impose artificial consequences.
God faced a similar choice with his disobedience prophet. A natural consequence would have been allowing Jonah to arrive in Tarsish, permitting him to retire and to live with the consequences of his abandonment of God’s purpose. But to let Jonah go that far was to go beyond the point of no return. The cure could have killed him. God loved Jonah too much to let him get that far, so instead God imposes an artificial consequence in the form of a storm.
The Hebrew text of Jonah 1:4 paints the picture of God actually hurling a storm into the sea, as if he was saying, “That’s far enough!” The storm was incredible, with hurricane force winds, massive waves, and sheets of heavy rain. This storm even terrified the seasoned sailors on the ship.
Here we find the first consequence of running from God’s plan. Like with Jonah, God sends consequences into our lives when we attempt to run from his plan. God sends storms to get our attention too. Sometimes these are literal storms, but most often they are storm-like circumstances that keep us from straying too far. God takes drastic measures to get our attention and redirect us back onto his path. These storms do not come from a vindictive attitude or malicious motive, but from a broken heart that loves us too much to let us run away too far.
Perhaps you are facing some turbulent circumstances in your life right now because you too are running away from God. Please understand that not all problems are a result of our disobedience. But running away is a possible cause of storms in our lives. Eugene Peterson warns us, “Trouble, at least extreme trouble, storm-trouble, strips us to the essentials and reveals the basic reality of our lives.” Storms fling aside our defenses, silence our excuses, and show us what we’re really made of. Storms are God’s way of clearing our calendar and claiming first place in our list of priorities. Only then can we be truly attentive to his voice and hear what he is saying.
Distance
Storms are not the only consequence of running from God’s purpose. Upon reading Jonah 1:5-10, careful readers notices that what Jonah doesn’t do is just as significant as what he does. The storyteller presents a subtle contrast between the “pagan” sailors and “godly” Jonah. Who does the praying in the story? Not Jonah. The sailors. These sailors were pagans, people who worshipped a whole collection of wood and rock idols. These sailors, the ones supposedly the most distant from God, are the very ones crying out for divine intervention.
But where is Jonah? He is sleeping. Only after repeated attempts is the captain able to rouse Jonah from his stupor, and he begs Jonah to pray. Yet we still don’t see Jonah pray. He’s willing to fight the storm, row the oars, or bail out water, but prayer is one thing Jonah refuses to do. Old Testament scholar H. Wolff observes, “The captain’s words to him make it … clear that the possibilities open to the sailors … have now been exhausted. The only thing that has not been tried is the religion of this unknown passenger.”
At the end of their rope, the sailors cast lots to discover out who is responsible for this obviously supernatural storm. And the lot falls on Jonah. “Who is this guy?” they wonder, “An ax-murderer? A thief? A terrorist? What terrible thing had he done to provoke such anger from his God?”
Here the reader is confronted with one of the most amazing ministry opportunities in the entire Bible. Imagine a bunch of seasoned pagan seamen, frightened like school children, and ready to come face to face with God’s severe love. But Jonah isn’t all that interested in sharing God’s love with foreigners. That’s what got him in this mess in the first place! But he does reluctantly admit that he is a worshipper of “the Lord,” which in the Hebrew is God’s personal name Yahweh. To clarify that this is not a tribal god, Jonah describes Yahweh as “the God of heaven,” which would register as the Creator God in the minds of the sailors. The sailors are appalled that Jonah would rebel against such an incredible, awesome Power. But still we do not see Jonah pray. This leads us to the second consequence of running away. Like with Jonah, our relationship with God becomes distant when we attempt to run away from God’s plan. Jonah couldn’t have intimacy with God and run from God at the same time.
When I was 13 years old I ran away from home for a week. My parents had recently divorced and I was living with my adoptive father at the time. A friend and I caught a bus, and, like thousands of other runaways every year, we ended up on the streets of Hollywood, California. Fortunately, I came home after a week. But my choice to run away damaged my relationship with my father for many years. Running away from someone we love short-circuits intimacy with that person. In Jonah’s generation the nation of Israel was also experiencing distance from God. They too were running, perhaps not literally but spiritually. Their rebellion against God’s purposes for Israel resulted in a sense of distance. No longer did they experience intimacy with God.
What is distance from God like? We may still go to church, meet with other Christians, serve in ministry, and read our Bibles. But God’s presence seems miles away from us and prayer feels like an exercise in futility. So we give up, just like Jonah did. We avoid being around people who are intimate with God because we’re afraid they will see through our facade and expose our hypocrisy. Running away is not the only cause of distance from God, but it is probably the biggest one.
Despair
Fugitives from God are the most miserable people you’ll meet. They have walked close with God before, so they know what it is like, and that memory haunts their waking hours. Running away from God doesn’t just effect our relationship with him, but it also effects us deep within our own hearts.
God’s principles are not arbitrary rules; they are lovingly designed for our own protection and welfare. When we choose to live outside of God’s absolutes, we find ourselves broken, bruised and crushed by our own disobedience. This appears to be what happened with Jonah. Jonah must have finally realized that God would not leave him alone, so Jonah gave up on life itself. His plea to be thrown overboard was a last ditch effort to escape from his miserable condition. Death seemed to be his only escape. This reveals the third consequence. Like with Jonah, we sink into despair when we attempt run away from God’s purpose. I am not suggesting that all depression is a result of running from God, as there are clearly biological, social, and psychological factors at work in most depression. I am simply suggesting, however, that this is one possibility to be considered by a Christian who is struggling with despair.
God’s purpose for our lives is the only true source of fulfillment we will ever find. The intimacy that comes from walking close to God’s heart, seeing Him work in our lives, and experiencing the Holy Spirit’s guidance are experiences of deep satisfaction. We don’t do these things to gain satisfaction, but by giving up to ourselves we suddenly find ourselves. But when we run from God, we find ourselves sinking in despair.
Grace
The compassion shown by the sailors for Jonah is striking when seen in contrast to Jonah’s frozen heart. These men who worshipped idols had more love for Jonah than this loving God’s prophet had for them. To avoid Jonah’s solution, the sailors once again tried to row the boat to shore. But they finally realized that escape was an exercise in futility. Finally, filled with remorse and shaking with fear, they threw Jonah overboard. Only then did the sea grow calm.
However, in spite of Jonah’s indifference to God and to these people whom God loved, an incredible thing happened. The sailors “greatly feared the Lord.” Again, the word “Lord” here translates the Hebrew name Yahweh. They didn’t just fear a lord, or a god, but they feared Jonah’s God, the Creator God who made the heavens. Fear of God is often used in the Old Testament to describe a state of genuine trust. This was not just jailhouse religion or a foxhole conversion, but the sailors had an authentic conversion experience with Jonah’s God. The sailors’ lives were changed, transformed through Jonah’s unintentional testimony. The fear of God that filled the sailors’ hearts led them to worship. The word translated “offerings” here is also used in the book of Leviticus to describe thank offerings that come spontaneously from a grateful worshipper’s heart. After their incredible experience they had much to be thankful for. They also made vows to the Lord, which suggests to a lasting bond of trust between them and God.
These incredible events were a consequence of Jonah’s disobedience to God. Jonah’s sin was not pleasing to God, but God was able to take something meant for evil and use it to good. Imagine what God might have done through Jonah had he been obedient to God! This is the fourth consequence of running from God, and it is a consequence of grace: Like with Jonah, God still works through us when we attempt to run from his plan. Ultimately God’s purposes will prevail, whether you and I obey or disobey. God will still accomplish the plan he desires to accomplish in people’s lives, even if we refuse to cooperate. In this scene we see God’s power and God’s grace join together in an incredible moment. But Jonah doesn’t get to share in the joy of God’s work. While an excited group of sailors breaks into spontaneous praise, Jonah is unaware, sinking to the bottom of the sea. As far as he is concerned, life is over. Jonah has no idea of what God has done through his life.
God does indeed have a life purpose for you, and he will show it to you if you have ears to hear and eyes to see. But often we stubbornly do things our own way, we run away, and when we do, we reap the consequences of our actions. But these are gracious consequences, sent from the hand of a loving Father to woo us back to Him.

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