I am Jonah, Part 1, Running from God

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I am Jonah, Part 1, Running from God

June 17th, 2012


he book of Jonah, chapter 1, verse 1. "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai: 'Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before Me.”

  • So, one day, the Lord speaks to a man named Jonah telling him to pack his bags and head off to the “great city of Nineveh.”

  • Now, I want you to notice the word, 'great' here because it’s gonna come up a number of times in this book.

I also want you to keep in mind that Jonah was a prophet. You see, back then, there were, generally speaking, two kinds spiritual influencers.

  • First, there were the priests. And, as you can imagine, priests served in the temple… they offered sacrifices & led worship.

  • Then there were the prophets. A prophet was a different kind of character altogether. A prophet was a reformer, an activist

  • the kind of person who would provoke people's consciences as they spoke out the Word of God to those around them.

That’s why, for all the very many priests that served in Israel, Israel would typically only have one or two prophets at a time.

  • Truth is, one or two was just about all they could stand at any one time!

  • Well, one day the Word of the Lord comes to this prophet Jonah telling him to, "Go to Nineveh."

Now, when you hear from God very specifically like this, sometimes all you’ll get are just three little words like what came to Jonah.

  • And yet, those three little words, “Go to Nineveh,” “Sell everything you have and buy your pastor a sizzlin’ new motorcycle,” can change the course of your life!

  • Now, you figure, “Jonah was a prophet… he was used to God telling him to do stuff like this, right?” Well, apparently not!

  • You see, as much as Jonah was a prophet, at least in his mind, he was a prophet to Israel!

  • I mean, going to other countries just wasn’t part of his job description… or so he thought.


ut not only that, God doesn’t simply instruct Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach to it; Instead, God tells him to “Go to Nineveh and preach against it!”

  • R
    emember, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and, in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, Assyria was the world’s great superpower (present day Nineveh is Mosul in northern Iraq).

  • BTW… After the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, many of the Iraqi Insurgents moved to Nineveh, which became the site of some fierce battles b/t the US and Iraqis.

Well, as the world’s most evil superpower in the 7th & 8th centuries, Assyria became known for chewing up and spitting out pretty much every nation around them…

  • Embracing genocide against their neighbors as a matter if state policy.

  • In fact, occasionally, when it was rumored that the Assyrians were going to be attacking, it was said that whole towns of people would commit mass suicide in order to avoid the inevitable torture that would follow

Raping any surviving women before killing them once and for all… often burying in the sand any surviving men up to their necks …

  • but only after stretching out their tongues with a stake so they’d literally go crazy while dying of thirst.

  • I’ve read that if the Assyrians had any particular dislike toward you, they’d even make you to listen to Justin Bieber’s Christmas CD over and over again through the night.

  • That’s where I want you to go, Jonah… not just to preach to the people of Nineveh, but against them!”

By the way, when the nation of Israel was split in two… with ten of Israel’s twelve tribes making up the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the other two making up the Southern Kingdom of Judah…

  • When the Northern Kingdom was attacked and defeated by the Assyrians in 722 (around 30 years before God spoke to Jonah), they were basically vaporized as a people.

  • Literally… ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were permanently wiped off the face of the earth forever.

Now, Jonah’s from the southern Kingdom of Judah. But even though they were spared from Assyria’s wrath,

  • they were absolutely terrified of even the possibility that it could happen to them as well.

  • A
    ssyria was feared & hated so much
    that the prophet Nahum (also from Judah) wrote, in Nahum 3:1, "Woe to Nineveh, woe to the city of blood…"

  • That’s what Nineveh was called, "the city of blood!”

  • “…Full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over corpses…”


ut then God spoke of their impending judgment saying, “Your injury is fatal. Everyone who hears the news about you claps their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?"

  • And when Nineveh is ultimately destroyed, Nahum says, people are going clap; they are going to stand up and clap.

  • You hear all that… and you really begin to understand why Jonah was so completely against going there to Nineveh.

In his mind, Jonah had what he felt were some pretty legitimate reasons why saying no to God made more sense than saying yes.

  • But even beyond all his disdain for Assyria… he also felt some tremendous personal fear over what God was asking him to do.

  • Remember… while Nahum may have said some very condemning words about Nineveh, where do you think Nahum was when he said those words?

  • He was in Judah! He was a long ways away from Nineveh.

But the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah, and says, "Go to Nineveh." Jonah… I want you to learn to speak Assyrian

  • and then go and tell them face to face that they're facing judgment. Tell them to repent or they’re finished!

  • Jonah says, "Lord, Nahum got to taunt them from a distance. Couldn't we just send them a text message or throw some kind of announcement up on YouTube?"

You know, it’s easy… When God asks you to do something you really don’t want to do…

  • it’s easy to come up with a bunch of reasons why you shouldn’t say yes…

  • And, it’s easy to come up with reasons why you must have heard wrong.

  • In fact, let me ask you… the text says that "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah, 'Go to Nineveh.'"

  • Well, how exactly do you think the Word actually came to him?

Was it a burning bush? Was it a still small voice? Was it an angel? Was it a vision? Was it a dream? Was there room for doubt?

  • The text doesn't say. All we know is that the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, "Go to Nineveh."

  • Truth is, God probably spoke to Jonah the way He would speak to us today… not through a burning bush…

  • not through a loud audible voice… just God speaking into our heart of hearts.

One way or another, what God said to Jonah didn’t quite fall within Jonah's comfort zone!

  • You see, Nineveh is that one place God calls you to that you’d least want to go.

  • Nineveh is typically the absence of what makes you most secure… maybe it represents danger, the unknown, risk, thankless work, and fear…

  • at the very least, stepping out of your comfort zone.

And yet, what do you do when God says to you, "Go to Nineveh, go to the place where you do not want to go… where you’re afraid to go?"

  • Because there are times when God will call you to that… and, like Jonah, we’ll have to decide… will I say yes… or no?

  • So, what exactly was Jonah’s response?

Well, Jonah does leave his home in Gath Hepher, a few miles north of Nazareth… but not for Nineveh!

  • It says that he headed down to the coastal town of Joppa (modern city of Tel Aviv built around Joppa), not far from his home,

  • where he would hop on a boat and begin his escape to Tarshish.


nybody want to guess what direction Tarshish was in? Take a look at the map. You can where he was in Joppa and where Nineveh is.

  • Now look at where Tarshish is (a port city in what is now Tunisia)!

  • I mean could Jonah possibly run more in the opposite direction than Jonah did here?

  • As fast as he knows how, Jonah, the prophet of God, runs away from God!

Pretty crazy! I mean, who would ever try to do something that dumb? But, come on… we know Jonah wasn’t stupid.

  • So why did go through all that trouble of running from God?

  • I mean, he could’ve simply disobeyed God from the comfort of his own living room, right?

  • A
    nd yet, the text says that “Jonah ran away from the Lord, and headed for Tarshish."

Let me ask you… when you were a kid, did you ever run away from home… even it you only made it a block before your mom dragged back to your house?

  • See, one of the things about disobedience, one of the things about sin… is that it often demands a certain level of hiddeness… a certain level of “running away.”

  • In other words… when we choose to ignore God’s heart in a certain area… we also tend to run into hiding.

And why? Because we want to believe that if somehow we can ignore what we’ve done

  • If we can just get our minds off of what we’ve done… then, somehow, it’s ok… as though it never happened.

  • That not only won’t we get caught… but that there’s nothing to get caught from.

I shared some time ago about a not-so-bright college football player who was taking a test while sitting across from the smartest kid in class.

  • When the grades came back, the professor accused the football player of having cheated off the smart guy’s test.

  • Protesting, the professor says to the football player, "But you both got the exact same score on the test, you both got just one question wrong!"

So, the football player says, "Well, that could have been a coincidence."

  • Prof said, "Yeah, but you both got the same question wrong."

  • Football player said, "Well, that could have been a coincidence too."

  • Prof said, "But the smart student's paper said, 'I don't know the answer to this question,' and your paper said, 'I don't know the answer either!'"

See, if I want to disobey the Lord, the first thing I have to do is make sure my mind doesn’t think about Him being right there.

  • Truth is, we all do this, and amazingly enough, we’ve gotten so good at it that we can do it without even thinking about it…

  • At finding a way to eliminate, in the midst of our sin, the awareness of God's presence and God's character and God's will and God's holiness.

  • One way or another… if I want to ignore what God’s asked of me… then I’m going to find a way to ignore Him as well.

  • You see, sin always involves me running away from the Lord.

Maybe there’s a Nineveh God’s calling you to right now. Maybe He’s asking you to forgive someone who is really hard to forgive…

  • And yet, pride & fear of being hurt again, makes it just a little too unpleasant. And so, we make our way to Tarshish.

  • Maybe God is asking you to sacrifice in a certain area

  • maybe He’s calling you to serve in a particular area that doesn’t seem all that glamorous… or in an area you lack some confidence in.

It might be humbling. It might be difficult. It might be scary… And rather than say, “yes,” you’re already on your way to Tarshish.

  • Maybe the Word of the Lord has come to you and you thought, “Okay, I know what I’m supposed to do, but not now… now’s not the right time. I’ll get to it another time.”

  • But, remember this. Delayed obedience is just another name for disobedience.

Ever use this not-so-stellar parenting technique… “BillyBob, I’d like you to pick up your clothes.” “Later!”

  • Now, don’t make me come over there, BillyBob!” “Later!”

  • I’m serious, now. I’m going to count to three. Okay, one, two, two and a half … 2.56, 2.57… I’m really serious about this!”

  • Of course, we’ve all been guilty of this at times. But by doing this, all we’re doing is validating delayed obedience.

  • Don’t run out into the street. If you run past the sidewalk, I’ll take your iPod away. I’m serious, don’t run past that curb or I’ll ground you for a month. Get off of the street! I’m counting to three. One, two…” Splat!

Maybe for you, it looks like this: I know God wants me to confess & turn from this sin.

  • I know God wants me to let go of this sexual relationship or this sexual habit.

  • I know He’s asked me to reserve that part of my life to marriage… but, come on, it makes me feel valued & loved

  • So, what do you do? You make your way to Tarshish!

I know God wants me to release this judgmental attitude in my spirit. I know God wants me to forgive and not be bitter.

  • I know, but I don't want to. I'm looking for a ship to Tarshish.

  • “I know that is what God said, but I don’t want to, because in my mind, that doesn’t make sense,

  • and I like my way of doing things more than I want to obey God. I simply don’t want to do it.”

That's what Jonah’s thinking here. "I don’t want to trust God on this one… So, I’ll sort of run from God. Nobody will ever know."

  • W
    e read in verse 3, “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed to Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”

  • So, he goes down to Joppa and boards a ship headed in the exact opposite direction as Nineveh. A ship bound for Tarshish.

Now keep in mind that not only is Tarshish in the opposite direction from Nineveh, but in many ways it was the opposite kind of city.

  • Nineveh was a military city. Tarshish was a commercial city with great wealth. When it came to commerce and trade, it was a pioneer city.

  • In fact, conducting trade through shipping was pretty much like a new technology…

And for those who had enough money to get in on it… let’s just say that they became extremely wealthy.

  • And, with that wealth came a lot of greed, arrogance, and pride.

  • In fact, over time, the very phrase "a ship of Tarshish" became an expression used to express wealth & greed in the ancient world.

It actually comes up a number of times in the Old Testament. Take a look at this passage from Isaiah:

  • "
    The Lord has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted, for every ship of Tarshish. The arrogance of man will be brought low."

  • It comes up again in the Book of Ezekiel. "The ships of Tarshish will serve as carriers for your wealth…with your great wealth and your wares, you enrich the kings of the earth. Now you are shattered by the seas."

In Jonah’s time, the “ships of Tarshish” were quite real, but over time, the words would refer to something or someone marked power, greed, and arrogance.

  • Can you imagine that there was once a group of human beings so deluded that they would think that technology, wealth, and a clever economic system could make them secure?

  • Isn't that not completely unbelievable?!

  • That there was once a time in history were people would actually try to run away and hide from God?

Well… Jonah gets on that ship heading to Tarshish. He thinks he's running towards safety. Maybe you do too.

  • He thinks he's running towards opportunity & security, but maybe what really looks safe from a human perspective is not actually safe at all.

  • Maybe safety isn’t nearly as important as the significance that comes about as we live life God’s way!

You see, maybe Tarshish is a safer place… but from what we’ll see from Jonah’s eventually obedience, there was no better place in the world than Nineveh.

  • But here’s the deal… sometimes, when you are on the run, God might just do something to grab your attention.

  • W
    e’re told, in verse 4,"Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose..."

  • You see that word, “violent,” here? In the Hebrew text, the literal word used here is “great.

  • It's the same word that described the “great” city of Nineveh.

So, God calls Jonah to the great city of Nineveh… but Jonah took off in the opposite direction.

  • And so, God sent a great wind on the sea, and such a great storm arose "…so that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship."

  • This is a major league storm. These are professional sailors. They don't panic easily, but they’re panicking now.

They're so scared they take their cargo, their treasures, and toss them into the sea.

  • Back in those days, a journey between Joppa and Tarshish could take months.

  • Not only do they need the food on board, which they’ve just tossed overboard… but they toss the cargo over that would have brought them serious wealth. In fact…

For the typical sailor on board, the money you’d get from one roundtrip commercial trip would provide your income for the whole year.

  • So, they’re not just throwing “stuff” into the sea… they’re throwing their livelihood away… as well as their hopes.

  • And so, in the midst of all that, what are they doing? We’re told that they’re each praying! And to whom? Each to his own god.

Now outside of Israel, the ancient world didn’t particularly hold to the idea of monotheism.

  • Instead, each ethnic group… and each family… embraced their own set of little tribal gods.

  • Truth is, when the sea is calm, any old hand carved god is okay. But when a storm like this hits, everything changes.

  • Now you're hoping one of those gods actually turns out to be real.

And yet, does anybody know what Jonah was doing at this point in the story… when the storm was at its worst?

  • He's sleeping in the bottom of the boat! The captain is stunned by this and yells out to Jonah, "How can you sleep?"

  • I love the old King James Version of this, "What meanest thou, oh sleeper?" “How can you be asleep? What are you thinking?

  • So, in verse 6, he says to Jonah, "Get up and call on your god. Maybe He will take notice of us and we will not perish."

Now, here’s the irony. Here you have a pagan Gentile ship captain calling the prophet of Israel to prayer.

  • Everything’s upside down at this point. The pagan is doing what prophet's do…calling the man of God to pray.

  • The prophet is doing what pagans do…sleeping when it's prayer time.

  • You see, God is up to something pretty interesting here… but Jonah hasn’t caught on yet.

So, in verse 7, we read that the sailors all cast lots as a way of determining which of the people on board may have offended whatever god might be causing this mess.

  • And what they discovered through this is that Jonah’s the culprit.

  • So the sailors ask him, "’Why has this awful storm come down on us?’ the demanded. ‘Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?’"

  • J
    onah answers, "I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven who made the sea and the land."

We’re told in verse 10 that Jonah’s words terrified them. Literally we’re told here that the people feared a great fear.” They feared a great fear,

  • "…and they asked him, "What have you done?" But then look at what the text says here in parenthesis…

  • "They knew he was running away from the Lord because he had already told them so."

  • What do you mean you worship the Lord, the God of Heaven? You just told us a few days ago that you were running away from your God?

You see, it’s a funny thing… in spite of our being in spiritual hiding from God (and possibly ourselves)…

  • We’re still able to convince ourselves (or at least others) that everything is ok.

  • At times we even turn it around on God… blaming Him for the spiritual dryness… even though we’re the one’s who’ve run from Him.

It’s what King David was fighting against in his own life when he was crying out to God, in Psalm 86:11, for an undivided heart.

  • God, help me live the kind of life where my public life and private life are one in the same… a life without hiddeness… a life of integrity.

  • Now, if Jonah’s god was just another god widdled down from a piece of wood with a pocket knife…

  • Then Jonah’s comment wouldn’t have scared them so much.

You see, when they asked Jonah, "What's going on,” Jonah tells them about his God

  • Not just any god, but the very God who created the seas and the land and the wind. This isn’t some local, family deity.

  • This is the God who reigns over Heaven and Earth.

  • You see, what all those sailors realized was that the wrong god got offended here.

  • In fact, I think Jonah started to finally catch on to this as well.

All the fear, all the panic, all the desperation… causes Jonah to come out of hiding… to face the truth…

  • Realizing that his disobedience may just be what’s behind this entire storm. And so, they fear with a great fear.

  • Well, the sea keeps getting worse, it keeps getting rougher and stronger.

  • The sailors ask Jonah, "What should we do to make the sea calm down for us?"

Jonah says, now imagine this, he says, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you."

  • Now for the first time, Jonah says, "I'm not going to run from God anymore. God, whatever it takes, whatever the cost is, I will not run from You anymore. I’m going live in the purposes for which you’ve called me… I’m going to be the man you called me to be regardless of the circumstances… I’m going to live life on your terms, not my own."

But what’s so amazing is that the sailors don't do it. They don't want to sacrifice Jonah.

  • Instead, the text says, in verse 13, "The men did their best to row back to land. But they could not for the sea grew even wilder than before."

  • Their lives are at stake, but they don't want to sacrifice the life of this Hebrew stranger.

And so, with all of this compassion and humanity, the sailors of Tarshish risk their own lives, trying to row the boat onto shore… but the storm is too strong.

  • So, what do they do? They say a prayer! Funny thing is that we’ve already been told how they’ve each been praying to their own god.

  • But notice who their praying to now! Verse 14, "Then they cried out to the Lord, 'Oh Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man. For You, oh Lord, have done as You pleased.'"

  • Who were they praying to? The Lord!

Now, exactly how God responded to their prayers, I don’t know… but one way or another, they finally come to the place where throwing Jonah overboard is their only solution.

  • I mean, what a scene! This great storm, terrified sailors, runaway prophet, capsizing boat...

  • Don't you wonder what's going on in Jonah's mind? He's going to die. He knows he is going to die. But he's tired of running from God.

He would rather die than keep running from God… to the point of suggesting himself that he be thrown into the water.

  • And eventually, as you see in verse 16, they do it.

  • And, once they do it… the weather suddenly grows calm. The storm is gone… but so is Jonah.

  • Now, remember… you know how this story ends. But for the ancient readers… this is a dramatic scene.

Listen… at one time or another, we’ve all run from God… and, I think we have experienced that, to one degree or another, in one way or another… there’s always a price to pay for it.

  • Maybe it's in your behavior, maybe it's in a relationship, maybe it's running away from your calling, and the storm hits.

  • Maybe it's in your heart, maybe it's in your emotions, maybe it's in your circumstances, but you know you're running…

  • and the storm keeps hitting until you finally, finally say, "All right God, I will stop running. My life, my behavior, my relationships, my time, my money, my attitude, my… it's yours, God. I'm not going to run anymore,"

  • and you feel like you're going to die, but then the storm calms down.

Of course, one day, Jesus would come, and while sleeping in a boat, a great storm would hit down on them. And yet, He calms the storm.

  • T
    hen this amazing thing happens. Once the storm is calmed, we’re told that "The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered Him a sacrifice and vowed to serve Him."

  • They were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, "…and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord." That's an act of worship.

  • "…and vowed to serve Him," as an act of commitment, as an act of devotion.

This is unbelievable, a pagan boat becomes a place of worship. The ship of Tarshish becomes a temple of the Living God. That wasn't Jonah's plan.

  • That's the last thing Jonah was planning on. He was supposed to be going the other direction.

  • It turns out that these sailors on this ship…they are not bit players in this story after all.

  • This isn’t some two-bit part to a much more important story about Nineveh.

Turns out that God's story is bigger than we see what our own eyes. It's also a story about Tarshish.

  • And ultimately, what we see is that it’s really a story about God.

  • It turns out that Jonah thought he was running away from God. Jonah thought he could escape what God wanted to do.

  • And yet, turns out that God was at work in ways that Jonah could ever have predicted or even dream of.

Just think about how odd this story must have seemed to its readers back in Israel… how, through these amazing circumstances, a group of rough and rugged Gentiles who lived out on the sea…

  • how they came to worship the God of Israel out there on the ship of Tarshish… While Israel's prophet, the man of God, was sinking down into the ocean.

  • Of course, the story doesn’t end there, though we’ll pick it up from here next week.

But, what an amazing story… If we wanted to summarize chapter 1, it would basically go like this…

  • God says, "Go." Jonah says, "No." God says, "Blow."

  • Jonah says, "So." Captain says, "Bro." Jonah says, "Throw." Sailors say, "Whoa."

  • Y
    ou see, in that first chapter of Jonah, the sailors come to know God. But for Jonah, his adventure is just beginning.

  • God has done something wonderful, even though his disobedience.

And, as we’ll see next week, God is about to do something equally wonderful through his obedience.

  • This is a fabulous book, but for us, I want to stop with this: It is never too late to quit running from God.

  • It is never, it is never too late to quit running from God, and I'll tell you something else, it is never too soon to quit running from God…never too soon.

Maybe you've been doing it in really obvious ways. People around you who know you and love you can see it.

  • Maybe you've been running in secret, hidden ways. Maybe you were hardly even aware of it until right now and the Spirit is just talking to you…whatever area of your life.

  • Maybe a storm has hit or is coming. Don't wait for the storm to get any worse.

  • Jesus always has the same invitation, "Just come running to me." Running away does not work in life. It just doesn't work.

So, as we walk out this new week, let's all ponder and reflect and wait and listen, “God, is there any place that you're calling me to go to Nineveh?”

  • Something you're asking me to do that I've been resisting you on? Have I been running from you?

  • Let's really look at that, and maybe three little words will come to you, your own calling, your own Nineveh.

  • Then come back next week and see what comes next because the adventure is just starting. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, You know the truth about us, You know that we are runners, that we all have a lot of Jonah in us. We get scared. We want what we want. We shut the awareness of You out of our thoughts. We flee from Your presence, and yet always, God, the good news is You are at work in ways that we could not plan or even imagine. We pray right now, Heavenly Father, especially for a spiritual struggle that is going on in hearts in this room. For women and men who know of some area, some relationship, some behavior, some secret where they have been running the other way, maybe for a long time, and You come right now and say, "Just run to Me, just come on home." Heavenly Father, would You help each of us stop running away? Help us to know what a good and loving and great God You are. We ask this grace in Jesus' name, Amen.”

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