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08.16.20 Running from God Jonah 1:1-10 Sermon Summary

by on August 18, 2020

It seems people are perpetually seeking God. You have the religious shoppers who go from faith to faith, taking some of this one and a bit of that one. Each year there are multiple best-selling books on the religious quest. People attend retreats, Bible studies, prayer groups, and service projects.

All this can result in a deeper experience of God. Or it can just be experience. I believe that some people busy themselves seeking God in order to avoid encountering God.

There is no doubt that Jonah is avoiding God. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”

Elizabeth Achtemeier points out: “The verb for ‘arise’ in v. 2 is repeated in v. 3. God commands Jonah to ‘arise,’ and Jonah ‘arose.’ His response is immediate. However, instead of going to Nineveh, he flees in exactly the opposite direction to Tarshish, a name that is repeated three times for emphasis.” (Preaching from the Minor Prophets, p. 57)

Jonah isn’t seeking God. He’s heard God’s voice! He knows God is near. God is very present, too present. No, Jonah is avoiding God. Why do we avoid God?

Maybe it has to do with what God is offering. God is a healer, but we want to deny our hurts. God is generous, but we don’t want to give. God is forgiving, but we like our grudges. God is a savior, but we don’t want to confess our sin. God calls us to faith, trust, and hope, but some of us are already tried and we’re just done.

Today we are familiar with the Jonah parable. But first time hearers wouldn’t know yet why he ran from God. There are three things we do know about Jonah from these first ten verses.

First, Jonah’s faith is creedal. He knows his religious doctrine: “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah’s religion is head-knowledge but it is not heart-felt. He knows what to say about God but his heart hasn’t been transformed (as we’ll see in coming weeks).

Second, Jonah doesn’t pray—or when he does, it isn’t sincere. The mariners with him are desperately throwing cargo off the ship and praying to their own gods while Jonah sleeps below deck. The captain comes to Jonah and tells him to pray to his god. Either he doesn’t or he’s not very convincing, because they then resort to casting lots to find the problem.

Third, beyond a faith that is primarily head-knowledge and not praying sincerely, Jonah runs from God without shame. When the lot falls to Jonah he recites his Sunday school doctrine and the mariners are filled with even more fear, for Jonah already told them he’s running from God. I imagine that first conversation. “Welcome aboard, mate. Join the crew. All of us are running from God.”

These three observations teach us something about Jonah. He has head-faith, he doesn’t pray, and he runs away without shame. Why? I believe Jonah thinks he knows better than God. Jonah has got God all battened down. He is so confident in himself that he can sleep through the storms of life.

I am reminded of another story about a nautical storm during which someone is so confident that he sleeps. Luke 8:22-24 retells it his way: One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.

Like Jonah Jesus is confident, but not in himself or in his knowledge. Jesus is confident in God. Again the mariners wake up the sleeper. And unlike Jonah Jesus prays, and Jesus’ prayer calms the storm. And whereas Jonah shamelessly runs, Jesus shamelessly walks. Jonah runs away from God. Jesus walks with God.

Jesus shamelessly walks with God. Jesus shamelessly walks with tax collectors and the spiritually possessed. Jesus shamelessly walks with foreign military officers and the religious elite and even infamous sinners. And Jesus shamelessly walks with each of us.

Unlike Jonah, Jesus didn’t know better than God. Now some will say, “Jesus WAS God; he shared God’s knowledge.” I don’t think so. If that is so, then Jesus couldn’t be a man of faith. And if he’s not a human of faith he could not inspire us to faith. He could not exemplify faith to us. And we humans couldn’t follow him.

All of us are in a storm—not just COVID; we have our personal storms too. In these storms, we may have one of two responses. Either we’re sleeping or we’re not.

If we’re not sleeping it is because like the mariners we’re offering haphazard prayers—thoughtless and heartless. Or we’re working extra hard throwing over cargo or bailing ourselves out. In Jonah and Luke this is a lack of faith.

If we are sleeping through the storm it’s because like Jonah we know better than God. We are confident in ourselves: “I’ve got this.” “Science will get a handle on this.” “It’s not as bad as they say.” Or we can sleep because like Jesus we are confident in God: “God’s got this.” “I can trust God.” “It’s bad, but God is better.”

There may be another explanation that is not in the story. It is in my story. I am tempted to sleep not because I am confident in God but because I lack faith. And I lack faith not like Jonah lacked faith—not because I know better than God—but because my faith has gotten tattered. I run because God calls me to faith, trust, and hope, but I am already tried and I feel done.

If you’re not sleeping through the storm because you’re like Jonah, because your offering random prayers in fear or frantically working to save yourself . . . or if like mine your faith is wearing out . . . And if you’re not sleeping through the storm because you’re not like Jesus, confident in God’s deliverance and patient in God’s timing . . .

Then let us learn from Jesus how to pray. Jesus said in Matthew 6:7-8, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do [and mariners also]; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

When the skies darken above us and the waves around us rise, may we not run from God. May we not avoid the storm in a sleepy depression or a false confidence in ourselves. But let us run to God in prayer, beginning not with our knowledge of creeds or even our previous knowledge of God.

But let us run to God with the faith of Jesus that God our loving parent knows what we need even before we ask.

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