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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Running from God (Jonah 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - January 20, 2013
 :: Some Music Used
Prelude: "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name" (Fettke)
Song of Praise: "Jesus Calls Us O'er the Tumult" (Public Domain, arr. Enfield)
Song of Praise: "Draw Me Nearer" (Crosby/Sheets)
The Word in Music: "Run" - sung by Karla Katibah (Maddie Shuler)
Offering of Music: "Little Prelude in C" - Walker Austell, piano (J.S. Bach)
Hymn of Sending: "All I Have is Christ" (Jordan Kauflin)
Postlude: "Great is the Lord" (Michael and Deborah Smith)
"Running from God"
(Click triangle to play in browser; Left-click link to play in new window; or right-click to save)
Text: Jonah 1 
Testimony: Ray Ball on Jonah 1

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

I run so far away from what I don't want to face
I can't see it anymore; I've lost sight of what I'm looking for
~Maddie Shuler, 2010

I think all of us can relate to running from what we don’t want to face, and perhaps also losing sight of what we are looking for. 

Today we turn to the story of Jonah.  It’s really a story about the startling immensity of the mercy and grace of God.  But as we focus in on chapter one in today’s text, we find a man running from God, not wanting to face the daunting task God has set before him.

Running Away

The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai: “Go to the great city and cry against it.”  The year was approximately 760 B.C.  The Kingdom of Israel was ruled by Jeroboam II and was prosperous.  Assyria was the world power and had a record of cruelty and conquest.  40 years later, in 722 B.C., Assyria would conquer northern Israel and take the people into captivity.

All of the other prophets of Israel spoke messages to the people of Israel.  But things were going relatively well under Jeroboam; Israel was prospering, though not particularly faithful.  The Lord told Jonah to go to Ninevah, one of the great cities of the Assyrian Empire.  Jonah was told to undertake the 500 mile journey to the heart of the oppressive Assyrians to denounce their evil ways.  Not only would the journey have been an exceedingly long one, it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Jonah would have returned from.

So, who can really blame him for running?  There is something slightly humorous about the geography.  If you look at a map, Jonah is in northern Israel.  Ninevah is approximately 500 miles to the northwest, near the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq.  Jonah went to the port of Joppa and caught a ship headed to Tarsus.  Scholars think Tarsus was in what is now Spain – pretty much the western edge of the world, literally as far as he could imagine from Nineveh.  At the least, leaving by ship from Joppa meant heading in the other direction, wherever Tarshish might have been in the Mediterranean.

Jonah’s Story: Things to Pay Attention To

There are a number of gripping details in the story that follows.  God comes after Jonah by means of a storm.  The sailors are pagan and superstitious, and eventually elicit Jonah’s story from him.  They are not quite ready to hurl him into the sea, and row harder, but eventually give in to Jonah’s suggestion to throw him into the sea, and the storm subsides.  Convicted of the power of the Hebrew God, the pagan sailors actually come to believe, offering a sacrifice and making vows.  The chapter ends with a great fish swallowing Jonah.

While I won’t dwell on them this morning, there are a number of things worth pondering in this chapter.  What is the purpose of the storm – is it to punish Jonah?  Certainly not, for God spares Jonah.  Rather, like one of Jesus’ miracles, it signals the presence and power of God in a place where God might have been least expected to show up: outside Israel among a pagan, superstitious lot of sailors… foreigners, outsiders, strangers.  And despite Jonah’s disobedience, reluctance, and failures, God reached the sailors anyway.  Perhaps this is even some indication of what God could accomplish in Ninevah, should He want to?

I’m also struck by the willing blindness and deafness of Jonah and the openness and faith of the pagan sailors.  While the storm rages Jonah sleeps.  Jonah is not only fleeing; he is hiding from God, and perhaps has even lost sight of God’s power and presence until the sailors make him confront what is going on.  Even then Jonah does not offer prayers, sacrifices, and vows, but simply accepts judgment and retribution.  He seems to know little of the mercy of the Lord, which we will see again in the fourth chapter of Jonah, when he struggles so with God having mercy on Nineveh.

Maybe you are wondering what kind of prophet he is; he seems like kind of a lame one.  But all he had known was prosperity; what he is learning is God’s power, presence, and mercy.

Fleeing the Presence of the Lord

Finally, what I want to focus on is one phrase early in the chapter.  While it might seem like Jonah flees for Tarshish because he is afraid of going to Nineveh, in the text we are given a different reason for his flight.  Indeed, he may have been afraid or simply unwilling to undertake such a challenging journey; but look and listen again to the reason for his getting on the ship.  It’s there in verse 3: “Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Whether disobedient or afraid, he was fleeing the presence of the Lord.

I think of Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had disobeyed the Lord and eaten from the Tree.  It’s in Genesis 3:8: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”

I think of young children who have disobeyed their parents or teacher.  Often they do not want to look at you.  Sometimes they will even go hide. 

I think of many, many of us youth and adults, who have done this or that in life; we’ve messed up and things are out of order.  And we back away from church and even friends.  Somehow we tell ourselves (or will even say out loud), “I’ll go back when I get my life together.”  Or we build up the walls and masks and blockades to shut people out and hide behind.

There is something about the presence of another person, particularly one who is loving, faithful, and represents what is true and right… that we just want to cringe and hide and not be seen.  Right?  Don’t you know that to be true?  And that’s what Jonah was doing – he was fleeing from and hiding from the presence of the Lord.  He didn’t want to feel God’s presence or hear God’s voice or be reminded of his own disobedience.  He didn’t want to look God in the face.

And Yet…

And yet… one of our greatest needs is to be known and loved.  What sense does it make, when we have strayed or messed up or unraveled, to avoid being known and refuse to be loved?  It’s the thing we need most, PARTICULARLY from God!  And it’s what God offers! 

Not only did God not let Jonah go, He came after him.  And despite the storm and the waves and the wind, God didn’t come to punish Jonah, but to be known by him, to get his attention again.  It sure may have felt like the end of everything, but God scooped Jonah up and kept him safe.  And next week we will get a peek at their face-to-face, their heart-to-heart, in the belly of the fish.

So hear this… and I know this is one of the things Ray would shout to you with every fiber of his being – I know it because he’s teaching a Sunday school class on the very thing.  God made us to be known – to be in relationship, and open up, and trust, and love.  Please do ask Ray for the rest of his story; it’s riveting… and not because Ray is awesome, but because God is awesome. 

Hear this… if you’ve managed to be here today and it’s the last place you want to be, there is no better place you could be than in the presence of God.  Yes, God is true and holy and right and pure; but God loves you extravagantly and will go to the ends of the earth to demonstrate that to you.  As the story of Jonah and Nineveh unfolds, that will become more and more clear.  Risk being known; it is worth it.

Or, if someone you know is avoiding church or you or other people that love them, invite them.  Tell them why you love them and care for them.  Tell them why it’s so important to you to come into God’s presence. 

I remember my children hiding their face and sometimes their whole selves when they were little.  And there was nothing I wanted more than to go looking for them, find them, and make things right between us. 

That’s what God is like.  And if you ask me, that is Good News!  Amen.

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