The Wrong Direction (11am)
Topic: Following God's Call
This day and age it can be hard to think that we as a human race are improving. We are constantly bombarded with depressing news and are forced to witness events that make us just scratch our head at best. It’s rare that we really get to see a noticeable, meaningful, beneficial improvement take place. But sometimes, they are so subtle that we can miss them. There is one such advance that I am exceedingly grateful for. And it is the fact that I never have to hear the words “recalculating” yelled at me in my car anymore.
I use my phone for any navigation needs, instead of the little GPS unit you can suction cup to your wind shield. With those little units, I’d always hear that awful voice speak the word “recalculating” whenever I’d miss a turn or an exit and then another six or seven times as I tried to get back on the right course. Now though, I don’t have to worry about that. The app I use on my phone just silently puts a new route on my screen and lets me go on my way. And that is fantastic when it comes to our choice of navigational technology. But it’s not exactly how God works. Not in the case of Jonah, anyway.
This week we start a four week series on the story of Jonah. Each week we’ll explore a chapter of the story. You’ll notice both of our Scripture readings will be the first and second halves of each chapter. This means that when all is said and done, we as a church will have read and reflected on the entire book of Jonah. And that’s really important when it comes to some of the more familiar parts of the Bible that we may have heard about as kids. Jonah’s is a fascinating story, but also a troubling one at times. And, as can be said of many accounts in the Bible, it’s a story that has reflections and implications in our own stories. We left Jonah in the middle of a storm in our last reading. Now we’ll finish the first chapter.
* Read Jonah 1:11-17 *
So we pick up on the first part of Jonah’s story on a boat in the middle of the storm while he’s trying to run away from the Lord and the job God had just given him. Things are getting worse and worse and in a moment of selflessness, Jonah tells the sailors to toss him overboard. They are reluctant because they are good people who don’t want to see a man, even a stranger, be tossed to his death in the violent ocean. Eventually though, they have no choice. They make a plea to God to spare them for what they are about to do, and toss Jonah into the sea. And when they did, the sea grew calm. This caused the sailors to make vows to the Lord. And then we hear the iconic verse that is the claim to fame for the book of Jonah. A huge fish is sent by God and swallows Jonah.
Sure is one whale of a tale, isn’t it? There are parts of Jonah’s story found within Scripture that never make it into Veggie Tales or other children’s Sunday school and then there are moments that never get missed. We get to look at a moment that never gets missed. The story of the scared prophet running away from his job and becoming fish food is a classic example. It’s an iconic story but when I reread it, and the rest of the book of Jonah, I realized that #1 – it’s really a sad and troubling story and #2 – we often tell it wrong…at least the parts that happen in chapter 1.
The first thing we learn is that the word of the Lord came to Jonah and God told him to go to Ninevah to speak against all of the wicked things that have become the way of life in that city. That measures up to what we usually hear. Then we know Jonah runs in the wrong direction. In the opposite direction, in fact. But it’s the reason why he’s running that sometimes gets misunderstood.
Often times the story is told that Jonah actually wanted to just get as far away from Ninevah as possible as if the city itself were this impending, looming terror. Now, Ninevah is definitely a rough place but we don’t read that Jonah ran away from Ninevah. No, we’re told Jonah ran away from God. Tarshish is just the direction he took to do so. This is one of the main reasons why I said Jonah’s is a sad and troubling story.
We don’t simply witness a faithful prophet who’s lost a bit of his nerve. We witness a servant of God go AWOL. Yes, Jonah is geographically going in the wrong direction but he’s also going in the wrong direction spiritually. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident in Jonah’s story but we’ll find that’s not the case in the last two chapters. And in reality, we never learn exactly why Jonah ran and tried to shirk the call God had given him. I’m sure fear played some role but it also likely had to do with the fact God wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah at all in the first place.
We can’t see it in Jonah in this chapter but in the final chapters of the book we learn that Jonah isn’t exactly Mr. Positivity when it comes to the job God has given him. The message he speaks to the city is nothing but a warning of impending doom. Jonah becomes angry when God actually grants mercy to the Ninevites. We even hear Jonah allude to one of the reasons he ran in the first place: because he knew God was merciful and Jonah didn’t want Ninevah to receive mercy.
All of this solidifies what the text actually says at the beginning of our reading this morning: Jonah ran away from God. He ran away from the call of God, yes. But Jonah also ran away from the mercy and compassion of God. He ran away from an opportunity for that love to be shared with people who needed it. So when we say Jonah ran in the wrong direction, we can see that he did so in the most tragic and troubling of ways. He ran away because of fear. He ran away from a call. He ran away from his God. He ran away from love itself. Jonah is not a hero and barely musters more than a few moments in the whole book that could possibly paint him as one. And yet, God calls and chooses him. More on that in a minute.
The tragedy of Jonah, unfortunately, doesn’t only impact Jonah himself. As we continue through chapter one we see Jonah hop on a boat and make a break for Tarshish. The Lord sends a terrifying storm and now a collection of innocent sailors are put through the ringer because of the downright awful qualities of our not-so-good prophet. This is a really powerful reminder that when we disobey God or act outside of His will for our lives that we are capable of causing pain and distress to others in our lives. What we might try to justify as simply a personal decision can actually end up being a punishment for the innocent. But if we’re hard-pressed to find an admirable quality in Jonah in this chapter we can find it in the sailors.
These men are outsiders to the faith of God. They aren’t followers of the one, true God but are also not villains. They are average people making a living. And they become to the only example of decency we find in the whole first chapter of a story written about a prophet of God! They reveal to us the goodness of strangers and remind us of the need to constantly remind ourselves that every person is capable of good just as (through the example of Jonah) every person is capable of doing wrong.
These poor sailors are terrified in our scene and they start trying to sort through the few options they have and that includes each of them crying out to their own different gods and throwing their cargo, their primary source of livelihood and income, into the raging ocean. They even go down and grab a sleeping Jonah to ask him to pray to whoever his God is.
They turn to casting lots – a sort of combination of superstition and gambling – to figure out who on the boat is causing this trouble and, sure enough, it falls on Jonah. This leads to Jonah confessing who he is and the sailors putting two and two together. We gain the insight that these men know about the Hebrew God and are aware of His power. Hearing God’s name, remembering that Jonah had told them he was running from his God, and then asking Jonah what they should now do reveals their awareness and fear of the most high God.
Jonah, whether out of selfless heart or forlorn apathy, tells them to toss him into the sea. But they can’t. They don’t want to be responsible for the death of a person. Again, these are good and decent people. They try to row back to land but can’t make any headway against a now even more ferocious ocean. So they pray a prayer to God, the true God, asking for mercy and toss Jonah into the drink. Like a secret ingredient, when Jonah enters the waters, the sea is calm. This causes our common sailors to make vows to God. In the end, whether he liked it or not, at least Jonah’s actions did some good for spreading the name of the Lord.
And then comes the moment that is the claim to fame for this account: The big fish. That’s right. We can settle the age-old debate right here. Despite every cute nursery adaption and representation, it is indeed written out as a fish and not a whale. Jonah is swallowed.
Next week Larry will share out of Jonah 2 which is primarily made up of Jonah’s heartfelt prayer from within the fish.
There seems to always be some measure of suspicion or fact-checking or reinterpreting done when it comes to this account. Or the opposite, there is die-hard defense and justification made for this being a true, real-life account. I’ll say one thing before we keep talking about this single verse: This is not the central, pivotal, or most important moment or element of Jonah’s story. Not by a long shot.
Alright, so a little bit about our seafood reversal. Personally, I don’t see why we feel the need to explain away this text. Is it bizarre for a full grown man to be swallowed by fish and remain intact for three days? Obviously. But I’ll ask you this: Is it any more bizarre than other miraculous movements and actions of our God? The parting of a sea. Safety within a fiery furnace. Feeding thousands with what barely constituted a full meal. Healing diseases and deformities with a single touch. Rising from the dead. In reality, this doesn’t seem to really even hit God’s top 5 when it comes to miraculous works.
We also have to determine if where we fall on this changes where we fall on the central truth of our faith: the person and work of Christ. If someone discovered 100% verifiable evidence that Jonah was never swallowed by a fish, it wouldn’t change what I know and believe about Christ. My own convictions are such that I err on the side of taking Scripture at what it says but those convictions are certainly more intense and deeply rooted depending on the subject.
And even for the sake of this message, this verse doesn’t serve as the central application moment. If any of you have survived the harrowing journey of a fish’s gestational track, we can talk afterwards. I can help you really process and digest that event. Get it?
For the rest of us, the real point of conviction originates from Jonah’s complete reversal from both God’s call and God’s heart. When Jonah goes in the wrong direction, many of us can likely sympathize and recall our own moments of doing the same.
Last week, on Easter, I shared that I believe searching for God is a universal experience. The other side of that coin is fleeing from God. Both of these represent something like the opposing pull of gravitational forces. Two bodies are seeking to draw us closer. God and the other is sin. One is clearly more powerful and yet if we are closer to another it will draw us in. Somewhere between our search for God and our fleeing from God is a sacred and incredibly vulnerable space. It’s out this space that I believe words like that of Psalm 139 were written: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” Whether we are searching or fleeing, there is some sense within us that God is closer – whether that springs up hope or causes fear. We’ll see this kind of reflection in Jonah next week with chapter two.
All of us have moments in our life where we feel like or eventually realize we’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes it might be something as simple as a career change – even though that is really far from simple. Other times we come to this realization in terms of who we are as a person or who we are becoming or have become. And hopefully it occurs within our faith. Even with Jonah, being a less-than-inspiring example of service and faithfulness, the first chapter of his story provides us an inspiring note at both the beginning and the end of this chapter.
God sending the big fish tells us the same thing as God sending Jonah to Ninevah: God pursues those who are beyond saving. Whether it’s a city overwhelmed with corruption, the wayward heart of God’s servant, or the wanderings of the average heart – God pursues us no matter where we are. We may find ourselves going in the wrong direction but the story of Jonah shows us that God will intervene and make every effort to set us on the true path, His path.