God told Jonah to take his message to the people of Nineveh and Jonah refused. Jonah more than refused. God wanted the people of Nineveh to hear good news and Jonah was determined it would not happen through him. He packed a few things and left to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.
Jonah thought about where he could go to escape God and picked a place as far away as possible, Tarshish. Although no one knows for sure where Tarshish was, there is speculation that Tarshish was on the coast of what is today Spain and that was at the end of the known world. Wherever it was, it was far away from Israel and that satisfied Jonah.
Jonah arrived in Joppa, found a ship heading to Tarshish and paid for his passage.
What did Jonah expect would happen when he set out from the port of Joppa into the Mediterranean Sea? Did he take time to consider the consequences of his action? What did Jonah think he would do when he arrived in Tarshish? There is not much work for a prophet of the Lord when he runs away from the Lord. The truth is, I don’t think Jonah had thought through his options very carefully. All he wanted to do was get away to someplace God would never find him and where it would be impossible for him to preach to the enemies of Israel.
How rational was that thought? Jonah certainly knew the psalms of David, including Psalm 139.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There is nowhere to hide from God and this is what Jonah discovered. This part of the story of Jonah is a story of descent. Jonah went down to Joppa. He went on board the ship and immediately went down into the hold of the ship. He lay down and fell asleep. And, as we get to the end of the text this morning, he went down into the sea. But, as we will see, no matter how far down Jonah went, God was still there.
Jonah went down into the hold of the ship and slept. He must have been exhausted, physically as well as emotionally. It seems that as soon as he received word from God that he should head to Nineveh, he went as fast as he could to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. He probably did not get much sleep. He probably did not stop to rest on the way. If he was in Samaria when he received the word from the Lord, he would have traveled for four days to get to Joppa.
But it was not just the physical exertion that made Jonah tired, the account suggests that he was depressed and one of the effects of depression is needing to sleep.
Consider Jonah’s emotional state. He was a prophet of the Lord. He was a well-respected prophet of the Lord. He was a popular prophet of the Lord. And now that God was asking him to do something he found too distasteful, he was running away from all of that. He ran away from his relationships, away from his career, away from his source of income, away from his life. He was running away from his identity as God’s prophet. He was running away from God.
He wasn’t thinking about what he would do when he arrived in Tarshish because for him, his life was already over. He might sit on the street and depend on the generosity of those who passed by, but life had passed him by and he was simply waiting to die. This is apparently how Jonah dealt with difficulty because when he did eventually go to Nineveh and the people repented, Jonah was once again depressed and cried out, (Jonah 4:3) “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Before the ship left the port, I suspect Jonah was already asleep. He made a deal with the captain of the ship, avoided the curiosity of the sailors about who he was and why he wanted to go to Tarshish, and went below. The storm seems to have come up soon after they set sail because the account says that the sailors tried to row for the shore but could not. They would not try to row for the shore if they could not see it or if they did not know it was near to them.
The storm came up very suddenly and it was very much unexpected. When the ship left the port of Joppa, there was no indication that a storm was on its way. The captain would not have set sail if there were signs a storm was coming. They set out with what seemed favorable winds and then all of a sudden they were in the midst of a great storm. There was something supernatural about this to the sailors.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 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.
Sailors are used to storms but this one was so ferocious that they were fearful. They were an international crew and each one called on the god of his country for help. Gods were national gods. Remember the story of the ark of the covenant being taken in battle by the Philistines? The Philistines put the captured ark in the temple of their national god, Dagon, and in the morning when the statue of Dagon was found prostrate before the ark, they understood this as a battle between the god of the Philistines and the god of Israel in which the god of Israel emerged the clear winner.
So each sailor called out to his national god, but the storm continued to rage. Throwing cargo overboard is a last resort but the situation was so drastic that the cargo that would make this a profitable voyage was thrown overboard.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
This is really quite amazing. In the midst of all of the rocking and heaving of the ship, with the sound of the wind and waves slamming against the ship, Jonah slept. It brings to mind Jesus sleeping in a much smaller fishing boat during a storm in the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus slept the sleep of a man at peace with God. Jonah did not have that peace. His sleep was a disturbed sleep, a sleep trying to avoid the reality of what was happening, a sleep from which he would be happy if he never woke up.
As the sailors went below into the hold to carry more cargo to throw overboard, they saw Jonah and reported to the captain that he was fast asleep. This was strange behavior and so
6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”
It seems that the captain was angry. This was an emergency and every man had to do his part. He did not expect Jonah to handle the sails or tie knots, but he did expect him to call out to his god for help. This was a supernatural storm and supernatural help was needed.
7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.”
It was clear that this storm was the supernatural act of some god, a divine punishment against someone. The question was who. So they cast lots.
These were probably dice with light colored sides and dark colored sides. If two light colored sides came up, the person was innocent. If two dark colored sides came up, the person was guilty. If there was one dark and one light, they threw the dice again.
One by one they threw the dice and the light colored sides came up for each sailor until they threw the dice for Jonah and two dark colored sides came up.
They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
Jonah was trying to get away from God and the storm was a first indication that he had not been successful. Now, as each sailor was cleared, one-by-one, Jonah became aware of an increasing heaviness. He had been found. David said in his psalm, “if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” and this was the unfortunate reality for Jonah. God was present with Jonah and this was not, for him, good news.
The sailors now pummeled Jonah with questions:
8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
These are not conversation starters, questions you might ask of a group so they can get to know each other. These are desperate questions and the first is a question asking if the crew are somehow responsible for the storm.
“Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?
Are they helping him when they should not have helped? Are they helping him escape from some great crime?
What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
These questions are fired at him in the midst of the storm, shouted at him so he could hear. What is his story? What has he done to offend the gods? In particular, which god has been offended?
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
Jonah does not try to hide who he is because he knows the game is up. He has been found. He tried to run from God and failed so now he acknowledges his blame. He tells the sailors his god is the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. It is the sea that is causing them so much trouble and the fact that Jonah has offended the god who created the sea is terrifying to the sailors.
10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
The sailors heard Jonah’s story and then appealed to him, asking him what they should do. This was Jonah’s god so Jonah was the resident expert.
Then comes another of the many surprises of this story, not something the sailors expected. Jonah has resigned himself to the punishment of God and is ready to accept his fate.
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
The sailors were doing everything they could to survive, to live, and here Jonah told them to sacrifice him to the sea. Notice that Jonah did not say he would jump overboard; he told the sailors to throw him overboard. If Jonah jumped, it would be an act of suicide. When he was thrown, he became a sacrifice offered to Yahweh.
By this time the sailors understand that Jonah’s god is a powerful god and they do not want to offend him by making a mistake. They do not want to be blamed for killing this god’s prophet.
13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land.
This is what indicates they were not far from land when this storm came upon them. They put their best efforts in trying to save Jonah and themselves, but when the sea became even rougher, they understood it was no use.
13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried to the Lord, “O 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, O Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.
As this story is read for the first time, the story of Jonah has come to an end. He drowned at sea. The story moves to the sailors who are astounded at the power of Jonah’s god who is able to create such a ferocious storm and then make it quiet down once Jonah had been sacrificed.
16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
Jonah’s god is added to their list of gods. What happened to them after this we do not know, but when they returned to Joppa, the closest port, this was the story they told. And the power of that experience must have drawn them to know more about the god of Israel.
And now we come to another surprise. Again, imagine this is the first time you ever heard the story.
17 But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
What?! A great fish?! Are you kidding?! And like all good television shows, this is where we leave you until next week when we find out what happened to Jonah in that great fish.
This morning I want to draw out four lessons from this part of the story of Jonah.
First, we cannot hide from God. We cannot escape his attention.
Second, our disobedience has a cost for others, not just ourselves.
Third, when we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God, others around us benefit.
Fourth, God pursues us to save us.
We cannot hide from God.
When our youngest daughter was still in diapers, we found her one day standing in the corner of the living room, in plain sight, with one hand over her eyes, eating a cookie she knew she was not supposed to eat. In her mind, if she could not see us, we could not see her. It was so cute we could not discipline her.
This is a cute story but we are too much like this. We think that if we hide from others the things we know we should not do and even try to hide them from ourselves, that God does not see us. This is just as foolish as my daughter’s action. God knows who you are. God knows what you think. God knows the ways in which you struggle to live a moral life. God knows what you do on the computer. God knows what you do behind closed doors. God knows what you think of other people, how you act when no one else is around.
We don’t like to expose our weaknesses and so we put on a brave face but this does not help us in our walk with Jesus. The best thing you can do, if you are a follower of Jesus, is to be honest with yourself and honest with God. Don’t pretend to be more than you are. The truth is that we are all sinners. We are all imperfect. We all have personality flaws. We all do things we wish we did not do. We are all weak and needy. So be real, especially with God. You don’t have to stand in front of the church and tell everyone your deepest secrets, but you do need to find a few people who love you and are committed to you and who will support you in your struggle to live a life pleasing to God.
Second, our disobedience has a cost for others, not just ourselves. The Ninevites did not hear the word that came to Jonah because Jonah rebelled. We know the story is not yet over, but at least at this point in the story, the Ninevites were deprived of hearing what God wanted to say to them. The sailors were also placed in jeopardy because of Jonah’s rebellion.
When we do not do what God asks us to do, the world suffers. God does not ask us to obey him so we will be kept busy. God is at work to rescue this generation and asks us to obey him so his kingdom will be advanced. God wants to use us as he builds his kingdom. We are not simply tools, we are blessed by God as we work with Jesus. This is how we grow in faith. When we refuse or are indifferent to what he asks us to do, we suffer and the work of God is made more difficult.
Others suffer when I don’t do what God wants me to do and others suffer when I do what God does not want me to do. My sin affects others. My sin can discourage others. Especially if I have a leadership role, my sin can cause others to become cynical and lose faith.
The Semitic phrase, (Exodus 34:7) “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation,” is an expression of the reality that in Semitic culture, children lived with their parents, grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents. One person’s sin has a negative affect on the entire household.
Third, on the other hand, when we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God, others around us benefit. Jonah did not jump overboard, he was offered to Yahweh as a sacrifice and when the sacrifice was made, the sea quieted down. The sailors made it safely to port, with the valuable lesson that the god of Israel was a god of power. And, as we will see in the next couple weeks, Jonah had another chance and Nineveh did hear the word of the Lord that came to Jonah.
In Romans 12:1 Paul urges us to sacrifice ourselves to God.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
As followers of Jesus we no longer belong to ourselves. Paul wrote in Romans 6:4 that
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Followers of Jesus live for Jesus, not for themselves. We are called into service to Jesus and we are to follow his orders. Jesus modeled this for us when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, (Luke 22:42)
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
When we offer ourselves to God, God is able to bless us by working through us. God’s children have offered themselves as sacrifices to God throughout the centuries and one of the delights of heaven will be hearing the stories of how God was able to use these sacrifices to adopt more children into his kingdom.
Fourth, God pursues us to save us. The sailors thought the storm was a divine act of punishment, but it was the opposite. The storm was a divine act of rescue.
Jonah was fleeing from God, running away from his relationship with God, becoming lost. Do you remember a parable Jesus told about how God responds to the lost? (Luke 15:4–5)
4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders
Jonah was a lost sheep and God wanted to bring him back into his fold. God loved Jonah. God wanted for Jonah what was best for him. God pursues us because he loves us.
I said last week that the book of Jonah is not primarily the story of a prophet who rebelled and was swallowed by a whale. The story of Jonah tells us what happened to Jonah but the book of Jonah is a story of the powerful love of God who pursues us to save us. How far will God go to save us? Seven hundred years after the story of Jonah the world discovered how far God would go.
Watch this Jason Gray video, I Will Find a Way, that speaks of God’s pursuit of us. The words are printed in the bulletin so you can follow.
I Will Find A Way – Jason Gray
At the end of this run down tenement hall
Is the room of a girl I know
She cowers behind all the dead bolt locks
Afraid of the outside world
So how should I come to the one I love?
I will find a way
Many thieves and collectors
have used that door
But they only brought her shame
So she won’t even open it anymore
Still I will find a way
I could call out her name with love through the walls
But condemnation is all she hears
I could break down the door
and take her into my arms
But she might die from the fear
So how should I come to the one I love?
I will find a way, I will find a way
How should I come to the one I love?
I will find a way
No hiding place ever kept her safe
So she hides inside herself
Now to reach her heart the only way
Is to hide in there as well
I will hide in there as well
She gave up on love waiting for a change
But a change is coming soon
How could she not love the helpless babe
Who is waking in her womb?
I found way, I found a way?
She’ll know I am coming before I am here
When she hangs her head
she’ll see me there
And then when I come
she won’t run away
All the beauty and joy
will return to her face
And what of the loneliness?
Now it is gone
Lost in the bond of a mother and son
Every sin that she suffered
at the hands of men
Every single disgrace
will be washed clean again
I will love her completely
and when I am grown
I will carry her out of that tenement room
I am doing a new thing
and soon you will see
I am coming among you
and my name shall be
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, Emmanuel
God found a way to me. God found a way to you. And if you have not yet surrendered to Jesus, God is continuing to work in your life, yearning for you to surrender to his sweet love for you.
We are a pride-filled, stubborn people. Some of us are sheep who do not want to be found, but God does not give up on us. In his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis tells of his years as an atheist. “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’ I had wanted (mad wish) ‘to call my soul my own.’” But God pursued Lewis who writes: “You must picture me alone in that room….night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
We each have a story of how God pursued us. How we resisted and how God persisted.
Francis Thompson wrote in his poem titled “The Hound of Heaven”
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
We hide but God pursues. God has pursued you from the moment you were born, watching over you, putting events and circumstances into your life so you would turn to him. God has not abandoned you. God continues to pursue you. When you give in to temptation, God pursues you. The Holy Spirit convicts your conscience so you will repent, turn from your sin, and resume your pilgrimage to God’s Holy City. God will never give up. He will pursue you through your doubts, your fears, your discouragement, and your disillusionment. God will work relentlessly until you are brought safely into his eternal kingdom.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship