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The Prophet Who Ran Away

You cannot run from God. This was a lesson the prophet Jonah had to learn the hard way. God called him to go to Nineveh, but he did not want to obey, so he jumped on a boat heading in the opposite direction. We may flee from the Lord because we don’t want to deal with our failures, or because we do not want to surrender our lives to God’s will. No matter how determined we might be, we can’t get away. Sooner or later we must face Him, so instead of running from God we should run towards His arms of grace.

Text: Jonah 1:4-17

Then they said to him, “Tell us, now!  On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

     The fastest land animal on the planet is the cheetah.  Experts tell us that these big cats are capable of reaching speeds of at least 70 miles per hour.  They are so explosive that they can go from 0-60 in just 3 seconds, which is faster than most cars.  The cheetah may not be able to sustain that speed for a long period of time, but long enough to catch their prey.  They make excellent hunters because nothing along the grasslands of Africa can outrun them in a footrace.  When an unsuspecting zebra or gazelle comes wandering along, the cheetah bursts into action and quickly tackles its victim before the poor animal has a chance to escape.

Imagine stumbling upon a hungry cheetah.  Maybe you’re at the zoo, and the beast somehow escapes from its cage.  You stand there, frozen with fear, while the big cat looks at you, licking its chops.  Part of you feels the urge to run.  The door to the aquarium is just ten feet away. If you could somehow get inside the building before the predator catches you, you would be safe.  But you realize that no matter how quickly you move, you’re not going to be fast enough to outrun a cheetah. So you stay as still as possible, trying not to move a single muscle, hoping it decides to leave you alone.  Sure enough, the animal smells a hot pretzel stand down the path and scampers off to enjoy a tastier meal.

There are some things in life that we cannot outrun.  No matter how determined we might be, no matter how much energy we exert, we’re just not fast enough to escape.  We can’t outrun our problems.  We can’t hide from our mistakes.  We are not able to escape the consequences of our decisions.  For a little while, it might seem as if we have left them in the dust, but these things have a way of catching up with us.

In our passage, this morning, the prophet Jonah tried his best to run from God, but he discovered that he couldn’t get away no matter how hard he tried.  In the opening verses of the book, the Lord called Jonah to do something the prophet didn’t want to do: go to the city of Nineveh and warn the people that judgment was coming.  Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.  The city was far away, in the Assyrian Empire.  The people of that nation had a reputation for violence.  But most of all, Assyria and Israel were enemies.  The last thing, in the world, the prophet wanted to do was help the enemy of his people.

Jonah was angry, and confused. He didn’t understand why God was asking him to do this.  So he decided to call it quits.  “That’s it.  I’m done.  I don’t want to be a prophet anymore.  I’m not going to follow God, or do what the Lord wants me to do.  I’m running away.  If God wants me to go to Nineveh, I’ll show Him!  I’ll go the opposite direction!”  But Jonah wasn’t expecting the Lord to stop him in his tracks.

Maybe there was a time in your life when you found yourself running from God.  You might have been angry with Him, or frustrated by things trials that you were facing.  Instead of drawing closer to the Lord, you chose to push Him away.  You were ready to quit, and didn’t feel like following His plan for your life.  You stopped praying, and refused to open the pages of His Word.  You didn’t want to spend time with God’s people, and had no desire to give Him your praise.  But just because decide that you’re done with the Lord, that doesn’t mean He is done with you.

The passage shows us we ought to stop running, because wherever you go God is already there.

Verse 3 tells us, “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”

Jonah was running away, leaving behind his homeland, his people, and his God.  He jumped aboard a ship heading for Tarshish, which was about as far as a person could go, across the Mediterranean Sea

As the ship left port, and headed into open waters, I wonder if Jonah stayed above deck for a little while.  Gazing ahead, he saw blue waves as far as the eye could see.  Looking back, he watched the shoreline of Israel disappear from his sight.  He must have imagined that he would never step foot on those shores again.  There was no turning back now.  Maybe Jonah was hoping to slip away unnoticed without God seeing which direction he went.  Or, maybe he thought that the Lord would let Him go without pursuing him.  Either way, he was mistaken.

There is nowhere you could run where the Lord cannot follow.  He knows where we are.  He knows where we are going.  He sees our every move.  Wherever we go, He always surrounds us.  Even if you could hide in the furthest reaches of the universe, He would still be able to find you.

This was a comforting thought for David, when he wrote in Psalm 139:7–10:

     “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.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

It is so silly for us to imagine that we could run from God.  His presence fills the universe.  From the top of the tallest mountain, to the bottom of the deepest sea, the Lord is there.  Even when we feel far away, He is always near.

The kids wanted to play hide and seek the other day.  It is funny how they think I won’t be able to find them if they duck behind a chair.  Their feet are sticking out, and I can hear them laughing.  The only challenge is pretending that I don’t see them.  “Are you in the closet, nope.  Are you in the doorway, nope.  Oh!  There you are.  I didn’t see you.”   But of course, they still enjoy playing, even if I know exactly where they are hiding.

We’re not able to escape God’s presence either. There is no place in the universe you could hide from Him, that He wouldn’t be able to find you.  He doesn’t turn His back on us.  He won’t stop pursuing us.  No matter how far you stray or the depths to which you fall, He will continue calling out to you until you stop running and fall into His outstretched arms.

Picture a man who has given up on God.  He has become cynical and bitter.  For whatever reason, he has walked away from the church, and tells himself he doesn’t need God in his life anymore.  The people from his church call, but he doesn’t answer.  They knock on his door, but he tells them to go away.  He even goes out of his way to avoid driving past his old church.  But he forgets something.  The God He is trying to avoid is Lord of heaven and earth.  The man can put up walls, and run the other way, but God is still right there calling out to him.  “Stop running!  You will only wear yourself out.  Let go of the anger and resentment that has kept you away and fall in the arms of love.”

Our passage also shows us we ought to stop running from God, because a guilty conscience will follow you.

Jonah went below deck where the gentle waves rocked him to sleep.  It wasn’t long, however, before the weather turned.  The ship was caught in the violent storm, and everyone aboard was in terrible danger.  Verse 5 tells us,

     Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep. 6 So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”

Commentators point out that it was probably a Phoenician merchant ship that Jonah had boarded.  They were the masters of the sea, and had shipping routes than ran all across the Mediterranean world.  They also worshipped a whole host of gods and goddesses.  So when the sailors were unable to secure the ship, each man cried out to the gods for help.  Of course, the false gods to which they prayed were unable to save them.

While these sailors held a prayer vigil, the prophet was sound asleep.  Finally, the captain of the ship woke him, and said “What are you think you’re doing? This is no time for sleeping! Get up and call on the name of your God!”  It must have been a little convicting for Jonah to have a pagan sailor scolding him for his lack of prayer. These men didn’t know God, Jonah did, but they knew enough to realize they needed God’s help.  Their behavior was more commendable than his.

When their prayers had no effect, verse 7 tell us: “Each man said to his mate, ‘Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.’ So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.”  In the ancient world, people commonly cast lots as a way of trying to discern God’s will.  Lots were sort of like dice; they were painted stones, and whichever side they landed on was supposed to communicate God’s answer to your question.  (i.e. The painted side is down, so you’re not the one who caused this calamity… painted side is down again, you’re not it either… uh oh! the painted side is up Jonah, that means you’re the one!”)  They were right; there was no point trying to deny it.  He couldn’t hide from his actions anymore.  Every person on the ship was looking at him, demanding to know ‘What have you done?”

Jonah couldn’t escape a guilty conscience, and when we try to run from our sin we won’t be able to escape either.  It is like a voice tugging at our heart, asking us: “What are you doing?  Where are you going?  Why are you headed the wrong way?”  No matter how hard we try to ignore Him, the Holy Spirit will continue to work on our heart until we turn around and acknowledge that we need to be brought back into fellowship with God.

A young man goes off to college, and he is on his own for the first time in his life.  He makes friends with a group of guys in the dorm who enjoy going out and having a good time on the weekends.  The only trouble is that their definition of having a good time is very different from the values he learned from his church and his parents.  But he joins in, anyways, and tells himself that it’s okay.  He is now independent and can make his own decisions.  A voice inside tells him: “this isn’t a good idea, this isn’t consistent with who you are as a child of God…”  But he pushes the voice aside and does it anyways.  For a while, he tells himself that he is having fun.  But eventually he realizes that he is only fooling himself.  The Holy Spirit is convicting the heart of the young man.  The longer he ignores the Spirit’s voice, the more miserable he becomes, until finally one day he decides that it’s time to change course.

There’s a passage that describes the affliction we experience when we try to cover up our sin and pretend like everything is fine.  Psalm 32 says,

    When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”— and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-5)

It is miserable trying to ignore a guilty conscience.  We can put on a good show, for a while.  We can pretend that everything is fine.  But inside we are a mess.  The terrible weight of guilt is pressing down us, and it is more than we can bear.

Imagine coming out of the grocery store, heading towards your car.  For whatever reason you have decided to carry 5 bags of groceries in each hand, instead of pushing the cart out to the parking lot. Halfway to the car you run into a friend and strike up a conversation. They ask, “Are you okay, I can help you carry those bags if you want.”  You answer, “No, I’m fine.”  Meanwhile your arms are shaking and sweat is starting to run from your forehead.  “Are you sure you don’t want to set those down, you don’t need to stand here and hold that heavy weight.”  “No,” you insist, “it’s no big deal.”  But now your legs are starting to shake.  Pretty soon the bags break and groceries are rolling all over the parking lot. –why would you choose to hold that weight when you don’t have to?

Why would we continue to hold on to a guilty conscience when we could release our failures into the hands of God?  Maybe its pride –not wanting to admit that we have done wrong.  But God already knows our sin, and He still loves us.  Maybe it’s stubbornness –not wanting to change.  But until we turn around and surrender to God we will never truly discover peace. We don’t have to carry the weight of guilt any longer.  Scripture tells us that the Lord is gracious, merciful, and eager to forgive. We can turn to Him, acknowledge our sin, and be restored.  1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The passage shows us we ought to stop running from God, because you will only bring trouble on yourself and others.

In verse 10 we read…

     10 Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.”

The storm was getting worse, and despite their efforts, the sailors could do nothing to steer the ship to safety.  They knew that if it kept up like this much longer, it was only a matter of time before the boat was torn to pieces, and everyone on board would be plunged into the sea.  All eyes were on Jonah.  The intensity of the storm was enough to convince them that the God of Jonah was powerful.  He had gotten them into this mess, maybe he would have insight that could get them out of it.

First, they wondered: “How could you do this?”  The prophet may not have cared about his own life, but what about the lives of these men?  He hadn’t considered how his actions might affect those around him.

The same is often true of us.  We fail to appreciate how our  decisions might impact other people.  When we push God away, and turn from His ways, we are not only hurting ourselves but others as well.  We bring sorrow to those who care about us.  We dishonor the name of our Lord.  Our negative example can become a stumbling block that leads others astray.  Before walking away from the Lord, we would do well to consider how our actions will affect our friends, our family, our neighbors, the members of our church.

The sailors looked at Jonah and wondered,  “What should we do?” Wasn’t there some way to appease the Lord so that He would deliver them through this storm?  The prophet answered, “throw me into the sea.”  One author writes, “He does not [appear to] exhibit repentance for fleeing from the Lord but merely resigned himself to the only seeming solution…” (New American Commentary: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah.  Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. 1995.  Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)  The sailors were not eager to cast anyone overboard, and so they tried desperately to row to shore.  But when it became obvious that it wasn’t working, and there no other way, they prayed to the God of Jonah requesting that He not only them accountable for the prophet’s demise. They picked him up, tossed him into the water, and immediately the sea became calm.

By running from God, Jonah had brought trouble on the crew, and he had caused trouble for himself.  Now he found himself sinking into the depths of the sea.  Little did he know, God was not finished with him.  He had already prepared a way to deliver the runaway prophet.

When were realize that we’re going the wrong way, the best thing to do is stop running.  The longer you continue down that path, the more problems you create… the more grief you bring on yourself… the more difficult it becomes to set things right.  But it’s never too late to stop running.

If a group of hikers took the wrong path, in the mountains, the best thing for them to do would be to stop, and change course.  The longer they continue down that trail, the more time they will waste, and more difficult it will be to get back to where they are supposed to be.

Conclusion

It may not seem like it, but the storm was an act of grace.  The Lord was rescuing Jonah from himself.  There was nothing for him in Tarshish.  And so God stopped him in his tracks, and turned him around.

The Lord is good at that.  We can think of others, throughout Scripture, whose lives were turned around by the grace of God.  He can turn your life around too, if you let Him.  But first, you have to stop running.   Lay aside your pride, and humble yourself before the Lord.  Cast off your rebellious spirit, and fall into His loving arms.

Maybe you’re not the one who has been running, but you have seen a friend or loved one walk away from the Lord and it breaks your heart.  They are running full speed ahead, down the wrong path, and you’ve tried everything you can think of to call them back.  Continue to reach out: patiently, prayerfully, and persistently.  Remember that the Lord doesn’t give up on us, and we shouldn’t give up on one another.

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