Second Reformed Church

Sunday, June 08, 2014

"You Can't Run" Jonah 1:1-17

“You Can’t Run”

[Jonah 1:1-17]

June 8, 2014 Second Reformed Church

            Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV).

            Jesus also said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15, ESV).

            Do we love Jesus?  Do we strive to keep His commandments?  Do we go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel?

            Lord willing, the next four weeks, we will take a very quick look at the book of Jonah and consider obedience to God – especially consider our obedience in evangelism.

            Who was Jonah?  And, yes, Jonah was a real, historical figure.  Jesus makes mention of him in Matthew 12, and if Jesus said that Jonah really lived, we have good reason to believe that Jonah did really live.  As poetic as the book of Jonah is, it is the history of a real person.

            Jonah is also mentioned in the historical book of II Kings.  There we find out that Jonah was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel.  And we know that Jeroboam reigned from 793 to 753 B. C. – so, Jonah was one of the earliest of the Minor Prophets. (Calling him a “minor prophet” means that his writings were shorter, not less important.)

            Jonah preached during a time after the northern and southern kingdoms had split.  This is past David and Solomon – Israel was divided into Israel and Judah and ruled by different kings.  It was a time of relative peace in Israel, though the prophets had been telling Israel that if they did not repent and turn from their idol worship, God was going to bring judgment upon them.

            Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – in what we now call Iraq.  During the reign of Jeroboam II, the Assyrians were not much of a threat to Israel, because they were going through a severe “economic downturn” – as we call it today.  Still, they were a hated people – ones who had attacked Israel frequently in the past and would, in later years, be used by God to punish Israel.

            As we look at the opening chapter of Jonah, let us note four things:

            First, God commands us to bring the Gospel to people we don’t like.

            Second, we can’t escape God.

            Third, God may use extreme measures to awaken us to our sin.

            And fourth, our only hope for salvation is in God.

            We don’t know much about Jonah as a person, except that he was the son of Amittai.  And we don’t know much about what God had Jonah preach to Israel – we only have the record of one sentence preached, and that was to the Ninevites.

            First, God commands us to bring the Gospel to people we don’t like.

            “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’”

            Now, remember, Jonah is a Jew preaching to Jews in Israel, who have been warned by God to repent of their sin, or God will discipline them for their sin.  The inhabitants of Nineveh were enemies of Israel – and they were Gentiles – of course they were sinning – of course they were worshipping idols – of course they were doing evil – of course God was angry.  But, with the problems of sin and turning away that Israel was going through, why in the world would God send one of His prophets to pagan enemies of Israel?

            We see two things here:  There is a warning to Israel, that if God takes notice and punishes the pagan nations for their sin, how much more will God discipline His chosen people when they sin against Him?  God was using the example of Jonah going to Nineveh to tell them to repent and follow the One True God as a rebuke of Israel – telling them that they should know better – they should not have to be told and prodded and threatened by God, because they had the Law of God before them and they knew what God commanded of them.  It was God’s way of telling Israel to wake up to their sin and to come back to God humbly and repentantly.

            Also, it was a reminder that God promised Abraham, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:4-5, ESV).

            The message of Gospel salvation was to the Jews first, but God promised that through the Jews, every nation of the world – all the Gentiles – would also hear the Gospel and be called to repentance and belief.

            We will see in the fourth chapter that Jonah understood this very well, but, Jonah did not think God was giving enough attention to Israel and Jonah did not want the pagan enemies of Israel to have the message of salvation.  They were enemies!  And they were Gentiles – non-Jews!  Why in the world would Jonah go to them – didn’t he have enough trouble to deal with in Israel?

            Who are you unwilling to tell that there is salvation through faith alone in the life, death, and physical resurrection of Jesus?  Who is it that you would never talk to for any reason?  Who has God told you to speak to, but you have refused?

            Jesus commanded all of His followers to tell everyone the Gospel – even those creepy people you don’t want to deal with, even those people who are so rude and nasty, and even those people who you would be glad never to see again.   And remember, we are not commanded to convert anyone – that’s God’s job.  We are to tell people the Gospel or at least bring them to where they can hear it or give them something to read or listen to that has the Gospel explained in it.

            Who are you running from?  Who are you avoiding?

            And more generally, what has God commanded that you are not willing to obey?  What do you read in the Scripture and say, “it can’t mean that,” or “I’m not going to follow that,” or “if I hold the page of the Bible at just the right angle, and move it to the side, why, it doesn’t really say that at all”?

            If we love Jesus, we will obey Him.  If you sin – and we all do – maybe even just a minute ago as you said to yourself, “I don’t have to do what you’re saying” – repent, turn around, ask forgiveness, pledge not to sin again, and go forward, forgiven of your sins in Jesus Christ.

            And tell everyone the Gospel.  If you care that there are people going to Hell, you will tell everyone the Gospel.  Not everyone is an evangelist.  Not everyone has the gift of talking and presenting information.  But we can all say, “Would you come to church with me?”  And be ready to have people say, “no” – or even something colorful.  But care, be obedient, put people in the way of the Gospel.  (D. V., we will talk more about how we do that as we go along.)

Second, we can’t escape God.

“But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.”

So, here we have Jonah, a prophet of the Lord God Almighty.  God commands him to go to Nineveh and preach the Gospel to them – to call them to repentance and belief – and Jonah says to himself, “Is God kidding?  I’m preaching the Gospel and calling the people of Israel to repentance and belief; God has threaten Israel – the people He chose to be His nation – and God wants me to go to Nineveh – to our enemies – to Gentiles – to call them to repentance and belief?  I’m not going to do it.  What was God thinking?  We’ll I’m going to hop a ship for Spain – I’m going to get out of God’s line of sight and give Him time to think this over.  Maybe He will just forget about it and let me get back to the proper work of a prophet of Israel.  Nineveh – crazy.”

And that’s exactly what we do every time we sin, isn’t it?  We hear the clear command of God and tell ourselves that God got it wrong – that God doesn’t understand – that God would say something different if we had modern additions to the Bible.

Be holy as I am holy.  “Oh, God, You’re so silly.  You know we can’t be holy in this life.  And our sin is forgiven in Jesus.  So, it’s ok if we sin.”

            Sexual relations are to only to be between one man and his wife – not anyone else, real, manufactured, or imagined.  “Oh, God, You’re so silly.  Back in the olden days when people didn’t have a sex drive, that made sense, but we can’t control our urges in the twenty-first century.”
            Enjoy alcohol, but don’t get drunk.  “Oh, God, You’re so silly.  Back in the olden days, they didn’t have much alcohol and it was more like grape juice, but today we have real alcohol, and we need to get drunk to enjoy ourselves.”

            Give ten percent of your gross income to the church and then give generously on top of that.  “Oh, God, You’re so silly.  Back in the olden days, everyone ate from the land and had houses made of wood, and they didn’t have expenses like we do.  Back then, you gave everyone enough to give generously, but You didn’t consider how expensive it would be to live today.”

            Don’t worry, but trust the Lord.  “Oh, God, You’re so silly.  The world is much more complicated than it was in the olden days.  Then you just grew your crops and traded in the market place; it was a simple easy life, they didn’t have anything to worry about.  Today, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

            What are you giving God time to reconsider?  What sin are you trying to convince God is not a sin?

            The Ninevites had a slight excuse for not being obedient to God since they were pagan Gentiles, but Jonah was a prophet called by the One God to speak to the people on His behalf.  And you, if you have been saved through Jesus Christ alone – you – and I – are sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.  What is our excuse?

            Jonah thought he could get away from God by hiding in Spain.

            David wrote, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there!  If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.  If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:7-12, ESV).

            Where can you hide from God?  What does David tells us?  If he went to heaven – as far north as he can go – God is there.  If he went to the place of the dead – the grave – as far south as he can go – God is there.  If he went to the wings of the dawn – as far east as he can go – God is there.  If he went to the uttermost end of the (Mediterranean) Sea – as far west as he can go – God is there.  If he tries to hide in the dark – God is there – and God sees all, because God is Light, and there is no darkness with Him.  In other words, God is Omnipresent.  God is everywhere at the same time.  There is nowhere we can run from God; you can’t run from God, because God is there.

            Third, God may use extreme measures to awaken us to our sin.

            “But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.’

            “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.”

            God commanded Jonah to preach the Gospel to the Ninevites.  He sinned and ran from God, but God is everywhere, so running to Spain was no help.  And God used some extreme measures to awaken Jonah to his sin – we see the first one in this text:  God hurled a massive storm at the ship.

            One point of background – there really wasn’t any such thing as a cruise ship in those days.  There were ships for fishing, ships for hauling cargo from one place to another to sell, and ships for war – and people would pay to ride along with the first two of these, but they were not what we think of as passenger ships or cruise ships.

            Jonah got on one of these headed for Spain.  Jonah went down in the hull of the ship and fell asleep.  Jonah was dead to the world and didn’t want anyone to bother him – and he certainly wasn’t listening to God until God wised up.  It was as if Jonah had closed his eyes, stuck his fingers in his ears, and was saying, “la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you.”  (Those of us of a certain age may remember the T. V. show, “Hogan’s Heroes,” and Sargent Schultz who was perennially saying, “I know nothing!”)

            Meanwhile, above deck, God did not cause a storm to brew, but God hurled a massive storm at them – one greater than normally seen – as we can tell by the panic of the crew.  The ship began to come apart and sink, so the crew each started praying to their own god in the hopes that one of the gods would help them.  Then they started to throw the cargo overboard – losing all the money they would have earned from selling it – in the hopes of lightening the ship so it would stay afloat.  Then the realized that Jonah was still asleep in the hull of the ship, snoring, as deaf to the mighty storm, the cries of the sailors, and the cargo being thrown overboard as he was  to the command of God.  And they told Jonah to get up and pray to his God – to see if his God might be the One to save them.  And Jonah did …nothing.

            You see, the more we sin – the more we disobey God’s clear commands – the easier it becomes to continue to ignore them, to ignore more of them, to ignore them more often, to think our sin is not so bad – until the Word of God becomes like white noise to us and we harden our hearts.  Just as we can sin as Christians, it is possible – for a time – for us to go very far and deep into sin – as Jonah did – and when we do that, it may well take God doing something extreme to shake us out of our complacency, such that we repent and follow Him whole-heartedly.

            Since the sailors didn’t get an answers from their gods, they cast lots – they threw dice – to divine whose fault the storm was – and God guided the dice so they pointed to Jonah – because God is Sovereign over all things:  “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33, ESV).

            So they asked Jonah where he came from, who he was, and what he did.  Hear against his answer:  “And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’” (Jonah 1:9, ESV).  And the sailors were terrified!  Why?

            Jonah had just confessed to them that the Almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of everything that is, hurled a mighty storm at them – which might kill all of them – because Jonah refused to obey his God and was still refusing to obey his God!

            There are people who have said, this storm was God’s punishment for this sin or this tragedy was God’s punishment for that sin, and so forth.  It is rare that we can say that something happened as a result of God’s punishing sin – as we can in the case of Jonah.  But what these people who say things like this are right about is that God is very angry with us for our sin, God is Almighty and Sovereign, and God may show His Anger for sin in causing storms and tragedies to occur.

            Now, do not say, for example, if someone gets cancer, “it’s your punishment for sin.”  We have no way of knowing that.  And God tends to show mercy.  But we ought to be aware that God is right to punish sin, all sin will be punished in the end, and we may suffer in this life for our sin – individually, in groups, as a nation, and so forth.

            And then – seeing the terror in the eyes of the sailors – knowing he could be the cause of their death – Jonah recognized his sin and was ready to receive whatever punishment God saw fit.

            And fourth, our only hope for salvation is in God.

            “Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?’ For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’ Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the LORD, ‘O LORD, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.’ So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

            “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

            Jonah recognized his sin and was ready to receive God’s punishment.  Jonah recognized that his only hope – in life and in death – the sailors’ only hope for salvation – and the Ninevites’ only hope for salvation – is God.

            And the sailors asked, “What shall we do, o, prophet of the Almighty God, Creator and Sovereign of all, Who you have sinned against?”

            And Jonah responded, “Hurl me into the sea, and God will take out His Wrath on me for my sin and you will be safe.”

            And we might expect the next thing we read to be, “And they hurled him into the sea,” but it’s not.

            First, the crewed rowed hard against the storm, trying to get back to land, because they didn’t want Jonah’s death on their hands – and they all would have thought – even Jonah – that he would die in the sea – but God caused the storm to grow even wilder.

            So, second, they prayed that God would not hold Jonah’s innocent blood against them.  Why did they say his blood was innocent?  Jonah was a sinner.

            Then, third, they hurled Jonah into the sea – and as soon as he went under – the storm was gone, it was as peaceful as peaceful could be – the water was like glass.

            And, fourth, the crew was in awe of the God of Jonah, and they worshipped Him and offered up sacrifices to Him, and they made vows to Him.

            Did they believe savingly?  The language of the text indicates that they did, but God knows for sure.  The thing to see here is that our obedience and disobedience to the clear commands of God affect the way people view our God and the Gospel we are proclaiming.

            And God appointed – committed – commanded and sent – a great fish to swallow Jonah.  Jonah understood that the fish was obedient to God’s command – wherever the fish had been – God told it to go swallow Jonah, and it went and swallowed him.  And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

            We know how the story ends, but think about Jonah, repenting of his sin, knowing that sin must be punished, being hurled into the sea, expecting to drown, and a fish swallows him.  What was he thinking?  “Is this my punishment:  to be eaten by a fish?”

            Lord willing, we’ll continue to look at what happened next week, but let us consider, as we close – why did God choose this punishment for Jonah?

            We know of at least one reason:  “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered [Jesus], saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matthew 12:38-40, ESV).

            Jonah’s punishment was symbolic of what Jesus did to secure the salvation of all those who would believe – it may be why the sailors called Jonah “innocent,” when he most certainly was not – as part of the symbolism of Jesus, Who most certainly is innocent.

            We see the symbolism of the atoning sacrifice and resurrection in the punishment of Jonah:  for the sake of the crew, Jonah took the punishment for sin that they would be saved.  He was in the fish for three days and three nights, and then, as we will remember, Jonah is released from his watery grave and set on dry land, alive.

            Most perfectly, Jesus, the True and Innocent God-Man, took on the sins of all those who would ever believe, and took upon Himself the Wrath of God due for our sins.  He died in the flesh, and was physically raised on the third day, that all we who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

            Are you running from God?  You can’t – God is everywhere.  And if you are a Christian and you are running from God – all the more – stop – and instead, run into the arms of your loving Father and plead His forgiveness based on the merits of His Son, Jesus.

            And recognize that God may use extreme measures to bring you back to Him if you persist in your sin – and that is really a merciful thing, is it not?  As the Psalmist confessed, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71, ESV).

            This is no hope for anyone, except God’s Promised Savior.  If you are a Christian, you know that, so stop sinning, stop running away from God, and love Him by being obedient to His Whole Word.  And proclaim this Gospel to the whole Creation.

            Let us pray:

           Almighty God, we thank You for the history of Jonah.  We thank You that You are not far away, but You are here with us even now – and You are with us wherever we may be and whatever we are going through.  Thank You for pursuing us to salvation and for using whatever means You choose to bring us to Yourself and to keeping us returning in repentance for our sin.  Help us to be obedient to You in all that You have commanded --  and especially we ask that we would be empowered by the Spirit to proclaim Your Gospel.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

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