Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-6, 10; 4:1-3
June 30, 2002
JONAH THE FUGITIVE
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Churc
We have directed our attention in recent weeks to the book of Jonah. We encountered Jonah the Flabbergasted in chapter 1, Jonah the Fishfood in chapter 2, Jonah the Follower in chapter 3, and Jonah the Furious in chapter 4." In all, it has been quite a mouthful, hasn t it? There is perhaps even more for us to digest here than Jonah himself was for the fish. But now that we have rather carefully looked at the various individual episodes, what remains to be said about the central themes of this short but captivating book?
It would be very difficult, first of all, to read the book of Jonah with any degree of care without sensing in the very depths of our souls what was surely one of the primary concerns of the writer. Though it is admittedly difficult to date the book with certainty, it seems clear enough that it was directed primarily toward a group of people who had come to view their faith in an extremely limited and even protective way. Their faith was, in a sense, private, their own cherished possession. Jonah himself, therefore, serves as the perfect example, the ideal illustration, of the type of attitudes that these people must have had.
Jonah, of course, had his own set of feelings and prejudices, and an extremely limited view of the grace of God. Jonah was content embracing his own Hebrew heritage, but he failed to grasp the fact that God just might be concerned with somebody other than himself or his fellow Israelites. At the very least, Jonah assumed that God would have little regard for people as nasty as the Ninevites.
In the face of such attitudes, depicted so vividly here in Jonah, runs this overarching theme that must be grasped by everyone who reads these pages: The love of God is broader that the measure of our minds, and the mercy of God is wider than our wildest dreams. In the light of the book of Jonah, bitterness must flee, biases be abandoned, and prejudices destroyed. The love of God, after all, extends beyond whatever superficial barriers people might erect.
Jonah did not want to share the message of God with the Ninevites. Jonah, quite simply, did not like Ninevites. He ridiculed them and laughed at them. In his best moments, he no doubt ignored them. Are there any Ninevites in your life? People you choose to neglect or avoid because they are different than you? People who have offended you or hurt you at some point along the way? Perhaps people whose skin is a different color or who speak a different language? People whose theology strikes you as odd? Through time, you can almost build up an immunity to such people, subtly thinking that God actually loves only you. As we gaze into the pages of this little book, we realize that such artificial and often sinful barriers must be set aside. To abide in the love of Christ, Bruce Bawer writes in his book entitled Stealing Jesus, is a calling that challenges us in a profound and mysterious way& . And it s a calling that tells us in our hearts that nothing is more unchristian than saying to someone else, or believing of someone else, that we are loved and they re not. The God whom we serve has extended his love and saving grace to all peoples in every nation. God forbid that our own attitudes might stand in the way, as they so obviously did for Jonah.
The writer would have us know, however, that Jonah s problem goes even deeper than his wretched attitude towards the Ninevites and his inability to appreciate the magnitude of God s grace. Indeed, the very root of Jonah s struggle, the foundational problem upon which all of his other problems rested, appears in all of its ugliness right here in 4:1-3. In short, Jonah s will had never been broken.
Jonah s problem, of course, was not simply having a will that is, an inner drive or longing to choose and to have one s own desires met. Everyone of us has a will it s an essential part of human nature. No, Jonah s problem was that his will had never been fully surrendered to God. Instead, Jonah repeatedly acted in accordance with his own wishes and desires. Jonah did his own thing, or to borrow a phrase from the writer of the book of Judges, Jonah did what was right in his own eyes. Isn t that, however, the way so many people live their lives? They do what they want when they want it. I knew what you were going to do Lord, and it did not coincide with what I wanted, Jonah confesses, so I wouldn t play the game.
Nothing that I know of is a greater hindrance to spiritual development, nor a more serious roadblock to complete peace with God, than an unbroken will than a stubborn attitude that incessantly insists on having its own way. And parents, please beware. While I certainly don t want you to crush your children s spirits or destroy their enthusiasm, be sure to break that inner drive to always have everything go their own way. They must respect and acknowledge your authority before they will ever respect and honor God s authority. An unbroken will is spiritually corrosive, and yet I suspect that it is precisely what so many Christians continue to struggle with these days. They claim to be searching for God s will and longing to follow it without reservation, but beneath the veneer is that persistent self-will that, though occasionally suppressed, repeatedly shows its ugly face, wanting its own way, seeking only what is pleasurable for itself, demanding its own rights. This ever-present self-will affects where these people will or will not go, who they will or will not serve, and what they will or will not do. This same self-will determines, in fact, how they live much of their lives. While Jesus prayed, Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done, Jonah and so many of us after him respond, I want to do it my way.
So what did Jonah finally do? How did he respond when his prejudices, unbroken will, and the call of God collided? He ran.
There is, of course, something about human nature that feels more secure when running. Adam and Eve ran, and people have been running ever since. Running is an activity that people find very useful, for example, when seeking to avoid difficulties, demands, responsibilities, and uncomfortable situations. There is often something within us that urges us, pushes us, to flee. At times, to be sure, running is an appropriate response. Just as running can have tremendous effects on our physical well-being, so too can running profit our spiritual lives. Joseph, for example, did precisely the right thing when he ignored temptation and ran from Potiphar s wife. We are, according to Scripture, to flee from immorality, idolatry and all varieties of sinfulness.
But running from God? That s another matter altogether, isn t it? Yet so many people do it. Now, most of us are admittedly not quite as daring as Jonah apparently was our running is not always so obvious. We perhaps have never rejected a clear call to go somewhere, as did Jonah. We may not have said No to an audible voice ringing from heaven. That may be true I think it is in my life. When I was in seminary, I accepted a pastorate at a church nearly 80 miles away from my home because I believed it was what God wanted me to do. The same could be said about a number of other decisions that I have made over the years, including the decision to come to the Grantham Church. I ve tried to be obedient to the call of God on my life.
But to be perfectly honest with you, there have been frustrating, even tearful moments in the quietness of my own room when I recognized again that I was in fact running from God. My soul ached as I faced the truth I want God to keep a safe distance. I was running from God, busying myself with work that I thought he wanted me to do rather than stopping and simply saying, I am here Lord, and I m all yours. I ve often felt like Francis Thompson, the great Catholic poet, who describes in The Hound of Heaven his own all-out efforts to flee from the divine:
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,& Running from God, perhaps not by saying No to a task, but by avoiding the intimate experiences which he desires to have with us.
We run, when God wants us to be still. We struggle, when God wants us to yield. We grit our teeth, when God wants us to trust. We, or at least I, would so often do anything anything but give up and let God have his way in our lives. We run, when God is longingly saying Come. Jonah ran, and look where it got him.
Some years ago I came across a little piece written by Bob Benson entitled Parental Math, and I ve read it countless times since. It helped me to reconstruct my understanding of God and how he responds to me when I run.
It goes like this:
Nearly a week ago Peg and I Had a very hard week.
Wednesday night Mike slept downstairs in his room where the children belong
And we slept upstairs in ours where moms and dads belong.
We were 350 miles away
and he was in Ramada 325
and we were in 323
in connecting rooms and we left the door open
and talked and laughed together.
700 miles from home and
he was in 247 and we were in 239
but it was just down the balcony
we seemed together.
He was in the freshman dorm
and we were still in 239
We were home and he was
700 miles away in Chapman 309.
Now we have been
through this before.
Robert had gone away to college
and we had gathered
until we had gotten over it
mainly because he is married now
and he only lives ten miles away
and comes to visit often.
So we thought we knew
how to handle separation
but we came away
so lonely and blue.
Oh, our hearts are filled with pride
at a fine young man
and our minds are filled
from tricycles to commencements
but deep down inside somewhere
we just ached
with loneliness and pain.
you still have three at home.
Three fine kids and there is
still plenty of noise
plenty of ballgames to go to
plenty of responsibilities
plenty of laughter
plenty of everything
And in parental math
five minus one
just doesn t equal plenty.
And I was thinking about God.
He sure has plenty of children
plenty of artists
plenty of singers
and candlestick makers
plenty of everybody
And all of them together
can never take your place.
And there will always be
an empty spot in his heart
and a vacant chair at his table
when you re not home.
And if once in awhile
it seems as if he s crowding you a bit
try to forgive him.
It may be one of those nights
when he misses you so much
he can hardly stand it.
Where are you in all of this? Are there barriers and walls in your heart and mind that need to come down? Does that nasty old self-will of yours keep popping up, preventing you from experiencing the freedom of fully entrusting your life into God s care? Are you running from God in one way or another? Do you see a little too much of Jonah when you pause and look in the mirror? Catch your breath for just a moment. I like to think that, if Jonah were with us this morning, he would admit, perhaps reluctantly, that running from God never pays. But I am quite certain that he wouldn t leave it at that. I think he would add a final line, similar to the one penned by Francis Thompson as he brought The Hound of Heaven to a close: Francis, God calls, Rise, clasp my hand, and come! God did not abandon Jonah. The heavenly hound did not abandon Francis Thompson. And he certainly is not about to abandon you or me. The same grace extended to the Ninevites, and the same grace which God longs to extend to everyone around the world, is equally available to everyone of us. Rise, clasp his hand, and come.
Inside somewhere we just ached with loneliness and pain.
Somebody said you still have three at home.
Three fine kids and there is still plenty of noise
The Ninevites, and the same grace which God longs to extend to everyone around the world, is equally available to everyone