Running - Jonah 1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The Story of Mission Nineveh
'A whale of a tale'?... Is Jonah just a Sunday School story? Is it an unbelievable myth? Jesus didn't think so (Matthew 12v39-41).
It's not hard to know what a preacher is
reading at any moment - they usually can't help referring to it in their sermons.
So I'll come clean straight away: I'm in the middle of the autobiography of
Billy Graham. It is a remarkable story of how God took the son of a North Carolina
farmer and turned him into the greatest evangelist of this century.
In the back of the book is a list of his crusades between 1947 and1996. I counted up the cities and towns where he's been. I lost count, but made it about 350 around the world. And that doesn't include the entries where it just says "Tour - India and the far East" or "Tour - American cities".
And there are some facinating details. When his organisation agrees to do a crusade in a city, they assign a team member to go and live there a year before the crusade, to get to know the local scene and start planning. And Billy was once offered the chance to go and speak to a reputed gangster about Christ. His immediate reply was, "I'll go anywhere to talk to anybody about Christ." I for one can't help believing he meant it.
His story forms an interesting backdrop to the story of Jonah. Here too is a man who held a city wide crusade. Over the next four Sunday evenings, we're going to be following the story of Mission Nineveh. Unlike Billy Graham's careful records, we don't have the date for this one. We know Jonah was at work in the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel, but we don't know if Mission Nineveh happened before, during or after his reign. [For the date-hungry historians among you, the best we can do is to say it was somewhere between 840 and 700BC]. And there's another contrast with Billy Graham. Whereas he declared his wilingness to go anywhere to speak to anyone of Christ, Jonah wasn't quite so keen to do the same. We know he was very unkeen indeed on the idea of going to Nineveh for a mission. In fact, he'd rather be dead.
But before we get into the story proper, I want to do a little ground-clearing. There's a children's version of the story called "A Whale of aTale". And the story is a gift for a children's illustrator - with the storm, the great fish, the vine that grows up to be eaten by a worm - not to mention Jonah's strong emotions. For many the story of Jonah remains a whale of a tale, a real whopper - at best a Sunday School story, at worst an unbelievable myth. But that simply won't do. As one scholar puts it, "Jonah is too long, too complex, too historically detailed and too straightforwardly biographical and narrative to be [either an allegory or a parable or a fable]" (D Stuart, NBC20, p816). But even more importantly than the opinion of scholars, we have the view of the Lord Jesus. He described himself as one greater than Jonah and one greater that Solomon in the same breath, and even referred specifically to Jonah being swallowed by the huge fish. Jonah belongs too the same historical category as Solomon and Jesus.
There is something else in Jesus comparing himself to Jonah. It is tempting to write Jonah off straight away as a badexample: "don't be like Jonah." But we can't do that if Jesus is one greater than Jonah. There must be something good about Jonah for that comparison to work. He isn't an utter scoundrel and rogue, a kind of cartoon baddy. One area where Jonah can teach us straight away is in what he says about God. Three times he speaks about God and each time it is textbook stuff: true, clear, concise, God-honouring.
The first declaration of faith comes in the middle of the storm at sea. Jonah's being quizzed by the sailors after they discover that he's the likely cause of the storm. verse 8. I love those questions. It's almost as if ther've just met Jonah after a church service or at a party. "What's your name, then? Where are you from? What do your do? Were do you live?" And Jonah comes clean. He doesn't beat about the bush: "Aah, well, umm, err..... I could get you this booklet which tells you, umm, what the Bible sys, if you like." No hesitation. No embarrassment. He's probably already beginning to face up to what he's done. He answered, verse 9... That's a prettty good confession of faith in the middle of a raging storm. His God is Yahweh, the Lord. He made everything and so is the only God, who rules over all - even the storm they're in.
The chapter gives us illustration upon illustration of God's sovereign rule. That's how the Bible teaches us that God rules - the truth is just woven into the story. That's why we must teach these stories in SundaySchool, so our 'children grow up believing that's the way God works. And it's why we mustn't stop reading them when we leave SundaySchool, lest we stop believing in such a God. I've grouped the illustrations of God's rule under three heads to try and make it easier to follow:-
God rules over his servants
i.e. Jonah: The word of the LORD came... "Go... preach,." (v 1 -2)
Here I'm thinking of Jonah, the Lord's prophet.
God speaks to him as if he's a servant. He issues a word of royal command.
Obedience is expected, just as if an officer has spoken to a soldier in his
command: verses 1-2. The word came... Go... preach. There's no argument.
What a shock, then, when Jonah runs away. He doesn't argue with God or question him. He knows him better than to do that. He just packs his bags and clears off in the opposite direction. He couldn't be heading further away. Nineveh lay to the NE by land. Jonah headed off to the W by sea. [Tarshish could be a place-name, or it could simply mean out to sea - Jonah didn't care where he went as long asa it wasn't Nineveh.
And the shock is even gereater when we hear what he believes about God. He's behaving like the young child playing games with dad - scampering away giggling, just waiting to be caught. Dad is faster, bigger, stronger and has caught him every time so far. That's all part of the game. But for Jonah this is no game. He's in deadly earnest. No wonder the sailors are shocked beyond belief when they learn what Jonah has done - and in full knowledge of who God is: verse 10. "What have you done?" You can almost hear a barrage of further questions waiting to get out: "What do you think you're doing? How could you do such a thing? How do you expect to get away with it? If you must, why did you have to choose our ship?" There is something irrational and frankly stupid about trying to run away from the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. Where's he going to run? How can he escape? We're not told how he rationalised it. But then, the disobedient mind rarely thinks logically. Disobeying a good and loving Creator is itself hardly sensible. Haven't you found that in your own experience? Once we've set our minds on ignoring God, we can justify pretty much anything, however ludicrous or immoral?
And it is often the complete unbeliever who spots the stupidity of what we're doing. Matthew Parris writes for 'The Times'. He is by no means a Christian believer, yet several years ago he wrote an article giving a pretty fair summary of the Christian faith. He then went on, "Friends, if I believe that, or even a tenth of that, how could I care which version of the prayer book was being used? I would drop my job, sell my house, throw away my possissions, leave my acquaintances and set out into the world burning with the desire to know more and, when I had found out more, to act upon it and tell others.... Far from being puzzled that Mormons or Adventists should knock on my door, I am unable to undertand how anyone who believed what is written in the Bible could choose to spend his waking hours in any other endeavour" (Times, 12Apr93).
But Jonah did disobey God. And God let him. God's plans are not thwarted by the disobedience of his servants. He rules in such a way that he can cope with that. He is such a God. Does that mean it doesn't matter whether we obey or not, because his plans will still succeed? It's true that his plans will still succeed. He is the Lord, the God of heaven. Of course he'll succeed. That means our past disobediences can be left behind. If we've turned from them to God, they are forgiven and can be forgotten. Don't worry about them. We're not able to throw God's plans out of tilt.
But, if we're trying to justify present disobedience or even planning future disobediende on the same basis, we need to think again.- While we can't hurt God's plans, we can hurt ourselves in the process. Who's the most miserable person in the whole story? Jonah, because he refuses to see things God's way and to do things God's way. And we'll make ourselves miserable if we try the same.
Before we move on, let's not fail to ackowledge the extraordianary obedience of that later prophet, one who walked in the steps of Jonah, but was greater than Jonah. He went willingly, not just over land to Nineveh, but came all the way from heaven to earth, becoming our servant so that we might hear God's word. He obeyed the command to go and preach, but more than that, he was obedient in everything, unto death, even death on a cross. Truly the Lord Jesus is one greater than Jonah.
2. God rules over all people
i.e. Nineveh: "its wickedness has come up before me" (v2)
Sailors: they cried to the LORD,... greatly feared the LORD (v14-16)
isn't only God over those who've signed up to be his people. I've just received
my membership renewal request from the squash club. If I pay i, I continue
to submit to the rules of the club. I'm under their authority. If, however,
I choose not to renew [because my body is beginnning to fall apart or i'm losing
too often], then I'm free from their rule. The President, Secretary and Treasurer
mean nothing to me. God isn't running a club like that, where we can opt in
or out. He rules over all people. And we see that here by the way he deals
with complete outsiders: the people of Nineveh and the sailors on the ship.
We're told just too things about Nineveh in verse 1. First of all, it's a great city - its important to God. He's concerned about it. Secondly, the Lord says, "its wickedness has come up before me". In these two phrases together, there may already be a hint that God is not only angry with Nineveh for its wickedness, but that he also feels for them in their desperate plight.
It may be something of a truism to say that God sees everything and cares about everything. But we need to keep telling ourselves that heu does. Nothing escapes him. How easily we kid ourselves that, if nobody else sees what we do and think, then God doesn't either. We behave just like the little girl who hides her face and then says, "You can't see me". She hasn't realised that just because you can't see her eyes doesn't mean you can't see her. Yet how easily we kid ourselves like that. We need to burn into our hearts those words from the story of King David's adultery, murder and deceit. The whole thing had been hushed up and then we read, "But the thing David had done didpeased the Lord". God knows. God sees. God cares.
And he doesn't just see what happens, like a reporter or camera man. His vision is a moral one. Some of the most stunning relics in the British Museum come from ancient Nineveh. They are massive - huge doorposts and the like - and at the same beautiful in the intricacy of their carving, detailing battles and royal histories and so on. But that isn't God's great concern. He wants men and women to be right with him. That's what he wanted for - and the peopleof Nineveh. That's what he wants for me - and for you.
And God rules over the sailors and shows himself to be their God, too. Yawhweh isn't just the God responsible for this particular storm, so that he's the one to be dealt with now, but when the storm is over, he can be discarded until he's needed again. That's how we treat God, isn't it, when we call on him in time of trouble and then forget him afterwards - until the next crisis comes along.
They come to see that this God is righteous and yet merciful and absolutely in control. They show that by the way they pray to him in verse 14. And they recognise that he is not just a god for now, but for the future too: verse 16: At this [that must mean something like, as a result of this experience... Presumably they didn't do this until they got' back to land. They didn't have anything left on board to sacrifice, having thrown it all overboard].
3. The world
i.e. Forces of nature: the LORD sent a great wind (v4, 11-15),
'Chance': the lot fell on Jonah (v7)
Animal kingdom: the LORD provided a great fish (v17).
But God's rule isn't
even limited to all people. It extends over his whole earth - throughout the
land and the sea which he made. In this chapter, we see him ruling the forces
of nature (as he controls the storm), the realm of luck or chance (as the lots
are cast), and the animal kingdom (as he provides the fish).
The forces of nature are at God's beck and call. Verse 4. Here we're explicitly told that God did it. Later in the chaper we read that the sea was getting rougher and rougher, or that the seas grew even wilder than before and eventually, the raging sea grew calm. But every time we know it's God's doing. Having been told once, we don't need to be told again. We need to realise that science never displaces God, so that he becomes 'the God of the gaps' - a refuge for explaining what science cannot explain. Such a God is bound to get smaller and smaller as science advances and explains more and more of how things work. But we must realise that knowing how something happens, in no way means that God hasn't done it. Just because I understand what repairs have been made to my car doesn't mean I start thinking the engine fixed itself! In fact, the oppposite is the case. The more we understand of the complex, unbelievably complex, mechanisms and processes which God uses just to keep his world going, the more we should fear him, marvelling at his power and wisdom.
Then there's the realm of luck or chance, verse 7. No surprises here! The only surprise would be if the lot had come out for any one other than Jonah - the first mate, or the chief engineer, or the cook. Of course it's going to be Jonah. In fact, there isn't any such thing as luck or chance in the world God rules. I don't think that means we mustn't use such words. 'Luck' or 'chance' is a way of saying we don't know the outcome of the roll of the dice, or the toss of the coin. Nor do I think we should refuse to use such methods. How else are you going to decide who bats or fields first in the cricket match? What we must remember is that it isn't chance as far as God's concerned. It's all under his control.
And then there's animal kingdom, verse 17. It's probably a good job the fish comes last in the chapter, because by now it should be clear that the fish is just one part of God's rule. Our author isn't interested in telling us what kind of fish it was, or how the fish got there, or which part of its anatomy Jonah found his lodging in, or how it's possible for a man to stay alive inside such a creature for three days. He isn't interested in teling us about the fish at all really. He wants to tell us about the God who sent it.
If you've not yet been there, make sure you visit the Natural History Museum in London. And go straight to the whale hall. [I know it was a great fish that swallowed Jonah, and not a whale, but the point is the same]. In the middle, hanging from the ceiling, dominating the entire room is a huge blue whale. It is awesome. I've never seen anything like it. But what is more awesome is to think of the God who dispatches and provides such a creature just where and when he pleases in order for it to do exactly the job he has in mind.
And God is no different today. We often don't know the details of how God is working - why he allowed that exam to be failed, that job to be lost, this person to die. But what we do know is the big plan which he's working to. It's what we heard in Ephesians 1.... to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. What stories like Jonah assure us is that God can and will use anything in his creation to arrive at that goal. Nothing can thwart him in that purpose. We can only hurt ourselves if we try and resist him.
Have we reckoned with this God?
The question we all face as we close is this: "have we reckoned with
this God?" He's the only God there is. There is no other. The only sensible
thing is to reckon with him - whether for the first time or for the umpteenth
Many will know CS Lewis's Narnia stories, in which the great Lion Aslan represents God as we know him in Christ. This excerpt is from "Prince Caspian". Lucy has met up with Aslan. She was the first to see him, but she hadn't followed him straight away.
Aslan spoke. "Lucy, we must not lie here too long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost today."
"Yes, wasn't it a shame?" said Lucy. "I saw you all right. They wouldn't believe me. They're all so...."
From somewhere deep inside Aslan's body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.
"I'm sorry," said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. "Ididn't mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn't my fault, was it?"
The Lion looked straight into her eyes.
"Oh, Aslan, you don't mean it was? How could I - I couldn't have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don't look at me like that... oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn't have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?"
Aslan said nothing.
"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right - somehow? But how? Please, Aslan? Am I not to know?"
"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that."
"Oh dear," said Lucy.
"But," said Aslan, "Anyone can find out what will happen."
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