Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out 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 his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah 1: 2-3
Niniveh is a couple hundred miles north of where Jonah is standing when he heard the command to go preach and he books passage to Spain, which is where Tarshish is located. It would be like God telling me to go to Spokane and I book passage to Australia.
But this isn’t really about geographical space so much as it is about relational space. The story tells us on numerous occasions that Jonah is fleeing the presence of God. And when it says “presence of the Lord” it literally says in Hebrew that Jonah was running from “the face of the Lord.”
When I was a child I got a Daisy BB gun. My parents gave strict rules about what I could shoot with it and what I was forbidden to shoot with it. I couldn’t shoot the windows, chickens, the dog, the cat (maybe the cat) or my little sister. Want to know which of those I shot with my shiny new bb gun? Want to know which one told on me? And when she started crying like a little girl, I ran as far away from the house as my little legs could carry me. The last thing I wanted was to see the face of my parents. I wanted relational distance.
Jonah wanted relational space from his heavenly Father as well. He ran from the relationship that ought to have been at his center.
There is a downward spiral in Jonah’s life here. Did you see the cascade of verbs that show us what is happening in his life?
“…Jonah goes down to Joppa to find a ship…
“…Jonah…had gone down into the hold of the ship…”
“…They picked Jonah up and threw him down into the sea…”
“…a large fish swallowed up Jonah; and Jonah was down in the belly of the fish three days….”
Life running from our Creator is a downward spiral. What a classic description of the life of sin! Now, I caution you to refrain from thinking about sin in a cartoonish way. Don’t trivialize sin by defining it as breaking antiquated rules. Sin is simply the operational lifestyle of anyone who is running from the face of God.
You can do that in Vegas or you can do that in the Vatican. This downward spiral can happen at a club or it can happen at Church. It can happen in the life of a pagan from Assyria or it can happen in the life of a prophet from Israel. It can happen to a prodigal son and it can happen to an elder brother.
Whenever we center our lives on something or someone other than the God who created us, we have to leave His presence in order to sustain that lifestyle. And that journey away from the presence of God inevitable leads to anti-social and anti-God behaviors that only leave damaged souls in our wake.
Recently I re-read Herman Melville’s master piece, Moby Dick. There is a fascinating passage in this story that gets to this fundamental issue of sin. Ishmael is wandering the streets of the whaling village of New Bedford, Massachusetts searching for a ship to take him on a great whaling adventure. One Sunday he decides to go to Church and the preacher is a former whaling harpooner named, Father Mapple:
“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!
But WHAT is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.
As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
See, in order for our lives to have meaning it requires disobeying ourselves. And that is hard. So, we run the opposite direction, for we can’t stay in God’s presence and obey ourselves.
In 1993 a reporter asked film director, Woody Allen about his affair with his ex-wife actress Mia Farrow’s daughter. Some of you don’t remember that but it was shocking in its day and what Woody Allen said is just as shocking. He said, “The heart want it wants.”
That is my problem. My heart wants what my heart wants and in order to obey God I must disobey myself. But I am always and forever being pulled towards what my heart wants. I have a deep bent towards finding meaning in something away from my Father’s eyes.
I don’t think of myself as exceptionally “sinful.” I tend to think of myself as faithful, religious and only needing a little tweaking here and there. But Jonah fled the eyes of the Father and at the same time was a successful prophet of God who no doubt knew more about the bible than I do. When it came to morality, he would beat everyone I know (except my grandchildren and my wife) in a moral inventory.
And yet there was an area of his life that he would not hand over to God. There was a group of people he would prefer went into eternity without grace than him risking his comfortable and predictable lifestyle. If rule-keeping were all there was to being right with God then Jonah was already doing that. If cleaning up your act was all that needed to be done, then Jonah had already done that.
Jonah needed a conversion, he needed a transformation at the soul level, and he needed a deep experience of grace. And that is what I need and my I be so bold as to suggest that is what you need as well.
But how does God do that when Jonah is running as fast as he can away from the Father? God catches up with Jonah somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and hurls a storm at him. And when God hurls something, He never misses.
You can run, but you can’t hide.