But Jonah ran away from the Lord…
Nineveh 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 Boulder and I book passage on a train headed for San Diego.
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.
And that journey away from the presence of God inevitably leads to anti-social and anti-God behaviors that only leave damaged souls in our wake.
Recently I re-read Herman Melville’s masterpiece, 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:
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 in the opposite direction, for we can’t stay in God’s presence and obey ourselves.
I don’t think of myself as exceptionally “sinful.” I tend to think of myself as faithful, religious, and only need 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 going into eternity without grace than him risking his comfortable and predictable lifestyle. If rule-keeping were all there was to be 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 maybe you do 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.
Jonah is thrown into the storm and the very thing he thought would kill him, saves him. Jonah thought that underneath those angry waves was death, but it turns out that underneath those waves was love.
How can you and I be sure that when we are drowning in the storms that we know that God intends for those storms to bring about love?
We have something Jonah did not have. For you see, the story of Jonah points to one greater than Jonah. Hundreds of years after this story was written, Jesus would one day say that this story was a sign of what He came into the world to do.
In Jesus, God would throw himself into the storms of our darkness, dysfunction, and death. And no one would save Jesus, he would go all the way down to death; for you and for me. He did that so we could know, in the moments of our storms—when we feel like we are drowning—that underneath all of those waves is a firm foundation called love.