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  • Matthew 9:35-38
  • Jonah 1

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Running from God

In the season of Epiphany, we were reading the lectionary texts and learning the origin stories—the call stories—of many of the heroes of faith like Joseph and Jeremiah.

Through Lent we will be leaving the lectionary for a bit to study one unlikely hero. A person who in many ways is the anti-hero. The one who does not choose to be a hero. The one who shows no great feats of strength or moral character. One who perhaps is full of self-doubt. Who runs in the exact opposite direction of what God is calling him to do. And who finds himself at the very lowest a person can go: in the belly of a fish.

We are going to spend the season of Lent studying the book of Jonah. It’s a fantastic book, full of adventure and symbolism and parody. A book full of surprises. This short book of the Bible; it only contains 48 verses. That’s it. So if you’ve never read a whole Bible book before and you want to start, this is a great one to start with.

It is really small. But there is one name mentioned 39 times within this wee little book. Any guess whose name it is? It’s not Jonah. It’s not the whale—the big fish. We might think the fish is a main character by looking at the cover of a children’s Bible, but actually the fish is just one of many pious animals in the book.

The one who is named 39 times in 48 verses is God. Usually called the Lord. Once called the Lord God. So, perhaps the book of “Jonah” is misnamed. Perhaps it really isn’t about Jonah at all. It is about God. God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s willingness to find us even when we are running from God or overwhelmed by the storms of this life.

My hope and prayer is that in this season of Lent, we will commit ourselves to prayer and study and that as we read this Old Testament Book together, we will find ourselves in the unlikely hero Jonah and grow closer to God, the one who is the true star of Jonah’s story and of ours.

So, without further ado, let us come to the reading of Chapter 1.

Will you pray with me?

(Pray & then read Jonah 1)

So, if you remember your geography of the 8th Century BCE, you may remember that Nineveh, the place where God tells Jonah to go, is the capital of the Assyrian Empire in that day. It is in modern day Iraq.

At the start of our story Jonah is in Ancient Israel along the Mediterranean Sea, and he hears this call from the Lord and decides to board a ship to Tarshish which is in modern day Spain. In other words, God says: go east and Jonah immediately goes West. He sails away—runs as fast as he can as far away from God as he can imagine.

Have you ever found yourself running from God?

I know I have.

You may know that when I was in college I spent a summer at a church as an intern. The pastor there was helping me to consider whether or not I was called to be a pastor. And by the end of the summer I knew the answer: absolutely not.

Even if God was calling, I was not going to answer. I moved to Philadelphia and taught Physics. Numbers. Robots. Things you could see, touch, measure. That’s what I loved. None of this ethereal God stuff. No way was I going to stand with people in the messiness of life—I would just teach them the facts and go home.

I loved being a teacher and God used that time in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined but still, I was running. There are lots of way to run from God. Sometimes we find ourselves running not into anything negative but still, we are avoiding God and that is a form of running.

Sometimes we find ourselves running in more negative ways. Perhaps we have that thing we like to do. You know that thing.

The one which we know in our spirit is really not healthy for us.

Perhaps we feel at the end of the day that we just need a little release, a little rest from the craziness of life. And that is good and true and the desire for rest is something that God instilled in us—the need for Sabbath.

But instead of resting in healthy ways we find ourselves turning to a pill jar to take the edge off. Or the bottle of wine seems to empty itself faster than we thought it could. Or the online shopping where we just went to look magically puts weight on the credit card. Or speaking of weight, how did that entire container of Oreos disappear into our stomachs?

In small ways and in big we may find ourselves turning from God, running from God. Instead of satisfying the craving that we have inside of us to spend time with God, to know God, to rest in God’s presence, we fill it up with something else. Perhaps in the end we are even running from ourselves.

In her book Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, the Jewish Scholar Dr. Erica Brown quotes John Gardner saying: (page xxxix).

Have we made busyness an idol? Is being productive a way that we run from ourselves? Run from God? Are you a fugitive from yourself? Are you a fugitive from the God who created you and loves you? Are we running from God?

Well, Jonah is running from God. Jonah is a historical figure, but the Book of Jonah is in the section of Scripture called the prophets, not in the section called history. Paul writes to Timothy reminding us that “all of Scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching and [training]” (2 Tim 3:16-17). All of Scripture is given to us by God for us to learn. And as we read this book perhaps it is helpful to think of it less historically and more as a book intended to be a metaphor for life. As an allegory meant to show us the ways that we run from God. And the ways that God works in our lives. So Jonah is perhaps literally, perhaps symbolically running from God.

And as he is running, notice that three things happen to Jonah:

  1. His running costs Jonah dearly.

First, it costs Jonah financially. Did you notice that the Scripture takes care to tell us Jonah had to pay a fare to get on board? That was not a cheap ticket, especially in Jonah’s day. But it didn’t just cost him financially; it also cost him his time. Instead of using the precious resource God gives us that cannot be renewed or added to, the gift of time, Jonah wastes time doing what he knows he should not do. And then it nearly even costs Jonah something more dear: his running nearly costs Jonah his life.

Perhaps some of us have seen this in our lives, too. Perhaps that thing that we turn to that we think will satisfy us, perhaps it really is costing us. Perhaps it is stealing our money. Perhaps it is stealing our time. Perhaps it is even putting our very lives in danger.

There is an old joke about a man who is an alcoholic, and he starts going to AA and begins to transform his life. One day he runs into his drinking buddies and he tells them that he has stopped running from God and is living a new way. They ask him: oh come on. You really don’t believe all that stuff in the Bible, do you? All the miracles and stuff?

The man shrugs and says, “I don’t know if Jesus actually turned water into wine, but I do know that he turned my beer in furniture.”

When we stop running from God we may find that we have more financial resources, more time, and a life that doesn’t stop here but is new here and continues onto eternity.

  • Notice that in addition to costing Jonah dearly, when Jonah runs from God, he actually finds himself sinking.

This chapter in particular is full of words which show Jonah is going down, down, down. The ship is going down to Tarshish. Jonah gets in the boat and goes down into the bottom of the boat, into the hold. Jonah falls asleep, he is so emotionally drained from running that his spirit has fallen. He’s exhausted and all he can do is sleep.

And then, of course, Jonah is thrown overboard and sinks down into the water and then down into the very belly of the beast.

It is true in our lives that when we run from God. When we run from who we are created to be, we may find ourselves sinking. Sinking down into the depths. Sometimes literally. Sometimes figuratively.

Those with addictions often call this hitting rock bottom. We find ourselves so low that when we look at our lives we can’t imagine things getting any worse. There is no way to escape unless God sends a whale. Unless God intervenes. And the Good News of the gospel is: God does. There is no place where we can go that God is not there. God is the one who goes in search of the lost sheep and coins and sons. God is the one who sends miracles of all kinds into our lives and reaches us in the very depths.

If you are feeling like you are at the bottom today. If you are overwhelmed by life or things you have done or things that have been done to you, know that you are not alone. God is with you in the depths.

  • And one more thing that happens to Jonah:

Notice that at the beginning of this chapter, we are introduced to Jonah as “Jonah son of Am-it-tai.” Am-it-tai is actually the Hebrew word meaning truth. Jonah is the son of Truth. It is his call to tell the truth. To proclaim the truth to all people.

But when Jonah introduces himself to the sailors, all he can say is: I’m Jonah.

Jonah has lost his identity. He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know his call. He’s sinking to the bottom. He’s sinking having lost everything, even his own self.

When we run from God, we run from ourselves for we are made in the very image of God. We are made with a plan and purpose. You are not here by accident. Your life is a gift from God. Amen? Amen.

And you are a child of God. If you are coming to our new member’s class today that’s what we are talking about. Who we are in God. Again, if you want to be a new member, please come. If you are a member and need a reminder of who we are before God, please come. If you have questions about who we are, please come.

But for now, it’s Lent. It’s the season of repentance. The season when we do the hard stuff. The stuff of looking at our lives and asking: in what ways am I running from God? Because we all are. We all find ways, big and small to do exactly what we should not do.

As we turn to the Communion Table today, let us remember that when we find ourselves running, when we are sinking, when we are losing everything, even ourselves, God is still with us. Calling us back to God’s presence.

Will you stand with me? Let us affirm what we believe by saying together the Apostles’ Creed.

Works Sited:

Brown, E. (2017). Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet. Maggid Books.