Setting Sail with Jonah

Being the father of three I must admit to having some experience with disobedience. And being a son myself I have had my own fair share of testing parental patience so I suppose I can relate on some level to Jonah who is a prime Biblical example of disobedience. In fact Jonah’s sin goes beyond drawing a line in the sand with regards to will to leaving the beach altogether in an attempt to flee the presence of God:

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 1:3 NRSV emphasis mine)

Jonah simply did not like the will of God at this point for reasons we will look at next week, and so his solution to his God problem was simple – create enough distance between himself and God that God’s will would be out of sight and out of mind. I suspect that most of us can relate to Jonah that when God’s agenda conflicts with our own the simple recourse is a course which takes us a comfortable distance from God. So we set sail with Jonah, often in a ship laden with rationalisations as to why we could not possibly do the will of God, reasons which seem reasonable enough to us. Or our ship sits heavy in the water being weighed down with emotions. We feel justified in our anger at God, or our disappointment with God and so feel justified in choosing a different course. Or we set sail in a very busy ship, perhaps a cruise ship full of distractions and enough entertainment that we don’t have time to think of where God had wanted us to be heading, or a working boat with no time to spare. Some of us set sail with a boat load of confidence. Our own will is good, and we are capable of bringing it to pass, so we pass up on God’s will as being not as good, and God’s presence as being unnecessary. And then there are those of us that set sail with the status quo – the same old familiar run from the same old port to the same old destination. Whatever we carry aboard and whatever our intended destination we set sail with Jonah on a trip that we hope leads us away from the unsettling presence of God. And if this can be true of the Christian believer, how much more can it be true for the unbeliever!

But before long Jonah gets into one of those Dr. Phil moments where the question is “how is that working for you?” And how is that working, with storms, a swim, and a big hungry fish? Not so good; Jonah, once hungry for a great distance between himself and God, must realise on the one hand that such simply is not possible, yet on the other hand must fear that it has become a distinct possibility. Distance from God is possible, but not in life, only in death. Perhaps Jonah was hoping for a nice retirement in the quiet waterfront town of Tarshish, but God’s unsettling presence would be found there to keep the prophet from settling in. Only in death could Jonah flee God’s presence, and in the belly if a big fish death was something coming into focus:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
5 The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
(Jonah 2 NRSV)

In contemplating death, Jonah came to see clearly that distance from God was the last thing he wanted. When we recognise the death that comes into a Christian’s life from fleeing God’s will, whether that death is found in our relationships, in our character growth, or in our potential for love, we realise that distance from God is the last thing we would want. And what about the unbeliever who will someday recognise that life has been lived in the presence of the God he or she has spurned, that a beating heart, and breathing lungs and relationships and food and all that is good and necessary for life has been a gift of God all along? Distance from God will turn out to be the last thing the unbeliever will want.

Let’s not set sail with Jonah and get caught up in his misadventures. God calls us near. God calls us to pick up our cross and follow. Let’s keep in step with His Spirit and step out into His adventure.

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