Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Jonah's Mistake: The Danger of Running Away from God

"The Sovereign Lord has spoken, who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8)

There is a sort of etiquette that demands our action when God speaks.

The etiquette of those called to be prophets is that they prophesy when God speaks.

God spoke to Amos; Amos was compelled to prophesy.

Like Amos, when God speaks we don't expect the hearer to ignore Him.

The book of Jonah begins with a conventional statement: "The Word of the Lord came to…" (Jonah 1:1) - a convention used over 100 times through the Old Testament to indicate that there has been divine communication to a prophet.

Jonah is the only prophet who is recorded as having run away from God!
He won't find me under here!
The Word of the Lord came to Abraham...

The Word of the Lord came to Samuel...

The Word of the Lord came to Nathan...

The Word of the Lord came to Solomon...

The Word of the Lord came to Elijah...

It goes on.

And each time the prophet moves into action, taking God's message to people and cities. Even the pagan prophet, Balaam, knew that it was foolish to snub God's word (Numbers 22:18).

When the Sovereign Lord speaks, who can but prophesy?

Well, Jonah. Jonah's reaction is the exact opposite. God tells him to go five hundred miles east to Nineveh, but instead, Jonah ran away from the Lord, heading two thousand miles west towards Tarshish.

He is the only prophet who is recorded as having run away from God!
The American Standard Version says that Jonah ran away from the presence of the Lord. Now, we're
not to think that Jonah believed that he could hide from God; later in the story he acknowledges the impossibility of that, for he says that God can hear him even when he's in the depths of the sea (Jonah 2).

By fleeing God's presence, Jonah is effectively throwing in the towel, announcing his unwillingness to serve God, removing himself from God's blessing.

It's open rebellion.

However, the Lord is in hot pursuit to bring Jonah back to Him, sending a storm to stop the boat that Jonah is sailing away on.

But it's not just Jonah who is affected by this; his disobedience has brought danger into the lives of others. Admittedly, later on, God turns Jonah's disobedience around to good in the sailors' lives, but that's for another time. For now, we concentrate on disobedience and its effects.
Storm Jonah 1:4
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea,
and such a violent storm arose that the ship
threatened to break up. (Jonah 1:4)

We are not told in the first few verses of Jonah the reason for Jonah's disobedience.

If you've read the book, then you will know, and if not, I could quite easily tell you now why Jonah was so unwilling to go to Nineveh.

But I'm not going to.

The author omits to tell us the explanation for Jonah's behaviour at this early stage, and there must be a reason for this.

When I re-read a book or watch a film that I've seen before, I like to go into it fresh, as though I've never read it or seen it, so that it's all 'new' to me. That way, the emotions and thoughts inspired by the narrative are in the moment and not influenced by what I know is coming up.

I can be stunned and saddened when *SPOILER ALERT* Gandalf falls down into the Mines of Moria when fighting the balrog, because I'm not remembering that he will come back; I can be shocked by the revelation that *SPOILER ALERT* Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father; I can still expect *SPOILER ALERT* William Wallace's friends to rescue him from execution; I can be delighted by the reuniting of *SPOILER ALERT* Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester.

So, in the same way, I want to look at this account of Jonah as brand new.

In fact, we don't need to know why Jonah was disobedient - it is enough to know that he disobeyed God.

So often we make excuses for our behaviour.

When I was little and my dad was telling me off about something, he would always add, "no buts or becauses" - I would want to give a reason for what I'd done, to justify myself and perhaps get the judgement turned around or to get the punishment handed over to my siblings, but the fact was that I had been disobedient. It didn't matter why I had done what I did. I shouldn't have done it and that was that.

And, as adults, we still do that.

We complain loudly to our neighbour about the person who jumps a queue, not because we are irritated, but because they are annoying; we gossip about people, not because we are unkind, but because they are odd; we snap at someone, not because we are impatient, but because they haven't done something the way we want them to.

In the same way, we often have excuses for not doing something God has asked us to do.

I'm too busy; I'm too tired; I'm frightened; I don't understand; I don't want to; I won't be any good, and so on.

But the excuses don't matter. All they do is take us further from the will of God. If I'm too busy for God, I'm too busy with things that aren't important. If I'm scared to do what He has asked, I'm really not trusting God to care for me. If I think I won't be any good, then I am saying that God has made a mistake or is incompetent in asking me.

It's enough that we disobey, without trying to justify our behaviour.

Disobeying God doesn't just affect the disobedient one. Our actions affect others too. Jonah's behaviour put the lives of the sailors at risk, and also threatened their livelihood, for they were forced to throw their cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

We cannot say, "It's my life. I'll do what I want with it," for as John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself." Mankind is interconnected - what I do, good or bad, will have repercussions for those around - family, friends, church. One
We're all in this together.
English football hooligan in another country brings our nation into disrepute; one night of unprotected sex can result in the spread of disease or an unwanted child being conceived; one case of adultery breaks up at least one family, bringing pain into several lives.

People who rebel against God tend to be putting themselves at the top of the importance list - they no longer care about how their rebellion will impact those around them.

In Exodus, God tells Moses that He cannot leave the guilty unpunished and punishes children for the sin of their parents (Exodus 34:7). I can't explain this verse fully, because I don't entirely understand it, but suffice it to say that there are consequences for our actions and often those consequences affect others. This doesn't mean that we can deny responsibility for our own actions, blaming past generations. God told Ezekiel that the one who sins is the one who will die (Ezekiel 18:4).

A young child who knows they have done wrong will often hide, thinking that if their parents don't know where they are, they can't be told off. But, sooner or later, the crime and the perpetrator are discovered and dealt with.

Jonah did the same.

He didn't just say no to God and then carry on with life as usual. He knew he had to hide.

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they too hid from the Lord God.

Being disobedient to God is extremely uncomfortable. Jonah wanted to be a safe distance from anything that reminded him of God and his own disobedience. As Mumford & Sons sing in Winter Winds, "Oh, the shame that sent me off from the God that I once loved was the same that sent me into your arms." So Jonah left his home and headed for Tarshish, where he would be far from God's people.

It's often the same for us - we know we've been disobedient, so we avoid other Christians.

John Ortberg in his book, Love Beyond Reason, puts it this way:
"This is my story. I hide because I don't want to be exposed in my fallenness, my darkness. I hide because I'm afraid if the truth about me is known, I will never be loved. I hide from other people. I hide from God. I hide from the truth - in a sense, I hide even from myself."

There have been occasions when I've gone to church and sat there, paranoid that people are going to be able to see into my heart and know what I've been up to, or that God will reveal my sins to people. I greatly doubt that He would, but that fear is there. When we've disobeyed God, we want to avoid the discomfort of being with Christians. Jonah could avoid being reminded of his disobedience by other people, though he knew that he couldn't escape from God. But he could run away from the will of God, which is also to run from the presence of God.

What is it in your life that you are trying to hide? 

Have the courage to share all with God. 

Honesty will strengthen your relationship with Him. 

"The truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

Part 2

No comments:

Post a Comment