THE RUNNIN' REBEL

JONAH

 

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            After a two week break we continue our sermon series on the minor prophets.  In the last message we turned our attention to the most obscure minor prophet, Obadiah.  Today we turn to the most famous minor prophet, Jonah.

            Jonah is a very interesting character. If he were going to college today he would probably go to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, because he was the original "Runnin' Rebel."  Jonah got off to a lamentable start with God, and then did everything he could to make it worse.  First, he resisted God; then he rebelled against God; and then he tried unsuccessfully to run from God.

            I remember a newspaper reporter interviewing Muhammad Ali.  He said, "Your opponent has said that he's just going to get on his toes and run from you the entire fight."  Mohammed Ali just smiled and said, "Well he can run, but he can't hide."

            If the book of Jonah teaches us anything, it is this: You really cannot run from God.  It’s like the little boy who kept riding his bicycle around the block, and a police officer was sitting by the side of the road and he watched this little boy ride around the block about ten times. Finally, he got out of his squad car and stopped him and said, "Son, you keep riding around this same block over and over, what are you doing?"

            The little boy said, "I'm running away from home."

            The officer said, "Running away from home? How can you be running away and keep going around the same block?"

            The little boy said, "Because my Mommy told me I couldn't cross the street!"

            In a sense, we are like that little boy.   We may think we can run from God, but we cannot.  When God speaks and tells us to do something, whether we think it's a big thing or a little thing, it’s in our best interest to do it because if we don't, our lives will become a catastrophe looking for a place to happen. 

            And as we study the chapters of this book, we learn four very valuable principles.  So let’s turn to his prophecy now, to Jonah 1:1 on page 752 of your pew bible.  We will begin with principle number one: disobedience brings discipline.  Listen to how the prophecy begins ...

 

            Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Ammitai, saying, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

 

            The command seems clear enough: “Jonah, go to Nineveh.”  Ninevah was a great city.  It was the capitol of Assyria with an estimated population of 175,000 people,  and Assyria was also Israel’s arch enemy.  Being asked to go and preach to Ninevah would have been as popular to Jonah as it would have been to an American to go to Tokyo in the 40‘s, Moscow in the 50‘s, Hanoi in the 60‘s, or Tehran today and Jonah did not want to go.  He did not want to give his arch enemy a second chance.  He did not want God to give them a chance to repent.  So he fled.  Let’s continue reading.

 

            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.

 

            Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel and Tarshish was 1,000 miles west of Israel, in the western part of modern Spain, and because of Jonah's disobedience, everyone experienced God's discipline.  That’s a terrible side affect of our disobedience.  Often our disobedience hurts others as well.  Listen to what came next.  Verse 4.

 

            But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.  Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god.  They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them.  Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship, and had lain down, and was fast asleep.  The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep?  Get up, call on your god!  Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.

 

            I heard a story of a ship that was sinking in the middle of a storm, and the captain called out to the crew and said, "Does anyone here know how to pray?"  One man stepped forward and said, "Yes sir, I know how to pray."

            The captain said, "Wonderful, you pray while the rest of us put on life jackets.  We're one short."

            Jonah’s disobedience led to discipline.  It lead to a ferocious storm that affected the entire ship and it’s crew, and when the crew discovered that Jonah was the reason for the storm they tossed him overboard, and with Jonah off the ship, the storm immediately ceased, which was good news for the sailors, but bad news for Jonah, because God was not through with him yet.  While treading water Jonah gets gobbled up by a big fish and the scene shifts from the bottom of a boat to the belly of a fish. 

            That brings up to principle two:  discipline - if we learn from it - brings deliverance.   If we were to sum up the first two chapters of Jonah’s story it would go like this: God said, "Go!" Jonah said, "No!"  The great fish said, "Oh?" and Jonah said, "Whoa!"  Jonah got a whale house for a jailhouse; he spent three nights on a foam blubber mattress.

            As a quick aside, I think of the preacher who preached on Jonah and the whale, and after the sermon was over, a self-proclaimed atheist walked up to him and said, "Preacher, how do you know it was a whale that swallowed Jonah?  It just says in the bible that a great fish swallowed him."  The preacher said, "Well, I don't know for sure that it was a whale, but when I get to heaven I'll ask Jonah."  The man said, "What if Jonah is not in heaven?" The preacher said, "Then you can ask him."

            Whatever it was, and I’ll go with a whale, we need to understand this: the whale was a woodshed where God took Jonah to whip him into shape.  It was God that sent the storm, and it was God that sent the fish to do two things in Jonah's life.  First of all, God used the whale to drive Jonah to prayer.  Chapter 2, verse 1:

 

            Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish,

 

            And quite frankly, Jonah should have done that in the first place.  If Jonah had prayed before he got onto that ship, the ship would have never gone through the storm, and Jonah would have never been swallowed by the whale.

            Secondly, in addition to driving him to prayer, God used the fish to drive Jonah to repentance.   Notice what Jonah says in his prayer:

 

            You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your wave and your billows passed over me.  Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”   But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord.  Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2:3,4,9,10).

 

            Folks, God loves us enough to discipline us, and when we’ve learned our lesson God’s merciful enough to deliver us.

            OK, thus far we have noted how disobedience brings discipline and how discipline brings deliverance.  That brings us to the third principle exhibited in Jonah’s story: deliverance brings devotion.

            Picture the scene.  Jonah is sitting on dry ground, clothes shredded and fish bile running down his body.  God has delivered him from the belly of the great fish, and I love the next line of the prophecy.  Chapter three, verse one:

 

            Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

 

            And what will Jonah do with his second chance?  Will he devote himself to God’s purposes in the world, or go his own way once again?  We, as a congregation, are at a similar crossroads, maybe not as dramatic as Jonah’s, but significant nonetheless.  Are we as a congregation committed to God’s purposes in the world, or do we choose to go our own way?  That’s what this Invitation to a Journey is about.  It’s about discerning the voice of God and devoting ourselves to doing what God wants us to do, not what we might want to do.  In the upcoming weeks and months will we devote ourselves to listening to God, and will we devote ourselves to what God is calling us as a church to do and be in the coming years?  I don’t know about you, but I would like to get it right the first time.  I don’t want to go through any unnecessary storms or spend any time in God’s woodshed, because we would rather go our own way instead of God’s way. 

            Well, finally, Jonah did exactly what God told him to do.  He went to Ninevah and he preached.  Listen to what he preached and the result of his preaching.  Chapter three, verse three ...

 

            So Jonah set out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord.  Now Ninevah was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.  Jonah began to to into the city, going a day’s walk.  And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Ninevah will be overthrown!”  And the people of Ninevah believed God ... When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jonah 3:3,4 & 10).      

 

            That brings us to the final principle.  Disobedience not only brings discipline, and discipline not only brings deliverance, and deliverance not only brings devotion, but also devotion brings delight.

            If you have your own bible, I want you to put a circle around the fifth verse and the tenth verse of the third chapter because that is the real miracle in this book.  Jonah is not primarily about a physical miracle of a great fish; it is about the spiritual miracle of a gracious God.  Because Jonah obeyed God, he had the privilege of seeing God do an unbelievable spiritual miracle.  In the most unlikely city, in the most unwilling hearts, in the most ungodly people, God brings spiritual renewal. 

            Now that was a delight, or it should have been, but Jonah missed it.  Note his reaction to the revival in Ninevah, chapter four, verse one. 

 

            But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord!  Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 

 

            Now think about that.  God is gracious, but Jonah so disliked the Ninevites he wanted God to be ungracious.  God wanted to give mercy, Jonah wanted God to give judgment.  The prophet that was quick to anger was angry over a God that is slow to anger.  As the prophecy draws to close there was still work to do in Jonah's heart, just as there is still work to do in our hearts.

            I sometimes believe that people do not understand the lesson of the book of Jonah.  One teacher asked her Sunday School class, "What is the lesson of the book of Jonah?"  A little boy raised his hand and said, "I know what it is."  She said, "What?"  He said, "People make whales sick."

            Well, that really isn't the lesson.  Let me tell you the lesson.  God is a God of second chances.  When we blow it, God does not throw us on the junk heap of life.  With God failure is not fatal, nor does it have to be final.

            Let’s think about that.