God Chases Runaways

Study of Jonah 1:1-5

Jonah 1:1-2
The word of the LORD came to Jonah …
But Jonah ran away from the LORD.

Do you remember the TV series, “The Fugitive” (and then the movie version in 1993? It was about Dr. Richard Kimble’s efforts to find the one-armed man who had killed his wife.
Police thought he had done it, so he was on the run.
He was a fugitive.

The Bible tells us we’re fugitives from God.
That’s because we’re sinners, and have broken His laws.
Unlike Dr. Kimble, though, we are guilty.
As fugitives, we are running away from Him.

We don’t like to think of ourselves that way.
We’d rather see ourselves as sick, or needy, or troubled.
But not guilty.
And certainly not as fugitives!

This is a very simple story.
Every child in Sunday School knows it.
Jonah ran away from God and wound up in the belly of a great fish (not a whale!).
He, too, was a fugitive.

What does it mean?
It’s one of the clearest pictures in the Bible of sin and grace.
“Sin” is man running away from God …
– trying to hide from Him, to get away from what He’s told us to do.
“Grace” is God chasing us until He catches us …
– intercepting us and bringing us back from our self-destructive behavior.

There’s nothing more important that you and I need to relearn every day than this. Once more, our tendency is to see ourselves as “hurting people,” needing help from God.

Instead, we’ve got to see ourselves as “fugitives,” on the run from God.Sinners, objects of God’s wrath … caught and transformed by God’s grace.

There are other, secondary themes in the book of Jonah.

It’s a book about missions …
– God’s love for the lost, especially those in the world’s great cities,
– like the people of Ninevah.

It’s a book about the sovereignty of God …
– His control of nature and circumstances and what we think are coincidences,
– like His sending the storm and the fish.

It’s a book about revival …
– God’s ability to miraculously change the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people with one puny prophet,
– like He did with the population of this capitol city of Assyria.

It’s a book about election …
– God’s amazing choice of unworthy sinners to receive the gift of salvation,
– not only the sinful citizens of Ninevah, but also Jonah, the sinful prophet of Israel!

But most of all, it’s a book about sin and grace.
It’s not natural for us to look at ourselves that way.
The culture we live in tells us we’re basically good.
In fact, it tells us that we’re better than most people.

So, we wind up thinking that we deserve to be treated fairly well by life. We want to be happy, and fulfilled, and enjoy some measure of success. Since we haven’t done anything too terrible, we think we have a right to it. We mess up occasionally, but God will surely overlook that, since we’re basically okay.

But the Bible’s message is just the opposite! It tells us we’re worse than we ever imagined. That even our best moments are fouled with impure motives.

The first thing we’ve got to do is admit that we’re running from God’s will for our lives. We’re like a man (I mean a MAN, not just a person J ) …
– lost in the grocery store,
– who won’t ask anyone for help.

Let’s see what God teaches us through this “reluctant prophet” about how He deals with runaways.

1. Runaways KNOW the Lord
The word of the LORD … spoken through His servant Jonah (2 Kings. 14:25)

At first glance, it sounds like Jonah was just walking down the street,
– minding his own business,
– when all of a sudden, out of the clear blue,
– God grabbed him and told him to go to Ninevah.

No, Jonah was already a prophet, accustomed to receiving a word from the LORD.
2 Kings 14:25 tells us he was prophesying during the prosperous reign of Jereboam II.
Jonah was one of God’s spokesmen in the years following the ministry of Elisha.
He’d been privileged to preach at a time when God was richly blessing the nation.

The point is that Jonah already knew the Lord. He was not some inexperienced novice, terrified at the thought of preaching his first sermon. For years, he’d been obediently delivering God s word to the people of Israel. This was his career, to go preach God’s word whenever and wherever God sent him.

What did Jonah know about the Lord? He already knew that God was powerful …
– that He controlled the wind and the sea,
– just like he told the sailors down in verse 9.

He already knew that God was holy …
– that He had a right to command men,
– and that it was both wrong and dangerous to disobey Him.

He already knew that God was just …
– that He didn’t ignore sin, but always demanded payment,
– which is why he knew if the sailors tossed him overboard, the storm would stop.

And He also already knew that God was merciful …
– that He graciously forgave people who didn’t deserve it,
– just like he’d seen God do, forgiving the sin in Israel.

Now, do you see how the fact that Jonah knew all this about the Lord makes his sin so much worse?
He knew better than to disobey God.
He knew better than to try to run away from Him.

There are a number of important principles here, and this is the first one: sin is always more serious if you know better.
If a child scribbles on a wall, it’s wrong, but the child doesn’t know any better yet.
But if a teenager spray paints graffiti on a bus, it’s another story.

Jesus understood that principle.
He said that to whom much is given, much is required.
Hell will be far worse for unbelievers in Capernaum who saw Jesus’ miracles …
– than for unbelievers in Sodom who never had the gospel preached to them.

Jonah knew enough to know better than to run away from the Lord.
But apparently, like a lot of people today, Jonah knew the “idea” of God …
– better than He knew the “person” of God.
You often find that, even with religious people, who know the facts in their minds …
– but haven’t experienced the reality of God in their lives.

How much do you know about the Lord?
How many times have you seen God answer prayer in your life?
How many years have you been listening to sermons and Sunday School lessons?
How many truths about the Lord do you already have stored up in your heart?

What does that say about the seriousness of sin in your life?

Runaways not only know the Lord, …

2. Runaways HEAR the Lord
Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and call out against it (vs 2)

There was nothing ambiguous about the message.
God told him who – he was the one.
God told him where – the great city of Ninevah.
God told him what – preach against it, because of its wickedness.

So what was Jonah’s problem?
Very simple … he didn’t want to do it.
He said “no” with his feet, by heading in the opposite direction.
And there’s our definition of sin again … running away from God as a fugitive.

By his disobedience, Jonah was, in effect, saying to God …
“Ninevah? Are you crazy?”
“That’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“God, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Not only is sin running away from God.
It’s also telling God that we know more than He does.
It’s saying that we have a better idea how to run the universe.

When you isolate it like that, do you see how irrational sin is?
It’s the height of insanity to suggest that we know more than God.
But that’s what we’re saying every time we say “no” to God.

Jonah would have argued with God this way.
“Ninevah? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“God, don’t you know what kind of people live there?”
“It makes no sense whatsoever to send a prophet to that place!”
“They would never repent.”
“And even if they did, they don’t deserve to be forgiven!”

God’s commands often seem irrational from our limited perspective.
Paul said we walk by faith, not by sight.
Soldiers are supposed to instantly, unquestioningly follow the orders of their generals.
It’s not their job to debate, analyze, or understand, much less agree with those orders.

Ninevah had a well-deserved reputation as the most vicious, militaristic dictatorship of the day.
After he conquered a city, Ashur-nasirpal II skinned the leaders alive at the city gates.
The skins were hung on a pillar, and the still-living victims were impaled on stakes.
Assyria’s infamous brutality was an intolerable affront to God.
But God told Jonah to go, whether it made any sense to him or not.

What has God told you to do that you’re disobeying because it doesn’t make any sense to you?
Tithe? … “God, I can’t make it on my pay check now, so I sure can’t if I give up 10%!”
Love that person? … “God, you ought to hear the slander they’ve been spreading about me!”
Trust the Lord? … “God, how can I trust You when it seems like You’ve just ignored my prayers?”

There’s another important principle: sin is always an act of disobedience to God.

Runaways not only KNOW the Lord, and HEAR the Lord …

3. Runaways RUN from the Lord
But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish (vs 3)

Jonah ran away from the Lord.
He became a fugitive, by getting on a boat.
You don’t have to do that to run away from the Lord today.
You can be a fugitive from Him while you’re sitting here this morning.

Even though you can’t hide from Him (as Jonah discovered the hard way!) …
– you can fool yourself into thinking that you can, for a while, at least;
– maybe by staying away from church,
– or by getting so busy in your family or your business that you forget about Him,
– and mistakenly thinking that He’s forgotten about you, too.

But it won’t work for you any more than it did for Jonah.
Remember our definition of sin? … Sin is running away from God, like a fugitive.
You can’t get away from Him … He’ll come after you, just like He did Jonah.

Jonah knew that.
He knew he couldn’t hide from God.
So why in the world did Jonah do something as dumb as this …
– disobeying a direct command of the Lord?

Probably in part because of laziness.
He had a nice home there in Israel, with family and friends, and a garden to tend.
It wasn’t convenient or comfortable to leave all that and head a thousand miles across the desert.
Why couldn’t he preach right where he was?

Fear could have been a factor, too.
This was like going to Moscow at the height of the Cold War, or Baghdad in January of 1991, or Tehran today.
The best he could hope for was to have tomatoes and dead cats thrown at him.
More likely, it would mean imprisonment, and maybe even execution as a spy.

Pride was probably an element in the mix of his resistance.
What would people back home say if they heard he’d gone to preach in Ninevah?
Good Jewish boys didn’t do things like that.
It would ruin his reputation with the people that really mattered to him.

But a feeling of arrogant superiority was clearly the main reason he didn’t want to go.
He didn’t want them to have a chance to get away with their terrible sin.
He admitted in chapter 4 that he wanted to see them burn in hell, just like they deserved.

After the people repented, and God spared them, Jonah said,
“I knew it, I just knew it!”
“That’s why I ran away to Tarshish instead of going to Ninevah.”
“I knew You are a gracious and compassionate God who forgives.”
“And they don’t deserve to be forgiven!”

We’ll look at this more carefully as we go on.
It’s a major part of the message of Jonah.
A part of his sin was his racist bigotry.
Not only did he believe he was better than they were because he was a Jew.
He believed he had more of a right to God’s grace than they did.

In fact, this is the major lesson of the book, the major lesson God was teaching Jonah.
It’s really kind of ironic, isn’t it?
Here’s Jonah, preaching grace.
But he doesn’t yet understand grace.
He doesn’t realize he’s no more deserving of God’s grace than those wicked Ninevites!

How he ran away is what I want you to look at for now.
He went a few miles down the coast and caught the next ship heading for Spain.
God had said to go east, so he went west!

By the way, wasn’t it convenient that he found that way of escape so easily?
When we choose to sin, Satan will also see to it that the means to do so is readily available.
He’ll gladly open all the doors we need to provide a way.

I can just imagine Jonah thinking to himself,
“Wow, what luck; here’s a ship all set to go this afternoon.”
“And they even have room for one more passenger at a price I can afford.”
“Maybe this is God’s way of saying it’s okay for me to pass on this particular job opportunity.”

It’s dangerous to try to determine God’s will from circumstances alone.
In the short term, it will always be easier to sin than to obey God.
The fact that there seem to be open doors doesn’t mean God opened them.

People still try to do that today, and it’s never right.
“Sure, God said don’t marry a non-Christian …
– but this guy’s nicer than any Christian I’ve ever met.”
“I know God said we’re to worship Him on Sunday …
– but this great opportunity to play golf with the boss just came up.”
“Yea, God said to go and lovingly confront that person who’s upset with me …
– but it’s so hard, and it’d be so embarrassing for everybody involved, surely He’d understand if we just forget it.”

No, the word of God is the only dependable guide we’ve got to know what God wants.
God’s word said, “Go to Ninevah.”
Circumstances said, “Go to Tarshish.”
Which was right?

Don’t forget this third principle: sin will always be easily available to you.
I like the way Steve Brown puts it.
“God will grease the tracks for you in whatever direction you choose to go.”
Runaways not only KNOW the Lord, and HEAR the Lord, and RUN from the Lord …

4. Runaways SLEEP before the Lord
But Jonah had lain down and was fast asleep (vs 5)

The book of Jonah is historical fact.
Jesus compared His three days in the grave with Jonah’s three days in the fish.
He believed it was historical fact, so I do, too.

Most liberals say it’s just a parable.
They laugh at the idea of a man surviving three days in a fish’s stomach.
For them, miracles are impossible.

Listen, there’s a bigger miracle here than Jonah’s survival.
It’s the fact that hundreds of thousands of pagans repented after hearing a sermon by this Jewish preacher!

But with that said, there’s still symbolism in many of the events here.
The Bible often uses physical sleep as a picture of spiritual sleep.
Jonah’s body was asleep below decks, but so was his soul.

His body was asleep because he was tired.
There was the physical exhaustion that came as a result of his last minute flight.
He must have been emotionally exhausted, too, battling over what to do with God’s call.

But more significant, I think, was the fact that his soul was asleep.
He had succeeded in turning off his uneasiness about what he’d done.
His guilty conscience had been tucked under the covers, so to speak.

Here’s the fourth principle: sin can always be ignored for a while.
Jonah thought he’d gotten away with it.
He was resting comfortably, even though there was a violent storm going on above him.
On he slept, not bothered at all by the terrible thing he’d done.

It was like David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.
It looked like his cover-up had worked.
No one knew, so he could relax.
But before long it began to gnaw at him on the inside.

Sin is like a delayed reaction to something toxic.
With a bullet or a knife, you see the damage and feel the pain instantly.
But with a lethal dose of radiation,
– it takes time for the effects to be evident,
– but it’s there underneath – it’s only a matter of time.

The best part of this true story is how Jonah was awakened from his sleep.
God loved him too much to leave him sleeping in his guilt.
He loved him so much, he sent a storm to wake him up!

And that takes us to the last thing this morning.

Runaways not only KNOW the Lord, and HEAR the Lord, and RUN from the Lord, and SLEEP before the Lord …

5. Runaways will be CAUGHT by the Lord
The LORD hurled a great wind … a mighty tempest on the sea (vs 4)

We read that the Lord sent – literally, hurled – a terrible storm on the sea.
This was the wildest storm these seasoned sailors had ever experienced!
It was probably of hurricane proportions.
They figured somebody on board must have gotten one of the gods really mad somewhere.

They cast lots to see whose fault it was.
Can’t you just picture Jonah, shivering in the cold rain.
Trying to hide back in the shadows, behind the wildly whipping sails.
He knew the lot would point to him before they even started.

He was wide awake, now.
Wide awake to the stupidity of his futile attempt to get away from God.
He knew good and well that he was to blame for the storm.
That’s why he told them it would stop as soon as they threw him overboard.

Jonah knew God had sent the storm … but he didn’t understand yet that it was because God loved him.
He probably thought it was because God was mad at him.
That’s obviously what the sailors thought.
That may be what you think, too, about the storm in your life right now.

The storm roaring around you because of tensions in your marriage,
– or the storm of anxiety squeezing in on you because of money problems,
– or the storm of confusion and discouragement after a terrible experience of failure,
– or even the storm of a strange emptiness after a wonderful experience of success.

But that’s dead wrong.
Since when does God get mad and lose His temper with His children?
Everything He does in our lives comes out of His infinite love for us.
And that includes the storms He sends … they all come from Him.

There was a wonderful purpose for Jonah in that storm.
God was not only shaking him to wake him up from his spiritual nap.
He was also forcing Jonah to admit that he was a fugitive from God.

This was God’s way of reaching out to Jonah, showing Jonah that God had caught him.
Opening his eyes to the fact that there can be no peace in life ..
– as long as we’re running from God;
– peace will only come when we’re walking in step with Him.
As Tim Keller put it: “there was love beneath those waves.”

Here’s the last principle for today: God chases elect sinners till He catches them.

God almost always intervenes in our lives by means of storms.
You can’t know God until you know that you’re a fugitive.
Until then, God will only be a concept to you, not a person.

God’s love is stronger than anything in the whole universe.
It was that love that sent a killer storm to save Jonah s life.
This is not some tame, predictable God we serve.

He knows we need a storm to shake us out of our self-confidence …
– our silly assumption that we’ve got life under control,
– that we’re competent to run our own life, as Jonah was trying to do.

Tim Keller tells this story.
Imagine that your close friend has diabetes.
As you’re together one afternoon, your friend begins to slip into insulin shock.
You’ve seen the symptoms before and you know it’s life-threatening.
So you rush to the kitchen to get some orange juice.

But by now your friend has become mentally confused.
He thinks you’re trying to poison him.
He pushes you away, and even attacks you, refusing your help.

Because you love that friend, you’ll take strong measures to save his life.
If necessary, you’ll even hit him hard enough to knock him down.
It’ll hurt him, but it’s the only way you can get that life-saving liquid into him.

That’s how much God loves you.
If you re running from God, you need to stop in your tracks …
– and realize there’s no refuge from God; the only refuge is in God.

There s no greater thrill in life than this … to be caught by Him!

Sermon preached at Lake Osborne Presbyterian Church
West Palm Beach, FL
on September 21, 2008 by Dr. Lawrence C. Roff