The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.
Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”
Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”
He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”
Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.)
They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)
He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshiped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.
Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonah 1, CEB)
I love stories. I love listening to other people’s stories, I love reading stories, and I especially love telling stories. I wonder if any have something similar going on: I have this stock collection of favorite stories that I like to tell. I have a mental storybook of like 20 stories that I like tell and I just keep repeating them whenever the conversation steers in a certain direction. My friends probably have them memorized, and I know my fiancé Lauren is tired of hearing them. This is kind of why I like to meet new people – they haven’t heard my stories yet!
Do any of you have something like this – a stock collection of stories you like to tell everyone? Your own mental storybook? I know you all like to tell stories. When I first started here as your pastor almost two years ago, my biggest goal for the first year was to meet with every single person who was a part of this church so that I could hear your stories about your family, about the Village of Alger, about this church. I heard a lot of great stories in those visits.
As followers of Christ and readers of the Bible, stories are important to us – our faith is built on stories. Our Bible is really just a collection of stories about the people of God trying to figure out how to live as God’s people, how to relate to God, how to love each other. One of my seminary classes for this past semester was Intro to Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and my professor – Dr. Kim – talked about the Old Testament as having its beginnings as grandma’s story book, a collection of stories told around the fire and passed down through the generations.
Now one of the great stories of the Bible is the story of Jonah and the whale, right? Do any of you know that story? I grew up learning it in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. It’s even a Veggie Tales movie, anyone seen it? This whole week, I’ve had the songs from that movie running through my head (For my online-only readers: I sang the first couple lines of The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. If you feel the need to get this song stuck in your head, you can listen to it here).
Jonah is such a great and well-known story that we’re going to spend this whole month studying Jonah’s story. You see, when stories are so familiar to us that we start telling them through Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, we often forget about the real meaning behind the story, and we tend to only focus on the parts that we remember. There is a wealth of meaning to be found in Jonah’s story, and there are a bunch of ways that Jonah’s story can impact and change our own life stories. So let’s dive in and see what we can learn, ok?
Now you heard the first part of the story read to you a few minutes ago, but I’m betting that many of you didn’t need it to be read – a lot of us probably know this by heart. I’m looking for real responses here – does anyone want to summarize the story of Jonah for us, in just a few short sentences? (Responses)
For our purposes today, the first part of the story can be summed up like this: God called to Jonah to Nineveh, but Jonah didn’t want to go. Make sense?
Specifically, Jonah tried to run away to a place called Tarshish. This is important, so I want to camp out here for just a minute
Jonah started in a town called Joppa. This town was on the Mediterranean coast, a little north of Jerusalem. From there, God called him to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. So Nineveh was about 500-600 miles to the east of Jonah. For a comparison, that would be like God calling you to go from Alger, OH east to Philadelphia, that’s a 5-600 mile trip.
But Jonah didn’t want to follow God to Nineveh. Instead, Jonah tried to flee to Tarshish. Tarshish was about 2500 miles west of Jonah. For a comparison, that would be like traveling from Alger, OH all the way west to Portland, OR. Tarshish was a town in what is now southern Spain. And it wasn’t chosen at random. At this point in history, Jonah’s people believed Tarshish to be the end of the world, the furthest west you would ever dare to go. They still believed that the earth was flat and that it was possible to fall off the edge. And they thought the edge was just a little further west from Tarshish. So instead of following God to Nineveh, Jonah ran literally as far as he could possible go in literally the opposite direction.
Now this seems strange to me. Why did Jonah try to run so far away, why were Jonah’s actions so dramatically opposite what God wanted? I think the answer lies in what God’s call to Nineveh really meant.
Like I said earlier, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. To the Jewish people at that time, Assyria was known as an evil empire, the enemy of the Jewish people. Throughout the ancient world, Assyria was known and feared for their terrifying military power and their despicable brutality toward rebels and enemies.
In 772 BC, Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. You might remember that the Biblical nation of Israel was made up of 12 tribes: Judah, Benjamin, Joseph, Reuben, Isaachar, all of them. These 12 tribes were once one unified nation, but there came a time when they split apart, and there were two kingdoms: The Southern Kingdom of Judah, with the tribes of Judah & Benjamin; and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with the other 10 tribes.
So back in 772 BC, Assyria defeated and took over the Northern Kingdom of Israel, captured those 10 tribes, and deported them all to other places all around the Empire. Those 10 tribes basically ceased to exist. You don’t hear from them anymore. They’re known as the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.
So realize where God is calling Jonah – God is calling Jonah to cross over into enemy territory and prophesy against the capital city of Assyria, the archenemies of the Jewish people. Israel and Judah were tiny, and Assyria was a huge empire. They would squash whole nations like a bug. What would they do to Jonah?! How many of you would really follow that call?
So Jonah had the reaction you would expect – he tried to escape God’s call to Nineveh and tried to sail away to Tarshish. But here’s the message I want you to get today: Jonah couldn’t escape God’s call.
Now it wasn’t for lack of trying. Jonah tried to escape by sailing in literally the opposite direction, literally as far away as he could go. But God sent a storm to stop him.
Jonah tried to escape the storm by going to sleep down under the deck. But God sent the captain to wake him up and keep him from escaping the storm.
Jonah tried to escape everything by having the sailors throw him into the sea, saying that would calm the storm and keep them all from dying. I really think that was just a last-ditch effort from Jonah to avoid this call – he would rather drown in the sea then go to Nineveh! But God sent a giant fish to keep him from drowning.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll talk about the rest of the story. But here’s the big message for today: Jonah shows us that no one can escape God’s call.
I think we all try to escape God’s call at some point in our lives. Now, when we start talking about God’s call on our life, most people start thinking about God’s big picture plan for their life, as if God’s call was a specific path you have to find in the wilderness, a path that will get you the job that God wants you to have, the partner who God wants you to be with. Or we start thinking of a specific action God is calling us to take or a specific project that God wants us to take on. And while none of that is false, that’s not all there is.
God also has a general call for everyone. God calls everyone to a certain way of life, a life of love and compassion for everyone, a life modeled after Jesus. This is the Nineveh to which God calls each one of us.
For example, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Matt 5:44-45 “[Jesus says to us] love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.” Love your enemies. Pray for your enemies. How radical is that? This is a Nineveh to which God calls us. How often do we run away from this to our own Tarshish?
Or what about this one: Jesus calls us to be people of peace. Matt 5:39-41 “[Jesus tells us] you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” That’s crazy! But this is a Nineveh to which God calls us. How often do we run away from this to our own Tarshish?
Jesus calls us to a crazy kind of life. Jesus says things like “Everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgement. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘you idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council…in danger of fiery hell.” “Don’t worry about your life,” your food, drink, clothes, anything. “Don’t judge so that you won’t be judged.” That’s insane! How can God expect us to live this life? But this is the Nineveh to which God has called us. How often do we try to escape from this to our own Tarshish?
Just as Jonah was called to go to Nineveh, we are all called as well. Maybe we’re called to a certain line of work, ministry or otherwise. But we are ALL, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, we are ALL called to a certain way of life, a life of love and compassion, a life modeled after Jesus. This way of life is the Nineveh to which God calls us. And we are so good at worming our way out of it and trying to escape to our own Tarshish.
“I do love my enemies…unless they’re Muslim, or unless they have a different skin color, or unless a political leader tells me to hate them.”
“I do turn the other cheek, I don’t retaliate…I just talk about them behind their back.”
“I don’t get angry and yell at my family and friends, really!…Unless they deserve it.”
Jesus calls us all to a life of love, a life modeled after Jesus himself. This is the Nineveh to which God calls us. And if we count ourselves as followers of Christ, there’s nothing we can do to escape this call. God will keep calling us back and pulling us back and wrestling with us until we answer this call. And I pray that I can get my head out of the dirt and follow God before God has to send a giant fish to get my attention.
Psalm 139 actually expresses this better than I could ever hope to. You should have selections from Psalm 139 as an insert in your bulletins. Could you get it out? I’d like us to read it together.
Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
Where could I go to get away from your Spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
Stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean –
Even there your hand would guide me;
Even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
The light will become night around me,”
Even the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
Because darkness is the same as light to you! (Selections from Psalm 139, CEB)
God is calling each one of you. Maybe God is calling you to something specific; maybe God is calling you come back to the way of life God created us for, the life of love and compassion for everyone, the life modeled after Jesus. We can’t escape this call to come back to this life. So the question before you this morning is: Will you follow this call?