Running From God’s Calling (Jonah 1:1-3)

Sermon by Daniel L. Sonnenberg | September 29, 2013


Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose 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 the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. (Jon.1:1-3)


Why did Jonah run from God when he was called to go to Ninevah? And why do we sometimes run from God when he calls us to do something difficult?

The story of Jonah is the story of the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of man. The name Jonah means dove, and in this context it means flighty or silly or senseless.  As we will see, Jonah does everything wrong, and God does everything right. God acts consistently with his character by showing mercy and Jonah acts consistently with his character by not showing mercy. He cares more about himself than he cares for the people of Ninevah. He is a heartless prophet. We are like Jonah. We fail to show mercy as God shows mercy. That’s why we need to be reminded, over and over. That’s why we need stories and parables and examples to follow. The good news is that God shows us mercy even when we are not merciful to others, and works through us to accomplish his purposes in spite of us. However, the goal of telling us this story is that we might become more and more like God in his mercy toward others.

In the first few verses we see the contrast between God’s faithful merciful heart and Jonah’s faithless merciless heart.

God’s heart for the Ninevites. sovereign, righteous, difficult call. 

We see God’s heart in sending Jonah to warn the Ninevites. God was willing to send his servant to express his  God’s call was a sovereign call, a righteous call and a difficult call. We are told in vv 1-2, “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,  “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” It is a sovereign call. As creator, God rules sovereignly over his creation. He can command us to do anything he wants us to do. He didn’t ask Jonah to go, he commanded him to go to Ninevah. It is a righteous call. As judge, God calls his creation to account for their sins. As God’s representative, Jonah is sent to warn the Ninevites of impending judgment. It is a difficult call. At the time, Ninevah was one of the largest cities in the world, it was 600 miles away, and it was the capital city of the Assyrians, one of the greatest enemies of Israel at the time. It was a big job, it would require great effort, and it would be a dangerous job. Jonah was not alone with such a great and difficult call. Abraham, Moses and Mary the mother of Jesus and ultimately, Jesus himself shared in such a call. Richard Phillips writes, “Difficult commands precede great acts of deliverance.”

The cause of Jonah’s flight. Jonah’s problem, God’s merciful call. 

But Jonah’s problem was not that this was a sovereign, righteous or difficult call. It was that God’s call was also a merciful call. That is what caused Jonah to run away. In chapter 4 after God saves the city, Jonah becomes angry and prays, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:1-2) Jonah did not want to give God the opportunity to have mercy on the Ninevites, so he ran in the opposite direction. He knew that God – in keeping with his merciful character – would relent from destroying them and bring them salvation. Jonah had grown to hate the Ninevites over time so that the last thing he wanted was for God to show them mercy and forgive them.

We are men and women like Jonah. God’s commands to us are also sovereign, righteous, difficult and merciful. For example, our current emphasis is local evangelism. The Scriptures command us individually and as a church to “make disciples” by going to them – not waiting for them to come to us – then by baptizing them, and by teaching them everything Jesus commanded us to do. So we are in the process of discovering what holds us back from doing so – whether fear, apathy, ignorance, or unforgiveness born out of anger – and seeking God’s help to overcome these difficulties so that we might obey, honor, glorify and demonstrate  his mercy.

The result of Jonah’s flight. 

The cause of Jonah’s flight was God’s mercy toward the Ninevites whom he hated. The result of his flight was his spiraling down into greater and greater sin.  3 But Jonah rose 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 the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. 

He went in the opposite direction from God’s command, both geographically and morally.

Geographically, he set out to go to Tarshish far to the west when he should have been going east to Ninevah. He sought to flee from God’s presence by separating himself geographically from his call. He did not understand the futility of his act. By contrast, the psalmist understands this when he says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!  Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139)

We can’t run from God by moving to a new state, a new city or a new church. Our disobedient heart will go with us wherever we go. We should stop running and deal with the issue in our hearts.

Jonah’s flight was also moral. He sank down into sin. This is pictorial language. In his disobedience, he goes down to Joppa, he goes down into the ship. Later he will go down into the sea, and down to Sheol because of his disobedience. When we disobey God’s express commands, we too spiral down into sin. One sin, unchecked, leads to another. One lie leads to another lie. One act of unforgiveness leads to another and another.

How can we get free from our own downward spiral of anger and bitterness so that we can accomplish what God has called us to do? Forgiveness of our enemies. It comes by understanding and by experience. By the head and the heart. It comes by understanding that how much we have been forgiven, and by the experience of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

If we are holding anger toward anyone in our hearts we are running from God, and are severely hindered from accomplishing God’s mission. It may be anger toward a parent, a step-parent, a grand-parent, a sibling, a former pastor or a member of a pastor’s family, another leader or person or group of persons in the church. It may be a former boss or co-worker or company. It may be your spouse or child. It may be a student or teacher or administrator in your school. It may be a political party, the people of another race or gender or religion. Someone or something that has hurt or harmed or injured you badly or for whom you can find no grace in your heart. And ultimately, as with Jonah, you are angry with God for letting it happen or letting them off lightly or not holding them accountable for the harm they have done.

That’s why Jesus told this parable.  23  “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

  24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.   25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’  29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.  31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.  32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt.18:23-35)

You are probably aware that Corrie ten Boom, along with her sister and father, were sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp, for hiding Jews. Her sister and father died there, but Corrie was released, due to a “clerical error.” Corrie ten Boom likened forgiveness to letting go of a bell rope. If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug awhile. Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum. As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. Corrie ten Boom says forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It is just that simple, but when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is still at work. However, if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop.

It is like that with forgiveness. When you decide to forgive, the old feelings of unforgiveness may continue to assert themselves. After all, they have lots of momentum. But if you affirm your decision to forgive, that unforgiving spirit will begin to slow and will eventually be still. Forgiveness is letting go of the “rope” of retribution. (Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations)
You get past the bitterness by refusing to hang onto it. Let go of the rope. Stop nursing the grudge. This is unforgiveness, and as we’ve looked at time and time again over these past few weeks, it is sin. And that sin will destroy not the person you’re refusing to forgive. It will destroy you.
Corrie ten Boom tells this story of how she learned to let go of the rope… After the war she returned to Germany to declare the grace of Christ. “It was 1947, and I’d come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth that they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.  ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, ’NO FISHING ALLOWED.’ The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a cap with skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush—the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! That place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard—one of the most cruel guards. Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze. “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,”—again the hand came out—”will you forgive me?” And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place. Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.

But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. But even then, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit. [Holocaust Victim Forgives Captor, Citation: Corrie Ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord (Berkley, 1978), pp. 53-55]

Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies, and do good, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:32-36) Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Categories: 2013, Jonah, Jonah: The Reluctant Witness, Sermons

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