Over the next three weeks we’ll be taking a brief walk through one of my favorite books in the Bible. A book that many people know about even if they haven’t read it: the book of Jonah. It’s from the Old Testament, one of the twelve shorter prophets, and one of the shorter books in the Bible. But for a little book it packs a lot in.
Jonah is a prophet. A holy messenger, someone who has been given divine perspective. A perspective that needs to be shared. But there’s something that makes Jonah stick out among all the other prophets. Normally books and stories about prophets are all about the messages they’ve been sent to deliver. Usually their books are long, poetic messages to be delivered to the people. Stories of their lives are interspersed, but usually they are secondary. They get beat up, kicked out, arrested for the content of the message. And with Jonah, there’s a message to be delivered, for sure. But the story is all about his life. It focusses on his actions. Especially his actions in response to God. God’s summons, God’s mission. God’s directions for him.
It’s all about Jonah’s response to God. But right from the get-go, Jonah’s off on the wrong foot. And he’s headed in the wrong direction.
“The Word of the Lord,” it says. “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah, so of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh that great city, and cry out for their wickedness has forced itself on me (NJB).” But, it says. “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” First sentence God gives orders to Jonah to head to the city of Nineveh and speak truth to power, to point out their injustice and their violence. But in the second sentence, Jonah’s on the run. He heads down to the city, and he books passage out of town. Away, it says, “from the presence of the Lord.”
In the Bible, a lot of prophets resist at first, for sure. Moses doesn’t think he’s up to it. Jeremiah thinks he’s too young. But usually after God offers a good argument they relent. Not so with Jonah. No negotiation. No contemplation. No consideration, even, of God’s directions. With Jonah it’s instant escape. He flees. Which makes sense, because in Hebrew, Jonah’s name means “dove.” He’s flighty. As fast as he receives his marching orders… he flies away.
Jonah blows his assignment in the first paragraph. But you can’t really blame him. God tells him to go to Nineveh after all. Nineveh, which is the capitol of the Assyrian Empire, the world greatest superpower. They were the ones who came in and captured the city of Jerusalem the first time. Jonah’s people were brutalized by them. They’re known for their over-the-top violence in service of conquest and control. And here God says to Jonah—head right in to the heart of their empire and just like openly criticize them. It’s like saying, hey—head into the Hell’s Angels clubhouse and give them a piece of your mind. Or it’s like saying in 1939 head straight to Berlin and call out Hitler. Or hey! Head to ISIS headquarters and offer a modest disputation of their interpretation of the Koran.
I mean, it’s not an easy assignment. It’s a scary one, in fact. So you can kind of sympathize with Jonah’s reluctance. At least a little bit.
So I get it. This Dove’s flight is understandable. But things get a little more complicated when we look at the destination on Jonah’s ticket.
One way ticket to Tarshish, it says. Tarshish. Rhymes with ha-shish for a good reason. You see, Tarshish isn’t just a place to go and hide. Tarshish is this mystical, mythical place. People think it was somewhere near Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain. But it had this reputation as a kind of ancient resort/spa/amusement park all in one. It reminds me of those old episodes of Star Trek. You know when crew members beam down to a pleasure planet. Captain Kirk sipping a cocktail, just chillin’ out with a handful of Orion slave-girls. It’s Utopia, it’s Xanadu. Or maybe Mar-a-lago.
So Jonah’s not only running away from God’s orders, running away from what looks like a suicide mission—which is a perfectly normal response. But he’s set sail to the lap of luxury. His bags are packed for Shangri-La.
So Jonah is caught between two cities. He’s caught between Tarsish and Nineveh. Between Tarshish—the comfortable, safe place that is far away from the world’s struggles and worries. And Nineveh—the uncomfortable, unsafe place. The place right in the thick of things. The place he is summoned by God’s own Word. Which one would you choose?
I know which one I would choose. In fact, I know which one I do choose often. Which direction I’m most inclined to choose. Truth be told, our own lives are lived between these two cities, whether we know it or not. Our natural instinct is to try to get ahead. To survive, to protect ourselves. To look out for our own well-being, the good of our families, the cohesion of our group. To find comfort, to avoid stress. This survival instinct… well, it helps us survive. It keeps us alive. But is it enough? When so many are sick and suffering around the world. Even in our own neighborhood—is it enough that we’re comfortable, we have more than enough and our families are doing ok? Or maybe when it’s time to stand up to someone or stand up for someone we choose to keep our head down because doing so would be to risky. Or rather than making amends, seeking forgiveness for the things we’ve done because that’s harder than avoiding it altogether. It can be an excuse for cowardice. It can keep us from making the harder choices that draw us away from ourselves, and towards the lives we’re supposed to be living.
If given the choice, we choose comfort. We choose the freshly-paved road. We ride the current. Jonah says it’s not only our preferred place to be. In choosing the easy place over the hard place God sends him to, it says that Jonah actually flees God. He flees the very presence of the Lord. When we live our lives trying it insulate ourselves from the trouble, from our own pain, and the pain and suffering of our world. It’s not only going against God’s desire for our lives. In doing so, the scriptures say, we’re actually running away from experiencing the presence of God. From experiencing the joy, the full, eternal life of the Creator.
This may be our inclination. It may be our default. To choose the easy and the comfortable over the difficult and faithful. But we have been given another way. And this way for Christians is the Way of the cross. We believe that fullness of life, life with God is not found only in the joyful places in our lives. But we believe that God is found in the ugly place, what looks like the God forsaken place. That God is most present in the place of suffering and pain. And that we’ll only discover God, we’ll only find that life we hunger for in joining him there. Dying to our own comfort, our own coldness and selfishness. Only then we’ll discover new life.
You see, just when Jonah thinks he’s safely on his way to a life of leisure. But then a storm hits, tossing the boat on the sea. God sends it even. The crew is terrified. And pretty soon they realize that Jonah is the source of the storm. His God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He thinks that if they offer him up to the sea, the storm will stop. So he has the crew throw him overboard. Which sounds noble and sacrificial. But truth is Jonah would actually rather die than go to Nineveh. Regardless, Jonah sinks to the deep. And suddenly—glub. Jonah’s swallowed by a great fish. I’d hate to spoil the ending before we get there in the series, but the fish spits Jonah up on the land near Nineveh. It takes a lot, but God gets Jonah to the destination. No matter where Jonah goes, God is constantly pulling him out of himself. And back in to the world. So even though we may run and hide from the hard places in our lives, the truth is that no matter how far we run from God, God never gives up on pursuing us. This is actually the meaning of the cross. God never gives up on turning us around, and pulling us out of ourselves towards God’s presence. It’s never too late to turn the boat around.
No matter what Jonah does, God is always coaxing Jonah from Tarshish back to Nineveh. And back in to the difficult places. Which is where God is. So I wonder—where’s the difficult place in your life that you’ve been avoiding? Where have you been resisting God’s summons to enter in to? Is it a pain inside that you’re hiding, that you’re not dealing with? Is it a pain you’ve inflicted and are terrified of facing consequences for? Is it a broken relationship with a friend, a neighbor, spouse or child that you’re too proud to face? Do you spend your life insulated from those who are sick, those who are suffering, those who are down and out? This is where God is calling you to be. Even though we’re caught between two cities. Even though you’d rather be in Tarshish. It’s never too late to head toward Nineveh. It’s never too late to embrace the cross. It’s never too late to turn your boat around. It’s hard. But it’s there that you’ll find the Lord.
Brother and sisters. The good life, a life worth living. What Jesus called fullness of life, abundant life, life as it was meant to be, this is not found in Tarshish. It’s not found in pursuing our own desires and comfort above all else. It’s not found in insulating ourselves from the world’s pain and suffering. No, it’s found on the way to Nineveh. The good life, true joy, the true meaning, the destiny of your life can only be found in that place outside of your comfort zone. The great writer Frederick “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Your deep gladness resides in being carried by winds of God through the rough seas, en route to confronting the places of your own darkness. And entering in to world’s suffering. The lure of Tarshish is great. But the life we hunger for, we yearn for isn’t found there. It’s found in Nineveh. And in order to get there, there’s no going around the cross. But on the other side is resurrection.
This life that God wants from us. From you, from me. This life that God intends for us, the life God even demands from us. This life is not always an easy one. It’s not always a comfortable path. The place that God calls us to, God sends us to is not the destination we’d likely choose if given the choice. But that’s the place where we’ll find the presence of the Lord. And, as the Apostle Paul says, where ever the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. It’s the only place where we’ll find freedom. The only place we’ll truly find life. The only one worth living.