What happens when what God wants is different than what you want?
That's one way to summarize what's so difficult about this life, isn't it?
Life would be a lot easier if everything that God wanted was exactly everything that you wanted. If that involved pain and suffering, but God's aims for you in that suffering were exactly what you wanted for yourself—well, then even that suffering would be worth it! If only there was this perfect synchronization between our desires' heart and God's will for us, then everything would be so much easier.
Sadly, we all know that's not the case. We live in a world where God's will and our wills don't always line up. We are at odds with God, and it's not good to be at odds with God because God always wins.
This morning, we are in the first part of Jonah: the story of a prophet whose will came in conflict with God's will. As we consider Jonah, much of what we see in him will be very familiar to us.
This is undoubtedly one of the best-known stories in the Bible. It's one of my favorites: there are twists and turns and ironies and drama woven throughout, yet it's not just a fun story. No, it provides truths that are as relevant today as they were back then.
If you've heard this story before, you'll be familiar with many of its elements: a city on the brink of destruction, a prophet on the run, a supernatural storm, and a huge fish. In recent years, there are many who would claim to be Christians and would deny the historicity of this book. I don't have to time to go through all their objections, but basically it boils down to the a priori belief that if it's miraculous, then it must be unhistorical. Let me just point out that when we read the New Testament, it's clear that Jesus understood the story of Jonah not as myth or allegory, but as totally historical.
So if you claim to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus, realize that your Lord believed that these events actually took place. If Jesus really is who he said he is, and if there really is a God who is sovereign over creation, then it shouldn't be too hard to believe that he could do this.
I have two simple points: you are on the run. But God is in pursuit.
I pray this morning that we would all see ourselves in this story, and not only as those who are on the run, but even more importantly as those who are being pursued by a God who is full of grace and compassion.
You are on the run
(Read Jonah 1:1-16)
We don't know much about Jonah's background. In 2 Kings 14, we see that he was a prophet who lived during the time of Jeroboam II, and he prophesied during a time of prosperity and expansion for the kingdom of Israel.
Here, God's Word comes to Jonah. But this time, it's something unusual. He's not commanded to preach to Israel; no, he's commanded to preach to the Ninevites.
Who are the Ninevites? Well, Nineveh was the Assyrian royal residence. We see in the Old Testament that Assyria eventually destroyed Israel. History records the Assyrians as some of the most violent people, using terror and fear and brutality to expand their reign across the ancient Near East. Jonah would've known that. He probably knew many who suffered under Assyrian power.
So God commands Jonah to go and preach against their wickedness, which has come up before him. That's encouraging, isn't it? God is not blind to the wickedness and injustice that goes on around the world.
The text doesn't say at this point what God would do, but in sending his prophet to preach against it, it's clear that God means to bring his judgment against their sin. God wants Nineveh to know that the God of Israel, the God who made heaven and Earth, will judge them, and Jonah is to be his messenger. But Jonah's response is shocking.
Jonah, God's prophet, disobeys. This is not what Jonah wants. At this point in the story, we don't know why. All we know is that he refuses to obey, and therefore, he will do all he can to get away from God. Notice that to reject God's commands is to reject God himself. We see that in verse three: Jonah is fleeing from the Lord, or literally, from the face of the Lord.
So Jonah runs. Instead of heading to Nineveh, Jonah runs the opposite way. He heads down to the port of Joppa, and there he finds a boat headed for Tarshish, which was about as far as you could go the other way in the known world at the time.
When we read chapters three and four, it's clear that Jonah's motives here are a lot more complex than we initially thought. Nonetheless, it is striking that Jonah here flees from God's presence, which, of course, is impossible. Sin always makes us act irrationally: whether you think you can run away from God, or whether you think you can get away with it.
Jonah runs, and it seems for a while that everything is going well. He just happens to find a ship that is headed exactly to where he wants to go; they might've even had a few days of smooth sailing. Jonah might have thought, That was perfect. Maybe God didn't really speak to me. Maybe I made it all up. But even as he slept, little did he know that this ship—this means of escape—would soon be taking him not into safety, but right into God's judgment.
If you're on the run from God, just because things are going well for you in the moment doesn't really mean that you're okay with God. You could very well be moments away from waking up in a terrible storm. If things are going well for you in your sin, it only means that God is being patient with you, and he is giving you a chance to turn back before the storm hits.
Well, the storm does hit for Jonah: literally. God shows up. Just as we might hurl a rock, God hurls a furious storm at Jonah's ship. All over this narrative, we see the clear indications of God's sovereignty over the universe, from a massive storm to the smallest lots that are cast. As J. I. Packer writes, this is the God "who … upholds and guides and governs all events, circumstances, and … directs everything to its appointed goal, for His own glory." In other words, God is in control, and it is folly to try to run from him. In spite of Jonah's best-laid plans, he is not going to get to Tarshish. No, this storm is going to destroy him, and there is nowhere for him to escape.
Yet throughout the ordeal, unlike the sailors, Jonah is unmoved. He's asleep!
By contrast, these seasoned, experienced sailors are desperately praying to their gods and scrambling to keep the ship afloat. When the captain finds Jonah asleep, he's totally indignant and tries to rouse him to pray. But Jonah doesn't even pray.
The captain's words are sad, aren't they? "Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish" (Jonah 1:6). That's the best that a world without God can hope for. Maybe that one thing we have placed our hope in—maybe that will save us! Friends, if you've staked your entire life on one god, and the best you can say is "maybe it will take notice of me and I won't perish," that's not a good place to be in.
The irony is that these sailors are so desperately trying to get their gods' attention, while Jonah can do nothing to escape his God's attention.
Eventually the sailors cast lots, and Jonah is forced to reveal himself as a Hebrew and worshiper of Yahweh, the God who made heaven and Earth. This terrifies the sailors. Perhaps they had heard there is a high God, who is God over all the nations, and now they realize it is this God that they're dealing with: this is the God that Jonah has defied.
So Jonah tells them the only solution is for them to throw him into the ocean. Here, I really appreciate that these sailors weren't just like, "Okay!" No, they respect Jonah; they don't want to see him die. Even after he tells them to throw him in, they try to row to dry land. Maybe they thought, What if we turn this boat around, take Jonah back to dry land, and then he goes and preaches to Nineveh? Wouldn't it be okay then? God doesn't give them that option.
Here's the awful reality: Jonah has sinned against God. And no matter how much good Jonah might promise to do going forward, the reality is that Jonah must be judged for his sin. If these sailors try to rescue him, they too are complicit in his sin and will go down with him. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.
Finally, in recognition of their utter helplessness, in recognition that Yahweh is God, as they cry out to him for mercy, the sailors throw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the storm ceases, and the waters are calm. Salvation, relief, and worship for these sailors: and the waters of judgment engulf Jonah. For all they know, Jonah is as good as dead.
Friends, this is what happens when we run away from God.
Running from God doesn't just happen when we board a ship and head for some distant land. Running from God happens the moment he speaks to us a command and we choose to disobey that command. Really, there are only two options. As those who have been created by God and are accountable to his authority, then when God's command comes to us and that reality enters our lives, there are really only two options: to obey or to disobey.
One of the dangers we face is that we can become sophisticated in our sinning. We categorize our sins. We become nuanced about our sin. We talk academically about our struggles. We sympathize with all kinds of excuses. I'm not saying that sin can't be complicated, but at the end of the day, sin is very black and white. How dangerous would it be if disobedience to God's commands no longer became a big deal to us?
What Jonah does for us is that he gives us a picture of what rebellion looks like. That secret sin you're tolerating and ignoring? That's not a small sin. It is an all-out, turn your back on God, get on a boat and sail the opposite way act of defiance.
So what are ways you are running away from God? What are the areas where God's will is in conflict with your will, and like Jonah, you are running in the opposite direction?
In many ways, Jonah stands for religious Israel. Jonah declares himself to be a worshiper—literally, one who fears Yahweh—even while he's on the run from him.
As those who would be considered religious (and that includes me), we shouldn't think that Jonah running from God represents the pagan world out there. Even religious people—like Jonah, and like you and me—can find ourselves at odds with God's will. Really? How? What are ways we find ourselves at odds with God's plans for us?
What are your plans and ambitions for your children? What if your ambitions for your children and God's plans for your children are not the same thing? What if your plans for your children to be successful and married and providing grandchildren are not what God has in store for them? Are you ready to recognize that God is Lord of their lives, and not you?
Or what about the whole area of sexual purity? Whether you are married or single, the world and your lusts say to you, "What? Purity until marriage? Restricting yourself to one person? Man, let yourself go. What's wrong with a little porn? Experiment. Have fun. Find fulfillment." God says to you, "Be holy as I am holy. I designed marriage and sexuality. I know how to find true satisfaction and fulfillment." Who are you committed to listening to?
What about your own ambitions for your own life? I like the image that David Platt uses of how our lives should be a blank check for God. Is your life a blank check for God? "God, here it is: blank check. If you want, you can have everything." Is that your life before God? Or do you have a secret offshore bank account somewhere that no one has access to but you?
I think here—as comfortable, religious Westerners—we are particularly in danger, because running away from God can happen right from the comfort of a church pew. Sometimes we think that Christianity is basically that we get to have the American Dream: beautiful house, beautiful family, fun vacations, lots of friends, and then when we die, we get to go to heaven, too. Friends, that's not Christianity. We belong to a crucified Lord, and he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. This is hard for us to hear.
We could keep going and think about all the other ways our will comes in conflict with God's will: when it comes to relationships, to loving our enemies, to being generous, to speaking the truth, to seeking his kingdom. In all these ways and more, our will is in conflict with God's will. We are those who have turned away from God's command. We go our own way.
How big of a deal is this? Sin is such a big deal that God has responded to human sin by cursing this world with suffering. But realize that as terrible as suffering is, it is not the heart of the problem. The root evil in this story is not the storm. Yes, the storm caused great harm, but the real evil in here is the sin of man, which resulted in God's judgment coming upon the world.
That's not to say we can always point to specific sins whenever we encounter suffering. What I am saying is that the proof that we all have run away from God—that humanity has turned its back on its Creator—is that suffering and death have entered our lives as a result. As one pastor wrote, "Cancer clinics … are God's megaphone to a chronically amused people… . Few things, by God's grace, capture the mind and the heart like an oncology waiting room."
If you're not a Christian here this morning, I wonder how you make sense of the suffering and death that exists in this world. Philosophers who have tried to think this through have given up on coming up with any ultimate meaning in life. Instead, they place all their eggs in the basket of their subjective, existential experience. We make meaning for ourselves, fabricating our individual reality of happiness and well-being. It's amazing to me how money is spent simply to numb us from the reality of suffering in our world. I go to a lot of "memorial services" as a pastor, and sometimes I see people walk out of those services, shaking their heads like, "What a shame … unlucky fellow that that happened to him. Glad that wasn't me." I want to yell to them, "We're all in the same boat! It's just a matter of time!"
No matter how well-constructed our ships are, there is no escaping the reality that we live in a world that has gone horribly wrong, and even if you are somehow able to live a life oblivious to the reality of suffering, in the end, there is no escaping the curse of death.
So if you do not know God, you are much like these sailors. You have found yourself in the middle of a storm and you have no idea what's going on. Death is coming, life is full of suffering, and the gods of money and pleasures and distraction cannot save you. But I'm here to tell you that there is hope. There is a God who is in control. He is trying to get our attention. This God has spoken about how you can be saved, which is what we will talk about next. We are on the run, but God is in pursuit.
God is in pursuit
(Read Jonah 1:17-2:10)
Here, we see an amazing plot twist. Jonah should've died, but instead, he gets swallowed by a fish. In chapter two, we get a prayer of praise to God. But the only reason Jonah is able to pray this prayer is because God has provided an amazing rescue for Jonah, even through a huge fish! What kind of fish was it? Nobody knows—it could've been a whale. We're not sure, but whatever kind of this fish was, it's clear that it was divinely appointed by God for Jonah's rescue.
The rest of this chapter is Jonah's prayer to God from the belly of the fish. So what do we learn from this prayer?
We first see Jonah's utter helplessness under God's judgment. It's the sailors who hurled Jonah into the sea, and yet, in verse three, Jonah recognizes that it was really God. God brought his just judgment into Jonah's life, and this was something Jonah could not escape. He sank into the heart of the seas. The waves and breakers swept over his head. The deep engulfed him. In verse six, he says, "To the roots of the mountains I sank down; / the earth beneath barred me in forever." In other words, as far as Jonah was concerned, he was done for. He was as good as dead. There was nothing he could do to save himself.
The story could have ended there. For all who will not turn away from their rebellion, this is where the story ends. It ends with an eternal death: an eternal separation from God. That rebellion we have pursued in this life? If we continue in it to the point of death, then God will fix us in that state of separation from him for eternity. He will give us over to our sin, and it will be as miserable as drowning in the middle of a raging sea, barred in beneath forever, without any rescue.
But praise God that this is not where it ended for Jonah. Why? Is it because Jonah all of a sudden remembered a magic prayer? Is it because Jonah all of a sudden promised to God that he would never disobey again and that he would to go to Nineveh?
"In my distress I called to the Lord, / and he answered me. / From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, / and you listened to my cry" (2:2).
That's it? All he did was cry for help? Surely there's more to it, right? Surely he had to make some kind of amends, or give some kind of guarantee that he would obey God going forward, or offer some kind of sacrifice first? No, that's not what we see here. That comes later.
Here, in this point of his most utter need, Jonah does the only thing he can do: he cries out to God for help. Jonah lets go of his pride, lets go of his independence, and lets go of his ideas of what's best for his life. He see his utter need, and he turns back to God and cries out to him.
Isn't this amazing? That's what God was doing in bringing all that suffering into Jonah's life. God wasn't being mean to Jonah. God wasn't pushing Jonah away. God was bringing Jonah to the only place where he might once again remember his utter need of God, even if it meant sinking Jonah in the bottom of the sea.
If you have encountered any bit of suffering that has increased your sense of your need of God, thank God for that suffering. Thank God for not letting you continue in your pride and sin, but awakening you to your need of him.
As the waves cover over him, Jonah's mind and heart are finally awakened, and in his distress, he cries out to the Lord. He doesn't bargain; he doesn't cut a deal. He just prays.
And what does God do? He hears his cry. There, at the bottom of the sea, God rescues him.
No matter what great lengths you've gone to put distance between yourself and God, no matter how distant God seems to you, know that the way back to God is short: by letting go of your sin and calling out to God for help.
The God who uses his sovereign power to judge can also use his sovereign power to rescue. On the run from God, his sovereignty is bad news for us. But if we will turn back, how glad we will be that nothing is too difficult for our God to bring us back to himself!
You might say, "You don't know the mess I've gotten myself into. I have made a wreck of my life. I don't know if God can forgive me." Look, if God can hear and rescue Jonah while he's drowning in the sea, then I'm pretty sure God can save you in whatever mess you've gotten yourself into. Why? Because salvation was never in the least bit dependent on you. No, salvation comes from the Lord.
I love the way John Bunyan puts it:
"O the length of the saving arm of God! … Do not go about trying to measure arms with God, as some good men are apt to do; I mean, do not conclude, that because you cannot reach God by your short stump, therefore he cannot reach you with his long arm. Look again, 'Have you an arm like God' (Job 40:9), an arm like his for length and strength? So when you cannot perceive that God is within the reach of your arm, then believe that you are within the reach of his; for his arm is long, and none knows how long."
Salvation does not depend on us. Salvation comes from the Lord. How can I know this to be true? Because God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into this world.
Remember that storm we were looking at in chapter one? That was us. We are those helpless sailors. God is full of wrath against the sin of humanity and the sin of our lives. Row as we may, we are helpless and will drown under the judgment of God. But here comes Jesus. Jesus—God in the flesh—enters our world. He is a man just like any of us, but he is also God.
In one story, Jesus is with his disciples in the boat, and an unexpected storm rises up. Strangely, Jesus is sleeping in the boat (remind you of anyone?), and his disciples cry out to him for help. Jesus gets up rebukes the storm, and everything calms down immediately.
I think we're meant to connect the dots to this story. Do you realize who Jesus is? The God who pursued Jonah, the God who calmed the storm—that same God has stepped into human history and taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
But then he does something entirely unexpected. The God who calmed the storm becomes the God who sacrifices himself. Like Jonah, Jesus Christ offers himself as a sacrifice. But unlike Jonah, Jesus is not being judged for his sins. He had none. He is being judged for the sins of God's people. There on the cross, Jesus Christ is engulfed by the waters of God's wrath, and he sinks beneath our judgment, covered by our death.
But that's not the end of the story. Jesus himself prophesied that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so he will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Just as God raised Jonah from the pit, so the Father raised his Son from the grave, crowning him with authority and life, in order that he might bring salvation to all who will turn away from their sin and return to God.
How can you know God's saving love is true for you? How can you know that you have not run too far from God? Because salvation never depended on you. If 1 percent of your salvation was based on how you've lived, then yes, you could get to a point where you might feel as if you have no hope. But that's not true. Salvation is found entirely in the Messiah that God has provided: Jesus Christ. He sacrificed himself in order to calm the storm of God's wrath against you. That doesn't mean all your problems will go away. That doesn't mean you'll never suffer again. But it does mean that as you place your trust in Jesus, God forgives you of all your rebellion and restores you into right relationship with him.
Here's the beautiful part: when God restores you, he not only forgives you of your sin, but he promises to give you a new heart and give you his Spirit, so that slowly but surely, your will begins to align with his. It's not that our hearts are instantly made perfect, but progressively and increasingly, we begin to live as we were meant to live, gladly responding to his kind and loving rule, willingly living according to his good purpose for our lives until the day when Jesus returns—when all that is wrong with this world and with our hearts is forever destroyed, and we stand before God, perfected, glorified.
On that day, living in a world free from all suffering and pain, under the loving reign of our great king, we will discover that every single thing our all-loving and all-powerful God wants for us will be perfectly aligned with everything we would want for ourselves.
If you're not a Christian, this is the salvation you can know. You live in a fallen world. On your own, your story cannot end well for you. You are drowning in a storm, and there's nothing you can do for yourself. But there is a God, and he has made a way for you. Will you call out to him? Will you pray to him?
If you are a Christian, this is the salvation you stand in. No matter how long you've been a Christian, no matter how righteous you think you are, salvation does not and has never depended on you. We have something far better than that. We are those who have made a mess of our lives, but God is the one who saves.
Our lives should reflect the commitment of Jonah 2:8-9: "Those who cling to worthless idols / turn away from God's love for them. / But I, with shouts of grateful praise, / will sacrifice to you. / What I have vowed I will make good. / I will say, 'Salvation comes from the Lord.'"
This is the response of a heart that has experienced God's grace. Is that you? Are you deeply convinced, from the bottom of your heart, that God is the only one who can save you? Not your idols, not your dreams, not your best efforts—but God alone? Today is the day to stop running. Today is the day of salvation.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.