You can run but you can’ t hide?
So, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’ s a paradox. One Jonah faced and one any of us might face one day, if we haven’ t already.
The story of Jonah that we’ re going to look at this morning reminds me of the very first question in the Bible. It’ s in Genesis. It’ s spoken by God. It is: Where are you?
Where are you? God asks Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They’ ve eaten the forbidden fruit, they’ ve disobeyed God and they’ re trying to hide.
God asks the question not because God doesn’ t know where they are. God, the all-knowing, knows exactly where they are physically, emotionally, morally, spiritually. God asks the question because he wants them to name for themselves where they are.
And God’ s not looking for an answer that gives their geographic location. Like, Oh well, we’ re over here, behind the fifth palm tree to the left about 50 yards off the sandy path. Over here near the fig tree.
It’ s their location to God. That’ s what God wants them to identify for themselves. God wants them to acknowledge and name for themselves their spiritual location, their orientation to the Divine Authority in their lives, their position vis a vis the One who created and sustains them.
Jonah’ s story is also one about location and vocation. It’ s a story in which Jonah is struggling within the reverberating echo of God’ s question: Where are you? Let’ s look at Jonah’ s story and see if it has any clues for us.
Jonah’ s a prophet. It’ s not a 9-5 job. He’ s more like a consultant a traveling consultant for God. The pay may be a bit iffy, but Jonah’ s been called. He’ s not doing it for the money and so far so good.
So what exactly does a prophet do? Basically, a prophet’ s supposed to do what God tells him to do. Generally, the job description falls within the category mouthpiece. The job of a prophet is to be a mouthpiece for God.
So the story begins. God tells Jonah, Go to Ninevenh, that evil city, and cry out against it. Sounds like the mouthpiece is supposed to be a hit man. But that’ s not looking at the whole story which we need to do.
We have no idea what Jonah may have muttered to himself when he got this assignment. But we know he wasn’ t happy. Maybe he was just tired of singing the same old prophetic tune, Turn back, turn back your foolish ways. Maybe he thought, Been there, done that. Why bother? God’ s gonna do what God’ s gonna do, in spite of me.
Whatever Jonah thought, we know what he did. He didn’ t argue with God. He didn’ t say, Hey, God, let’ s sit down and come up with a different plan. As a matter of fact he didn’ t say anything. He just quit. He fled. He headed west instead of east towards Tarshish instead of Nineveh. 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where God had in mind for him to go. Jonah turned his back on God and what God was calling him to do.
Jonah catches what he thinks is a fast boat to Tarshish. He heads out to deep water. I wonder if he had any idea just how deep that water was going to get? A storm comes up. Everyone’ s in danger: Jonah, the ship, all the sailors on it and probably all other ships and sailors within the range of the storm.
Jonah knows what’ s happening and why. This storm has happened because he has fled from what God wanted him to do. He’ s disobeyed God. He’ s run from God. He’ s dislocated from God and dislocated from God’ s call and purpose for him. And this is putting not only himself, but others, at risk.
The sailors cast lots to figure out what’ s going on. Jonah fesses up and finally convinces them to throw him overboard. He seems to think that death in the depths is the ultimate and final escape from God.
But then the big fish enters the picture. It swallows Jonah. Deep in the pit of the belly of the fish Jonah sits. I think this definitely qualifies that Jonah has bottomed out. He’ s descended as low as he can get. There’ s no way out but up.
From the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out. He calls out to God. He admits to God where he is (as if God needed to know). His final cry is Deliverance belongs to the Lord! Has he finally connected with the message he was originally supposed to take to Nineveh? Turn back, turn back your foolish ways! In the depths he sings his own lullaby of redemption.
God hears. The big fish spits Jonah out onto dry land.
God, ever patient, tries again. Jonah, get up! Get up and go to Nineveh! Do what I have called you to do.
This time, Jonah goes. He delivers God’ s message. Watch out! he tells the naughty Ninevites. In forty days you will be destroyed.
So Jonah wipes his hands on his tunic, stamps the Nineveh file Case Closed and considers his job is done. He’ s through, isn’ t he? He’ s done the task God wanted him to do.
Maybe he’ s through, but God’ s Word, spoken through this prophet, isn’ t.
The people of Nineveh and even the animals in the city quickly get to work. They hear God’ s Word, not as ending their lives, but as holding hope for a new beginning dependent on their response and God’ s mercy. God’ s word is not a death knoll out of Jonah’ s mouth, but a wake up call out of God’ s heart.
Jonah was just a part of the process. He was only the pass-through to set possibilities in motion. It’ s now up to the Ninevites. They are hearers of the Word. Are they going to be hearers only? No, they listen to the Word and do a turn around. It’ s sackcloth and ashes time. It’ s time to change some ways in this city. It’ s time to face up to some things – especially God. It’ s time to repent and turn back towards God. They do.
The final Word, however, rests with God. What’ s it going to be? Judgment or mercy? God delivers mercy.
End of story? No, look at Jonah over there as we see him in our lectionary passage today. Jonah’ s really ticked off at God. Jonah’ s exasperated,. He’ s angry and he tells God just how he feels. Something along these lines: God, I knew this was going to happen from the very start that you were going to decide not to punish them. Why did you put me through all this? We get the sense that Jonah thought the appropriate outcome for Nineveh was God’ s judgment, not God’ s mercy.
At the end of the story of Jonah a merciful God stands between Nineveh and Jonah. It’ s God, not Jonah, whose job it is to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Nineveh has re-turned to God and is experiencing God’ s life giving mercy. Jonah stands in God’ s presence, but his anger and his ego stand between him and God as Jonah says, It is better for me to die than to live.
God’ s implicit question to Jonah, Where are you? concludes with a distressing response from Jonah. Watching Nineveh turn to God and to life, Jonah turns away from God and towards death. Jonah turns 180 degrees away, again, from God’ s call to him and from God’ s purpose for him.
What can we learn from Jonah? How can we take this story and apply it to our own lives today? What light can it shed on issues of vocation and location for us?
We can run, but we really can’ t hide from God. When we turn our back on God, God is still looking in our direction. We are always within God’ s sight and within the potential of both God’ s judgment and God’ s mercy.
Our vocation, our calling, is not to a particular job, like being a prophet, or a clerk, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or a nanny or a teacher but to a way of life. Our vocation is life. Our calling is to live life congruent with God’ s purpose for us and obedient to God’ s direction, whatever the role assigned to us, whatever the task.
When we are not faithful to this calling, when we run away from God’ s purpose for us, the environment in which we hide becomes disturbed and potentially destructive, not only for ourselves, but also for those around us.
It is frequently in the deepest depths of our lives, in the pit, in the belly of that which has swallowed us up it’ s there where we find God patiently waiting for us. And it’ s there we are most likely to turn around and start our journey up towards, not away from, God and new life.
We are the workers. It is God who calls forth the harvest. It is God who gives judgment. It is God who separates the wheat from the chaff. We are part of God’ s processes and God uses us to God’ s ends. When we seek our own ends and desire to be the final word we are acting in diminishment of the ultimate harvest. At the least, we are separating ourselves from that harvest. And the harvest then is less abundant, at the least, by one soul our own.
We can stand in God’ s presence and yet distance ourselves from the love, grace, mercy and new life that God offers. Our location to God and to Divine Love is not measured by a ruler in inches or feet but by the amount of space we put between our heart and God’ s.
I believe that God’ s last words to Jonah are the Genesis question that hangs in the air waiting for answer, Where are you? We don’ t know what Jonah ultimately did with this question. Like the elder child in the story of the Prodigal Son, Jonah is last seen standing within arm’ s reach of the Father, but, by Jonah’ s own choice, outside the experience of mercy and redemption.
Where are you? Take this question home with you today. Think about it this week. Do not run from the truth. Do not try to hide from the truth. In truth lies the seed of deliverance.
Where are you? Consider the question. Not because God needs the answer, but because each of us need to face it. If you turn your back on the question, you turn your back on life. If you turn instead towards the Divine Questioner, you will find the answer. And it will be that God is the Answer that you seek that is, if you seek life.