This week we started our look at the book of Jonah. Usually the first response to that sentence is something along the lines of "How many weeks will it take to tell that a disobedient guy got eaten by a fish?" The truth is that this book has little to do with a fish. Jonah's story is our story and to read it is to see ourselves.
Jonah is given a specific command (go to Nineveh and preach against it). Not only does Jonah refuse to go, he goes in the opposite direction. To make it even better, his intent is to go about as far as he can in that direction. At that point in time, Tarshish is essentially the end of the world. This is the part where we feel better about ourselves because clearly Jonah is worse than us, right? After all, when I disobey I have the decency to stay put rather than run away. I'm sure God is much happier with that. He probably leans over to one of the angels and says something like "At least we don't have another runner. The ones that take off just burn me up."
While on his journey, God sends a storm to Jonah. During the storm, the sailors are baffled by Jonah. He acknowledges that he serves the God or earth and sky, the master of the storm they are in, and then admits that he is running away from that God. They have been knocking themselves out trying to save the ship and they realize that there is no rescue from a God this great. Jonah's solution is for them to toss him overboard. It's worth noting that this isn't an attempt by Jonah to meet up with the fish that will head him in the right direction. His goal is to die in the ocean. He has no knowledge that God has more in store for him.
So far, the account of Jonah tells us that up is down. Here are a few of the twists...
1. Jonah, the prophet, is supposed to be God's agent on earth. Instead he defies God.
2. In order to flee from God, he heads away from wickedness to a place of safety.
3. The "good" guy ignores the peril of those around him, content to let them go to the bottom of the ocean with him.
4. The "bad" guys risk everything to save Jonah, even though they know nothing of God.
5. The unbelieving sailors believe God, while the believing prophet tries to end his life rather than obey.
What in the world is this telling us? It's a mirror. We all have a place of escape that we turn to. Jonah had Tarshish. What's yours? Where is the place in your heart that you keep in order to retreat rather than obey? Jonah seemed to be under the impression that if he could just get to Tarshish, he would be free of God. That place doesn't exist. Our Tarshish is an illusion, a self-deception. Jonah's race was doomed to failure, because his run to Tarshish would never be complete. If not for the storm, he would have arrived in Tarshish to find that God was already there. God pursued Jonah - not out of anger, but out of love. To secretly hold on to the idea that a part of our heart is reserved for us alone is to follow Jonah's course. We are loved by a God that relentlessly pursues us. He is present in our trial and triumphs; our obedience and disobedience; our Tarshish, our Nineveh and all the places in between.