Rowing Into The Storm
Google Earth and Google maps is a really incredible tool. You can get an up-close overhead view of just about any location on earth, and a street level view of most places. You can zoom in and look at a location as if you’re standing on the street in front of it. You can even rotate the view around to see locations next to it, or across the street. I went to Google Earth on Thursday and zoomed in on our property. I was able to see one of our horses grazing in the pasture, and I could identify the horse. It’s a helpful tool. It makes it practically impossible to get lost these days, but it isn’t always a good friend.
Just ask Donny Ryding. Donny is a British citizen who had a heart attack and promised his wife he would quit smoking and eat better. An article on the GQ website says: “He was supposed to change his lifestyle after suffering a heart attack. He told his wife he’d eat better and quit smoking. He was lying – or, as they say in England, ‘telling porky pies.’ His wife found out when she cleaned out his car and ‘found loads of Hobnob biscuits.’ (That’s basically a cookie … and she found tons of them in his car.” But she didn’t stop there. Hearing that Google’s goofy, camera-wielding car was in the neighborhood that day, she went to Google Earth, where she spotted good ol’ Donny, puffing away on a cigarette. Donnie spent the night on the couch.” The phrase “You can run but you can’t hide” has never been more true, thanks to Google.
Google is a man-made technology, and we can’t even run from it anymore. How much more silly – crazy really – is it to think that we can run from God? Google can’t see inside your home. God can see inside your heart. Turn with me to Jonah 1:4-16.
God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, in the heart of the ruthless, bloodthirsty Assyrian Empire. An empire that was already on Israel’s doorstep and threatening to swallow Israel whole. The Israelites were, rightly, terrified. The Assyrians were famous – notorious really – for their brutal treatment of the nations they conquered. They were experts in both physical and psychological torture, one of the most ruthless empires ever to rule on this planet, right up to today. And Jonah doesn’t want to go. Actually he refuses to go. Not because he’s afraid to die either, as we’ll see today. Although I’m sure he expected to die if he did what God asked him to do. No, he refused to go because he disagreed with God. He wanted to protect his people, and in his mind, the only way for that to happen was for God to move against Assyria in judgment for their ruthlessness.
And God HAS seen them for what they are. In his first words to Jonah, God says, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” The Assyrians can’t hide from God. He knows what their doing. God himself calls them “evil.” And God is a God of justice. He WILL punish them if they don’t change. AFTER he uses them to correct his own people. But God is also a God of grace and mercy. And God is offering Assyria a chance to repent – through Jonah. And Jonah knows that God is, in the words of the Psalmist, “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145.8). There is no one so far from God, so engulfed in sin, that God cannot or will not offer them the chance to repent. Jonah wants only God’s justice (for the Assyrians, anyway), not God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy. He’s about to get a good taste of both. He doesn’t even say “No” to God. He just gets up and goes. In the wrong direction. Away from Ninevah. Away from what God wants to accomplish through him. And as he runs, he learns an important lesson: God will not be ignored for long.
AND, in refusing to be ignored, God also reveals himself as a God who pursues. God DESIRES relationship with the people he has created. And he is pursuing not just the evil Assyrians, working toward their repentance, but also his disobedient servant, Jonah. So instead of going to Ninevah as God instructed, he went to Joppa, hired a ship headed to the farthest port he could imagine, and got on board.
Now, Jonah was no sailor. Most Israelites weren’t. They were landsmen, not seafarers. But the men who operated the ship he hired WERE sailors. They were professionals who knew how to get their cargo – and themselves – to their destination safely. And in those days, without weather forecasts and radar images, that meant not departing port if there were dark clouds on the horizon, and keeping their ship away from shore, in deep water, when storms did arise. Remember that, because it’s important.
Look at Vv. 4-6. So they see nothing concerning as they scan the skies and leave port, only to find themselves in the middle of not just any storm, but a horrible storm, a deadly storm, that seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s a storm that terrifies them. Seasoned sailors. Men who had seen, and survived, hundreds of storms. But this one isn’t just any storm. Even these pagan, Gentile sailors can see that there is a supernatural power at work here. And, like most Gentiles at this time, they each served different false gods. Likely several false gods each. And so they each cry out in terror to their god. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s amazing how religious and how spiritual we get under pressure in a moment of bargaining. But the storm rages on. Their false gods didn’t start the storm, and they certainly cannot stop it. This particular storm is the work of, in the words of Jonah, “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (V. 9). And he is showing his power over every one of their false gods. Their prayers fall flat.
Jonah, for his part, knows who the one true God. And he knows the character of God. He knows that God is full of grace and mercy. That’s why he’s running. But what he knows in his head, he’s about to learn through experience. I mean, if God is the “God of heaven, who MADE the sea and the dry land,” why is Jonah fleeing from the presence of that God ON THE VERY SEA CREATED BY THAT GOD?? He’s soon to find out that he cannot. I mean he knows that, but somehow, he doesn’t. It doesn’t make sense, does it?
Dr. Mortimer Adler was participating in a discussion group over tea one day at a restaurant, when he suddenly left the group angry and, slamming the door after him. I guess he didn’t like someone’s perspective on whatever issue they were talking about. Another person in the group, trying to relieve the tension, said, “Well, he’s gone.” To which the hostess replied, “No, he isn’t. That’s a closet!” We share the same plight when we attempt to run from God’s presence. The Psalmist knew this. “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! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Ps. 139:7-12).
In the New Testament, those words are words of comfort. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). Isn’t it comforting to know that no matter what life throws your way, absolutely nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ? Not even death itself! The flip side of that is when you want to hide from God, when you want to hide from his searing gaze, you can’t. And God, who is full of grace and mercy, will not be ignored forever.
The wind and the waves refuse to abate, and their prayers are falling flat, so the sailors decide to abandon their precious cargo, allowing their boat to ride higher, less likely to be overcome by the waves. And that effort too falls flat. When God is pursuing you, no amount of human effort, and no human idea will help.
So where is Jonah, anyway? He’s asleep. Sound asleep, hiding in the cargo hold. The captain happens on him while he’s emptying out the load. Disaster strikes, and it’s Jonah’s fault. The sailors are innocent bystanders in all of this. But their lives are at risk too. Sin has an impact, a real impact, not just on us, but on those around us. Jonah, a prophet of the living God, the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” is surrounded by unbelievers who are crying out for help, seeking deliverance from the storm. They’re desperate enough to be open to just about anything at this point. And Jonah is asleep. He’s completely unaware of the storm, the impact of his sin on the lives of others. He is filled with a deadly indifference to the plight of others. They WANT God to save them, and Jonah is asleep.
Where are we when disaster strikes? Where are we when the people around us are hurting? Are we there with them in it, in the storm, revealing God’s love in caring action, or are we like Jonah, asleep in the bottom of the boat? Are we willing to get our hands dirty as we come alongside them, sharing our common humanity with them, hurting with them, crying out to God on their behalf, or are we running the other way. When real hurt and real sin comes through our doors, when we encounter it on the street, how do we respond? In fear and avoidance? In disgust and judgment? Or do we come alongside them, cry out to God with them, seeking for them the salvation we have found in Christ?
Now look. Look at Vv. 7-13. Jonah finally tells them all what is really going on. And he tells them what to do. And yet they refuse to do it, not out of rebellion, but out of concern for him! These Gentile nonbelievers are more concerned for Jonah’s wellbeing than he is for theirs, at least initially. They’re certainly more concerned for his wellbeing than he is the wellbeing of the Assyrians. And again, that kinda makes sense. He doesn’t want God to forgive the Assyrians. But God WANTS relationship with the Assyrians, just like he HAS a relationship with Jonah and the rest of Israel. Remember, Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations. ALL of the nations. It isn’t up to us to decide who is worthy of receiving God’s love and mercy and grace and who isn’t.
They’re doing everything in their power to save themselves, and Jonah, but human effort isn’t enough. It never is. And their move is foolish. The waters off the Palestinian coast is full of beautiful but dangerous reefs. Dangerous especially in storms when ships, without power, would be pushed by the wind and the waves into these dangerous reefs. Deeper, open water was much safer for them. Do you think these seasoned sailors didn’t know that? They’re going against everything they know to try to save not just themselves but Jonah. But God will not relent. The storm gets even stronger, almost like it is fighting them, targeting them. Because it is. God wants to save them, and Jonah, and the Assyrians. But he needs Jonah to experience just a little bit of the judgment he wishes to befall the Assyrians. He needs to understand that God’s real judgment is something you don’t wish on anyone, even your worst enemy. And so, in desperation, at rock bottom, the panicked sailors finally pray not to their false gods but to Jonah’s God, the living God, the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” and they toss Jonah over the side of the ship. Just as God “flung” the storm at them, they “fling” Jonah into the Mediterranean Sea, in the midst of the deadliest storm these seasoned sailors have ever seen.
They hit rock bottom, and now, so has Jonah. God told him to “Get up and go.” Ninevah isn’t “up” from Jonah, and Joppa, where Jonah ran, isn’t “down.” They’re “over,” in opposite directions. But the author uses “up” for the direction God wants Jonah to go, and “down” for direction Jonah actually goes. He goes “down” to Joppa, and then down onto the ship, and then down into the hold of the ship. And God pursues him. The word used for “wind,” the Hebrew word “ruah” is the same word that appears in Genesis where the Spirit of God hovers over, or blows over, the waters. It can mean both wind and spirit. The author of Jonah wants us to understand clearly that God is in the wind blowing against the ship, seeking Jonah’s attention, and in pursues Jonah down. Down from the skies, to the surface of the sea, to the deck of the ship, and down into the hold.
And there the captain tells Jonah to “arise,” to “get up,” the exact same words God spoke to Jonah when he told him the first time to go to Ninevah, before Jonah fled. Jonah, deeply asleep on the boat, fleeing from God, is awakened by the voice of God coming to him through the mouth of his unbelieving ship’s captain. But Jonah’s descent is not yet complete. He has farther yet to go to fully get it. To really understand. So God continues to pursue him, down from the deck of the ship, to the surface of the sea, and from there to the depths of the sea inside the stomach of a great fish.
Again, remember, it this book isn’t about the fish. It’s about the unrelenting, immeasurable grace of God pursuing all of us, even those who don’t want to be pursued. Even the most conservative of Biblical scholars are divided on whether this particular episode is an actual even or an Old Testament parable. Regardless, it is the inspired word of God and true. Your view of Jonah is not a litmus test for faithful belief in Christ. Making Jonah all about the fish is like traveling to sea the majestic, massive Giant Sequoias out on the west coast, only to stoop, pick up a single needle that has fallen to the ground, and think you’ve seen the trees, never looking at their majesty and splendor.
But even in the depths of the sea, Jonah cannot escape the unrelenting grace of God. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:9-10).
Now, look at Vv. 14-16. God reveals himself to the sailors, and to Jonah, as the one true God, who can use any situation, even the failures of his own people, for his glory. As Jonah’s body touches the raging sea, the sea becomes calm. And the unbelieving sailors’ hearts are turned to God. And where are they headed? To Tarshish. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah. “I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations” (Is. 66:19). The word of God is now headed to Tarshish, a city in a far away land that has not yet heard of the glory and grace of God, so that they too can declare the glory of God to the nations. And Jonah, now at rock bottom, is ready to listen to what God has to say to him, and through him.
In his love for us Jesus acts like a hound-dog, intense and focused as he pursues the hunt. That image comes from Francis Thompson, a 19th century British poet who wrote “The Hound of Heaven.” Although Thompson was a follower of Christ, he struggled with poverty, poor health, and an addiction to opium (which in those days was sold as an “over-the-counter” medication).
In the depths of his despair, Thompson described his flight from God: “I fled him, down the nights and down the days. I hid from him, and under running laughter. I sped … from those strong feet that followed, followed after [me].”
But Thompson also knew the unrelenting love of Jesus, the hound of heaven. In the poem Jesus pursues Thompson with “unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, and majestic instancy [or urgency].” He hears the feet of Jesus beating after him as Jesus calls, “All things betray those who betray me.”
In a recent biography of John Stott, Stott refers to Thompson’s poem. According to Stott, he owes his faith in Christ not to his parents or teachers or even his own decision, but to Jesus, “the hound of heaven.” Stott writes:
[My faith is] due to Jesus Christ himself, who pursued me relentlessly even when I was running away from him in order to go my own way. And if it were not for the gracious pursuit of the hound of heaven I would today be on the scrap-heap of wasted and discarded lives.
If you do not yet know Christ, may the hound of heaven pursue you. If you are a child of God running from God, may the hound of heaven pursue you and change your heart. May he pursue you and I to the ends of the earth, from the highest of mountain peaks to the deepest depths of the ocean. Let us pray.