January 9th, 2021
“You Can Run, But Can You Hide?
Jonah 1:1-16

I have heard some very good true-life stories of people running away, fugitives, ducking the law, outsmarting the police, sneaking in or out, disguises, scrambling video feed, and getting away “scot-free.” As I was thinking about Jonah this week, I thought of how it starts: a man on the run. I remembered another really good story of someone who wanted to disappear. The man’s name was Dan Cooper—well, that’s the name he used when he booked his airline ticket. You might know this story of D. B. Cooper. Back then, 1971, to book an airline ticket you didn’t need all the identification you do today, so we don’t know who the man really is.
But we sure do know what he did. Because D. B. Cooper is the only person to ever successfully pirate an airline and get away with it. He, along with a normal number of other normal people, boarded a normal flight to Seattle from Portland, Oregon. But once aboard, with his black carry-on briefcase, it became clear that this was no ordinary flight. Cooper handed a well-written note to the flight attendant that told her that he had a bomb and that he’d blow the plane up if he didn’t get $200,000 and a parachute when they landed—before he was taking off for Mexico City to escape.
It seemed to be the perfect crime. The threat was real, he showed officials the bomb he had aboard. And to prevent loss of life, authorities decided to give in to the demands of Cooper. When the plane landed in Seattle, the passengers were allowed to leave safely, and Cooper was given his parachute and the cash. His next stop was Mexico City—or so he told the people on the plane.
But on the flight south, Cooper demanded that the plane’s rear staircase be lowered in midflight. He donned his parachute and sailed off into the sky. What happened to him afterwards is a complete unknown. D. B. Cooper was never caught. To this date, this remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in US history.
Over the years many theories have come and gone, but Cooper remains a complete mystery. He committed the perfect crime—assuming of course that he landed safely. But we’ll never know. In 1980, some of his ransom money was found along a riverbank, but no remains and no other clues have ever come forward. It seems to be a perfect crime.
In order to commit such a crime, Cooper had to know what he was doing. He had to have the skills and know-how to make a bomb, smuggle it aboard, and then to escape via a parachute into the wild blue yonder. He had to have the survival skills to make it in the wilderness, and he had to have the strength of will to make the jump. Yes, even doing bad and illegal things takes will-power. That is one of the definitions of a criminal—there has to be intent—a resolve to go against the law and commit an action.
Today, we begin a four-week study of the Old Testament book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet. And what is a prophet’s task? Well, usually, a prophet’s main job is to deliver the messages to the people of God that come from God. Occasionally, prophets are tasked with speaking to those outside of God’s family, but mostly, they delivered their message to help keep God’s people on the right track. In other words, they were tasked with upholding God’s law, encouraging and sometimes even threatening the people to stay in line and to follow after God with their whole mind, heart, soul and strength.  While prophets were human beings, you might expect that they, of all people, would obey God when asked to do something.
But not Jonah. As you heard in the story for today, Jonah was given a task by the God of the universe. He was asked to go outside of Israel’s borders and preach to a foreign city, the city of Nineveh. His message was simple. He was “to preach against it.” In other words, he was sent there to call the people to turn from their wicked ways. Why? Because the outcry against their wickedness had ascended to God’s ears and God wanted to do something about it.
But who is this Jonah character anyway and what kind of world did he live in? We don’t know all that much about him because he’s only mentioned at two places in the Bible. He’s of course mentioned in the book that bears his name, but he’s also mentioned in the book of Second Kings. From that brief mention we learn that he’s the son of a fellow by the name of Amittai. We also learn that he’s from a city by the name of Gath-Hepher, an area settled by the tribe of Zebulun.
While we don’t know all that much about Jonah the man, we do know a great deal about the time in which Jonah lived. Jonah lived during the reign of one of the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s most successful rulers, Jeroboam II. Remember, that the Kingdom of Israel only remained one whole 12-tribe-united-kingdom for a few years, then it quickly divided into two parts during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. You probably remember this: there were 10 tribes in the northern kingdom, and just two in the south. The books of 1 and 2 Kings tell the story of these two countries. And Jeroboam II saw the Northern Kingdom of Israel grow and thrive in the world. Its borders were expanding and the economy was thriving.
There was only one problem. A huge problem. The Northern Kingdom had abandoned the worship of God according to the ways God desired to be worshipped. Instead of worshipping in the Temple in Jerusalem, the kings of the north, one after the other, had assembled shrines and created idols. Moreover, many of them allowed worship of other gods as well. And if that wasn’t enough, they didn’t take care of the poor and needy, they looked down on foreigners and slaves. In short, they weren’t living up to the standards that God himself had given to the people in the Law of Moses.
And often when this happened, God would raise up a prophet and call them to speak against the people. To call them back to their first love. To call them back to worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Jonah is called a prophet, so we would assume he also did that, at least a time or two.
But this time, the event we get to learn about in the book that bears his name, Jonah is called to do something different. He’s not called to preach truth to power. He’s not called to bring his people back to God. In fact, just the opposite. Jonah is sent to the enemy.
Nineveh was the capital of the bordering Assyrian Empire. At this time, the Assyrians were quickly becoming the regional superpower in the Ancient Near East. Compared to the little Northern Kingdom, a kingdom about half the size of New Jersey, Assyria was like a monster, a huge country that swallowed up other countries for breakfast. And worse, the Assyrians were cruel. They loved to torture people and scare the daylights out of their enemies and their treaty partners alike. If you ended up crossing this wicked people group, you might end up being flayed alive or hoisted alive on pikes for all to see. Just like the Romans who used crucifixion as a method of social control and terror, so the Assyrians used very public torture and execution to strike fear in both friend and foe alike.
And what’s Jonah’s mission? That’s right, he’s to go to this people’s capital city and preach against it. Why? Because the wickedness of the people has caused people to cry out to God in prayer. And, as we know, God hears prayer. He answers prayer. And God’s particular way of answering this prayer was to call the man from Gath-Hepher to preach against the city. To tell the wicked to get their act straight. Can you imagine? It would amount to God calling little me, a small-town preacher, to board an airplane, head for Iraq, and go preach to Isis.
It’s no wonder that Jonah might feel some trepidation about taking on such a mission. I, too, would be apprehensive about going on such a dangerous mission. I’d like to think that if I heard a clear message from God that I’d obey—at least eventually.
But not Jonah! The man that has been raised up by God to be a preacher of God’s law and to bring the people to obedience to God now is going to become the lawbreaker. Is going to become the fugitive. But, if you know the story, you know, that unlike D.B. Cooper, Jonah doesn’t get away with it. But, as we’ll see in this series, we’re never quite sure that even after all the events that happen to him, that Jonah finally does get it. That Jonah finally gets a taste of God’s heart for all people.
In today’s passage, Jonah decides that he’s just not having what God is serving up. Jonah has no interest in helping wicked people turn to God. Jonah has no interest in anyone other than Israel and his own friends. People that look like him, think like him, act like him, worship like him. He’s comfortable in his own space, in his own place, and working on his own time. He doesn’t have any time for these “foreigners”, these “evil-doers,” these “wicked pagans.”
So, instead of heading east, by land, toward the country of Iraq, he decided he’s going to find himself a ship headed in the opposite direction. This Bible hero (or villain as the case may be) finds a bunch of pagan sailors headed in the exact opposite direction from where God has called him to go. The Jewish people hated the ocean and never themselves had a navy or sea captains. And at this time, the Phoenicians ruled the sea.
So, Jonah buys a boat ticket, and heads out toward Tarshish, a city in what we today call Spain—and that’s about as far away as one could get from Nineveh! In fact, it was then at the edge of the known world. Basically, he headed to Timbuktu. He just couldn’t have gone any further trying to run away from God!
You know the story, I think. God appoints a storm to come to the ship. The waves billow and crash all around the boat. Would you know God was trying to get your attention? No, not our thick-headed prophet running from God. What does he do? He goes down into the ship’s crew compartment and takes a nap. Actually, the word for sleeping here implies that Jonah is in a very deep sleep, even that he’s in a trance-like state, perhaps aided by a sleeping drug or two?
Meanwhile, let’s look at the other characters. To have a boat fit for the Mediterranean’s testy waters, you needed an expert sailing crew and a good captain. They knew the sea. This was no novice crew or wimpy bunch of sailors on a three-hour tour. And yet, they were afraid. This was a bad storm. A reeeealy bad storm. Instead of trying to run from their gods, they instead think it’s high time to start praying. You know, it takes a pretty serious storm to get a sailor to be nervous, and here we’ve found a storm that gets them literally down on their knees begging for mercy.
And like most pagans at the time, there was a variety of gods represented. So, each sailor and the captain prayed to their gods. And, just as we must put some practical action behind our prayers too, they also started hurling things into the water to lighten the boat. But not Jonah. He was still sound asleep.
But things just kept getting worse. So bad, that the captain goes and wakes Jonah and asks him how in the world he could be sleeping at such a time as this. He should be praying to his god for relief! And then, for the first time, the captain asks Jonah to tell him a little about himself.
Jonah explains that he is a Hebrew and that he worships (literally fears) Yahweh, the LORD, the God who made heaven and earth. Meanwhile, the sailors try once again to get the gods to help. Praying to all the gods didn’t work. Which one was it? That’s why they cast lots to see who is to blame for this trouble. And the lot falls to Jonah.
So now, all eyes are on this Hebrew, this man who worships the God who made heaven and earth, this God called the LORD, Yahweh. And they start trembling in their boots. You see, most gods at this time were tied to countries. There was a god of this city, and one of that one over there. There might be a god of trees and one of thunder. One of the sea, one of the clouds, one of the wind. But Jonah’s God—Jonah’s God was not tied to a piece of land or a force of nature. No, Jonah’s God was the Creator of all that existed in the universe.
And the sailors tremble in fear of this god. And finally, I think for the first time, Jonah realizes that his selfish actions have had consequences that affect someone other than himself. He realizes that he’s responsible for the fate of the sailors. So, he tells them what they must do. They’ve got to throw him overboard, to give him up to the deep. Then the storm will pass.
But the sailors try another way. They row even harder toward shore. Anything but to be the cause of a person’s death! But to no avail—if anything the storm gets stronger and stronger.
The sailors know what they must do. But not before the sailors pray yet again. This time they pray to Jonah’s God. They ask God to be merciful and to not hold them guilty for what he’s ordered them to do. They know that Jonah speaks for God. And they obey the prophet. And so, Jonah goes overboard.
And for their obedience, their reward is blessing. The storm immediately calms down once the wayward prophet is off the ship. And you might think that’s the end of it for the sailors. That they’d continue on their journey and forget this nightmare ever happened.
But that’s not what happened. No, not at all. These sailors have had an encounter with the living God, the God that made the sea and the land. And they’ve been changed. They make sacrifices to God and make vows to God—all ways that ancient Israel too worshipped God. They’ve become worshippers of God.
As our story goes along, we’ll find out what happens to Jonah next, but right now, it’s very uncertain. As far as the sailors are concerned, they’ve just sent a man to his death in the heart of the sea. But they didn’t stand around hemming and hawing about following. They were in crisis and they believed God. And for their belief and obedience, they received blessing. They received salvation. Not only of their bodies, but of their hearts, minds, and souls as well.
How ironic is it that the person who knows God so well just can’t bring himself to do what God says. This just goes to show that it’s not what you know about God that determines the health of your relationship with God. Pastors and preachers, and people that have been Christians all their lives don’t have some special advantage over new-born Christians who have just come to faith.
If anything, Jonah teaches us that sometimes Bible knowledge, church involvement, knowing the Christianese lingo, comes to be a disadvantage. Because knowledge of God can become a substitute for a relationship with God, a substitute for intimacy with God. A substitute for pursuing God. We think by talking about God and thinking about God that somehow we’re communicating or communing with God.
Sometimes brothers and sisters, we can become spiritual D. B. Coopers. We too can be Jonahs. Our knowledge and our expertise can make us very skilled at a task. We become excellent makers of rules, we become excellent negotiators. We try to make deals with God, we even try to run from God.
But as we learn from Jonah, while we can run from God, we can’t hide from God. God will find us in the end.
But that means something different depending on who you think God is. What you think God is like.
If you think God is always angry, always ready to punish, then a relentless God who won’t let you go is something to be feared, something that will have you running, and running, and running away.
But if you think God is loving, merciful, abounding in love and forgiveness, you’ll be running, too—but running towards God. Running into the open arms of mercy of the Father that Jesus reveals to us as infinite love.
Are you running from God this morning like Jonah, or are you turning your hearts and minds toward God like the sailors? If you’re running away, it’s not too late to stop, take a moment to think about what you’re doing, and turn in the opposite direction. Don’t wait for a storm to put your travelling companions in danger. Don’t take a few sleeping pills and hope it will all blow over. And if you’re running towards God, it’s not too late to look around, invite others to come along and make the journey with you. We can learn even more from Jonah, and we’ll do so in the next few weeks.