Monday, September 4, 2017

Sermon: Running from God (Jonah 1: 1-10)

Running from God
Psalm 139: 1-10; Jonah 1: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2017

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can 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 settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
- Psalm 139: 1-10

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’

But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.

The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’

The sailors said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ ‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
- Jonah 1: 1-10

Seven year old Max was fed up. He grabbed his backpack and shoved a handful of clothes inside, along with his Ironman action figure. He was packing the important stuff. And before he walked out of his room, he left a note:

Mom is ruining my life. I feel like I should run away and that’s what I am going to do. By the time you read this I will be gone. If you want to see me again, I will be at the first Micdonlds that you see wen you turn rite from our house.

From a young age, we all seem to have that innate angst to run away from home. We get frustrated by the house rules, we feel misunderstood, or just plain and simple we conclude that our parent is ruining our life. No mom or dad in their right mind would ever require a child to “Go make up the bed,” or “Put the dishes away,” or “Take your turn for doggie duty.” Right?!?!

Even grown-ups dream of running away. That is what Jonah resolved to do. God called Jonah to “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness had come up before God” (Jonah 1:2).

This was not the first time God had called Jonah. You see Jonah was a court prophet. Earlier in Israel’s history, God had heard the bitter cry of his people. Israel (Northern Kingdom) was being threatened by the Assyrians. It did not help that Israel’s king (Jeroboam II) was corrupt and did not seek the welfare of the people. God spoke through Jonah commanding the king to restore the borders of the Northern Kingdom; and surprisingly King Jeroboam II did (2 Kings 14:23-26).

Jonah not only saw God work through a wayward king back then, but now God was requiring Jonah to speak to the people of Ninevah; they were Assyrians. Jonah was to preach prophetically to the people who had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Prophetic speech implies words that urge others to live differently by the grace of God. Jonah was having none of that. He grabbed his backpack, jumped on a ship, and set sail for the opposite direction.

Throughout Scripture we see our shared human tendency to shrink back when God called our spiritual ancestors to do hard things. My commentary summed it up like this:

“Moses and Jeremiah thought themselves inadequate for the tasks. Elijah feared for his own life. Amos and Isaiah found God’s message too dreadful to announce.”[1]

And yet God pursued each one to follow God’s lead. “God repeatedly overhauled Moses’ objections. God told Jeremiah he had no choice. God evicted Elijah from Mount Horeb and redirected his steps back to Syria and Israel. God held Isaiah and Amos to their respective prophetic posts.”[2]

Jonah considered where he might flee from God’s presence. Even as Jonah took the opportunity to settle at the farthest limits of the sea – God was there. God pursued Jonah as he went down to Tarshish, down to Joppa, and down into the ship. God pursued Jonah as he hid from God and the world in that fetal position of sleep.

You and I can relate to Jonah. As one of our church members shared with me last week, “Who hasn’t run away from God?”

We have all run away from God for lots of different reasons. We keep God at a distance; we tell ourselves we are doing just fine on our own and don’t really need God’s help... believe it or not, I said that in a season of my life as a young adult. Some of us have been hurt by the church and that leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Others steer away because they have grown weary from a message that projects more of God’s judgment than grace.

When we feel God tapping us on the shoulder it unsettles us. We run for fear of not being good enough or qualified enough. We cringe at the thought of where God might tell us to go. We get nervous hearing God’s Word and knowing God asks all of us to do hard things.

Even Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16: 24-25).

We read those words and we can’t help but ask the question, “Really Jesus? Who in their right mind would say yes? Denying ourselves and taking up a cross just like you did…how in the world can we do that?!?”

Well, guess what? God knows all this. The Psalmist felt God tapping him on the shoulder too. The Psalmist knew a lot about the relentless love of God:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up…whether I am rising up to follow you or rising up with that fight or flight response.
You discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down…even when I am in that fetal position trying to hide from you and the world.
You are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? No matter how far I go, you are there.
Even if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea like Jonah did, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast
(Psalm 139: 1-4, 7, 9-10).

God is always on the move to pursue us, especially when we have those fight or flight moments along the path of faith. God speaks through so many means to capture our attention and follow his lead.

God speaks through the chaos in our hearts as the Spirit keeps nudging us to say yes. Do you know that nudge…the one that disrupts life and gives us no peace until we say yes to God?! God has a sense of humor as we ask for signs to know how to respond to opportunities in life. God even speaks to us through unlikely situations and unlikely people to move our hearts and our feet in God’s direction.

We see the heart of God revealed in an unlikely person in Jonah’s story. The captain of the ship was the one to grab Jonah’s attention. In the midst of that terrible storm at sea the helmsman, who called upon another god and a completely different tradition, urged the prophet to do the right thing. He told Jonah to call upon The Lord Almighty. The God of Creation is the One who steers our great ship of faith and was the very One who had called Jonah to begin with!

When we find ourselves running from God, the Lord places people in our path at the just the right time. They serve like a mirror to reflect our willingness as disciples to do the right thing, the compassionate thing, and even the hard thing.

Hurricane Harvey has hit our sisters and brothers in Texas in an unprecedented way. The devastation and aftermath of flooding is one of the worst natural disasters our country has yet faced. The stories of the tragic loss of life, loss of homes, and loss of infrastructure grips our hearts and minds. It is hard to imagine what Texas is going through.

But God continues to pursue us to put our faith into action as God works through unlikely people. In the midst of this crisis the Holy Spirit has been flooding the divisions that have been blocking human hearts like race, religion, and politics. The Spirit made a way for unconditional love flows freely.

Neighbors are helping one another at all costs. First responders have put themselves in harm’s way to risk their lives to save women, children, men, and pets alike. Even Mexico, our neighbor south of the border, plans to help with relief efforts as they did when Hurricane Katrina struck twelve years ago.

To see all these taking risks to deny themselves in order to save others is profound. It is amazing because we are seeing the hearts of all God’s children at work even when they profess different traditions and even when some profess none. Their actions inspire us to be the disciples that Jesus Christ is calling us to be.

God may not call you and me to be prophets or captains or heroes. But we are all called be God’s helpers by placing our trust in God alone as we join Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.

May it be so as God pursues us in his relentless love – for we all have our Jonah moments.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter's Bible Commentary "Jonah" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 646.
[2] New Interpreter's Bible Commentary "Jonah," p. 646.

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