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. -Jonah 1:1-3
Life, if you boil it way down, is pretty simple. For us, you and I who call ourselves Christians, life is about us and God. At the end of the day, that’s the main thing; our relationship with God. Circumstances change.
Relationships change. Our bodies change. Our jobs change. Everything changes, except that. From the first day
of our lives to the last day of our lives there is us and there is God. Proximity to God is, ideally, not dictated by
circumstances. One can feel close to God when circumstances are poor, Paul sang hymns in his jail cell.
Conversely, one can feel distant from God when things are going well, consider the man Jesus tells us about who looked upon his abundance and simply built a new silo only to die that night.
When we are close to God, we can mark those moments by feelings; feelings of peace, grace, love, tranquility, hope, selflessness, compassion, generosity, kindness. When we are distant from God, we have different feelings; fear, greed, selfishness, rage, anger, you know the bit. And so, when we are feeling distant, I think there are some hallmarks, some behaviors that are sort of tells. One of those behaviors that marks some breach in the “God and I” dynamic is to make a run for it. Before I go any further, let me qualify that. Sometimes running for it is absolutely the right thing to do. If there is a gunman, if you are in an abusive relationship or toxic job, running for it is a good idea. Proximity to God does not typically entail intentional suffering. That aside, however, lots of people run for other reasons.
Jonah is one of those people. He’s a runner. I suspect that you know just a little bit about Jonah. Likely what you know about him is the whale, and perhaps the plant that appears at the end. These are interesting bits of trivia but not helpful to us, really, in examining the story. One of the favorite pastimes of certain Christians is to debate what type of marine animal swallowed Jonah. I myself can’t think of a bigger waste of time than that, but I digress. Jonah’s story is rich and fascinating but it’s not about fish or plants, it’s about a guy whose relationship with God is broken. Hence the running.
Let’s frame out his flight just a touch. God appears to Jonah, about whom we know nothing, and tells him to go
over to Ninevah, in modern day Iraq, and tell them they are rotten and that God’s wrath is coming. Jonah, being in a bad way with God, is not in favor of this. So, he runs. He heads for Joppa on the Mediterranean coast in modern day Israel and he catches a boat for Tarshish, that’s likely in modern day Spain. God says go to Iraq and Jonah says, nah, I’m heading for Spain. That tells you all you need to know about the situation at hand. Jonah is in a bad way with God, and so he runs.
Now, we are in a moment in American history where a lot of running is happening. This shouldn’t be surprising. Most of us Americans come from a long line of runners. Your ancestors were runners. They ran here from Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Norway, Finland, France, Italy and points all over the world. You are here because some folks ran for it. It’s an American thing to do. Often times when things get difficult, we take flight. The history of America is marked by migrations. We moved from East to West. We moved from South to North before moving back from North to South. We are on the move. Some of that moving is incidental and some of it happened for very good reasons but the commonality is, when things get tough, we run.
Since the pandemic happened, there has been a lot of running, or at least thinking about running. One in five doctors plan to quit in the next 2 years. A third of nurses plan to quit this year. A full half of teachers are considering quitting. Service industry workers are quitting at record numbers. All of this quitting seems to have peaked in June of 2021 when a record 4 million Americans up and quit their jobs. But it’s not just jobs. Americans left cities for rural places in record numbers over the past 2 years. Americans continue to divorce at a staggeringly high rate. You get the point. We are a nation of runners.
So, we of all people, can learn a thing or two from the Bible’s great runner. Jonah ran like the wind thinking that his relationship with God could be escaped. And where does it get him? Well, that’s the part of the story everyone knows. He ends up in the belly of a giant fish. And his flight is judged as one of Scripture’s biggest failures. And here is the thing that I think we can take away as people of faith. If our relationship with God is broken, then things are going to feel broken and changing circumstances isn’t going to change the problem.
Over the past two years most of us have experienced disruption in most areas of our lives and our faith is no different. And hey, some of us here today may be doing great. We may feel all those things I listed that, for me, speak to proximity to God. But some of us don’t feel that way. And some of us are looking at our lives and thinking, perhaps, making a run for it will make things better. I don’t know your situation; you may be right. But as your pastor let me just ask you, are you running for something toxic and bad, or are you pulling a Jonah? Are you just assuming you can run away and everything will be all better? If it’s the latter, I have bad news for you. Troubles travel, my friend, and if you move to a new house or a new job or a new town or a new person or a new whatever, and you believe this will still the tempest inside of you, I suspect you will be disappointed because when the tempest is raging inside of us that is the most important time in our lives, the most important time, to pause, take a breath, slow down and ask where God is right now in your life. Where is God in your life?
Running will always be appealing but most of the time it is not a solution to the real problems. It was not a solution for Jonah. If you are feeling this way today, if you are feeling all askew on the inside, stop for a minute. Don’t run. Slow down. Let’s think this through. There are people who love you. There is a God who loves you. There is a grand and magnificent story of redemption going on in this world of which you are a part. Jonah looked at his life and he bolted and he ends up in the belly of a fish. If you’re running for the same reasons as him then it’s entirely possible, shoot it’s likely, you are going to end up in the same place. Amen.
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