A young woman once complained, “I get so angry with my husband’s friends!”
Why? Because her husband – like her, a newcomer to Christianity – often had non-Christian friends over to watch a ballgame. And during the festivities, a couple of the visiting bros always liked to grab the couple’s Bible from the coffee table, open it randomly, and read aloud some obscure passage. Then they’d laugh and laugh at the strange sound of the quaint, outdated suggestions offered up by those ancient-but-nevertheless-still-holy words.
Week in, week out, while her hubby and his chums reveled in the thrill and excitement of game night, the young woman fumed in the next room, taking great affront and personal umbrage at the menfolk’s sophomoric attacks on her budding Christian faith and its rich, helpful rules so neatly laid out in the Bible.
For those of us who’ve been led to believe that the Bible basically is a practical, common-sense guide for living your best life ever, the young woman’s anger at such reckless disregard for Scripture is wholly understandable. Many of us, like her, have been led to believe that the Bible is a mere rulebook, an owner’s manual of sorts that’s fundamentally and primarily about us.
And so, naturally, Scripture should speak straightforwardly with clear language and relatable stories, so we might learn to follow the rules and do the right things – and, of course, prosper in the ways that the world defines its seductive, economic constructs of prosperity, free enterprise, and the pursuit of happiness.
Now, surely doing the right thing – unto others as unto you – is always the right thing to do. But truth is, the Bible fundamentally is not all about us. The Bible fundamentally is all about God and heaven’s epic struggle to redeem Creation. And even our best efforts to translate the truth of God into more-or-less useful proverbs for daily living never seem to boil down to little more than a “well, it depends.”
Irritatingly so, reading the Bible is never as neat and tidy as you and I might like it to be.
Take this morning’s Scripture lesson from Jonah, the Old Testament book named for its lead human character. Ever since that kindly Sunday school teacher shared with you the harrowing tale of Jonah being swallowed up whole by a great fish, or whale – or whatever, you naturally believe that the seemingly far-fetched story is all about Jonah.
And in a sense it is: A gaudy story about Jonah’s willful disregard and disobedience, a shameful description of Jonah’s dereliction of the duty that God has in store.
Yet, it’s hard to fault Jonah for shirking his task at hand. In the great responsibility that God wants to assign, Jonah has his work cut out for him. He’ll be far outside his wheelhouse and working well above his paygrade. So, with nothing but sure trouble barreling down its way from heaven, with nothing but sure failure the likely outcome of God’s dreaded assignment, Jonah gets out of Dodge while the gettin’s good.
With good reason, most folks run and hide when they sense trouble coming. We scurry off to protected places where trouble won’t find us, inner sanctums where we feel comfortable in the face of that which makes us uncomfortable.
Thus our friend Jonah makes a fast exit and goes on the lam when God taps him for an uncomfortable job: “Jonah, head east to Ninevah, and tell its residents to shape up or risk getting shipped out.”
But rather than warming up to God’s invitation, Jonah gets cold feet.
Instead of heading east to Ninevah, Jonah pivots 180 degrees in the opposite direction and heads WEST aboard a ship sailing to far-off Tarshish, a hideaway where Jonah thinks that God will never-ever find him.
It was an epic fail on Jonah’s part, because as is so-often the case, the Lord remains committed to his choice of Jonah as the man for job, and the Lord provides some deep-sea drama to get Jonah’s attention and get him back on the divine path to Ninevah.
As another writes, sometimes God puts us on our backs (or, in Jonah’s case, in the belly of a great fish) to get us to sit up, take notice, and accept the difficult, scary, uncomfortable and often-dirty jobs that God needs to get done through you and me – and to remind us that God is the One who’s in charge, calling the shots, and writing the story.
Even though Jonah’s heart isn’t at all in it, God makes it crystal clear: Jonah will find no escape from the work that God has in store for him. The Lord sincerely intends to use an insincere servant to deliver a message of hope. Apparently, when God lays claim to your life, God’s claim is there for good. You can run, but you cannot hide. You might refuse God, but when you do, God will come after you hard.
Thus the story of Jonah – like all the other biblical dramas – is not first and foremost about us.
Like all the others, Jonah’s story is first and foremost about God.
The Lord gets top billing, because he is the One who takes the astonishing risk of setting aside his myriad other duties and responsibilities to chase after us and assign us to salvation’s work.
God’s is a daring journey of danger and devotion fueled by heaven’s loving passion. God is the One who carefully, thoughtfully, and deliberately chases after us – those of us who accidently stumble and fall in the exercise of our holy labors, as well as those who intentionally run away in defiance of God’s marching orders or in fear of God’s wrath.
It matters not whether you’re saint or sinner, lawmaker or lawbreaker! What you’ll hear in a few moments is not a story about you. It’s a story about God. And the way to allow yourself to become part of the story is to stop running away – to stop hiding from the One who yearns and searches for you.
True enough: All things reveal God, who reveals you and me.
Listen for the Word of the Lord.
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. Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous.
He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”
Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”
So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:1-17)
The English poet Francis Thompson, who like Jonah spent much of his life running away from God, chronicles his odyssey in an epic poem.
And thus begins “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
All things reveal God, who reveals me – and you.
God reveals to the poet and to us a hard corrective, which is this: The tawdry drama of our lives runs a distant second to God’s fundamental narrative of relentless pursuit. The Hound of Heaven pursues with all deliberate speed those whom he loves, and forgives, and claims as his own, forever and ever.
The reasons and emotions of the one running away fascinate far less than the captivation borne of God’s persistent, relentless pursuit – far less than the rapture stoked by the intensity of passion panting within the One who is the Hound of Heaven.
As none other than Jesus himself will later proclaim, the Lord – the Hound of Heaven – is One and the same with a woman rummaging for a lost coin and a shepherd searching for a stray sheep. Woman and shepherd: Each one God in Christ who knows us full well for the broken vessels that we are but nonetheless searches us out and appears in the form we’re able to receive – most amazingly, simply because Jesus is the love that will not let us go.
The love of God in Christ Jesus: The cornerstone of our faith, our sure hope in times of trouble, and our assurance of life everlasting.
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, January 29, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the first of his four-part series from the Old Testament book of Jonah. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Phyllis Tribble, Francis Thompson, and Sam Wells inform the message.