Saturday, June 30, 2012


The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me.   However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord's presence.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.  He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, from the Lord's presence.” (Jonah 1:1-3 HCSB)

Maybe you remember the movie, “The Fugitive.”   Some of us are old enough to recall that it was a television series, years before it was made into a major film.  The story line focused on the pursuit of Richard Kimble, who was falsely convicted for murdering his wife, and his effort to evade capture, and to find the real killer.  One dramatic scene, in the movie, featured a train wreck where Kimble escapes and becomes, “The Fugitive.”  That portion of the movie was filmed just about an hour away from here, in Dillsboro, where you can ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and see the wreckage from the movie set.

Before the fictional Doctor Kimble came to the big screen, another fugitive, the Prophet Jonah was already featured in the Bible.  Unlike Kimble, he was real, and also unlike him, Jonah was guilty.  Both were relentlessly pursued, however—Kimble by Deputy Samuel Gerard and Jonah by God!

In chapter one, we see Jonah’s DISOBEDIENCE. 

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me.   However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord's presence.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.  He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, from the Lord's presence.”  (1:1-3)

HE WAS THE PRODIGAL PROPHET.  Like the prodigal son who ran away from home, Jonah tried to run away from God.  But, to paraphrase a quote from the heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  When Louis was prepping for his defense of the title against Billy Conn in 1941, Conn, the light heavyweight champion announced that he would use his speed in a “hit and run,” strategy.  It worked for a time, but the big fists of the “Brown Bomber” eventually found their target, knocking Conn out.  The Lord had no difficulty catching up with his prophet.  It didn’t take thirteen rounds in a ring—just one storm at sea!

In the story of the prodigal son that Jesus told, it was trouble that turned the boy’s heart back to home.  He had gone down into sin, and sin took him down into sorrow, but that’s what led him to repentance.  So it was for the prodigal prophet.

Down is the key word in chapter one.  Jonah goes down to Joppa (v.3a); down into the ship headed for Tarshish—which was the opposite direction from where God had commanded him to go (v.3b); he went down into the lowest part of the ship to sleep (v.5); he would be cast down into the sea (v.15) and down into the belly of the great fish (v.17).  That is always the direction of those who rebel against God—down, down, down.

In chapter two, we see Jonah’s DESPERATION.

“Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish: ‘I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me. I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol; You heard my voice.’” (2:1-2)

The prodigal prophet became THE PRAYING PROPHET.  An old preacher I knew, Cecil Fox, ran from God’s call on his life for a time, until God’s persistent pursuit caught up with him and brought that latter day Jonah to his knees, in submission to the will of God.  Cecil was not only a member of our church, but my neighbor, and several times he walked over to where I was working in my yard, and as we talked he said, “God can make a man want to do what he ought to do.”  Indeed!

The skeptic, of course, mocks this story.  The liberal preacher spiritualizes it.  Jesus believed it—and used it as an illustration of His resurrection.  That’s good enough for me.  If you can’t believe the deliverance of Jonah from the belly of the fish, then how can you believe the deliverance of Jesus from the heart of the earth?  Really, if God could speak the universe into existence, how hard would it be to fashion a sea creature that could swallow Jonah and spit him out?   Besides that, it isn’t the most amazing thing in the book anyway—incredible as that was.  The greatest miracle is found in chapter three.

In chapter three, we see Jonah’s DECLARATION.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time:  ‘Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you.’  So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the Lord's command.  Now Nineveh was an extremely large city, a three-day walk.  Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, ‘In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!’  The men of Nineveh believed in God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth-from the greatest of them to the least.” (3:1-5)

The praying prophet became THE PREACHING PROPHET.  God gave him a second chance.  Aren’t you glad that He does?  In fact, I’ve had third chances and fourth chances, and—you get the picture—He is such a compassionate God!

But that is the very thing that caused Jonah to run away from God’s call the first time.  He desired condemnation for the people of Nineveh, not compassion.  Jonah was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  The Assyrians (the nation in which Nineveh was the capital) were guilty of brutality and atrocities toward the Israelis.  They were pagans.  They were violent.  Jonah wanted them cast into hell—and so he preached with a certain thrill in announcing their doom in forty days.

Yet, that which he feared would happen did happen.  The people repented of their wickedness and God relented from His wrath.  What a miracle!  From such a simple sermon, from a preacher who reeked of whale vomit, these heathen were convicted and converted.  We would not be amiss to call this the greatest revival in human history.

The judgment proclaimed would become the judgment postponed.  God’s purposes were unaltered—it is to justify the repentant and to judge the rebellious.  When the Ninevites turned to Him, He had mercy on them.  Later, when they would backslide to their wicked ways, God’s sentence would be executed.  It is as though the clock was ticking, and in forty days, judgment would fall.  But, then God hit the button on the stop watch, when they confessed their sin.  Later, as they gave themselves anew to evil, God hit the button again and their time ran out.

We urgently need such a miraculous revival in America today!   Don’t you sense that God’s wrath is imminent?  Judgment will come to our nation—to all nations.  It has been decreed.  But, it might be delayed, if preachers would be faithful to call people to repentance and if we would humble ourselves before God as the people of Nineveh did.  I see no hope for our nation apart from that.  It will take a miracle of mercy—but that is our God’s specialty!

In chapter four, we see Jonah’s DISAPPOINTMENT.

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious.   He prayed to the Lord: ‘Please, Lord, isn't this what I said while I was still in my own country? That's why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from [sending] disaster.  And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’” (4:1-3)

The preaching prophet became THE POUTING PROPHET.  Hard to imagine that a man’s heart could be that hard—to wish people would perish.  But, imagine someone tortured and murdered a family member of yours.  Preaching, “Love your enemies” is a lot easier than practicing it.

Thankfully, God isn’t just merciful to pagan sinners, but pouting saints as well.  The Lord teaches Jonah a lesson.  As Jonah sits on the hillside, overlooking the city, still hoping for its destruction, the Lord provides a plant to grow up and give him shade.  Now, that made Jonah happy.  But, come the next day, a pest arrives to kill the plant.  Along with the hot desert sun rising, the sirocco—the searing east wind—sweeps in, so that Jonah is burning up on the outside, which matches his attitude on the inside. 

He was angry about the destruction of a plant!  Should he not be concerned about the destruction of a people? 

You know, we get upset about a lot of things at church.  All kinds of folks get mad about the style of music, the way a preacher parts his hair, the change of a pet program, or even the choice of color for the new carpet—we are stirred up about the most trivial of things, at times.  Jonah was “bugged” about a plant.  What we should be passionate about is the eternal damnation of those who die without Christ!  How many are upset about our failure to reach a lost world?  Not nearly as many as get angry about where the artificial flowers are placed in the auditorium, I fear.

I pray that we will embrace our mission with passion.  Are you a fugitive from God’s call on your life?  Don’t run away from God.  He can make you want to do what you ought to do.

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