Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Jonah Saga: You Can Run, But You Can't Hide"

Text: Jonah 1:1-3, 3:1-3a

Genesis 3:1-10


            There is a branch of psychology called “dream research” which is enjoying renewed popularity these days. Dream research scientists have observed that there are certain types of dreams shared by just about everyone.

The most common dream we share is one in which we have a sensation of falling – maybe off a building, or out of an airplane, or off a ladder. How often have we wakened to that feeling of ‘bouncing’ off the mattress, a little shaken, but safe and sound, and thanking the good Lord that we didn’t really fall off that cliff; thanking the good Lord it was just a nightmare?

            The second most common dream is one which involves clothing……. or lack thereof. Did you ever have one of those? We need not go into further detail on this one as I suspect most of us have blushed in our dreams more than once. And you can only imagine a pastor’s dream of this variety. Not a pretty sight in any respect.

            The third most common dream type is the sensation of running in slow-motion. Some have reported a feeling of trying to run in quicksand. Others have claimed that in their dream, their legs felt like lead. In some of my own running away dreams, I have dropped to all fours and tried to use my arms as a set of legs to try to get away from whatever I believed was on my tail. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is some primitive dream response originating in the lowest parts of the brain. At any rate, dream researchers suggest that this third type of dream grows out of a subconscious phenomenon called “flight response;” when we know deep within us that we’ve come upon someone or something that is too big, too strong, too fearsome, too threatening to confront; a presence we can’t even bear to face. It is then that our flight response kicks in, quite involuntarily. We try to flee, to run and hide.

            We read in the earliest chapters of the Holy Bible that God had given a mandate to Adam and Eve. There was in the garden tree after tree of good fruit. Paradise – all that any human could ever want and need – provided a smorgasbord of food, pleasing to both eye and body. But of one tree, God commanded: “you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” We all know how that story turned out. At the behest of temptation in the guise of a crafty serpent, the first humans ate of the forbidden fruit, and their eyes were opened. And what came along with that? The first record of a flight response.

            You see, Adam and Eve may have had their eyes wide open. But a consequence was that they could no longer bear to face their Creator. They had clearly gone against God’s will, and for the first time, God was perceived as a threat – too big, too strong, too fearsome. As the story goes, when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden, they fled. Someone once said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” So it was with the first humans.

            This morning, we meet up with a man by the name of Jonah. You may remember him from Sunday School as the guy who ended up in the belly of a great fish. He probably lived in an obscure area of ancient Galilee. Most of his family had likely been captured and tortured by the Assyrian army when they overran the northern kingdom of Israel. One day we’re told, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’”

             Ninevah was the last place any Jew who valued his life would dare go. It was one of the most powerful and, in terms of its people, one of the most ruthless cities in the Assyrian Empire. Not too many years following the time of Jonah, a Hebrew prophet by the name of Nahum wrote this graphic description of the city of Ninevah: “Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty – no end to the plunder! The crack of whip and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot? Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end – they stumble over the bodies! The slaughtered to whom Nahum refers are slain Jews. In fact, Ninevah stood as a symbol of all that opposed God and God’s people. And here is God calling Jonah, a Jew, to go into this horrible place and proclaim to its citizens that they were as good as done for! We can imagine what was on Jonah’s mind: “Lord……. ah….I don’t think so.” It might be akin to a modern-day Jew going into a Hamas-controlled city in Afghanistan and speaking against Isalm. Jonah’s reluctance to take on the assignment is understandable. He simply couldn’t face what he was being called to do. So, Jonah’s flight response.            If we were to look at a map of the world in Jonah’s time, we’d see that he fled all right. In fact, he set out in the polar opposite direction from where God had commanded him to go. He hoped to sail to Tarshish in southern Spain which was the furthest-known point to which any vessel could sail. Well, you can run, but you can’t hide. The saga of Jonah’s attempted flight is legendary. Suffice to say that he was thrown overboard from a boat and was swallowed by what is only described as a “large fish.” Jonah comes to realize that even in a fish’s belly, there’s no hiding from God. So Jonah reacts like most of us react when we’re forced to come to terms with God’s inescapable presence…….. he begins to pray with everything he’s got. The last words of his prayer are perhaps the most significant, words which I hope you’ll log into your mental hard drive for next week’s sermon: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” Upon Jonah’s prayer insight, the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land. Then we find that chapter three begins very much like chapter one, but now Jonah’s a little wiser for the wear. Let’s pick up the action at chapter three, verse one.

            (Read Jonah 3:1-3a)

            This was surely not the outcome Jonah had expected, but the very outcome God had ordained.

            Let’s ask ourselves a question. Have we ever found ourselves trying to somehow flee from God’s presence? I know I have….. more than once. The fact is, we can run, but we can’t hide. God may call us to do something we find difficult, or distasteful, or out of our character or comfort zone, or even frightening. Maybe it’s a call to care for someone who’s mistreated us in the past. Perhaps it’s a call to forgive someone who’s wronged us, not once, but several times. Possibly it’s a call to love someone we find totally unlovable. Could it be a call to serve the church which might inconvenience us, or stretch us, or bite into our leisure time? We just don’t want to do it, so we run in the other direction hoping that God will lose sight of us, lose track of our scent, give the job to someone else, or just forget about the job entirely. At least the pastor may not notice that we’ve disappeared over the horizon to our own Tarshish. One may fool the pastor, but where God is concerned, you can run, but you can’t hide.

            Hear these words of King David from Psalm 139: “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 [that is, in the place of the dead], you are there.” You see, in David’s estimation and experience, there is no flight from God’s presence. Neither is there reason to fear. David continues: “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.” If God calls us to some task, or to some change, or to some new, unfamiliar life territory, or to some difficult situation, there are two things we need to bear in mind. First, there is no sense in running because we cannot ultimately leave God in our dust. Second, there is no reason to run because God loves us. God intends us no harm. God will put us in no situation for which God will not provide the ways and means to deal with it. Even when we run and hide because we’ve given in to the temptation to nibble of the forbidden fruit, God provides a means of return and restoration.

            Let’s close this first part of a two-part sermon by returning to David’s Psalm: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well….. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.”

 Let us pray: Almighty God, You who know us inside and out, forgive our running and hiding. And we all do it. Help us to be attentive to Your call, willing in our service, and courageous when that calls takes us where we may not want to go. Give us trust and strength, as we open ourselves to Your direction. We pray this in Jesus’ name, who feared, yet followed. Amen.