RIVERSIDE BLOG

Post Author: Tim Chilvers

Tim Chilvers is the Senior Pastor at Riverside Church.
April 18, 2023
What Are You Running From? | Session 1

BY: Tim Chilvers
DATE: Sunday 23 April 2023

BIBLE PASSAGES: Read online
Jonah | Chapter 1 | Verses 1-16

EXCERPT:
The book of Jonah is not about the fish! It’s actually a mirror on our culture and our hearts. It’s about any group of people/person that we think ‘they deserve God’s justice & judgement more than they deserve his grace’. For Ancient Israel, they would have identified with Jonah and would not have wanted Nineveh to repent. Jonah is running from God’s grace and mercy, whereas the (pagan) sailors discover they need it. What about us?

  Youth Resources

BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS

Each week there are TWO different sets of questions for you to use, whether you are exploring the Bible within your Life Group, in other group settings, or simply using them on your own.

A | DISCUSSION STARTERS
These are simple questions to provoke discussion together out of the talk (ideal if you are watching our Sunday Service online with others in your group):

1 | Was there anything that particularly helped you during the talk?

2 | Was there anything that you didn’t necessarily agree with, or found difficult to understand in the talk?

3 | As a result of the talk, what:

a. Changes do you want to see?

b. Truths do you need to remember?

c. Actions do you need to take?

 

 

B | QUESTIONS TO EXPLORE
These are questions that are based on the talk and the surrounding themes:

Read Jonah: Chapter 1, verses 1-16

 

1 | If someone asked you the question, ‘In your life, is there anything that you are running away from?’ How would you answer?

 

2 | Before you read the Bible passage, what – if anything – do you know about the story of Jonah?

 

3 | Read Jonah 1:1-16. What strikes you about the story? Who are the main characters, what do you they say and do? Who do you think are the ‘heroes’ and the ‘villains’ in the story?

 

4 | Notice how many times this passage mentions about being fearful (see v. 5, 10, 16). What, or who, should we most be fearful of, and why? How does this compare to things we are afraid of?

 

5 | In Jonah 1:15, the sailors throw Jonah into the sea and the storm ceases. How does this remind us of the New Testament’s teaching on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, which brings about our salvation (e.g. John 3:16)?

 

6 | In Matthew 12:38-41, Jesus talks about the ‘sign of Jonah’. What do you think he might mean?

 

7 |What does the book of Jonah reveal about God’s character in relation to his justice and mercy? (See Exodus 34:6-7 and Psalm 103:8-14)

 

8 | What does the story of Jonah teach us about the wideness of God’s love and mercy, even for those we might consider our enemies? (See Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36)

 

As you work thorugh these questions pray for one another to deepen and develop your relationship with Jesus.

BIBLE STUDY RESOURCES

QUOTES |

“Most of us run. We are busy people, we have a hundred things to accomplish every day, endless obligations to keep us running, too busy for anything like a still small voice”.

(Alicia Ostriker)

“[God is longing for us to] move from illusion to prayer, from false certainty to true uncertainty, and from the many safe gods to the God whose love has no limit.”
(Henri Nouwen)

“The only reason Jonah is alive, by the end of the book, is because of God’s mercy, and the thing he is angry about, by the end of the book, is God’s mercy.”

(Tim Mackie)

VIDEO |Helpful brief overviews of Jonah: The Bible Project: Jonah Video. (9 mins)

PODCAST |The Amazing Jonah by Tim Mackie

BOOK |

‘Obadiah, Jonah & Micah’
Apollos Old Testament Commentary (AOTC) by Elaine Phillips

BOOK |

‘You! Jonah!’ Poems by Thomas John Carlisle

BOOK |

‘A Gracious and Compassionate God’ by Daniel Timmer

BOOK |

‘The Prodigal Prophet’ by Timothy Keller

TRANSCRIPT

INTRODUCING THE BOOK OF JONAH

Good morning friends.  We began, as you’ve already heard, this book of Jonah for the next 4 weeks.  And I feel a weight, a heaviness, around it because it is such a powerful book. So do jump in and read it at home on your own. If you think you’re familiar with the story, may I suggest you might not be as familiar as you think.

When I was at school, one of the most devastating things was when it came to picking for the sports team. Anyone remember that? Where you picked for the sports team. And what would always happen is the same people would be picked first, and then always the same people would be picked last. And maybe even for some of us, we can still feel the shudder as we know that we will be the ones left till last.

And as we begin this book of Jonah, that’s an illustration. Because when it comes to who we think should be shown mercy and grace, who do we think should get it first? Who deserves it, and who comes last, or who doesn’t deserve it? That’s the question right at the heart of the Book of Jonah. Who do we think deserves God’s grace and mercy, and who do we think doesn’t?

So do jump in with the series. There’s loads of resources on our blog – just go to the website, follow the links on the blog, and you’ll see questions for the groups to do. I really encourage you to do those, and on your own as well as there’s lots of extra reading if you’d find that useful.

But we’ve called the series What Are You Running From? And what was lovely last week, James Tomlinson, as he was leading the services, said that this book is not just for the children. Might I suggest it may not be for the children at all! We will see as we go through.

But we’ll see there’s four main characters in this story, three of whom in a sense are all running from God, none of whom are the whale or the fish (whatever you want to say). Friends, if you get one thing in your head today, it’s not about the whale. Let’s go!

 

PARABLE OR HISTORY?

So what book is this, as we jump in, and as we read it over these next four weeks? Well, might I suggest that scholars/commentators have different views because this book is actually pretty unique in the Bible. Now, as I say, scholars have got different views. I’m not talking about those kind of people who pick and choose the bits that they want from the Bible, the bits that fit well with our contemporary life or whatever. Not that. No, I mean amongst scholars who really do hold the Bible dear – and for whom the Bible is our authority, amongst people who believe this is the very words of God, and therefore it is the foundation for all life and faith – amongst those scholars, there are two main ideas around this book.

Some think this is a parable, just like Jesus told parables, out of which important lessons and truths came. And the reason some scholars think is because it is unlike any other book in the Old Testament. It is about a prophet, but most other books about prophets are about what the prophet says. This is not about that at all. This is about the prophet. And the language – the way the book is written, the construction and all that – is very different. It’s almost cartoonist, a caricature – it’s fantastic as a book.

So some think it’s a parable, whereas others think it is history. And there’s plenty of good reason in the text to suggest that’s the case, too. And some people don’t think it’s history because they think it’s a bit farfetched to think the person was swallowed by a whale and then spat back out. But might I suggest, friends, that we follow a Saviour who rose from the dead! If Somebody can shatter death, a little fish is not a big deal. And others, you might think, ‘Well, I’m not sure I go that far on the resurrection. I don’t know if I believe in miracles.’ Might I suggest that even for those people who don’t believe in God, do we believe all this came from nothing? Talk about the greatest miracle of all. We all believe in miracles, friends, so let’s not deny that.

So whatever you think of this book, I veer towards the historical, but that’s not perhaps the crucial thing. You’ll discover that this book has a real sucker punch for all of us. We laugh at Jonah, we critique at Jonah, and then by the end we realise we are Jonah. So let’s introduce the four main characters for us this morning.

 

CHARACTER ONE – GOD

First character, the opening words is God. And we discover that you can run but you can’t hide from God. Listen again to those words that Steve read so beautifully for us: ‘The word of the LORD, came to Jonah, son of Amittai.’ And the very last words of the book, not going to give it away, are spoken by God. The opening words and the last words are by God, friends. This book has God at its centre. Whilst it’s called Jonah, it’s really about how Jonah relates to God. It’s his word.

But what’s interesting, do you notice what Jonah does to God’s word? He runs in the opposite direction. God says, ‘Go to the great city…’ A better translation is, “arise and go.” But then in verse 3, what happens? Jonah ran away. A better translation is, “Jonah arose and went.” So God says, “Go, arise and go.” Jonah arises and went – in completely the opposite direction.

 Nineveh is in modern day Iraq. Tarshish is in modern day Spain, completely the opposite direction. He’s trying to run away from God, but do you notice who he is? He is a prophet. He is a holy man, a holy Joe. Crazy, really, because, of course, the question is, can you ever really run away from God if he’s God? In verse 9, later on in the story, did you catch it? After the sailors realized that this storm is as a result of Jonah, they ask who he is, and Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. And I’m trying to run away from Him!” Friends, you can’t run away from God.

  

WE CAN RUN, BUT WE CANNOT HIDE

I remember when my son, Noah, was very little. We were playing those games with kids, hide and seek. And when you’re a little, you don’t quite have that awareness of your body and your eyes and all that. And so children kind of think that as long as they can’t see you, you can’t see them. And so I remember this moment when Noah was behind a curtain, and you couldn’t see his eyes but you could clearly see his body stood right there! But because he couldn’t see me, he thought he was hidden. Or sometimes you see with children, come on, we’re going to pray, and they put their hands over their eyes, thinking, ‘I can’t see you so you can’t see me.’

It’s a bit like that. Jonah’s trying to run away from God, but you can’t. And friends, might I suggest this is a salutary word for us today. We may run, but we cannot hide. There’s a huge positive reality about that. God sees the things that have been done to you that no one else sees. Hallelujah! But it is also a challenge for some of us. For those of us who know deep down in our hearts that we are running, trying to run away from God. And the beauty of Jonah, as we’ll see, is there is always a chance to turn back.

 

CHARACTER TWO – NINEVEH

So God, who sees and cares, as we’ll see. That’s the first main character. But then there are three others who, to varying degrees, are kind of running from God. The second is the city of Nineveh, which is modern day Mosul in Iraq. ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh…’, says God. But do you notice what he says? And we don’t like this, do we? ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ We don’t like that. We’re not comfortable with that. We would say, “Go and befriend Nineveh with the hope that they might one day see your good lives and want to know about how wonderful your God is”, wouldn’t we?

But, friends, when the first readers heard that word ‘Nineveh’, they wouldn’t think, “Let’s go and befriend it.” Nineveh was the enemy. To get a sense of the emotional force for those first readers, think Berlin in the late 1930’s. Imagine saying to a Jewish person in 1939, “Go to Berlin and befriend the Nazis with the hope that they might see your good deeds and one day want to know how wonderful your God is.” That’s the force here. Nineveh, the Assyrian Empire, in some respects, we should think the Nazis of the ancient world. They were known – if I can be graphic – for skinning their enemies alive. They were known for impaling people from between their legs, up through their mouths when they raided cities. These are not fluffy people, friends.

 

WHO ARE OUR ENEMIES?

And so if you were in the ancient world, you would have no problem with Jonah being told, “Go to Nineveh and preach against it because of its wickedness.” None at all. And at this point, you’d be cheering, “Yeah, get them, Jonah! Come on, God! Let’s slay those enemies!” But that’s the beauty of this book. We’re meant to be saying, “Go get him, God!” But as the book goes on, we see why God wants Jonah to preach – not to condemn, but so that they might repent and change their ways and turn to God. As God says in the very last verses of this book, the verse that we’ve got on the wall, God says, “Should I not be concerned about that great city, the city you hate?” And it’s a question that lingers long as we think, who are our enemies? The people that we do not want, if we’re honest, to turn to God. The people that we want to get their comeuppance? God says, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Church is often known, isn’t it, for tending to do one of two things – either for excusing wrong behaviour because of caring for people, or for condemning wrong behaviour and not caring for people. God wants Nineveh to turn back to Him because He cares. So that’s the second character, Nineveh.

 

CHARACTER THREE – SAILORS

The third character are sailors. Here you’ve got a group of people who are changed by their encounter with God. For the ancient people of God, they would have grown up knowing that the people that didn’t follow their God were enemies. And so you treat the other nations as the enemy, as against God, or at least as inferior to us, God’s chosen people. And so, Jonah’s is running away from God, gets on a boat, the storm rises, and then we meet the sailors and the captain of the ship.

Listen again to what was read to us. Verse 4, ‘Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god.’ And then later on, in verse 6, the captain goes to Jonah saying, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.’

Do you see? These sailors are just your working people. They’re not particularly religious – they’ll just do whichever God that works. “You try yours, you try yours, you try yours. You’re not praying. Come on, at least try something.” They’re not bothered. Just try the one that works. We’ve tried all these five. They didn’t try yours. That’s the kind of vibe here. They try whichever God that works.

 

THE SAILORS’ FEAR

But something remarkable happens to these sailors because the captain urges Jonah to do the same, because you never know, his might work unlike the others. And then we read these words. Do you, notice in verse 5, ‘… all the sailors were afraid…’? They’re afraid because of the storm. These are hardened sailors. This is a big deal. And then in verse 7 to 10, they’re still afraid: “Come, let’s try and cast lots to see whose fault it is. The prayers haven’t worked. Come on, there’s got to be someone!” And the lot fell on Jonah. And then they say, “What’s the deal here? Who are you? Where do you come from? What work are you doing? What’s the problem as to why we’re suffering this stuff?”

And he says, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ And look at what their response is – this terrified them. So they’re terrified because of the storm. But now they’re terrified because this guy on their boat has offended the God that owns the sea! That’s a problem for them! It’s fine if you offend the God that over there that likes the sun or whatever. But this one, the Lord of the sea and the dry land, that’s a big problem for them. They’re terrified. This is the God that’s got their boat in his hands. Wow, oh, dear. What do we do now?

So they throw Jonah overboard. But I love it because they try to do the right thing: “Please don’t hold us accountable for him. We just want to be out of this.” And then look at what happens, verse 15 and 16: ‘Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this, the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.‘ Do you see? Starting out, they’re afraid of the storm. Then they’re afraid that maybe they’ve offended somehow (because of this guy on board) the God who is in control of the sea. And then when they see the power of this God who calms the storm, then finally they’re now terrified of this God.

FEAR OR REVERE?

In fact, terrified is not the right word. That word for ‘they feared the Lord’ is actually more about awe. “Oh, wow. He’s the real deal.” And do you see what’s happened? These guys are just ordinary people finding their way in life, trying to work out what’s right, and they come face to face with the God of the Universe. Might I encourage you, whether you’re here in this room or you’re joining us online, I guess there’s many of us who don’t think of ourselves as ‘church people’. We don’t feel we fit in. We don’t pray all the right words, we get our words jumbled up. Not quite sure we dress in the right way ,don’t know our Bibles back to front. We’re not sure, and we wonder if, someday someone might find us out. I think we take huge encouragement from these sailors. They’re just trying to find their way and they come face to face with God and say, “Okay, it’s you.” And so what’s their response? They offer a sacrifice to the Lord and make vows to Him. “He’s the one I want to follow you.” I love that. In fact, as we’ll see in a moment, sometimes thinking that you are the right kind of person for God is a big problem.

 

CHARACTER FOUR – JONAH

That’s the third group, sailors. They’ve seen God, the character over it all. Nineveh, this city, sailors who are changed by real encounter with the real God. And then finally, we come face to face with Jonah, who might I suggest is running away from who God really is.

The power of this book, friends, is that we start off criticising Jonah, and then by the end, realise we are Jonah. We understand at the beginning why we think Jonah is running. All the children’s books, if you’ve been around church, tell us. Jonah, in a sense, runs away from God, but we think he’s running away from fear, don’t we? That’s what all the children’s books tell us. “Go and preach against Nineveh”, Jonah runs in the opposite direction. Why wouldn’t you? If you’re going to be told to go to Berlin in the 1930’s: no way. That’s how children’s books have it. And it’s an inspiring story, isn’t it? Overcome your fear to fulfill God’s calling in your life, and you never know what God will do through you. What a great story for life. Friends, that isn’t the story of Jonah.

 

THE STORY OF JONAH WE THOUGHT WE KNEW

 I was looking through the children’s book ‘Jonah, (First Word Heroes)’. Let me read you the story of Jonah according to this book. Not that… Well, I am critiquing. I was going to say I’m not critiquing – I am, but you’ll see why:

God told Jonah to go to a big bad city called Nineveh. He had a message for them. God said, “Go.” But Jonah said, “No.” He ran away and sailed on a ship. God sent a huge storm. The sailors were afraid. Jonah told them, “Throw me into the sea, then the storm will stop.” Jonah fell – SPLASH – into the sea. A big fish swallowed him in one gulp. It was dark inside the fish. Jonah prayed to God. God heard him, spoke to the fish and – BURP – Jonah was back on dry land. Again, God said, “Go.” Jonah said, “Yes.” And Nineveh became a good city.

End of the sermon series! Boom! Let’s close up and go! We presume that Jonah is running out of fear and this is an inspiring story to encourage us to overcome our fear. Because Jonah is introduced as God’s man, he’s a prophet, and in 2 Kings, he is a prophet who speaks the right things. The King obeys him, he’s a good man. He’s a man who’s got the ears of a king, a successful Christian leader. Holy Joe! Yeah, he’s the hero, isn’t he? But the problem is he’s running. Do you notice something? Jonah ran away from the Lord. Literally, if you were to read what that phrase says in the original language, it is ‘Jonah ran away from the face of the Lord.’

 

WHY IS JONAH RUNNING?

In Chapter 4, we discover the real reason why Jonah is running. This is a bit of a spoiler alert, but it helps make sense of the whole book. Chapter 4, Verse 2, Jonah says this to God, ‘That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’  We think he’s running because he’s worried that Ninevah won’t repent and therefore kill him.  In reality, he’s running because he’s worried that Nineveh might repent and God would forgive them. He cannot stand the idea that Nineveh might be forgiven by God. He’s running from God’s grace and mercy. Friends, might I suggest, we all love grace and mercy when we need it. But when we have to extend the same grace and mercy to other people that have offended us, we’re quite quick to want God to get their comeuppance.

I remember in a previous church we were doing a course like the Alpha course. There was a woman really interested in Christianity, really convinced of who Jesus was.  And I remember the moment when she began to realise that what the good news of Jesus really meant was that all of what she’d been living for – all that success, all good behaviour, all that really meant was that all of what she’d been living for, all that success, all that good behaviour, all that doing well in life – meant nothing. Actually, it’s all about grace and mercy.

 

GRACE AND MERCY

Friends, that’s the question in this book. Who do you think, who do you hope, doesn’t get God’s mercy? Who won’t you extend mercy to? Jonah is you and me – church people who are quick to want grace and mercy for ourselves and slow to extend it to anyone else. People who don’t like people correcting our actions, but are quick to correct others. And it’s no surprise that what does it take to shatter those delusions? A storm of life, as we’ll see next week. Some of us, if we are honest, are followers of Jesus, but know our hearts have grown very cold to God’s amazing grace and mercy. How do we know that? Because we’re quick to critique, we’re quick to judge, we’re quick to look at others and how bad or inappropriate they are.

So as I close, what’s the solution to running away from God? How is this all resolved? Well, over the next few weeks we’ll see. But – spoiler alert – do you notice what happens when Jonah is thrown in the sea? Let me read again. Verse 15: ‘Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.‘ What was the solution for those people needing a rescue? Someone taking their place, a substitute for them, for their salvation.

So whoever it is, whichever group you slightly hope don’t get God’s mercy, whatever side of the political spectrum, whatever side of society, whoever those people you’re quick to critique – remember that God himself stepped in, gave His Son as that substitute so that we all might be saved. Friends, this book of Jonah is about us, so let’s press into it and ask God, “Please break our hearts. For the city we find ourselves in, for the people we find living amongst us and break our hearts for our own relationship with God.”

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