THE GREAT REFUSAL — JONAH
Adapted from a Sermon by Clovis Chappell, who was a Methodist minister in the United States in the early 1900s’
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, (2) “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (3) But Jonah rose 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 the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. Jonah 1:1-3
There is probably no another book in the literature of the world that has suffered more at the hands of men than the book of Jonah. It has been tortured by its enemies and wounded by its friends. We have been so prone to give our attention to the non-essential in the book rather than the essential. We have had such keen eyes for the seemingly ridiculous and the bizarre. Because of this it has come to pass that you can hardly mention the name of Jonah to a modern audience without provoking a smile. And so, Jonah, coming to us as an evangelist, is mistaken by many for a clown.
Now this is a terrible thing. It is a terrible thing in the first place because the book of Jonah is one of the gems of literature. It is a book in the Old Testament full of evidence of the breath of inspiration. It is a book that shines with the light of the divine love. It is a wonderful gospel in itself. Therefore, it is a great pity that we have turned from its deep wealth to give ourselves to the unedifying task of measuring the size of a fish's stomach.
Did you ever hear of the tale of the hungry men that were invited to a feast? When they came within the banquet hall they found the table spread with the delicacies of a king. But the table was a bit out of the ordinary. Therefore, there arose a discussion over the material out of which it was made. These guests began heated arguments also over how it had been made. And they argued so long, and learnedly, and well, that the food went utterly to waste and they went away more hungry than when they had come.
There is a story of a prince who loved a beautiful peasant girl. In spite of his royal blood he determined to marry her. To seal his pledge of marriage he sent her a wonderful engagement ring. It was a very beautiful and priceless gem. But the girl was more interested in the beautiful box in which it was packed than she was in the ring. And when the prince came he was humiliated and disappointed to find her wearing the box tied on her finger while the jewel had been neglected and forgotten and utterly lost.
Now there is real jewelry here. Let us forget the rather strange package in which this jewel comes while we examine the treasure. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, (2) “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me. " "The word of the LORD came to Jonah." There is nothing crude about that statement. There is nothing in that to excite our ridicule. That is one of the blessed and thrilling truths of the ages. To this man Jonah, living some time, somewhere, God spoke. To this man God made known His will and holy purpose.
And God is speaking still. The word of God is coming to men and women today. There is not a single soul listening to me at this moment to whom, at some time in your life, has not come a definite and sure word from God. You have felt the influence of His Spirit upon your own spirit. You have felt the touch of His hand on yours. You have seen His finger pointing to the road in which you ought to walk and to the task that He was calling on you to perform.
How this word came to Jonah we do not know, nor do we need to know. It may have come to him through a study of the Word. It may have come to him in a dream. How it came is not the essential thing. The one thing essential and fundamental is this, that the word did come. That is the essential thing in your case and in mine. God does speak to us. God does approach us. God does call us, command us. God does stir us up. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah," and it comes this very moment to you and to me.
What was it that the Lord said to Jonah? He gave him a strange and unwelcome command. He said, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." It was hard for Jonah to believe that he had heard aright. Was it possible that Nineveh was a great city in spite of the fact that it was a heathen city? Was it possible that Nineveh’s wickedness grieved God? Could it be possible that God really loved Nineveh, though it was outside the covenant? Jonah did not want to believe this, but he had to believe it. He had to realize that in the words of an old hymn: “The love of God is wider than the measure of man's mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind."
Jonah did not want to undertake this mission. His objection, however, did not grow out of the fear that Nineveh would refuse to repent. His reluctance did not come from the conviction that there was nothing in the people of Nineveh to which his message would appeal. I know we are often hobbled by that conviction. We feel that it is absolutely useless to preach to some people. There is no use in trying to evangelize such or such a country. There is no use even in trying to evangelize some of our next-door neighbors. We so often forget that there is in every person an unquenchable hunger and thirst that none but God can satisfy.
But to Jonah this call was unwelcome because he feared that Nineveh might repent. And that he did not want Nineveh to do. Jonah believed that God was the God of Israel only. He believed that God blessed Israel in two ways. First, He blessed her by giving her spiritual and temporal gifts. And He blessed her, in the second place, by sending calamities upon her enemies. An abundant harvest in Israel was a blessing from the Lord. A famine in Nineveh, as an enemy of Israel, was also a blessing from the Lord. It seems that Jonah was firmly convinced that the prosperity of a nation other than his own meant calamity to Israel.
It is regrettable that this selfish belief did not perish with Jonah. But when we face the facts we know that it did not. It is a very human trait in us to feel that another's advancement is in some way a blow to ourselves. It is equally a human trait to feel that another's downfall and disgrace in some way adds a bit of luster to our own condition. Of course, nothing could be more utterly false, but in spite of this fact human nature has clung to that feeling through all the passing centuries.
On the whole this duty, then, that God had charged to Jonah was so distasteful to him that he made up his mind that whatever it might cost him he would not obey. Therefore, we read that he "rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD." Ordered to Nineveh he sets out for Tarshish. There were two cities on his map and only two. There was Nineveh, the city to which he might go in the fellowship of God and within the circle of the will of God. There was also Tarshish, the city that is at the end of the rebel's road, the city whose streets, if ever he walked them at all, he would walk without the fellowship of the God whom he had disobeyed.
And there are just two cities on your map. The Nineveh of obedience and the Tarshish of disobedience. You are going to Nineveh or to Tarshish. I do not claim to know where your Nineveh is. It may be a distant city. It may be a city across the seas on whose streets you will bear witness and suffer for Christ’s sake. It may be a city as near to you as the home in which you live, as the child that you cradle in your arms. But wherever it is, if you walk its streets you will walk them in the joy of fellowship with God.
On the other hand, you may go to Tarshish. Tarshish is the city of "Have-Your-Own-Way." It is the city of "Do-As-You-Please." It is the city of "Take-it-Easy." It is the city with no garden called Gethsemane outside its gates and no rocky hill called Calvary overlooking its walls. It is a city without a cross and yet it is a city where people seldom sing and often cry. It is a city where nobody looks joyously into God's face and calls Him Father.
If we met Jonah that day on the wharf what might we see? We can imagine him looking like he had passed through a terrible spell of sickness. His cheeks hollow. His eyes red with sleeplessness. With a haggard, worn, hounded look about him. "Are you on the way home, Jonah?" We may ask. And he could shake his head and say, "No. I am going to Tarshish." Tarshish was the most far away place of which the Jew had any conception. "Tarshish!" We may say in astonishment. "What are you going to do over at Tarshish?" "Oh," he says, "I hadn't thought about that. I do not know what the future has in store for me. What I am trying to do is to get away from God." And “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD."
We may wonder why the text did not say "And Jonah arose to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of his duty" instead of "from the presence of the Lord." The writer of this story had real spiritual insight. He was far clearer in his thinking than many of us. He knew that to flee from duty was to flee from God. Whenever you make up your mind to refuse to go where God wants you to go and to do what God wants you to do, you must make up your mind at the same time to renounce the friendship of God. You cannot walk with Him and at the same time be in rebellion against Him. God has no possible way of entering into fellowship with the soul that is disobedient to His will. Believe me, it is absolutely useless, it is mere mockery, to say "Lord, Lord" and then refuse to do the things that He commands you to do.
Now, when Jonah saw the spaces of water growing wider between him and the shore a kind of deadly calm came upon him. A man with his mind made up to do wrong is far more at rest than the man whose mind is not made up at all. So, when Jonah had fully decided that he would rebel against God and give up all claim to God, a dreadful restfulness came to his troubled spirit. He went down into the sides of the ship and went fast asleep. The days before had been troubled days. The nights had been restless nights. But the battle was over now, even though it had been lost, and he was able at last to sleep.
This period seems to mark the period of greatest danger in the life of Jonah. Jonah had been a rebel before, but he had been a restless rebel. He had been disobedient before, but his disobedience had tortured him. It had put strands of gray into his hair and wrinkles on his forehead. But now he is not only in rebellion, but he is content to be so. He is not only without God, but he is, in a measure, satisfied to be without Him. No greater danger can come to anyone than that. As long as your sin breaks your heart, as long as your disobedience makes you lie awake at night and grieves your heart there is hope for you. But when you become contented with your wickedness, when you come to believe that it is the best possible for you, then you are in danger indeed.
Now Jonah's danger is the danger of a great many, both in the Church and out. You who are listening to me at this moment are full of good will toward the Church. You love it and desire want it to grow spiritually and in number. Yet many of you are doing practically nothing to make its desired prosperity a reality. One of the most discouraging features about the Church today is the large number of utterly useless people within it. And these are not only useless, but saddest of all, they are content with their uselessness. They seem to feel that it is God's best for them; that it is all that God expects or has a right to expect.
Did you ever lay out your religious program and look at it? What does discipleship cost you? What is involved in your allegiance to the Lord? Coming to church twice a week on Sunday mornings and evenings. Only this and nothing more. Whatever else may be needed to sustain the church is not your burden. The prayer meeting is not your burden. Visiting new members, were the Lord to bless us in this way, that came into our Church and into the Kingdom would not be your responsibility. Helping by your presence and by your prayers to give spiritual fervor to all the services, is not your responsibility. Yours is to make your way up to the doors of the place of worship ‘in time’ without ever having made one single costly sacrifice in order to follow the Lord.
Are you running away from your duty this morning? You know what it is. At least you may know it. This is a needy world. This is a needy Church. It has an opportunity to touch the uttermost parts of the earth if it is spiritually alive and spiritually mighty. Are you making your contribution? Are you accepting your responsibility or have you turned your back on it for no other reason than just this, that it is too much trouble? If that is true of me and if that is true of you, may the Lord wake us up this morning and give us to see our deadly danger.
So, Jonah turned his back on his duty and turned his back on God. He took a ship for Tarshish and went to sleep. Surely his situation is critical indeed. But though he has forgotten God, God in His mercy has not forgotten him. God still loves Jonah, still longs for him and still hopes for him. And so, in mercy He sends a storm after him. That was dangerous cargo that that ship had on board. It had better have had gasoline or dynamite than a rebellious prophet.
And it was in mercy that the Lord sent the storm after Jonah. "The LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea." (1:4) Let us thank God for the storms that stir us, that wake us up, that keep us from sleeping our way into the bottomless pit. May the Lord send us any kind of storm rather than allow us to fling ourselves eternally away from His presence. I am so glad God will never allow a man to go comfortably and peacefully to eternal death. He never allows any man to be lost until He has done His best to save him.
Hear what one man, full of promise of success in this world, had to say about loosing it all.
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:8-11)
Let us thank God for any losses that may come to us that will keep us from sleeping our way to ruin.
So, Jonah was down in the sides of the boat asleep. Meanwhile the tempest was raging. Meanwhile the fear-filled crew was rubbing elbows with death. Then a hand is clapped on Jonah's shoulder and he is being given a vigorous shaking and a voice is calling to him. And though it is a heathen voice it is full of rebuke. "What do you mean, you sleeper?” How is it that you can sleep amidst all the agony, amidst all the danger that is all around us? When the situation is as it is, how is it that you are not on your knees? “Arise, call out to your god!”
I wish through this message that I might take some of you who are sleeping so soundly and peacefully and shake you awake. I wish that God might speak through my voice to my heart and yours and say to us, "What do you mean, you sleeper?” What do you mean by sitting idly and senselessly in the House of God Sunday after Sunday and never doing anything? What do you mean by having children growing up around you and not being enough interested in their spiritual welfare to even have family worship? How is it that amidst the tremendous issues of moral life and moral death that you can be as complacent and as undisturbed as the dead? Why in the name of all that is reasonable will you continue to 'lie like huge stones across the mouth of the sepulcher where God is trying to raise some Lazarus from the dead?'"
That shake and that message got Jonah awake. He sprang out of his cot and rushed unto the deck. And the sight that met him there made a new man out of him. It changed him from an unconcerned Jew into a compassionate man and a missionary. What did he realize as he looked into the pale faces of those terrified men about him? He forgot all about their being heathen. He only remembered that they were one with himself in their common danger and their common need. They were all threatened with death. They all needed somebody to save them. And that is still true. We may be different in many respects, but we are all alike in this: We have all sinned and we all need a Savior.
And he must have realised the fact that his own wicked rebellion against God had not only brought wretchedness upon himself, but that it was bringing it upon all that sailed with him. No man ever flees from duty without incalculable hurt, not only to himself, but to others as well.
But the opposite is also true. If my disobedience hurts, my obedience helps. If my sin carries a curse, my righteousness brings a blessing. Here is another ship tossed by a storm. But the preacher on board this time is on good terms with his God. Therefore, he puts one hand into the hand of his Lord and with the other he saves the whole company of two hundred and seventy-six souls that sail with him. "Take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.” (Acts 27:22-24)
"What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" is the question. Jonah does not offer an easy suggestion. "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea," is the reply. The man who a few days ago despised the heathen is now ready to die for them. That shows that God had made him a new man, still able to backslide as we see a little later, but, nonetheless, by God’s grace, a new man.
And to this day, God has no other method for stilling seas than that employed by Jonah. When the tempest of this world's sin was to be stilled there was no cheaper way than for Christ to allow himself to be thrown overboard. And that is the price you and I have to pay for real service. Peter writes that Christ “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1Pe 2:24) The method God uses for stilling the seas is for us to die to sin, that is the only way. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)
So, Jonah was cast into the sea. But by losing his life he found it. There is a story of a missionary and a British soldier in India; whether it happened in actual fact I do not know but it does illustrate a wonderful and proper posture of the heart. This soldier was seeking salvation. They prayed together. But as they were about to separate, the soldier was not satisfied. He staggered against the wall and prayed in this way: "Lord, my sins are many. I am unworthy of your salvation. I am unworthy of a vision of your face. But if there is any place that you want some man to die for you I would count it as a great favor if you would let me be that man." "And then suddenly," said the missionary, "the light came into his face and he was conscious of the presence of Christ."
If you will do this today, stop running from God and turn and walk with Him, you will find that Nineveh is not a city of restlessness and wretchedness. But you will find that it is a city rich in fellowship with God and in the blessed experience of that peace “which surpasses all understanding.” (Phil 4:7)
Which way are you going to travel from this hour? Down those stairs you will go in a few moments facing toward Nineveh or toward Tarshish. Which way will you face? May God grant that every step you take from this hour may be toward Nineveh.