Written by Jonathan Toccoli

8/29/2017

We Run, He Follows


(Scripture to read before, during or after: Isaiah 45:12-14, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 10:25-37)

I need me a place to hide my face
From the howlin’ of the wind
– Townes van Zandt

We all have that moment or that day or night where we said enough. When we hit the wall and say, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t.’ In that moment we realize we may not be who we always thought or hoped we would be. How, in that moment or after it, do we come back – or can we? How do we come home?

Jonah had one of those moments with God and he was brave enough to walk through it until the end. And Jonah or someone after him decided it was worth writing down his failings to help us understand what that ‘enough’ might really mean and the way the God who says, ‘keep going,’ is still loving us in the midst of it.

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying…
– Jonah 1:1

In the first verse we realize something is odd. The word translated ‘now’ is the Hebrew equivalent to the word ‘and,’ and as you and I and the author of Jonah know/ew, you do not begin a sentence with the world ‘and’ and you especially do not begin a book with it. I mean, what are you and-ing from? With this one little word – which is really just a single pen stroke in the Hebrew (ו) – the author hints to us that the beginning of this story is already the middle of another story. What story we are in the middle of is ambiguous, the author never actually tell us. And it is only in the final verses of the end of the book that the ‘and’ begins to make sense. More on that in chapter 4.

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.
– Jonah 1:2

Here again more and more oddness. We all know Jonah disobeys God and we think ‘bad Jonah.’ While true, what God calls Jonah here is weird and perhaps (semi?)unique in Israel. If God had said, “get up, Jonah, and go to Israel or Judah or King Jeroboam” (like he did in 2 Kings 14), Jonah probably would have obeyed. Even if the word was hard, like Amos’ word against Israel, Jonah – who doesn’t really suffer from shyness – probably would have done so. But ‘go to Nineveh’? Nope, nope. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
– Jonah 1:3

But why is ‘go to Nineveh’ so wrong? Because Jonah, while we don’t see it here, would have known why God would have sent him. On the surface of the story, we do not yet know Jonah’s motive. The Assyrians are known to flay (yes, like a fish) their prisoners alive. King Ashurbanipal of Assyria would boast in the 7th c. BC:

I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.
– King Ashurbanipal

These same Assyrians are looking at plucky, little, upstart Israel with the hungry eye. Within 50 years, Assyria will utterly destroy the people of Israel. Horrible true, but Assyria being pagans isn’t really a problem – Jewish prophets love talking about the evil of the pagans, e.g., ALL OF Isaiah. So why refuse to go? It’s because in ancient world, prophets – Jewish or pagan – were less like telegraph delivery people and more like social activist whose job was to change culture to help keep people from disobeying God or gods or whomever-they-worked-for. Jonah would have known that he was not delivering a telegraph message from God that read:

You will be destroyed – just a heads up!

He would have known: to go to a people is to warn them, to coach, to lead them in the right way. The problem wasn’t just the people, the problem – at least, from Jonah’s perspective – was the message.

We can ask an interesting question of Jonah here. What did you think fleeing would accomplish, Jonah? Did you flee because:

  • A) Were you trying to quit your job as a prophet?
  • B) Or were you trying to get away from this be-nice-to-your-neighbors—yes-even-them God?
  • C) Or did you think that God had set a clock to countdown against Nineveh that began running when his word came to you? As if by running to Tarshish you could waste enough time so the countdown would reach zero before God could get someone else? Were you trying to ensure the destruction of Nineveh with you Crime-TV-style flee from God?

Perhaps the Book of Jonah refuses to make plain Jonah’s motives because Jonah’s motives simply are not the point. The book itself is far more concerned with the question than the answer. As if, as it certainly is, it is asking us what we would do if tasked with the conversation of the enemies-of-enemies, the Darth Vader of nations was our job. Just think of it:

God comes to you in 1944 and says, “Go to Hitler, that leader of nations, for his evil has come up before the Lord.”

And just imagine if Hitler, like Nineveh, repents: Germany’s government will not be overthrown, the Allies will quit the war and Hitler and his SS cronies may never have to account before any human judge for anything – not a single life, not a single city, not a single mother or child killed in a gas chamber. True, the Lord will call all to account before his throne and there may even be judgment in the earthly realm to come, but not today and we may never know of it if or when it happens. As far as we know, Hitler gets to go on living and living and living and ruling and leading and living. Could you do it? Could you go? Would you go?

I don’t know if you could go, but when command by the Lord to go to Nineveh, Jonah said, ‘enough. I won’t.’ Who did Jonah in that moment understand himself to be? Certainly he no longer though he was on the ‘in’ with God. He would have known himself, perhaps instantly, to be against God. Yet, if you have read ahead in Jonah, you will know that the Lord did not stop speaking to Jonah; he continued to call him, to use him.

What does God’s pursuit of Jonah mean for you and me? That is not a question I can answer for you. But I know that, for me, to know that God does not forsake his people, even his rebellious ones, is to me a comfort. While the book asks the question, ‘will you go?’ Its real message is, ‘I will follow,’ says the Lord. And even in the moments when I do not know who I am any more, I am comforted by knowing the Lord who pursued Jonah, is the one who pursues me.

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Jonathan is Vice Principal at Jim Elliot Christian High School and leads the Lincoln Village CG with his wife, Emily. While he is a fourth generation Stocktonian, he’s spent 7 of the last 9 years in Chicago working on a couple graduate degrees. Now that they’ve re-relocated to Stockton, he says he loves standing outside in the sun in January and lazing with his dogs. He also really, really enjoys espresso.