Summary of the Text
We love the beach, but as the general consensus of scholars will tell us, our Israelite ancestors in the faith did not.
Debating whether that is completely accurate or whether it is merely based on deduction from Scriptural anecdotes is a deep dive beyond the scope of this simple preaching aid, but the people-sea relationship did not start off as a terribly foreboding one. In creation, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, God separated land and sea and filled both with life, and God included “the fish in the sea” among the things over which He commanded people to rule. Granted, that was all before the Fall, and things were a bit different back then.
After God’s creation became a thing that could be feared and not merely a thing to steward and name, large bodies of water were a good candidate for being the scariest feature on the earth’s surface. That was especially true of the wide, untamed sea, and even though God promised to Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the sands of the seashore, God consistently led Abram and those descendants to hills and mountains, perhaps most notably in Exodus, when the seaside route to the Promised Land was easiest, but God took them inland.
Granted, God primarily did so because of the prospect of war with the Philistines, but that simply brings up another reason to fear the sea. Sure, the waves are powerful, the water is dark and deep, scary creatures live there (leviathan in the psalms), the water is non-potable, and it’s an easy place to get lost, but throughout the Old Testament we find other nations dwelling and even thriving near the sea. Limited contact with other nations meant limited opportunities for God’s fledgling nation to be corrupted and tempted. Hills and mountains, by contrast, gave more opportunities for isolation and cultural preservation, which we still find to be the case geographically and culturally today.
All of these factors bring us to Jonah, whose story is the focus for this sermon. We may like to go to the beach to escape and get away from it all, but Jonah literally went to the beach to escape and get away from it all. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and deliver a message, but Jonah did not like the Ninevites. Not only did he not want to deliver the message, but he also did not want to give the Ninevites a chance at receiving God’s grace, as we see later in his story. Filled with scorn, Jonah went to Joppa and boarded a ship for Tarshish, essentially as far away as he could go.
We know, obviously, that he could not flee from God. Deep down, Jonah probably knew that as well; but he could try. Given that different nations had different gods and the people of God believed that Yahweh dwelt at the heart of the people in Jerusalem—with maybe a vacation home or two in Samaria—Jonah perhaps believed that escaping God’s people’s dominion and the lands where He desired to make Himself known would exempt him from his duty. But, unlike Red and Andy who escaped the long arm of the law by crossing borders and heading to the beach in Shawshank Redemption, Jonah could not escape the long arm of the Lord.
Jonah’s full internal monologue is not preserved for us, but he clearly did not see himself as the right person for the task. Perhaps Jonah assumed that God would find someone else. After all, Jonah was just one person and God had plenty of people at his disposal. The old country song goes, “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,” and Jonah apparently felt even smaller in the presence of God—so much so that he was willing to risk the ocean to flee from God.
But—spoiler alert—God found him. We might go to the beach and the ocean to feel God’s presence today, but Jonah got much more than he bargained for in the ocean. Not only that, God showed both His power and His faithfulness to His own purposes by sending a storm to draw Jonah out of his retreat. Along the way, a bunch of seafaring foreigners also learned to fear the Lord, and this is echoed in other Old Testament references to Tarshish, whose ships are both threatened (Psalm 48:7, Isaiah 23:1) and bear witness to God’s glory (Psalm 72:10, Isaiah 60:9). Ultimately, Jonah’s story teaches us about the expanse of God’s grace and glory, whether we want to accept it and proclaim it or not.
When we stand beside the ocean, we see a powerful and foreboding expanse. At the same time, we see the edge of the world and the magnitude of God’s creation and reign. We are so small, yet God calls us to be His stewards, messengers, and followers, even if we might not feel up to the task. As we look ahead to next week, we find a transition in the use of the sea from the Old Testament to the New. Whereas the Israelites hoped for God to make paths through the sea and return His people from their voyages with many things to glorify Him (Isaiah 60), Jesus’s followers took to the sea at his instruction, with good news to share. With grace and salvation assured, they could face the waves without fear. We may see God’s power in the ocean, but in Christ we know that His call can power us through the most foreboding of waters and most fiery of cities, and He will be with us (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina. Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.) His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.
Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music. He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now. As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.
Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).
From the TPW illustrations page on calling
A King’s Calling
In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to Prior Richard at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a contemplative and spend the rest of his life in the monastery. “Your Majesty,” said Prior Richard, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.”
“I understand,” said Henry. “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.”
“Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” When King Henry died, a statement was written: “The King learned to rule by being obedient.” When we tire of our roles and responsibilities, it helps to remember God has planted us in a certain place and told us to be a good accountant or teacher or mother or father. Christ expects us to be faithful where he puts us, and when he returns, we’ll rule together with him.
Steve Brown, Key Biscayne, Florida.