A number of years ago, when it was common to advertise tobacco products on television, there was one commercial I especially enjoyed. It was a cigar commercial for a brand of cigars called “White Owl” cigars. And at the end of the commercial, the camera zeroed in on one distinguished looking older gentleman holding a “White Owl” cigar while he made the final pitch.
Looking down with great affection at the White Owl cigar which he was rolling and caressing in his hand, he offered this memorable slogan. “We’ll get you now or we’ll get you later.” (pause) “But sooner or later, we’re gonna getcha.”
Actually, I figure that’s the same way it is with God. God is gonna get us now. Or maybe God will get us a little later. But sooner or later, in this world or in the next, God is gonna get us.
Nonetheless, there have always been a few people in the world who like to put God to the test. Who will take on a good challenge just for the sake of the challenge, no matter the odds. Who are so stubborn they don’t want to admit the inevitable. Yes, there’s always somebody who will lace up their running shoes and run away from God as fast as they can possibly go.
The prophet Jonah was one of those people. Jonah tested the limits. He was always up for a good challenge. Stubborn as a mule, Jonah had his own agenda and he wasn’t particularly interested in what anyone else had to say.
But one day, Jonah met his match. One day, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, ‘go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’” God had something important for Jonah to do. God wanted Jonah to straighten the people of Nineveh out. Put them back on the straight and narrow. Whip them into shape and get them back in line. Because God was dismayed and more than a little fed up with the Ninevites’ wickedness.
Now in fairness to Jonah it helps to understand more clearly what God was asking Jonah to do. For God to tell Jonah to go and cry out to the people in the middle of the streets of Nineveh would have been the equivalent of God throwing Jonah to the wolves. It would be like God appearing out of nowhere and telling one of us that we had to sit down and have a civil conversation with one of the leaders of ISIS. Or God telling some of us we had to go out and buy front row tickets for the first heavy metal concert that comes through the state of Connecticut this summer. Or maybe it would be like God telling us to sit we had to go to a forum and listen to various FIFA officials tell us about the importance of ethics and following the law and good sportsmanship.
It suffices to say that God wasn’t asking Jonah to do something easy. God wanted Jonah to go into the heart of enemy territory and inform them in no uncertain terms the very things they did not want to hear. And Jonah wasn’t too happy about it.
However, Jonah at least had enough sense to know that it wasn’t a great idea to argue with God. So picture the conversation for a moment.
“Jonah, this is God…I want you to go up to Nineveh and make those people repent from their evil ways.”
(Silence) “Okay God…I’ll get on that right away.” But Jonah had no intention of going north to Nineveh. What did Jonah do instead? He put on his running shoes and headed south to Tarshish. “Okay God, I’ll go anywhere you want to go. Nineveh? Perfect. And then just like the Roadrunner speeding off from Wily Coyote. “Beep beep…and bvvvvvvt,” Jonah went in the exact opposite direction.
God waited for Jonah to head to the north. Meanwhile Jonah was running full tilt to the south. And for a moment, it looked like Jonah was in good shape. He got on a boat, paid his fare, watched the crew lift the anchor, and sat back while the boat set sail for Tarshish.
Then we come to verse four in the first chapter of Jonah. And how does verse four begin? “But the Lord.” But…the Lord. You have to take careful note in the Bible when you read those words at the beginning of a sentence. But the Lord… You see God had some other ideas. And God wasn’t about to let Jonah get all the way to Tarshish.
“But the Lord.” Where would some of us be in this life without those three words? How many times have we heard someone say, “I thought it was going to be the end for me, BUT THE LORD…? How many times have we said it ourselves? I thought I would never come out of the hospital and go back to my own house, BUT THE LORD… My life was heading down the wrong road and I was on my way over the edge of the cliff and into oblivion, BUT THE LORD… I never thought I’d stop drinking. I never thought I’d ever speak to my friend or my family member again. I never thought the x-rays would come back clear. I never thought the other car was going to swerve out of the way…BUT THE LORD…
God has all kinds of other ideas for us in our lives. No matter how stubborn we are. No matter how much we argue and protest. Even when we give up and give in. God is right there with a different plan in mind.
Jonah was sailing along with a crew of sailors on a calm, quiet sea. “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” All at once the mariners began to panic. They tossed the luggage overboard. They screamed and yelled and pleaded for their own salvation. Each man cried out to their own God.
Then the captain went down below deck and found Jonah sleeping. Talk about a man in denial. “Call on your God and perhaps your God will spare us from death,” the captain urged Jonah.
Working his way timidly toward the upper deck of the ship, Jonah found the sailors huddled together in fear. And then they cast lots to find out who was the cause of their impending doom. As fate would have it, the lot fell to Jonah.
“I worship the Lord,” Jonah confessed, “the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” But Jonah’s attempt to calm his shipmates fell upon deaf ears. In fact, the Scripture tells us that the sailors listened to Jonah and grew even more afraid. For they knew that Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the Lord.
You cannot run away from the Lord. Or maybe in the words of one of the heroes of an old action adventure TV show, “you can run, but you can’t hide.”
Sooner or later, God is gonna get us. We can spend all the time we want trying to deny that God is out there working in the world. We can avoid going to church. We can scoff at the stories in the Bible. We can look at the pain and suffering in the world and snicker skeptically wondering why God won’t do something about it.
In truth, we can talk about God’s demise. How the church is in a downward spiral. How religion is becoming less and less relevant in our society. How old fashioned morals and values are going down the tubes.
We can even lace up our running shoes and get going. Change our address. Take a new job, start a new life, close our eyes and ears. Travel to the ends of the earth. All the while heading in exactly the opposite direction God wants us to go.
There are a whole lot of people in the world who have been running away from God and hiding from God for a long time. Actually, there may even be a few people in this sanctuary this morning who are running away from God. And you decided to hide in a church on a Sunday during a worship service? Hmmmmm. Of all the places a person could run away and hide, daring God to find them, I hope a church sanctuary would be one of the first places God would look…
Jonah thought he had it made. But it didn’t take long for God to find Jonah. And it wouldn’t take long for God to redirect and reorient Jonah. All the way back north to Nineveh with Jonah kicking and screaming the whole way.
Running away from God. If God could find Jonah once upon a time, the truth is God can find anyone. Even you and me. Sooner or later…God is gonna get us. Amen.