Boat Trips, Dodged Obedience and the Edge of the Known World

A few years ago, I was on a a group trip to Israel. Later, through a series of sermons, I elaborated on many of the places we visited and the lessons we learned (even though there is no way that I could convey every detail with the richness of being in-country). The sights and landscapes helped put many biblical references into context. Early in our trip, we visited the ancient port city of Joppa where I had a perspective-giving moment.

The bible records a few events that took place in Joppa, but one of the most-cited references is found in the book of Jonah. The prophet receives a clear command from God: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). In all fairness, Nineveh wasn’t the best place for him to go (considering it from a strictly human vantage point); it would likely be dangerous (they were, after all, an evil people, God said so himself), but God gave a personal command that should have taken priority over any of Jonah’s thoughts or desires. What does Jonah do? Grab a ticket for a cruise in the opposite direction. 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. (1:3). We have a better chance of losing our shadows than escaping an omnipresent and all-powerful God. Nevertheless, God still works his plan in Jonah’s life. Jonah is pitched overboard and swallowed by a “great fish.” 3 days and 3 nights later he is spit out onto land. God speaks to Jonah a second time, “Arise, go to Nineveh” (3:2). This time, he obeys.

God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, some 500 miles to the northeast of his hometown. He instead finds a ship going 2,500 miles in the opposite direction to Tarshish, a city in Spain on the other end of the Mediterranean Sea. To the ancients, the area was the end of the known world. What would make a person go this far in trying to outrun the presence of God? Jonah himself reveals the reason: he does not want God to show mercy to the evil people of Nineveh. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah flees quickly because he knows that God is slower to anger than he is. If there is no sermon to the Assyrians, perhaps there will be no repentance, and if there is no repentance, there will be no mercy. In the fish’s belly, Jonah turns to and receives the very mercy he wanted withheld from his enemies (Jonah 2). God mercifully spares Jonah in his repentance, just as he does Nineveh.

While we were at Joppa, I wandered off from the group and made my way down a narrow alley facing the Mediterranean Sea. Looking out at that too-blue-to-be-real water, I thought, “Somewhere along this very coastline, Jonah dropped some coins into a sailor’s hands and climbed aboard a ship trying to flee from God.” As the sea breeze whipped around me, some other thoughts came…  

We all have a Nineveh.

We all have a Joppa.

We all have a Tarshish.

And there is always a boat.

What has God called you to do that seems outside of your comfort zone? Would your obedience seem outside your plans for how you think things should be? Does God’s call to obedience disrupt your everyday routine? Are you running from obeying to God? Are you justifying that disobedience with busyness? What are you running to instead of obedience? Have you been trying to find a place to avoid God’s presence? Are you willing to say “yes” to your Nineveh and “no” to Tarshish? 

What is your Nineveh?

What is your Joppa?

What is your Tarshish?

What is your boat?

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