It's not easy to stay out of the storms, no matter what escape you plan. It's just not easy to keep from getting rained on and buffeted around when the storm is coming, no matter what means you use to take shelter.
This week, on the afternoon of the sudden squall, I had gone home to attend to my wife after her surgery, and needed to run up to the drugstore to fill a prescription. Well, I got involved in first one thing and then another, kind of delayed running my little errand, and then I said to her, "It looks like we're going to have a heavy rain out there; let me go and get this done right now." Well, you can guess what happened: got in the car, drove to the pharmacy, found a parking space, and splash! Torrents broke loose, and all I could do was to sit there in the car for ten or fifteen minutes until it blew over. No matter what you try to do, it seems, you cannot avoid the storm. Leave early, leave late, hurry, slow down … it makes no difference. You will be touched in one way or another by the storm.
But I do want you to know who is caught upon his prayers by now! At the same time, during that same storm, Adrian and Deborah Arnold were driving along Fenton Street, past Montgomery College, heading toward Silver Spring. You saw in the newspaper about the wall that fell down? Guess who was right there? Guess whose car got hit and whose tire was cut? Right!! Now do you see my point? No matter where you are or what you do or how you try to escape, when the storm comes, it will touch you. You cannot really escape the storms.
At the beginning of the year, especially on New Year's Day, you may not feel like getting out of bed. I am not only referring to the nasty habit of staying up too late and lubricating the midnight hour too much; I am also thinking that you may not have wanted to get out of bed and face the storms that a new year will bring with it. Why, did you see those summaries of the past year the news stations did? Did you catch a glimpse of all the stuff that 1988 brought with it? Plane crashes, bombs, sex scandals, a murder on the average each day in this city ... what a storm! What a stormy, fractious, unpleasant year we've had! And it may very well be that you'd rather not even get out of bed to face another year like the last one. You'd just as soon sleep it off, go into hibernation; you'd just as soon get cozy and warm someplace and let the rest of the world go by.
But remember what I told you, remember what we agreed a moment ago: that no matter what you try to do, you will be touched in one way or another by the storm. And so when the storms come it will do very little good to hide or to sleep through; in one way or another you will have to meet the storms.
His mission was clear, but unpleasant. He knew what it was he was supposed to do. There was no mistaking that. He had no identity crisis, he was not caught up in indecision; he knew exactly what his mission and his destiny were. The problem is that he wanted nothing to do with that. He rejected everything he knew he ought to do. Summoned by his God to travel eastward to the great city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, and there to proclaim God's message, Jonah heard, but Jonah also rejected. Jonah understood that the living God had commissioned him, him, of all people, to penetrate the core of the enemy's home and there to announce that their wickedness was an offense to God. Jonah knew full well what he was called to do and to say, but Jonah couldn't face it. There would be a storm of anger; there would be a torrent of protest, and he just didn't want to deal with it.
And so when the morning came, Jonah packed his bags and instead of striking out toward the east and Nineveh, Jonah put the sun at his back and made for the port of Joppa, there to catch a ship going somewhere, anywhere, as far away as it would go. Jonah hoped to escape his duty, he hoped to run from his responsibility, and, though you and I think it's quaint and naive, Jonah seems to have felt that if he could sail far enough west, then he could also run from God himself.
But have you heard yet what we are saying this morning? Has it penetrated yet? There is very little you can do to avoid the storms when they come. There is really no strategy you can choose that will take you away from being touched in some way by the storms.
And so Jonah, hoping to escape the storm of the hostility of the Assyrians, hoping against hope to avoid the storm of God's displeasure, goes to sleep in the hold of his little boat, there to rest and wait out the storms, all the storms, including the wet and watery one which threatened to break up Jonah’s ship.
Do you have any suspicions about that sleep? Can you guess what sort of sleep that is? There are several possibilities.
Jonah may have been sleeping the sleep of the rationalized conscience. Jonah may have succeeded, at least for a time, in convincing himself that he had done nothing wrong and that he was going to get away from his calling and his God. You and I know what that kind of sleep is about, the sleep of a cleared-up, rationalized conscience. When I was growing up, in my household two of us were heavy sleepers and two of us were light sleepers. We would get up in the morning, and my mother and my brother would be saying, "Wow, did you hear' that storm last night? All the lightning and the thunder ... and then, wow, all those fire truck sirens blowing!: And my father and I would just stare at them and say, "Why we never heard a thing, didn't know a thing." And he and I would loftily interpret what the difference was; we would say, "Those of us with clear consciences can sleep through anything."
Well, yes, maybe. Or is it that those whose minds are not clear, those whose hearts are not clean, those whose consciences are not truly cleansed …we are the ones who crawl into a quiet spot and go to sleep in order to avoid the realities and the responsibilities. Maybe Jonah went to sleep, never mind the winds and the waves, because he found that a convenient way to tell himself that what he had done didn't matter. He rationalized himself to sleep during the storm. But do not forget: he is not really going to avoid being touched by the storm.
Or maybe Jonah went to sleep because he was depressed about himself, depressed and disappointed with the world and his response to it. And sometimes, you see, the easiest response, the only response, is to go into sleep to avoid how badly you fee. Can it be that Jonah slept through the storm because he just did not find in himself the strength to engage his world; just depressed?
I have to say I feel real sympathy for Jonah and for you, if that is the case. I too have bouts with depression … mild depression, mind you, nothing to get upset about. But there are days, and the Christmas holidays are among those days, when I get very little done, I feel out of the loop, I feel disengaged. And I sleep, or at least want to sleep. Literally, sleep instead of storm.
During these past two weeks I have slept a good deal more than I usually do. Some of you know that I've made it a habit for years to get up at five in the morning and get going on the day’s work. But somehow I just couldn’t do it. Not during these couple of weeks. I would get eight, nine hours of sleep, then go over to the hospital to sit with my wife, and yawn away the morning in her room. Sleep … some depression, some unresolved grief; and I say again, don’t reserve a spot for me in the hospital. I’m OK. Been up at five the last three mornings; I'm OK. But I am saying that I understand what may be happening with old Jonah. I understand what may be happening with you. You can hardly face another year; you cannot see anything but storms in 1989 … higher bills, taxes due again, more family issues, more work on the job: storms. And New Year's Day 1989, you, like Jonah, feel depressed by it all and you'd just as soon have stayed in bed.
But hear it one more time, listen to it, and then begin to listen for the good news, the Gospel. It will be coming; hear this one more time: you will never really be able to sleep away the storm. You will not be able to come out without being touched by the storm in one way or another. Whether you sleep the sleep of a rationalized conscience or whether you sleep the sleep of depression, or whether you and I and Jonah are just plain lazy, still the storm is going to blow and the job is going to call and the reality of 1989 is going to be here.
We need some good news; we need some gospel. So watch what happens.
The captain of the ship came to Jonah and said, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god. Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish." Kind of an insurance policy; these folks had been praying to every god they could think of, and here is this big fat flummox snoozing down in the hold. Maybe his god would do the trick. Wake up and pray, Jonah!
The story goes on: everybody, Jonah included, decided that the whole mess was his fault, that somehow his running from God and running from responsibility, that was what had propelled them into this maelstrom. And they said, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" And he said, "Take me up and throw me into the sea, then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has came upon you." And so a little later, having tried everything else, they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.
"Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows." They offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
Then comes the part about the fish, three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, and all the rest. We'll not deal with that this morning.
But years later, standing before questioners and probers, Jesus of Nazareth spoke of the sign of Jonah. He spoke of one who was greater than Jonah and who would offer the sign of Jonah as proof of who he was and what he could do. He spoke, of course, of coming forth from death after three days, coming forth from his own sacrifice. And here is the good news, here is the gospel.
You and I are tempted to sleep through the storm when we run from God and from responsibility. We are tempted to sleep through the storm because we know we've done wrong, and all we want to do is to escape. We are trying to flee and to rationalize our guilty hearts; but we don't have to. We do not have to accuse ourselves and live with guilt. A greater than Jonah is here, and he has made the sacrifice that enables us to lift up our heads and to live again. A greater than Jonah is here.
You and I are tempted to sleep through the storm when we run from God and from responsibility. We are tempted to sleep through the storm because we are depressed, we feel ineffective, we've let grief or tension or worry immobilize us. But we don't have to. We do not have to crawl off into a dark pocket and hide because we just don't have the energy to deal with all that this new year brings; no, we don't, because a greater than Jonah is here, and he has offered up himself as the sacrifice. He has given himself to forgive us, to empower us, and to lift us up. A greater than Jonah is here.
And you and I are maybe even tempted, like Jonah, to say, here, world, toss me overboard. Throw me away. It's my fault, I'm no good, I don't count, I don't matter. Maybe you and I are tempted to say, Hey, sacrifice me. I'm nothing; just sacrifice me. But the best good news of all is that a greater than Jonah is here, and he has offered up the one, perfect, true and complete sacrifice. He has given himself, for you, for me; lift up your hearts. You know already that no matter what way of escape you take, you cannot avoid being touched by the storm that the new year will bring, but a greater than Jonah is here, and he has sacrificed so that you can deal with it. Lift up your hearts; you know that you would rather sleep through the storm, but you also know that you cannot run away from the God who has called you in the midst of that storm. Trust now the help he has given you. Look at this table, feel his sacrifice, believe and be alert, for a greater than Jonah by far is here.