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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - There's Nowhere to Run

Robert Barron - There's Nowhere to Run

Robert Barron - There's Nowhere to Run
TOPICS: Jonah, Evangelism

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading for this weekend is from the marvelous book of the prophet Jonah. I am always delighted when I have the opportunity to preach on Jonah. One of the shortest books in the Bible. It's maybe three pages in most Bibles. You can read it easily in one sitting. But boy, has that book punched above its weight over the centuries, because so many preachers and poets and artists have been intrigued by it. By the way, go on YouTube. Look up Fr. Mapple's sermon. This is from the film of "Moby Dick," and Fr. Mapple gives this magnificent sermon on the Book of Jonah. Trust me, it will be better than my sermon now, but go on that. One of the great sermons ever written, and it's an explication of the Book of Jonah. So I'll try my best to match Fr. Mapple's sermon. Jonah is all about mission, or the refusal of mission.

I've said many times to you: everyone in the Bible who has an experience of God is sent on mission. It's never just, God speaks or God appears and that's enough. No, no; the grace received always has to be translated into grace given. And so, everyone's sent on mission. And so, Jonah is about someone who receives a mission from God. And then we watch, what does he do with it? So here's how it begins: "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.'" So Jonah, like Abraham, like Isaac, like Jacob, like Moses, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, has heard a higher voice. It's such an important thing. So we all hear voices around us: the voices of our family and our friends and our culture and the popular music and films. Those are all the voices that determine what we think and do. But these prophetic figures are those who have heard above and beyond those voices a higher voice: the voice of God. What does God want you to do? Who does God want you to be?

Now, that's the voice worth attending to. And Jonah, to his credit, has heard it. Good, good; he's a prophet. And, as is typical, the voice is telling him to go on mission. Now, to be fair to Jonah, because Jonah is going to have a hard time with this mission, but to be fair to him, it's a tough mission that God has given him: "Go…to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it". Well, what was Nineveh but the capital of Assyria, one of the most powerful and ancient enemies of Israel? It was a long way from the land where Jonah lived, and the command is to go into this city and proclaim repentance, so to tell the people that they're off the right path. In other words, cross a great deal of hostile territory, come to the capital of an enemy empire, and tell them how wrong they are. So, that's the assignment Jonah's been given. Mind you, everybody, Thomas Merton said this, if you're facing two options, and one of them's harder, that's more likely the will of God. Not because God is perverse and difficult. It's just that God is always calling us to greater and greater self-gift. That's always challenging.

So it's not surprising that Jonah is given a difficult mission. But, now, here's the first thing we have to really remark, and it's part of the humor of the story. Jonah's actually is a very funny story. The trouble is we mostly hear it, if we hear it at all, in the solemn environment of church, but it's a very funny story, because God tells Jonah, "Okay, go east by land". Jonah goes west by sea. So we hear, instead of following God's command, he flees to a ship bound for Tarshish. Now, where's Tarshish? Well, the scholars are somewhat divided about what that meant. But the consensus seems to be that Tarshish referred to the land in the far southern extreme of modern-day Spain: the confluence of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, what the ancients called the Pillars of Hercules. The point is, Tarshish meant, for ancient Israel, the ends of the world. They didn't dream of where I'm standing now on this distant American continent. They saw Tarshish as the furthest end of the world.

The point is, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh; instead, he goes as far as he can in the opposite direction to the ends of the world, to Timbuktu, we would say. Well, look, to some degree, this is all of us. We know what God wants, and we move in the opposite direction. We know where God wants us to go, and we go the opposite way. Okay. What happens? And the Bible is always very clear on this. There's a kind of spiritual physics built into the biblical stories. You know, that "Hey, if I jump off a cliff, I'm going to fall to the ground". It's just physics. So, in the same way, if I resist the divine will, trouble is going to come. Again, not because God is difficult and arbitrary. It's just the way it is; it's just spiritual physics. So Jonah sets out, with other people, of course, onboard the ship bound for Tarshish. And the storms come up. The storms stand here for the resistance we will inevitably face when we resist God's will in our life.

You know, I've told you many times before that, for ancient Israel, the stormy sea was kind of a symbol of everything negative. That lovely Hebrew phrase "tohu wabohu," from the very first lines of Genesis, the watery chaos. And God brings order out of it. So whenever the great storm reappears, it's the "tohu wabohu" coming back. It's what stands opposed to God's intentions. And so the storm kicks up, listen now, threatening Jonah, yes indeed, but also all those onboard ship with him. Resisting God's will causes storms in you, and it'll cause trouble for people around you. Why? Well, because we're all connected to each other. I never have just a mission that's just for me. No, no; my mission has implications for people all around me. When I resist what God wants me to do, what God wants me to be, that's trouble for me and for people that I am supposed to bring closer to God.

So there they are, threatened. They're terrified. They discern that Jonah's the problem. And to his credit, Jonah says, "Okay, okay, I get it. I'm the one here. I'm resisting God's will. So throw me overboard". They throw him overboard, and the sea is calmed. But then, this decisive moment: God sends a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and then for three days, he lives in the belly of the fish. Now, how do we read this? Well, here's one thing. There's no escaping God's providence. There's no escaping God's will. "Oh, no, I'll just, I'll flee to Tarshish! I'll go to the ends of the world"! Well, God's the Lord of all creation. You can't run from God. What does the Psalmist say? "I climb to the heavens, you're there. I go to the sea's furthest end, even there your right hand holds me up". That's what Jonah discovers. All things are under God's providence. But secondly, he's swallowed up by the fish. Negative? Yeah, of course. It's the constraining of Jonah.

Imagine now what it would have been like to live inside of a fish for three days. But now read it symbolically and spiritually. Jonah's will, which was taking him away from God, even to the ends of the world away from God, is now constrained, limited, held tight by a higher will. Jonah, again, like so many great figures in the Bible: go back to Moses, go back to Joseph in the book of Genesis. Before they can undertake their mission, they have to be disciplined. They have to go through a kind of ascetic formation. And so think of Jonah now in the belly of the fish, his own will constrained. He's being trained according to the will and purpose of God. I love, by the way, the prayer of Jonah from inside the fish. "From the depths I cry to you, O LORD". You know, every one of us, myself included, at different times in life, we find ourselves in this position. We might name it as depression, as anxiety, of some deep frustration, we feel our life is not going the way we want it to go, we feel constrained.

How do we read that? Well, you can read it as simply dumb suffering, or you can read it as God swallowing up our errant wills in order to bring us back on line. So the beauty of Jonah's prayer, read it, and you pray it when you find yourself precisely in that situation. God answers the prayer. How do we know? Listen: "Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land". "Hey Jonah, go east by land". "No, no, no. I'm going to go west by sea". Well, that caused storms. And so the fish swallows him up, swims with him all the way back, and spews him out on the land where God wanted him to be in the first place. How do you read depression or anxiety or a feeling of constraint and struggle? Not just dumb suffering, no,no, but rather God constraining your will and carrying you where perhaps you don't want to go, but where he wants you to go.

So Jonah comes back, and he comes to Nineveh; he finally undertakes now the divine mission. And listen to what happens. "And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth". Everybody! Jonah's preaching is now amazingly efficacious. Listen to how far it reaches. "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes". The king heard his word. And then I love this, they would have laughed at this for sure, even the animals fall in line, because even the animals are covered in sackcloth. Well, Jonah the reluctant prophet, Jonah who ran from God's will, but who was constrained and then brought back on line, now becomes the greatest penitential preacher in the history of penitential preachers.

Whom do you trust? That's the question. Whose voice do you listen to? Whose will do you follow? Your own, those of the people around you, or finally the will of the Lord God? If you do, if you do, there's no limit to what God can accomplish through you. Just one last observation. Nineveh, this mighty city, it says took three days to walk through it. Nineveh that's being called to repentance. Might we read it, everybody, as our secular society today, which has grown in many ways indifferent to God? Might it be the case that right now, God is raising up Jonahs? You might be one of them. What's your reaction? "Oh, come on. Me? You want me to preach to Nineveh? You want me to a preach to this secular society today? No, no. I'm going to run the other way". Maybe allow yourself to be carried by the will of God, deposited exactly where God wants you to be in the midst of this secular city. Maybe you're another Jonah, and maybe your preaching will change the world. And God bless you.
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