(Jonah 1; Acts 9:1-9)

I was tempted to stand up here and say, “Now that we’ve spent the last four weeks going through Jonah, we’re going to do it all over again”; but no worries, we aren’t. Before we move on, however, there are a couple things I want to note. One of them is in the language of this chapter—and also in chapter 2—and it’s something you probably don’t see in your English translation. If you look at verse 3, Jonah runs away from the Lord; the text tells us, “He went down to Joppa,” where he found a ship headed for Tarshish. Then, the Hebrew says, “he paid the fare and went down into the ship.” Next, according to verse 5, he went down into the hold, and lay down to sleep. Notice a pattern here?

Once the ship puts to sea, God sends the storm, and from that point on, Jonah isn’t in control of the situation; but it ends with him being thrown down into the sea, and then being sucked down by the great fish. Then in 2:6, he sums up his situation by saying, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever”—i.e., the land of the dead, the land of Sheol. It is only when he calls out to God that the direction begins to reverse, and he can say, “You brought my life up from the Pit, O Lord my God.”

The author is making a simple point here: when you run from the Lord, the only direction you can go is down. Your descent might be swift as Jonah’s, or it might be long and gradual; it might be drastic and unmistakable as the prophet’s, or it might be masked by worldly success; but regardless, it is as certain as sunrise and as inexorable as the grave. The Lord is the creator of all life, the source of all good things, the only Father of lights; to run from God is to turn away from light, air, warmth and goodness to run into the cold, suffocating dark. It is nothing less than to choose the drowning of the soul.

Which is bad enough if it’s just about you; but for all our age talks about “victimless crimes,” there’s really no such thing, because everything we do affects others. In Jonah’s case, imagine this whole scene from the sailors’ perspective. It was just an ordinary day for them—good load of cargo, even a paying passenger, long voyage ahead, and the weather looking fine—but then all of a sudden, out of nowhere comes the perfect storm. They throw the cargo overboard—that’s their income, they now have no way to make a living, but if they drown it won’t matter anyway—but nothing they can do is enough. Why? Not because of anything they’ve done, but because of Jonah. To quote Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood again, it’s “because of one man who ain’t where he’s supposed to be, and is where he ain’t got no business being!”

Or as another preacher, the English poet John Donne, put it: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” He was focused in that sermon on the way in which others’ lives and deaths affect us, going on to say, “any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde,” but it’s equally important for us to understand the way our lives (and deaths, when it comes to that) affect others. When you run from God, you don’t go down alone, you take others with you, because Dr. Donne was right: we are each a piece of something far greater than ourselves, and when we bring a storm down on our heads, those around us risk drowning, too. We’re never the only ones hurt by our sin; there is always collateral damage.

This isn’t just a concern on the individual level, either. The story of Nineveh and the Assyrian empire shows how the sin of a few can corrupt an entire society; the story of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh shows how repentance can spread in much the same way. You’ve probably heard of the idea, taken from chaos theory, of the butterfly effect—that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia can theoretically cause a hurricane in the Atlantic; the underlying point is that in complex, non-linear systems, small changes in conditions can produce drastic changes in results. As far as physics, weather, and the like, I can’t speak to that—there’s a reason I was a history major—but I know it’s true in human society. We’ve seen it most vividly this year, as the series of revolutions dubbed the “Arab Spring” were touched off by a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire after the police took his goods (again) and beat him. For another instance, African slavery arrived in the American South by accident. Little events, big results.

At the same time, though, Jonah’s story gives us a salutary reminder that God is bigger than all of it, and that he’s at work in and through all of it to accomplish his purposes; there is nothing he cannot use, and no problem he cannot solve. And perhaps most importantly, there is no one he cannot rescue—and no one he will refuse to rescue. There is no one who has gone beyond his mercy, and there is no one who has escaped his presence—just look at our call to worship this morning, taken from Psalm 139: “Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the heights of heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Hell, you are there.” There is no one, as Jesus’ parable of the two lost sons makes clear, who has done so bad that God wouldn’t save them, and there is no one who has ever managed to get themselves into a situation in which he couldn’t save them. However improbable it may be, nothing is impossible for God.

Joe McKeever, who used to be the Director of Missions for the Baptists down New Orleans way, illustrates this powerfully with the story of one night when two men were walking around a county airport in rural Mississippi. One of them was the airport’s manager; the other was his pastor, Slim Cornett, who was getting the full cook’s tour of the facility. They were in the tower, and the manager pointed to a switch, said to Slim, “This switch lights up the runway,” and flipped it. “Then,” he said, pointing to another switch, “let’s say there is a plane in distress up there. I would throw this switch”—and he did so—“and turn on the searchlights.” The night sky lit up—and the Rev. Cornett and his friend were amazed to see a small plane come out of the blackness and land on the runway. Their amazement redoubled as Franklin Graham got out of the airplane.

This was when Franklin was in college; the pilot was flying him back to school in Texas from his home in North Carolina when something shut down the electrical system. That had left the airplane without lights, without its guidance systems—no way for the pilot to know where they were, which way they were going, what was below them, or how close it was—and with the radio dead, they had no way to call for help. Then, out of nowhere, the searchlight had come on to guide them to safety. Earlier that evening, before Franklin left home, his father had prayed that God would guide and protect the pilot and his son; when trouble struck, God answered.

What hits us about that story isn’t that it’s impossible; clearly, it isn’t. But it’s implausible. It’s the sort of wild coincidence you’d expect of a fifth-rate novelist who doesn’t care that things like that don’t happen in real life; it’s a billion-to-one shot, like winning the lottery with a ticket you found stuck to the bottom of your shoe. But you know, God doesn’t just do the impossible; he does the wildly implausible, in order to save us. There is no one he cannot reach, and no one he cannot redeem—just look at Saul; just look at the Ninevites—and he’s willing to go to ridiculous lengths to do it. No matter how fast or far we might run, God will never stop pursuing us, because he loves us; no matter how deep we may sink, his love can always lift us to safety.

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