Jonah’s Escape Room Strategy

I have a dream sermon series

21 Jan Jonah’s Escape Room Strategy

Joel 2:1, 12-14 and Jonah 3:1-5, 10
January 21, 2018
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

It’s a scenario straight out of a horror movie. You have been kidnapped and blindfolded. After some jostling and being moved from place to place, you finally rip off the blindfold and discover that you have been locked in a room with 10 other people. No, wait, there’s an 11th “person” — a zombie chained to the wall.

A voice over an intercom tells you that there is a key hidden in the room that will enable you to escape to freedom, but to find the key you must work with the other people in the room to solve puzzles and put together clues to lead you to its whereabouts.

Oh, and every five minutes the zombie’s chain will be released another foot. Within an hour, the zombie will be able to reach you and begin feasting on you and your new friends. You have only 60 minutes to find the key and avoid becoming dinner.

Sound like a nightmare? Actually, for an increasing number of people it sounds like a lot of fun! This is just one of many different game scenarios for the thousands of “Escape Rooms” that are popping up all over the world. The idea is to get a group of people together for an evening of teamwork, brain-busting and nerve-wracking fun solving a puzzle while avoiding danger, which can range from a simulated ticking bomb in the room to being trapped in a prison cell or avoiding a serial killer. It’s all about solving the puzzle before time expires. My daughter recently participated in an Escape Room adventure, and she found it both entertaining and enlightening.

The Escape Room phenomenon has been a boon to leaders trying to build teamwork and for families and groups of friends building stronger bonds of fun and fellowship, like Emily and her friends. It’s a chance to suspend the ordinary for a while and enter into a world where the danger might not be real, but the excitement certainly is. There’s something fun about solving the problem and escaping together.

The prophet Jonah could have used a little help in his own escape scenario. Being famously trapped in the belly of a fish may have been the ultimate and most awesome Escape Room situation in history, but the real escape that Jonah tried to pull off was an exercise in total futility. He tried to escape the call of God. Fortunately, God intervened before time ran out.

Jonah, son of Amittai, was a prophet in Israel during a time when the Jews and other nations were dealing with a particularly aggressive and brutal threat posed by the Assyrians. Assyria was the dominant empire of that period and its relentless thirst for conquest might well have felt to the Israelites like a ravenous horde of zombies whose chains were getting longer by the minute. The annals of the Assyrian kings reveal their bloodthirsty savagery—the piling up of the heads of their enemies, skinning people alive and using those skins to cover the kings’ monuments. Assyria was a bitter, hated enemy to whom smaller nations, including Israel, owed tribute.

And yet, the word of the Lord came to Jonah, telling him to go to Assyria, to its capital city of Nineveh, “and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2). Now, who could blame Jonah for being terrified of this assignment and wanting to escape such a call? It would be like God coming to you and saying, “I need you to pack up and head to Syria tomorrow to tell ISIS I’m not happy with them.” That’s a scenario most sane people would want to escape!

But there’s an interesting twist to the scenario that, like an Escape Room clue, is revealed in more detail later. We might think Jonah is running because he’s afraid of what the Assyrians may do to him, that his mission will be a disastrous failure and his head put on a pole. But that’s not it at all. Jonah’s fear is not about his potential failure; it’s about his potential success. He’s afraid that his warning of impending judgment might be heeded, that Nineveh might actually repent and be spared. It is, after all, a lot easier to preach condemnation to one’s enemies than it is to preach grace.

And this is a problem why? Because if God spares Assyria, they may live to see another day when they might renounce their devotion to Yahweh, and become Israel’s enemy again. And in fact, that is precisely what happened.

Jonah wants no part of this. So, Jonah son of Amittai (whose name means, ironically, “Dove, son of Faithfulness”), doesn’t sweep into Nineveh with his mission of peace and faithfulness, but instead goes down to Joppa—precisely the opposite direction of God’s command. In Joppa he jumps aboard a ship and books a passage for Tarshish, which a lot of scholars think could be the modern-day island of Sardinia, which is now a beach resort. A beach vacation or getting your head chopped off? Hmm….But here’s the thing. In the first three verses of chapter 1, the writer of Jonah tells not once but twice that Jonah is fleeing, not from the Assyrians, but from “the presence of the Lord.” Jonah is attempting to escape from the God who has come to dwell with his people.

The temptation for Jonah to flee was also a temptation for the Jews who were later reading this scroll while in exile. It was tempting for people in exile to escape from the surrounding culture, to condemn and complain about it and create their own holy huddle with their own people.

It’s a temptation the church faces in every generation and some people do respond very much like Jonah—they retreat and set up their own version of a Christian panic room, with their own culture, their own music, and a way of life that keeps the world at bay. Like Jonah, it can be all too easy to pray for God’s condemnation of a culture that has become a cesspool of suffering, violence and evil, and await God’s wrath upon it. Like Jonah, some folks figure that God’s presence has been withdrawn from the rest of the world and that we’re the last ones left. Plenty of Christian movements have adopted this tactic, setting up their own ideal of the island of Tarshish—a utopian place where we don’t have to deal with the culture and “those people.”

But Tarshish is actually a myth, a false exit. Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, names the root of our problem when he says, “We respond to the divine initiative, but we humbly request to choose the destination. We are going to be [disciples], but not in Nineveh for heaven’s sake. Let’s try Tarshish. In Tarshish we can have [religion] without having to deal with God.”

The “divine initiative” Peterson names is God’s redemptive plan for the world—a plan that began with Israel and continues with the church. It’s a plan to take the redemptive love of God into the world and not retreat from it. The gospel of Matthew ends with a reiteration of this divine initiative. Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations [note all nations, including the ones who are your enemies], baptizing and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Esteemed Biblical scholar Will Willimon once speculated as to whether that last statement was a promise or a threat. “I will be with you always.” You can’t escape from this mission. God is putting the world right and God has set us right so that we might be right-putting people. Jonah is to go and be God’s agent to put things right in Nineveh. Israel was to be God’s family who would be a light to the world, revealing God’s plan to put things right for all people. Note that “mission” was a group project. Jesus was the embodiment of Israel who came to fulfill God’s redemptive plan in his own life, death and resurrection. He left the church to continue his work, and the church is still called to go into a godless world and culture and announce the good news that God is offering redemptive love and grace to any who will receive it, including Ninevites of all stripes!

If we are really God’s people, we cannot escape this call. We’re in it together.

Jonah tried to escape. He got on a ship, got caught in a storm and was thrown into the sea. He couldn’t escape God and he couldn’t escape the mission. He gets dumped in the water and from there he gets on with heeding God’s call. Dripping wet, “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord” (v. 3). And, with God’s help (and in spite of Jonah’s half-hearted preaching), his mission is successful (vv. 4-5, 10).

If you think about it, Jonah’s journey from the sea to the gates of Nineveh is actually a paradigm of what happens to us in baptism. Jonah will undergo what looks like certain death. He will be buried in the belly of a great fish, and then be brought up through the water and deposited onto the shore to engage in the mission to which God called him. That sounds a lot like the journey of a Christian (except maybe the fish part). We are baptized, put into the water, where we die with Christ and are buried with him under the waves, and then, raised from the water we are commissioned for the call he has for us—a call that will take us to the Ninevehs of the world. It’s a call and a mission that requires that we become part of a team called the church because we can’t do it alone. Together we are reminded that we can never escape from the presence of the Lord. All the clues we receive point us to God’s mission.

We have to wonder if things would have gone differently for Jonah if he had had a partner or two in his escape scenario. Rarely does the Lone Ranger approach work in Scripture. Moses had Aaron, Elijah had Elisha, Paul had Barnabas, and even Jesus had 12 disciples. Partnering with others helps us discern the clues that point to where God is leading and gives us the courage to move forward together.

Jonah knew how much grace God was capable of offering, even to his bitter enemies. We know how much grace God is capable of because we have witnessed a Savior dying on a cross at the hands of his enemies but, even more importantly, dying for those enemies. And because we know how much grace God is capable of, we must not attempt to escape from offering it to others—even those zombies in Ninevah!

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