The Avoidance Response



Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

Let’s play a little Bible word association.

When I say Jonah,

What’s the first word that comes to your mind?
Was it “whale”?

Maybe that’s because the story of Jonah and the Whale

is one of those “nursery rhyme” kind of Bible stories,

like Noah’s Ark or David and Goliath, that we never forget.

But the book of Jonah is not just for kids.

And, in case you didn’t notice,

there’s not a single whale in the passage from Jonah

that we just read.

That passage begins with Jonah being chosen by God for a special mission.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,

“Get up, go to that great city of Nineveh,

and proclaim to it the message I tell you.

So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh,

according to the word of the Lord.”

The story of Jonah’s voyage to Nineveh starts off

a lot like the beginning of the journey of

Peter, Andrew, James and John,

who got right up from their fishing boats

and trailed along down the beach after Jesus

when he called them to follow him.

No hesitation from Jonah.

No evasion.

Just like those Galilean fishermen who jumped

at the invitation to become Jesus’ disciples,

Jonah seems eager to do

exactly what God asks him to do.

With one important difference.

Let me reread the first verse of that Jonah passage again,

and see if you can detect the difference

between Jonah’s response to God’s calling him

to go to Nineveh,

and the fishermen’s response to Jesus’ calling them

to follow him.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,

saying, “Get up, go to that great city,

and proclaim to it the message I tell you.”


The word of the Lord came to Jonah … a second time?

Well, what happened when the word of the Lord

came to Jonah … the first time?

To answer that question, we’d have to rewind the story

all the way back to the first verse of the first chapter

in the Book of Jonah, where we hear God’s first attempt to call Jonah:

Now 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;

for their wickedness has come up before me.”

There you have God’s call,

as it came to Jonah the first time.

Almost identical to the second call, right.

Now, listen to Jonah’s response to that initial call:

“But Jonah set out 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 his fare and went on board,

to go with them to Tarshish,

away from the presence of the Lord.”

Jonah’s first response to God’s call

is to pack his bags and head,

not to Nineveh (like God wanted him to)

but to book a ride on a ship bound

for a place called Tarshish.

Let me orient you geographically

to give you a clearer picture of what is going on here.

Joppa, was a city on the Mediterranean coast of Israel,

a little north of Gaza.

Nineveh was located in what is today

the Iraqi city of Mosul,

about 700 miles to the east.

Tarshish is thought to have been situated

on the southern coast of Spain,

almost 3000 miles to the west.

In essence, at the farthest edge

of the known world at that time.

So, if you were told to go to Nineveh,

and you went looking for a ship

to take you as far as humanly possibly

in the opposite direction from Nineveh,

there’s a decent possibility that ship

would be bound for Tarshish.

That’s how desperately Jonah wanted to avoid

doing what God was asking him to do

He would literally go to the ends of the earth

to escape from what God asked him to do.

What was it about Nineveh that evoked such

a strong negative response from Jonah?

For starters, Nineveh was the capital

of the Assyrian Empire.

And the Assyrian Empire had conquered

the Northern Kingdom of Israel

and sent many of its people into exile.

The Ninevites were some of Israel’s bitterest enemies.

I don’t think Jonah owned an “I
Or that Nineveh was on his bucket list of destinations

he wanted to visit before he died.

Nineveh was the last place on earth

that Jonah would want to be.

And the last thing on earth that Jonah would want to do

would be to warn these hated enemies

that God was about to bring disaster on them.

It turns out that Jonah’s way of dealing with

God’s call for him to go to Nineveh

is a classic example of something called

Avoidance Response.

Avoidance Response describes a behavior

where an organism will go to any length

to evade something that is threatening or unpleasant.

Avoidance Response appears across the spectrum of all life,

from the simplest to the most complex living things.

Which means that it is something that all of us

experience in some way or another.

In fact, the Avoidance Response is

a more accurate description

of people’s response to God’s calling them,

than say, the instant, unquestioning kind of reaction

of the four fishermen when Jesus beckoned them

to leave their nets.

Don’t forget that those same four disciples

who immediately followed Jesus,

also deserted him just as quickly

when the going got tough.

So, the most important question for us this morning,

is this… where is Nineveh for you?

I’m not talking about where you would find it on a map.

I’m asking where you would locate it

in the circumstances of your life.

Any place where God seems to be

calling on you to do something

that makes you want to run

as fast and as far as you can

away from the situation itself,

and at the same time, from God,

that’s where you will find your Nineveh.

Whatever your Nineveh is, It’s human nature

to want to steer clear of it,

and to plot a course instead for Tarshish.

In other words, to choose the path of least resistance

and a safe port amid the storms of life.

There’s no escaping the truth

that the life of Christian discipleship

comes with certain challenges that

we’d rather run away from than face.

Even those first disciples,

who followed Jesus with such trust and eagerness,

discovered along the way that the path ahead

was filled with challenges and sacrifice.

We can choose the avoidance response, as Jonah did.

But when we do, more often than not,

what we find is that avoidance

makes things worse, not better.

That’s what Jonah discovered on his way to Tarshish;

a journey that turned into a series

of one disaster after another.

First, the ship he counted on to take him

away from God and what God asked of him,

runs into a bad storm,

and Jonah gets thrown overboard.

Then he is swallowed by a great fish.

For three days and nights,

Jonah is in the belly of the fish.

It is from the belly of the fish,

from the depths of his despair

that Jonah finally gives up his running from Nineveh.

He surrenders and reaches out to God.

And God, who did not stand in the way

of Jonah suffering the consequences

of his choice to run from God,

uses those consequences

to give Jonah a second chance to get it right.

At last, the fish regurgitates Jonah up on the shore.

Which brings us back to the place where we began;

with the word of God coming to Jonah

a SECOND time,

telling him, again,

to go to Nineveh.

This time, Jonah obeys,

even though he is still not crazy about the idea.

But he has come to recognize

the futility of trying to avoid God.

It’s worth noting that the three days and nights

that Jonah spends in the belly of the fish

is the same amount of time that Jesus spent

in the tomb between his crucifixion and the Resurrection.

The book of Jonah is also a resurrection story.

Jonah had to die to some of his fears and prejudices,

in order to live for God.

I believe the same is true for us.

Because we are living our own resurrection stories.

We are constantly faced with doubts,

and fears about whether or not we can trust God.

Doubts and fears that we need to die to

before we can really begin living.

Sometimes it takes running in the wrong direction

and suffering the consequences,

to finally bring us to our knees

and set our feet on the right path.

Running away from what God asks us to do

or who God invites us to be,

may seem like the path of least resistance.

But avoidance is a false hope that always disappoints

because the best place for us to be

is right smack in the middle of God’s will for us.

There’s a saying, that in life,

pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Sometimes, in our determination to avoid pain,

we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others,

that is worse than the trials we thought we might evade.

On the other hand, accepting God’s call,

even when what God asks feels

inconvenient or unattractive,

can surprise us by bringing us

peace and fulfillment

where we least expected to find it,

because the same Lord who challenges us

to confront difficult realities instead of avoiding them,

also leads us through those realities

to victory on the other side.

That’s something else that Jonah learned about trusting God.

As illogical as what God called him to do seemed to Jonah;

as much as preaching to the Ninevites flew in the face

of all reason and sound judgment;

following his own instincts led to disastrous results,

while following God’s leading created a miracle.

Because those no-good Ninevites

actually changed their ways

after they heard Jonah’s message.
When we gather after worship today at our Annual Meeting,

it will be to discern where God is calling us in the year ahead.

God’s vision for us may include a trip to Nineveh.

It may involve challenges and sacrifice.

The challenge and sacrifice might trigger

a Reaction Response in us,

like it did in Jonah.

May the resurrection power

that worked through Jonah and Jesus

encourage us to faithfully accept the call

to face our Ninevehs,

even when we would rather book

a ride to Tarshish.