Imagine for a moment…
You’ve been kidnapped, blindfolded, hauled away, and later deposited in a dank cold room. You rip off the blindfold and discover you’ve been locked in a room with nine other people, only to realize there’s one more person—a zombie chained to the wall!
An ominous voice calls in through a speaker and tells you there is a key hidden in the room that will enable you to escape, but to find the key you must work with the others to solve puzzles and reveal clues that will lead you to its whereabouts. Oh, but every five minutes the zombie’s chain will be released a foot, and within an hour, the zombie will be able to reach you and your new friends. You have to find the key and avoid becoming zombie dinner.
It’s a scenario straight out of a horror movie but it’s actually, for an increasing number of people, a somewhat real life scenario that’s a lot of fun! This is just one of many different game scenarios for the wildly popular live, interactive game, popping up all over the world called “Escape Rooms”.
Escape rooms create the chance for groups to work together to solve brain-busting and nerve-wracking puzzles, find a door key or code, and escape danger—which can range from a simulated ticking bomb, to being trapped in a prison cell, avoiding a serial killer, or escaping a flesh eating zombie—all before time expires.
The Escape Room phenomenon has been a boon for leaders trying to strengthen coworker relationships, and for groups of friends to have fun together. It’s a chance to suspend the ordinary and enter into a world where the danger might not be real but the excitement of escaping certainly is.
The prophet Jonah knows about trying to escape. He, however, could have used a little help for his own escape scenario as being famously trapped in the belly of a fish may have been the ultimate and most awesome Escape Room scenario in history. But the real escape Jonah tried to pull off was actually an exercise in total futility because he was trying to escape, not a fish, and not even a zombie, but rather Jonah was trying to escape God.
We all know the role of a prophet. Called by God, prophets go to places and people to give a message of repentance—imploring people to turn away from sin, and turn back to God. It was not an easy role. It required a person to do the hard thing.
In Jonah’s case, he was called to be a prophet who would take God’s word to the city of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and “cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me” says God to Jonah.
Now first understand that this is the northern kingdom of Israel, which experienced a time of prosperity. But that prosperity was short-lived because the Assyrians invaded and wiped the northern kingdom off the map. Assyria was the dominant empire of that period and its aggressive and relentless thirst for conquest would 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 approach to dominance— the piling up of the heads of their enemies, skinning people alive, and using their skins to cover their monuments. Assyria was a bitter, hated enemy to whom smaller nations, including Israel, wanted to escape from. 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”
Now, we can’t blame Jonah for being terrified at this prospect and wanting to escape such a call because this would be like God saying to us, “I need you to go to Syria to tell ISIS to change their ways.” But here’s the 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 will do to him, that his mission will be a disastrous failure with his skin used to cover a monument. But what we come to realize, however, is that Jonah’s fear is not about his potential failure but rather it is about his potential success.
A rant about God’s grace in chapter 4 is indicative of his real fear. He’s afraid his message of warning might actually 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 Jonah wants no part of this message of grace.
So, Jonah decides not to preach grace and peace to Nineveh, and instead decides to ignore God, and goes down to Joppa, where he boards a ship in an effort to escape God’s call. He books a passage for Tarshish, which a lot of scholars think could be the modern-day Italian island of Sardinia, which is now a beach resort—which is where we all want to escape to, right? But notice what Jonah is fleeing from. It’s not the Assyrians. Jonah is fleeing from “the presence of the Lord”, a phrase the writer uses twice in verse 3.
Jonah is attempting to escape from the God who has come to dwell with God’s people and offer them grace upon grace—even when they don’t deserve it.
The story of Jonah attempting to escape the hard thing God calls us to do is the same temptation we face today—the temptation to retreat and set up our own little Christian panic rooms with our own culture, our own music, our own schools and our own way of living.
Like Jonah, we pray for God’s condemnation of a culture that has become a cesspool of evil, and we await God’s wrath upon it. Plenty of Christian movements have adopted this tactic, setting up their own version of the island of Tarshish— a utopian beach setting where we don’t have to deal with “that culture” and “those people.” But Tarshish is actually a myth, a false exit.
Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, puts it like this: “We want and respond to the divine initiative, God’s redemptive plan for the world, but we humbly request to choose the destination ourselves. We are willing to be disciples, but not in Nineveh for heaven’s sake. We want to go to Tarshish. In Tarshish we can have a religious career without having to deal with God.”
Peterson explains that often the follower of God wants to go the easy way, they want to escape the hard thing God asks us to do.
But the “divine initiative”—God’s redemptive plan for the world— is a plan that began with Israel and continues with the Church still today. It’s a plan to take the redemptive love and grace of God into the world and not retreat from it.
The Gospel of Matthew ends with a reiteration of this divine initiative with Jesus telling his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (including the nations 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.”
Will Willimon, pastor, professor, and Bishop of the Methodist church, once speculated as to whether that last statement of Jesus was a promise or a threat, saying, “‘I will be with you always’—You can’t escape from that 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. This mission is a group project!”
Jesus was the embodiment of Israel who came to fulfill God’s redemptive plan through his life, death and resurrection. The church is still called to go into a godless world 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, then we can never escape this call.
Jonah tried to escape God. He got on a ship, got in a storm, got thrown in the sea and got swallowed by a big fish. After a few days, he gets spit out, and dripping wet “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord” (v. 3). He couldn’t escape God, and he couldn’t escape the mission.
And, with God’s help—and even in spite of Jonah’s half-hearted preaching—the mission is successful. But I can’t help but wonder if things would have gone differently for Jonah if he had had a willing heart in the first place, and a partner or two to help him figure things out, because 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 us and gives us the courage to move forward together. That is why we have, and are, the Church. We never have to go on this mission alone.
Jonah knew how much grace God was capable of offering, even to his bitter enemy.
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 them.
So may we, because we too know how much grace God is capable of, may we never attempt to escape from offering it to others—even those zombies of today’s Nineveh. Amen.