A Prophet Goes AWOL

June 3, 2011 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: Jonah

Scripture: Jonah 1:1–17

The title to my sermon this morning is A Prophet Goes AWOL. If you don’t know what the word “AWOL” means, don’t feel bad, because it isn’t actually a word at all. It is an acronym. It comes from the US military and it stands for the words Absent Without Official Leave. It refers to a soldier who has left his post in defiance of his orders. It is a serious offense, especially in war time and it can result in a court martial and a prison sentence, a dishonorable discharge or even the death penalty.

We are embarking today on a short series of messages on the Book of Jonah. It is a book with only four chapters and we are going to take one chapter per week through the month of June. In the first chapter, we are told three times in the exact same Hebrew vocabulary that Jonah “ran away from the Lord.”

I say it often, and repeat today, that repetition is one of the primary ways that Hebrew narrative emphasizes the important points in the text. And three times we find this phrase, literally “Jonah fled from the presence (or face) of the Lord.” It is a phrase that bears close examination. Some believe that Jonah must have believed in Yahweh, the God of Israel, as only a tribal god, and that if he could only escape the boundaries of Israel, he could escape God’s presence and his sovereignty. I don’t think that is the case. For one thing, God’s commission was to preach to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian kingdom. For another thing, when cornered, Jonah confessed that he feared Yahweh, and identified him as the “God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” I believe that Jonah understood God’s omnipresence and his universal rule.

If that is the case, then what was Jonah fleeing from? I believe we can best understand the phrase “the presence of the Lord” by picturing God as a king on his throne. The king was always surrounded by those who were privileged to be “in his presence,” typically servants or officials who stood ready to do his bidding and fulfill his commands and orders. To flee from the king’s presence was to leave his service and to abandon his commands. If that is the case, then Jonah’s flight was literally the spiritual equivalent of going AWOL. In fact, I would suggest two alternative uses of the acronym: Avoiding the Will Of the Lord, or Abandoning the Work Of the Lord.

With that introduction, let’s look at the story itself. First of all to set the stage, from our series in the Book of Genesis and particularly the story of the Tower of Babel, we are fast forwarding over 1200 years to the first half of the 8th century BC. Jonah is identified in a parallel passage in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II who reigned from 793 to 753 BC. Chapter 1 opens with a very clear statement: The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

The original text actually has three imperative verbs in verse 2: “Get up! Go! Cry out!” This sets the stage for the obvious disconnect with verse 3. This verse literally says, “Jonah got up.” At least he got that part right. But then the verse continues. He got up “to flee from the presence of the Lord.” He bailed out. He went AWOL. We will explore why in a later message, and the answer might surprise you. But for now, we are only told that he fled. God told him to go to Ninevah, which lay to the northeast, and he headed for Joppa and hence to Tarshish which was to the west.

At first his journey went well. He arrived in Joppa. He found a ship in port which was bound for Tarshish. This could refer either to a city in Spain, or more simply be translated as “bound for sea”. He not only found a ship that would take him, but he had enough money to pay the fare. He went down into the ship and fell fast asleep. He had made good his escape.

Or had he? I like the way the author describes what happened next. Verse 4 says that the Lord “hurled a great wind across the sea.” It created a great storm and the ship was about to break up under the strength of the wind and the waves. The sailors were terrified and began to cry out, each one to his gods. They also began to cast the cargo and everything else they could find overboard to lighten the ship and keep it from sinking. In the midst of the chaos, the captain found Jonah in the hold of the ship, fast asleep! He woke him and called on him to join the others in prayer.

The tension in the story continues to grow. Nothing was working. The storm continued to rage and their peril was increasing. The sailors determined that someone on ship must have done something to anger one of the gods. They decided to cast lots to find out who it was. When they did, the lot indicated that Jonah was the guilty party. Anxiously they questioned him. Who are you? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? Where is your country and who are your people?

Whether in genuine contrition or because he felt he had no choice, Jonah confessed honestly and accurately: “I am a Hebrew. I fear and serve Yahweh, the God of heaven who is no mere tribal deity, but the Creator; the maker of the sea and the dry land.” He also confessed that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord.

Now the sailors were truly terrified. “What should we do?” they asked Jonah. “What sacrifice can we offer to cause your God to calm the storm?”

Jonah, now in his role as a prophet, spoke honestly. “You have to throw me overboard. Then the sea will grow calm.”

To their credit, the sailors were reluctant to take such drastic action. They made a valiant effort to turn the ship back toward shore. But the storm only worsened. Finally, in desperation, they prayed to Yahweh, the God of Jonah. “Don’t hold this against us,” they prayed. And they threw him overboard. As Jonah hit the water with a splash, the wind stopped blowing and the waves died down. The men were relieved and yet seized by an even greater fear. They recognized that they were in the presence of the Creator God who had power over the sea and the wind. Whether in genuine faith, or simply out of fear, we cannot be sure, but they offered sacrifices and made vows to the God of Jonah.

Meanwhile, the writer tells us, God sovereignly sent a large fish of unidentified species which swallowed Jonah. And we will pick up the story there next week.

The heart of this story lies in the effort of Jonah to flee from the presence of the Lord; to go AWOL; to avoid the will of the Lord and to abandon the work of the Lord. He did not want to do what God commanded him to do. It is instructive to see that this is something that can occur in anyone’s life and at any level of spiritual development. It is not limited to the new or immature believer. Jonah was a prophet. He was a spokesman for God to the people of God. How long had he been a prophet? We don’t know. But he was a man who knew God. He had received revelations from God. He had stood, probably before the king of Israel to announce messages from God. But the day came when he simply did not want to do what God told him to do. It doesn’t matter how long you have been a Christian or how long you have served the Lord, you are still vulnerable.

Another thing struck me as I thought about the story. That is, how well things went for Jonah at first. He experienced “open doors” and opportunities. He found a ship. The ship had room for him. He had enough money for the fare. The ship sailed. He made good his escape. He might have attempted to persuade himself that this was God’s plan! But we must understand that when we disobey a clear command of God, no amount of circumstantial evidence and no succession of open doors and opportunities and even successes can make wrong right. Jonah was AWOL.

The next thing that impresses me in this story is the reality that when we go AWOL, others are affected. God sent the wind and the storm. But it didn’t just strike Jonah, did it? It struck the entire ship. It jeopardized the livelihood and the lives of everyone on the ship. You and I are not islands. We are connected to our families, our friends, our work colleagues and our communities. What we do (and what we fail to do) affects others around us, often in ways that we are not even aware of. It may be in some physical way, as these sailors were affected. Or it may be as simple as the fact that when you and I are missing from action, extra weight and responsibility falls on others. Whatever the case, our actions, including our sins both of commission and omission, will have effects on those around us.

There is an irony in this chapter that also causes me to pause. That is the fact that these pagan sailors, with their faulty theology and their worship of many gods, actually behave more righteously and honorably than God’s own prophet. I would like to believe that their actions at the end of the chapter were founded in genuine faith in the true God and that they will be numbered among the faithful in eternity. But whether they are or not, the fact remains that these hard-bitten, hardened men of the sea provide a better moral compass in this chapter than the prophet of God who was raised on the words of God and was actually entrusted to deliver God’s words. And that makes me wonder if that is ever the case with those of us who have been raised in Christian homes and in the church. Familiarity with God’s truth is not synonymous with obedience to it.

All of this leads me to a simple summary of the fundamental truth of Jonah 1. Going AWOL is not a good idea! That is a simple truth, but how often do we ignore it, even as God’s servants, even as those who have walked with God for a long time. Going AWOL is not a good idea. You see, in a battle of wills, God always wins. What develops in Jonah chapter 1 is simply a battle of wills. God said, “Go to Nineveh!” Jonah said, “No!” Jonah engaged in a battle of wills with God. That is not smart! It is not a fair fight. God always wins! After all, he’s God. He is sovereign. He has all power and all authority. He controls the wind and the weather. He can arrange the smallest detail, like the falling of the lots. He can even control a fish in the sea. There is nothing he can’t do. You and I can run, but we can’t hide! God’s purposes will prevail. The pagan sailors in Jonah 1 understood this. When they prepared to throw Jonah overboard, they said, “Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.” And that is the bottom line. God always does as he pleases. Paul tells us this in Ephesians 1:11, in which he describes God as the one “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Every created being, every human being will one day be brought into submission to the will of the God who created the world, whether willingly or unwillingly, whether sooner or later. God is God. In a battle of wills, God always wins. Going AWOL is not a good idea.

So that brings me to a very personal question that only you can answer. Are you running from God? Are you AWOL? Did you come to Abu Dhabi to escape the will of God; to avoid dealing with something back home? Or are you planning to leave Abu Dhabi prematurely, fleeing from something he wants you to do? Remember, going AWOL is never primarily about geography, although geography can be involved as it was in Jonah’s case. It is about obeying the will, the commands, the commissioning of God on our lives. Was there a time in your life when you responded to the call of God? You made promises and vows to him, and committed yourself to serve him in some special way. But you’ve abandoned that calling, that command, that commission, and you’ve been running ever since.

If that is your story, I have some good news. Our God is a God of second chances. Jonah’s second chance came in the form of a big fish. We’ll look at that next week. But I just want to point out that the message of Jonah and of many other stories in the Bible is that God offers second chances. He offers us the chance to come back to the place where we left the path of obedience, and to report for duty once again.


  1. What do you think it means to “run away from the Lord”?
  2. What does the acronym AWOL stand for? Do you think it fits Jonah?
  3. Below are some quotes from the sermon with questions attached.
  • “At first all went well.” Are good circumstances always an indication of God’s blessing and/or approval? Why or why not?
  • “When a believer goes AWOL, others are affected.” Give examples of this principle from Scripture or your own experience.
  • “In a battle of wills, God always wins.” Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
  • “Our God is a God of second chances.” Can you give examples of this principle from Scripture or your own experience?

More in Jonah

June 24, 2011

Why Jonah Ran Away

June 17, 2011

Does God Change His Mind?

June 10, 2011

In My Distress...I Called for Help