We’ve all been there. Standing on the beach, watching the sunset cast its brilliant reds and oranges across the sky. The sea breeze gently kissing our face. Gulls singing in the distance. The pulse of the waves as they roll in and then back out again.

And then we think, This is the closest I’ve felt to God in a long time.

This is exactly the type of place and time we expect to find God. But what if we were wrong?

In the story of Jonah, the prophet decides to ignore God’s command to go to the people of Nineveh. Who could blame him? That was the capital of Assyria, the largest empire ever known at the time. It was also home to the most ruthless armies ever known. Think Mos Eisley Spaceport: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” But worse. Much worse.

Anger, violence, and death were a way of life for these people. If there were any place on earth where God would not be, it was Nineveh.

Rather than walk into what he considered to be a suicide mission, Jonah decides to head the other direction to Tarshish, a trade/business hub and vacation hot spot along the Spanish coast. Think sandy beaches, palm trees, and breath-taking sunsets. That place of beauty where any person with a soul would experience the presence of God.

Except we are told three times that Jonah was going to Tarshish to flee from the Lord (Jonah 1:3; 10).

So where was God?

The entire book of Jonah is about shattered expectations. Assumptions are turned on end. Black is white, up is down, right is wrong. God is in Nineveh, not Tarshish. The pagan sailors are more religious than the prophet of YHWH. Jonah sings a Psalm of thanksgiving, not lament, while in the fish’s stomach. And God has mercy and forgiveness on the enemies of his chosen people.

God was in Nineveh, not Tarshish. If God was with the Assyrians, could he also be with the strippers and bar tenders? Prostitutes and convicts? Drug addicts and atheists?

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139:7-12