God is in control. He’s the Creator. He has all the power and authority. No question. And yet, I won’t deny it, sometimes I wonder what he’s thinking. What is going on? I have found myself in the most trying of circumstances and I wonder. God wants me to do what? How is this even possible?
I have always felt a strong call from God to do whatever I can to make sure no one goes hungry or struggles with food security in our community. I have been serving in this ministry for around 45 years. I am thrilled every week to be able to help people keep food in their homes. It is the BEST job in the world! It will never get old for me. My heart is in it.
However, if 45 years ago, God said, Jean, I want you to bring together a dedicated group of around 40 volunteers who are willing and able to face extreme variations of environmental conditions from blistering heat to hypothermia producing freezing cold. AND they must be able to lift 50 pound unending boxes of food. BUT, do it with a smile while giving words of support and encouragement to all including the most-ornery of folks. WHILE courageously facing a life-threatening pandemic. I would have said, okay, while asking myself where do you find somebody willing to take on that job for no pay? PLUS find 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of food a week for up to 500 families, sometimes more. That’s a million and a half, that’s 1,500,000, pounds of food a year. AND procure a facility to make it happen in and be prepared for any other eventualities for decades to come. I’m not entirely sure what I would have said if I knew the entire story 45 years ago. I suspect it might have sounded a bit like Jonah’s following response to God.
As we read the book of Jonah, imagine this conversation between God and Jonah. God: Jonah Jonah: Yes God? God: I am calling you to be a prophet Jonah: Wow, I’m humbled God. What message would you have me bring to your chosen people Israel? God: Actually, I need you to go to Nineveh. (Background: The Ninevites are not nice people. The descriptions of Nineveh in the Bible are not pretty. Even sources, such as the writings of ancient historians Herodotus and Aristotle, describe Nineveh as a lawless and sinful place.)
Jonah: silence… silence…silence…finally… Jonah: Sorry, I think you have the wrong number.
Jonah is one of the books of the minor prophets. It is in the “minor” prophets, not because they are less important, but because the books are shorter. Jonah is only four chapters long. Jonah stands out as different from all other prophetic books. The book begins, “the Word of the LORD came to Jonah.” All of the other books of prophecy go on to bring the message that God wants to communicate to the people.
Jonah is different. Jonah only says 8 words of prophecy in the entire book (5 if you’re reading Hebrew). Instead, Jonah is a narrative about a particular time in the life of the prophet Jonah. The Book of Jonah reveals to us who God is, and calls us to respond to God, and to life the way He wants us to live.
One of the first things I see that God is concerned with, and cares about, all people. Not just his “chosen” ones, not just the ones that claim to be his followers. But the people of Nineveh. A lawless and sinful people.
1 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.” 3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. 4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” 7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” 9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) 11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So, they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” 12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
It’s fair to say that Nineveh was one place that Jonah didn’t want to go. Jonah decided to run away. He wanted to get as far away from Nineveh, and from God, as he possibly could. Nineveh was located to the East of Israel, so Jonah went West, and Tarshish is just about the furthest West that it was possible to go. It was thought to be near the ends of the Earth at the time.
So, Jonah runs away from God, and from God’s calling on his life. But here’s the thing that we learn about God. Just because we stop pursuing God, even run away from him, doesn’t mean that He stops pursuing us. He knew Jonah was running away, holed up sleeping in the bottom of the boat. God was saying to Jonah, “You may be running, but I’m not done with you yet.”
Have you ever been in a situation like that? You know what God wants you to do, you know where God wants you to go, but you decide to do the opposite. And then your life just seems to not work. Some people think that this is God punishing them for not obeying Him. I think it’s God calling us out. God isn’t done with you yet.
Jonah realized that all of these things were happening because he was running away from God. So, he told the sailors to throw him overboard. The sailors didn’t at first, trying even harder to get to land, but in the end, they had to give in. They threw Jonah into the sea, praying that God wouldn’t punish them.
There were consequences for Jonah’s decisions. He was still thrown into the sea, and, as far as he and the sailors knew, to his death. Just because we repent doesn’t mean we are free from the consequences of our choices. Adam and Eve were still cast out from the Garden. Moses was still not allowed to enter the promised land.
But consequences don’t have to be the last of it. Jonah was thrown overboard. But God wasn’t done with Jonah. God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah. No one knows what kind of fish it was that swallowed Jonah. Some people think it may have been some kind of whale. Some theologians think it may have been a one of a kind fish that God created specifically for that instance. But honestly, I don’t think it really matters what kind of fish it was.
God is not surprised by our rebellion. He was prepared for it. God isn’t caught off-guard by your rebellion. God wasn’t caught off guard when you decided to live your life your own way instead of His. No, he was prepared for it.
I don’t know what it’s like to spend 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a fish. I don’t know what it’s like to spend any amount of time in the belly of anything, but I can image it wasn’t pleasant. Fish stink! Add whatever digestive juices this fish had and I don’t know how he stayed conscious.
It seems, however, he used his time wisely. 2 1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.
4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’ 5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. 7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. 8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. 9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah cried out to God. He repented and thanked God for saving him. Jonah pledged to obey, God again. God heard his prayer. “The Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been vomited on. I’ve been a mother and grandmother for going on 50 years. I have seen my share of vomit. It is never pretty. But Jonah wasn’t just vomited on. He was part of the vomit. His deliverance wasn’t pretty. So, don’t be surprised if you end up getting messy when God delivers you.
We have all run away from God. Isaiah 53:6 says, “all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned – every one – to his own way.” But even though we have turned from God, He has not turned from us. Like He did with Jonah, God pursued, and is pursuing, each one of us. He places storms in our lives to get our attention and to let us know that he hasn’t gone anywhere. Some of us may envy Jonah because all he had to do was to be thrown into a raging sea and spend some time in a fish. That may seem like nothing compared to some of the consequences you see coming your way.
But know this. God wasn’t caught off-guard by your disobedience and rebellion, and he has already prepared for your means of deliverance. The question is, are you ready to jump overboard and get a little messy?
“You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” Psalm 32:7 Matthew 8:26 But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.
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