“The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” 3 But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.”
There are times in ministry that I relate with Jonah. He definitely does not start out as the hero in this story, running toward the front lines, ready to do the Lord’s will without flinching. I would love to say that I am always strong and ready to dive right in, no matter what. But that is not me. Especially when it comes to matters of the heart. When I think that what the Lord is calling me to might be painful. And I think that God is ok with that.
Consider Jonah for a moment. Jonah got a clear message from God. I don’t know how he received that message, but the Lord gave it and Jonah got it. He had a clear understanding of what God was asking him to do. Often, I pray for that kind of clarity and direction. I’d pray, “Lord if you could just make it CLEAR to me what I should do, I would do it.” But when it is clear, when God does grant a peek at where He is leading, I freeze in a moment of fight or flight. “But Lord, that looks so difficult, so painful, so heartbreaking”. I perseverate on the difficulties of the task ahead, forgetting that the reward of touching hearts and lives will be more payoff than anything actually required of me. I’m not just talking about the heavenly reward of being a servant-I’m talking about the absolute rush of joy at seeing lives transformed for God. The earthly thrill of recognizing where God is at work and joining Him. But it’s not incentive that I think of, it’s the difficulty. Jonah experienced that too. So much so, that he didn’t just abandon the call, but he literally RAN away from the Lord. He got on a boat and set out to sea, hoping to escape.
And don’t we just do that? We think we can hide from God, run away or stand our ground in defiance. But there is no where we can hide that our loving God cannot see us. No place we can run to escape His gentle guidance. As my friend Gregg puts it, our arms are simply too short to box with God.
While Jonah is on the boat, sailing away from God, a horrible storm begins. It doesn’t take long for Jonah to realize that the storm is a direct result of His disobedience. He convinces the men aboard to throw him off the boat and into the sea.
Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.
This part of the story will never cease to simultaneously amaze and amuse me. The Lord arranged to a fish to swallow Jonah. It was an unusual act of mercy. I dare you to say God doesn’t have a sense of humor. Jonah spends a long weekend in that fish, and then the Lord commands the fish to spit Jonah out on the beach. Jonah’s prayer while he is simmering in that fish-belly, is a profound commentary on life when we are running away from God. It is hints powerfully at the waters of baptism as our old self “dies”, we are “buried” and then “rise” again to new life. As one with some experience running from God, the verse that stands out most to me is “as my life was slipping away, I remembered the Lord”
I have run from God before. It’s dark, lonely and confusing. It’s hard to tell which was is up, like being tumbled in a mighty wave. Then I remember the Lord. God is faithful. His is for us. He never drops us and will redeem our lives, our experiences and our pain for purpose: to help others and enrich our own lives.
Eventually, Jonah comes around and follows the Lord’s commission to go to Ninevah. There he shares his experience and the good news about God’s boundless love. Many people hear Jonah’s words and turn toward God in the end. When you find yourself running, avoiding God’s call, wavering to make the decision you know to be right, remember the Lord and run toward God.