Calling the Reluctant to Action

Perhaps no one better demonstrated the reluctance that often accompanies a call from the Lord than Jonah.

As you may recall, Jonah received a call from the Lord to go to Nineveh and to call the city to turn from its wicked ways.  Jonah responded by doing what most of us would do — he booked himself a ticket in the opposite direction.  He went to port of Joppa and discovered a ship bound for Tarshish.  Now I need to tell you that if you gave me choice between the Spanish Riviera, which is where Tarshish is located, and Nineveh and its decadence; I would book passage to Tarshish with Jonah as well.  And that’s what we often do in our lives … we choose not what God wants, but what part of God’s word fits our thinking. In this case, Jonah says to himself, “I think a mission trip to the beach sounds a lot better than the mission to Nineveh.”

Those of us familiar with Jonah’s story know that a storm blows up almost immediately and threatens to sink the boat.  The crew throws everything overboard to lighten the ship’s load and when the captain goes below to check for further inventory to chuck he discovers Jonah sleeping!  He commands Jonah to wake up and pray to his God.  Its amazing how people find religion when stressed and everyone onboard is praying to every God imaginable.  When this does not seem to be producing fruit they turn to gambling – they cast lots to figure who has angered the gods and Jonah wins (or is it loses).

So they ask Jonah how they can fix his problem with the Lord.  Jonah suggests that they throw him into the sea.  After much soul-searching and prayer, the crew honors Jonah’s suggestion and Jonah is throw into the sea, where scripture tells us he was swallowed by a fish.  Some might ask how a fish could swallow a person whole and it is said that Dwight Moody’s answer was that it was easy for the fish because Jonah was only a “minor prophet.”  Anyway, three days later and the fish can’t stomach Jonah either and spits him up on the shore.  Did I tell you that our God is a God of second chances?  Let’s pay attention to the rest of the story:

3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Jonah 3:1-10, The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).

What might we learn from Jonah’s adventure?  Let me offer several thoughts:

  • First, God will find us out. We cannot run and we cannot hide, although many of us will spend most of our lives running away.  Our boats are not necessarily heading to Joppa, but our intent is too clear.  When our God calls us we want the Frank Sinatra option (let me do it “My Way”).
  • Second, sometime we think doing what God desires of us will make us happy.  Better yet, we think if we cannot be happy then there is no use trying what the Lord asks of us.  Did you hear Jonah’s sorry eight word sermon?  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Scripture tells us he did not even get to the center of the Nineveh … he just found a stopping place said his piece, turned around and walked away.  Jonah’s attitude is not different from a reluctant child offering an apology for hitting a sibling, cutting up the sofa with their new scissors, throwing a rock through the window … if it weren’t for moma would apologies ever be made?  For me the important word is that despite his sorry words God changed the hearts of a people (and this is all God desired according to the opening verses of Jonah).
  • Third, as we walk through Jonah’s story we are invited to enlarge our sense of who God is.  Jonah stomped out of Nineveh and waited for its destruction.  When the destruction did not come, he then pouted and railed against the Lord for making him look like a fool for speaking a word that did not come to pass.  His exact words were: “ That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).  Jonah knows who God is, how God will act, and then gets angry when the Lord acts exactly how the Lord is supposed to act.
  • Finally, to complete the circle, God sends a bush to shelter Jonah from the sun’s heat and then the next day takes the bush away.  Now Jonah gets really angry and receives this rebuke from God: “ You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons” (Jonah 4:10-11).  And soit is with us … how many times do I forget to seek the welfare of the whole?  How many times am I consumed about my piece of the pie to the exclusion of others.

This week has provided us moments to reflect on the Dr. Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday about being willing to do the hard work in order to set a nation on a different tack in the storms of life.  This week an African-America was inaugurated as our 44th president — something that I could only have dreamed about as a child.  And yesterday Kay Yow died.  Kay’s dogged determination and attitude made it possible for women’s basketball to move from a sport played in front of family and friends (I saw a State-UCLA game in Reynolds coliseum in the 70’s that could not have had 500 people in the stands) to a game that attracts a crowd and a following.  To make a change in the world you have to be willing to dig in and make a difference no matter how reluctant you may be to take the first step.  This week I invite you to pray about where you are on life’s journey … is your ticket punched for your personal Tarshish or God’s mission to Nineveh?