Text: Jonah 1:17-2:10
Let us all pause for a moment of gratitude, gratitude that lately God doesn’t seem to send storms and gigantic sea creatures to swallow us whole whenever we don’t listen. Because if God did, I would imagine that many of us wouldn’t be here right now, rather we’d be swimming around in the ocean, somewhere in the belly of a fish, perhaps trying to remember how Finding Nemo’s Dori spoke whale so we could converse with our new home.
I sincerely doubt that if we were truly honest with ourselves that any of us could say we never refused to do, go, or be what God called us to. Sometimes we feel that tug on our heart that tells us we should say something to that person speaking unkindly of another – even if we’d then be looked down on by that same person. Sometimes we feel pulled to offer our gifts in ways that make us nervous – perhaps to speak in front of a crowd when God has given us something to say but not extreme confidence to go with it. Sometimes we are called by God to give up our dreams of what our life will be and take on God’s dreams for us. And sometimes we don’t respond to the Spirit moving so within us. I would imagine that each of us could think of at least one time we chose to stay with what was known, what was comfortable and safe rather than risk the unknown with God.
To be honest – minus the fish, Jonah’s story really isn’t all that out of the ordinary. He was a man who was happy to be God’s servant – as long as God asked him to do things he approved of. Jonah had no trouble speaking to the people Israel the word of the Lord when it was a positive proclamation. 2 Kings attributes Jonah as the one who prophesied that God would restore Israel’s borders which had been overtaken by her enemies. He doesn’t seem to take much issue proclaiming good news to people he knows. But pronouncing God’s judgment upon a bunch of heathen strangers? No thank you, I’ll go to Tarshish instead. Jonah will trust and follow God, but only so far, and Nineveh, well, Nineveh goes beyond the boundaries of what Jonah is comfortable with.
And so even though God has called him to go somewhere, to speak the word of the Lord, Jonah refuses and tries to flee from the presence of God. Jonah has trouble seeing beyond himself and into God’s will and vision for the world. He’s comfortable with what and who he knows – this strange land with strange people – he doesn’t understand how they could be part of God’s vision.
As I said, other than what happens while he’s in the midst of fleeing from God’s call, Jonah’s story isn’t very unique. Many of us can probably identify with not fully trusting in God’s vision for us. Not fully believing that God’s will and not ours is what we should spend our energies understanding. I know I can. I also wonder if perhaps many of us can identify with Jonah’s fish experience. Not a literal fish, of course, but that moment, that experience, that encounter that makes you take notice, that causes you to say in awe and wonder “I remembered the Lord.” Sometimes our fish comes to us in tragedy, sometimes in a joyful moment. Sometimes we know that we’ve been swallowed right away, sometimes it takes us a few days, or weeks, or even longer to notice that where we are. This morning I’d like to tell you about my encounter with a big fish.
Like Jonah, I’ve had some interesting encounters while I’m in the midst of traveling. My mom worked for Continental Airlines for several years and so – thanks to her benefits – I got to fly more than the average bear. That means I got to have more than the average number of plane conversations – you know, those hour long conversations where you reveal your inner most soul but may not exchange names. Of course, given my answer to the “so, what do you do” question, I also have other than average kinds of conversations. When people find out you’re in seminary or a minister – a visible change comes over them. Sometimes they shut down completely, sometimes they feel the need to confess, sometimes they want to engage me in deep theological conversation – which gets really interesting because when I fly thanks to Dramamine, I’m very drowsy and perhaps more than just a little loopy.
Two days before I left for Ethiopia, I had one of those interesting conversations while I was flying back from my sister’s graduation in Wisconsin. My row mate was a man named Tom – exceedingly cheerful and interested in discussing everything from our families to the hot topics of our time. Not surprisingly what I do and where I was going in two days came up. When Tom and I talked about my upcoming trip to Ethiopia, I expressed my fears about our group’s safety. I had been – I’ll admit – obsessing about that topic for a few days. A few weeks prior I had read about a bus about 80 km from one of the town’s we were going to drive through had been ambushed and 15 people were killed. While in Wisconsin I heard about some other turmoil ending in bloodshed. Tom’s response to this was: don’t worry, you’re going to God’s work and God will keep you safe. And, well, if your worst fears come to be, you’d still be with God and all would be alright.
There was something about his carefree, “it’ll be fine” attitude that just bothered me. It was as though he thought I’d have some sort of invincibility cloak because I was on, as Elwood Blues would say, a mission from God. But as we continued to talk, I realized that wasn’t what he was saying, not exactly. His attitude was more that whatever might happen to me, I would be doing God’s work and be with God and that was all anyone could ask for.
Talking with Tom, I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure if I believed that. It sounds like a great outlook on life, even possibly good solid theology, but I struggled with it. There’s this expression you may have heard, let go and let God. I have confession. The Let go and Let God always bothered me just like Tom’s perspective on life. Because letting go means YOU don’t have a plan and you’re just asking for trouble. Let go means YOU aren’t in control.
Let me make another confession – as a good eldest child, I like control. And when I’m out of it, when I can’t see what’s going to happen next, when I can’t develop plans or strategies, I, well, I panic just a bit. I’m a lot better about this control thing than I used to be but I really like to be able make sure I can foresee what’s going to happen and plan for it.
When it came to Ethiopia, I couldn’t exactly plan for what I was going to find, didn’t have much control over the next three weeks of my life. I couldn’t plan and I wasn’t willing to believe that whatever happened, it would work God’s kingdom, toward God’s purpose. Somewhere deep down inside, I’d like to believe God’s purposes can only be fulfilled if I live a great, long, happy life. That since I had gone along with God with this whole minister thing, since I let God make that decision for me, the rest of my life should go closely according to my plan. That, that would work out really well for me.
Jonah certainly seemed to along the same mindset. He was okay with being called to be a prophet but he didn’t want to be stretched to what he didn’t know, to what he couldn’t foresee. It wasn’t until he was riding around the inside of a big fish that he started to conceive that God was the one in control of his life, that he remembered God and lifted his voice in prayer. I know that three is a popular biblical number – it just sounds good, three days and three nights – but I find it intriguing that it took three days and three nights for Jonah to make this prayer.
If I had been swallowed by a giant fish, and found myself alive and not being digested, I would think one of my very first actions would be to get down on my knees and pray to the Lord who made me saying “you are awesome, please save me, I’ll do whatever you want” over and over again.
That it took three days just speaks to how dense we can be. Tom probably looked at me just the same way I’m looking at Jonah. Amy, you’re in the belly of a fish – don’t you see that God is in charge and in God you should trust. Don’t you believe in God’s vision for you?
I wanted to believe but it’s scary. God’s vision for us is scary because it’s not our vision, it may not fit in with what we had planned. But what’s more, because it’s God’s vision and not ours, we cannot see all of it, we cannot always see how it will work, cannot foretell the outcome of following this vision. God’s vision extends beyond this time and place and we as humans cannot hope to comprehend it all.
As I was preparing to go to this foreign land, I really wanted to believe that all would be okay – at least in God’s terms even if not my own. I wanted to believe and so God sent me a fish, a man named Tom. Tom put these thoughts into my head and as I finished packing, those thoughts just took root. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I just need to trust God to see me through, to catch me if I fell. I needed to believe that if I focused on the will of God, if I allowed myself to be filled with and guided by the Spirit, that God would always be with me. I needed to believe that even though I can’t see beyond the horizon, God can. Believe and trust no matter what, I would be with God. And that would be all I need.
A funny thing happened as our team was at the airport on our way to Ethiopia. As we stood in line preparing to go through security, I was trying very hard to focus on this trust thing and not obsess over the fears that kept rattling around in my head. As I was trying to put my fears aside, I heard a voice call my name. I turned to see who had called and there was Tom, standing in the same line a few people down, a huge smile on his face. I don’t know about signs – that’s another sermon – but I took this encounter as that final kick in the pants - notice it took me only two days and nights. Upon seeing Tom again, I gave into that desire to trust in God, to believe in God’s promises. I gave in and it felt great!
Now, not all my fears were gone, but I didn’t operate out of my fear, didn’t let it keep me from going where God called me. Because I was not absorbed by my fears, I could fully engage in all around me, could be who God wanted me to be while I was there. I crossed over from where I was comfortable – odd to say that fear was comforting but it was – into the unknown of just trusting God completely and found myself so much more comfortable.
We may be grateful that God doesn’t send literal storms and big fishes, but we should also be thankful that different kinds of storms and big fishes enter our lives and shake us up. Thankful that God doesn’t let us flee without putting up something of a fight. Thankful that even it takes three days and three nights – or longer – God is going to stick with us until we understand the will of the Lord. Until we give into it, give into God. Until we shout with greater excitement and joy thank Donkey did in Shrek, “I’m a believer!” And brothers and sisters, I am!