I love the story of Jonah. It is truthfully a whale of a good tale, pun absolutely intended. The majority of children learn it during Sunday School as the story of a man who gets swallowed by a big fish. In some ways, it becomes a survival story. I can see it now… Bible meets reality TV—Survivor: Nineveh. Instead of getting voted off the island, they throw you overboard a ship. Who will get immunity? Who will survive? Tune in next week.
Jonah’s story can easily be our story. The story of a misfit.
One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God. He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish—as far away from God as he could get.
– Jonah 1:1-3 MSG
Okay, so Jonah was a prophet. A prophet. The dude literally spent his life preaching about God’s Word. But then God told him to go to a city called Nineveh to preach. But because of this little thing called “fear” or “anxiety” he skedaddled on his responsibilities and went to Tarshish. I like to imagine that he left a little dust cloud behind him as he hoofed it out of there.
Have you ever done this in your life? I know I have. Maybe it doesn’t look like God saying “Preach!” but has God called you to a Nineveh? It can so simple sometimes, you may have missed it, cast it aside, thought “not my problem.”
For me, I can vividly remember a time where I felt like I should say or do something. I had been sitting in a meeting next to a wonderful woman affectionately referred to as “Mamma”. One of my many work moms. It was approaching Christmas and it was pay day. Having done well the week before at work, I received a pretty nice commission check. Baller. Things were looking up for me. Then Mamma spoke in a whisper, “how am I going to get him a bike with that?!” My Nineveh approached. Don’t ask questions, Jeremy. Just ignore it. Just. Ignore. It.
As it turns out, I couldn’t just ignore it. I asked. Someone had stolen her grandson’s bike, and she had hoped to get him one for Christmas. Then God spoke to me, in that gentle whisper that is more like a pull at my heart strings. “Go to Walmart, buy her a bike, and PREACH!” Okay. Maybe he didn’t actually want me to preach at her, but you get the idea. Nineveh approaching. I remember having the thought, “But it’s MY money, Lord. I worked hard for it.” My brain tried to make me run to a Tarshish. It wasn’t my job, after all.
But God sent a huge storm at sea, the waves towering.
The ship was about to break into pieces. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods. They threw everything they were carrying overboard to lighten the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship to take a nap. He was sound asleep. The captain came to him and said, “What’s this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we’re in trouble and rescue us.”
Then the sailors said to one another, “Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who’s responsible for this disaster.”
So they drew straws. Jonah got the short straw.
– Jonah 1:4-7 MSG
My storm was not literal. The warm, cozy building was not going to fall apart just because I tried to reason my way out of listening. However, in my brain, the storm raged. I could not let it go. I kept tossing it back and forth as if my brain decided to make every train of thought into a game of “hot potato.” Have you ever tried to work while being badgered by a toddler, insisting every 30 seconds that you MUST PLAY WITH ME?! That was my brain. Short straw.
Then they grilled him: “Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?”
He told them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land.”
At that, the men were frightened, really frightened, and said, “What on earth have you done!” As Jonah talked, the sailors realized that he was running away from God.
They said to him, “What are we going to do with you—to get rid of this storm?” By this time the sea was wild, totally out of control.
– Jonah 1:8-11 MSG
I found myself in the break room at work looking up bikes at Walmart for 12-year-old boys. Why? Because maybe they were just too expensive. Loophole, God! They weren’t. So. I told a friend via text message what I had been considering. “Are you going to do it?”, she asked. “I don’t think so”, came the response.
Jonah said, “Throw me overboard, into the sea. Then the storm will stop. It’s all my fault. I’m the cause of the storm. Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.”
But no. The men tried rowing back to shore. They made no headway. The storm only got worse and worse, wild and raging.
Then they prayed to God, “O God! Don’t let us drown because of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for his death. You are God. Do what you think is best.”
They took Jonah and threw him overboard. Immediately the sea was quieted down.
– Jonah 1:12-15 MSG
My shift ended, but I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Walmart was a 2 minute drive away. So, I said, “I’ll just go look at bikes and I’ll pay for half!” So, I did just that. I went to Walmart and looked at bikes. I found one that looked cool. I did a quick bit of math, and told myself I would buy a gift card for half of the cost. It was going to have to be good enough.
Until my heart said, “That’s just not good enough, Jeremy.”
I came face to face with my Nineveh. God asked me to be willing to trust him. To go be willing to do something for someone else. Because in his plans, it would make all the difference. I tried to run. I tried to get away to a Tarshish. But God sent a storm of thought and emotion, and I couldn’t help but want to take part in this blessing for Mamma. God quieted down the seas when my heart flew overboard for the idea.
And here’s the thing… It made an impact.
The sailors were impressed, no longer terrified by the sea, but in awe of God. They worshiped God, offered a sacrifice, and made vows.
Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights.
– Jonah 1:16-17 MSG
I walked back to work, full balance of the bike on a gift-card, and walked straight up to Mamma. I placed the card on the desk, said Merry Christmas and walked away. Mamma followed. She wrapped me in a hug, and she was left stunned in tears. Co-workers looked at me as I walked away, and they were too in awe. It was a special moment.
Jonah, formally known as “fish food” finally gave in. He was thrown overboard. He said yes to going to Nineveh the second time God asked. Jonah preached, the city acknowledged their wicked ways, and repented. God did not destroy Nineveh. God worked through Jonah in his Nineveh.
My story? It made a difference to Mamma. To her grandson. To the people who witnessed it and heard the story.
Through it all, God used that story in my workplace. The company recognized me as their “Ambassador of Win” for the year a few months later as a direct result of that story. They stood in ovation as I was handed a check for $1000, tears in my eyes.
All this to say, look in your life for a Nineveh. Find where God is calling you to go. To make a difference.
Don’t run. Don’t shy away or try to get out of it.
Don’t be fish food.