If you grew up going to church, most likely you had some children’s classes. You probably heard about Moses parting the Red Sea, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Samson and Delilah, and Jonah and the Whale. There are probably different versions of the children’s stories, but I tend to think mostly we all got something pretty similar. When it came to Jonah, it probably included something like this: “So instead of listening to God, Jonah thought he would run away from Nineveh and not do what God asked him. He ran to the sea where he found a ship that was going to another city. He paid the captain, went in the lower part of the boat and went to sleep.” Directly from scripture (Jonah 1:3) we see:
But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
Run Away Jonah. We learned about Jonah running away. We grew up, and we still think of Jonah as someone who ran away. It’s not a good label to put on a person, either. Perhaps better than Judas, but not by much. On his blog “Messy Grace,” Steve Austin, on Tuesday, asked for comments to help him teach a youth group on Wednesday that “Labels Lie.” While I missed the opportunity to comment, it really fits into the Bible book I’ve been reading lately—Jonah—and how I was once called a Jonah by a friend.
My friend decided I was running from my engagement to a mutual friend. He said the marriage was G-d’s will, and I was running away from it. He didn’t accuse me of fearing commitment, which he certainly would have been correct about. And, yes, I ran away from the marriage. Not just from cowardice in the face of commitment, either.
The thing is I really loved the woman. She is an incredible Christian, servant, woman. I’ve followed some of her life since seeing her the last time many years ago: She married a man she served with in WYAM, and later served with him; Along with her husband made mission and medical mission trips overseas; And more trips with her husband and their two boys as they raised them. I’ve prayed for her and her family, too. Occasionally I’ve felt such an incredible burden to pray that it made me hurt for her, and I never learned why. And it doesn’t matter.
Being told I was running from G-d’s will hurt. I couldn’t marry the woman. And I didn’t even know why, at the time. Maybe fear of commitment. Maybe a lot to do with fearing being trapped. Same thing I suppose. But I couldn’t say that to her, or to our friends, for some reason. So I broke up and ran away. And I felt guilty for years. And I’ve played the mind games of “What if. . .” too.
Anyway, is the book of Jonah solely about a man who runs away? Is that the main principle to be learned and taught from the story. Sure Jonah fled to the sea. And, yes, when the storm hit, and the Captain woke him to join the crew in praying, he admitted that the problem might be all his fault, and explained why. (Jonah 1:9,10)
And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
Aboard a Ship with Jonah. There’s another connotation for the label “Jonah.” It has to do with bringing bad “luck” to those around him. I don’t recall the preacher or the sermon/talk, but I do remember the over-used slogan hammering away at the audience. “Don’t get on a ship with a Jonah.” Bad things happen around people labeled a Jonah. No, sorry to disappoint, but there’s no story about me being considered bad “luck”; I’ve got Midas touch, as one person put it once. In reality, I’ve got G-d’s touch upon me. So do you, if you’ve been redeemed, having turned from sin to the newness of Life, know Y’shuaJesus as Lord, Savior, Son of G-d. Anyway, I don’t really thing that the book of Jonah is really about bad things happening to people around a man who flees from G-d.
Jonah the bad man. There’s a more recent addition to the story of Jonah and the Whale. At least I don’t recall this sort of thing: “The only problem was that Jonah didn’t want to help the people there. He knew they were bad and he wanted them to be punished for their mistakes.” Okay, so it’s true, Jonah, like all Israel, was very familiar with the evil that was the people of Nineveh. And, hey, sure, Jonah knew all to well the threat those heathen Gentile posed to Israel. So Jonah and all of Israel would have been just fine to let Nineveh go up in smoke like Sodom. Did Jonah not want to help the people of Nineveh? No, I’m sure Jonah wasn’t too interested in taking a message to Nineveh that, if acted upon, would ensure G-d’s forgiveness of some bad dudes. But is it fair to characterize Jonah as a person who didn’t care about people. I know, that isn’t what the quote from the child’s story says. But I think, since it appears up in the front of the story, that is what is conveyed to kids, if this story is used.
The Real Point of Jonah. It bothers me that G-d’s spokesperson is characterized as one who doesn’t care about people, runs away from responsibility, and is bad to be around. Here’s my take on Jonah. He cared about his people enough to disobey G-d. That caring drove him to leave, to sail away. And here’s the really cool thing: the people on the boat didn’t worship the G-d of Israel, but that all changed. They met Jonah, and they responded to G-d. (Jonah 1:14-16)
Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
G-d knew Jonah. G-d would have predicted Jonah’s moves. And I’m sure G-d had a plan. Jonah needed some time to come to terms with some key issues. Jonah needed come to an understanding of what he’d done in disobeying G-d, that he’d put his people and the fear of what his people would think before serving G-d’s needs. Jonah also needed to let go of his way of viewing Gentiles as some how outside the mercy of G-d, and to see the way G-d sees all His people—even those who are not the Chosen. Jonah needed a little of what my son calls “swag.” He got that in his breathtaking ride beneath the waves, when he got spewed out onto the beach.
Think about it. Out of a small, despised, people, comes an unheard of man with a message to a powerful, albeit evil, nation, “Repent or Die.” Right. Yawn. But even today, CNN would be right there on the beach when it’s reported that a man is stuck in the mouth of a great fish. Then the camera’s are rolling and Jonah pops out. What an entrance. Now people will listen. Jonah got his fifteen minutes of fame.
Okay. The big message of the book of Jonah is that G-d calls, man rejects, learns from G-d that rejection isn’t an option, and comes out smelling like dead fish and seaweed—er, I mean roses. It’s also about G-d’s concern for Gentiles, to whom He extends mercy. And it’s also about G-d having the right to decide that evil, done even by a people that doesn’t acknowledge Him, needs to be quenched, purged.
And me, what about my accusation of being a Jonah? It seems to me we were not meant to be married. I wasn’t in finished enough shape to be with someone so fantastic. She’d served the Lord for many years. I’d run from Him for as many. She had a calling upon her life, from the age of five, that she’d willingly accepted. I didn’t deserve to have a wife such as she. I needed time in the belly of hell before I could be ready for someone like her. I needed to let her go. That knowledge drove me away. I didn’t run away, but ran toward. Toward the belly of a whale.
All I need is to get some Jonah swag! For that, I’m waiting.
Lord Bless, Keep, Shine. . .