I recall some of my earliest memories of the Book of Jonah. They were from my illustrated Bible for children. My mother would read these stories to me at night as a preschooler. I’ve tried to emulate her example with my own children. The story of Jonah was one of my favorites because it involved ships, seas and fish. Our version had Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Into my adult life, people have argued that it wasn’t a whale but a big fish. However you read the text, an underwater creature swallowed a grown man and spit him out onto the shore. Whether it was a fish or a whale seems to be splitting scales.
I remember the picture of Jonah inside the whale. He was holding an oil lantern down inside the whale’s stomach, sunlight shining through the blow hole, resting peacefully as we waited to be regurgitated out on shore.
I love these memories of this story. But there comes a time where we must move from the surface introductions of God’s story and explore the deep. In some ways, Jonah is like a Pixar story. It can capture the imagination of children, while grabbing the attention of the adults. That’s what I hope we can do with Jonah. We rightly do not mention to children that the Ninevites in the story were Assyrians who set fire to the holy places in Israel, poked out the eyes of Jewish leaders and sent families with their children packing to live in exile in a foreign land. And yet that kind of information is important if we are to grow.
But before we explore the depths of the story itself, we want to address what’s on most adult minds about Jonah. Was Jonah really swallowed by a fish?
Could it have happened? Well absolutely. If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, God can have a man like Jonah swallowed by a fish and spit out on shore. Could this story be fictional? Well, yes and there’s good Biblical evidence. Throughout the scriptures, we find evidence of fictional stories. Jesus used them all the time. We call them parables. The story of the good Samaritan. The story of the Prodigal Son. These are both fictional stories from Jesus, but they are true stories in their message.
Recently, I read an article about a person’s thoughts about the Biblical character of Job. People often have questions about whether Job, who suffered devastating loss to his family and livestock, was a historical person. Could a man truly endure as much suffering as Job? This author, a Methodist Pastor, wrote the early 1900’s.
It makes little difference if there was or was not a real human life that was actually surrounded by all the historic details of the Book of Job, so long as I know that at this far distant period some soul struggles, as mine has done, with the mystery of suffering, and finally triumphed through a faith that brought to him a fresh and soul-satisfying vision of God. (Rev. Dr. Forrest Prettyman)
I would echo these sentiments about Jonah. Was there a fish that swallowed Jonah? I can’t say for sure. But what matters to me is that there was a great soul who was struggling with God’s call upon his life. He was inspired by God to write down this experience of running from the call.
As we study Jonah, I don’t want us to get too focused on whether this happened exactly the way this story says. I would rather us focus on the struggle of what it’s like to try and follow a calling that is really hard like Jonah did. Because at some point, we’ve all had Jonah moments. We have felt a pull, a tug upon our lives from God to carry out God’s plan. This call goes against our own desires. Like Jonah, we hope this call would go away if we ignored it long enough but it doesn’t.
The book begins with the introduction to Jonah of Ammittai. Ammittai means son of faithfulness, which is quite ironic. Jonah is anything but faithful. Then, the word of God interrupts Jonah’s life, as it often does. The Lord tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh because the great evil of Nineveh had come to the Lord. As mentioned earlier, Nineveh was the home of Assyrians. The Assyrians were enemies of the Jews. In the 700’s BC, they tore through the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They devastated the Jews. Jonah would have had a deep seated hatred of the city of Nineveh. Notice that you don’t see too many churches named, “Nineveh.” In fact, I thought there weren’t any until I did a Google search. It turns out there are 2 “Nineveh United Methodist Churches.” Can you imagine as a pastor being told by your Bishop, ‘Hey, Will, do I have a great appointment for you? I’m sending you to Nineveh?'”
In other call stories like Isaiah we have these faithful moments when the Lord calls. Isaiah responds to the voice of God, “Here I am, send me.” And young Samuel in the house of Eli responds to the Lord, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” Not so with Jonah. Jonah gets the call and sets out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Jonah ran in the complete opposite direction. He thought by running, he could flee from the presence of the Lord. And later in this story, he tries another tactic. He boards a ship and tries to sleep away the call only to wake up to the devastating consequences of his avoidance. The ship is about to sink.
If you’re like me, there are times where you experience troubling situations where you just want to go to sleep and hope the problem will take care of itself when you wake up. That’s not the case with God’s call upon our life. God will not leave us alone. God will keep troubling us.
I found an interesting commentary on the book of Jonah from the great novel, Moby Dick from Herman Melville. To be transparent, I’ve never read Moby Dick. I wish I could impress you and say I had, but I did come across this excerpt from the fictional preacher in this novel. He preached,
And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying consists.
To obey God often means we must disobey ourselves. That’s why it’s so hard to follow a call from the Lord. Oftentimes, it means disobeying our wills and what we want for our lives. Even Jesus, our Lord and Savior, reveals a moment of struggle. His Father in heaven called him to die for the sins of the world. The night before he is to die he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays, “Lord, if you are able, take this cup from me. But Lord, not my will, but thine be done.” He struggled with his own human will and the Lord’s will.
Have you found yourself running from a call from the Lord? Is there a calling for some purpose that you have actively avoided? Maybe it’s not to preach a word to the Ninevites. Maybe it’s to serve as a reading buddy at the local elementary school. Maybe it’s to get involved in a prison ministry. Or speak out against the injustices you see. But you know what’s amazing about the Book of Jonah. Jonah’s calling made a difference when he finally carried it out. The people of Nineveh in a shocking way repent and change their ways. Carrying out your call will help you live into God’s bigger picture for the world. How might today you obey God by disobeying yourself?
As we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, I think about an American saint who, like Jonah, also felt a call to bring the word of the Lord to a new land. Unlike Jonah, he willingly accepted. He is often overlooked in the building up of our great country. He didn’t help Thomas Jefferson pen the Declaration of Independence. Nor did he assist Georgie Washington in leading an army into battle. He did help establish the religious foundations of our country. His name was Francis Asbury.
Asbury was a minister in England ten years before the American Revolution. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was looking to send English ministers to the American colonies to build up the American church. Few of the ministers raised their hands to volunteer. At age 26, Asbury decided to answer the call and raised his hand to set sail for America. Most British ministers didn’t see a lot of potential in Asbury in England. He was expendable. If it worked for him in America, wonderful. If not, no big loss.
When he arrived in America, he developed a common touch with the colonist. They respected and admired him as he traveled across the frontier. But when the revolution broke out, most colonist did not trust Methodist ministers because of their allegiances to the English King. For fear of their lives, many of the ministers returned to England, which left a shortage of ministers to oversee the sacraments and lead the churches. (Consequently, congregations were forced to develop and nurture their ministries in the absence of clergy. Strong lay leadership in today’s church is part of the legacy of the short supply of ministers of the early American church. Consider too most Methodist churches today serve Holy Communion once a month. That rhythm dates back to the early American church when churches only had a minister once every 4-6 weeks to preside over the sacrament).
But Asbury refused to leave. He loved America. He was committed to God’s work here. He had to go in hiding in Delaware during the revolution. When the war was over, there were hardly any ministers to lead the churches. Asbury proved his trust to the people.
He rode across the frontier on horseback, preaching, developing relationships with local leaders, offering the sacraments. In a time of great resistance, he spoke out against the evils of slavery. President George Washington even invited Asbury to Mt. Vernon to hear out Asbury’s moral reasoning for eliminating slavery. Asbury must have been persuasive. In his will, Washington freed his slaves, one of the only founding fathers to do so, quite possibly because of Asbury’s witness and influence. Asbury rode tens of thousands of miles across America, often suffering from illness. He never married and never owned much more than he could carry on horseback. His one mission was to spread the news of Jesus Christ to this new country.
By the time he died one in every Methodism was the largest Protestant denomination. In his day and time, he was often considered the most trusted man in America.
His legacy is not in books and sermons, but in his tireless efforts. He helped shape thousands of preachers one conversation at a time, and in the tens of thousands of ordinary believers who saw him up close. He was the people’s saint, an ordinary person who God chose to do extraordinary things.
I’m thankful to live in a nation that gives me the freedom live out our calling. We’re not a perfect nation by any means, but we are free one. With this freedom, I want to follow the example of people like Francis Asbury. He worked tirelessly for the gospel, often preaching in snake boots, sweating from the outdoor revivals, after traveling all day on horseback.
Asbury teaches us that our callings are not always easy and require lots of hard work. But that’s the American way. That’s why Jonah struggled so much with his calling. It was hard to think about preaching to people who had hurt him and his fellow Israelites. But when he carried out God’s call, extraordinary things happen. Extraordinary things can happen you when you accept your calling. What calling have you been running from? You can’t outrun God. The call won’t go away. What might happen if you accept?