“He answered them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea so that it will calm down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this great storm that is against you.’ Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they couldn’t because the sea was raging against them more and more.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When I was growing up, we had a board game called Bonkers. The idea was that the game was different every time you played. The board didn’t have any instructions on the path you followed. Instead, you added them as you went. The results varied, but the roll of the dice could result in the loss of several points, or a turn that went on for several minutes. It was bonkers…kind of like the story of Jonah the further into it we get.
So, let’s recap what we’ve seen so far. Jonah is a prophet who is an embarrassment to the name. God calls him to preach a message of judgment and repentance to the people of Nineveh and instead he runs as far in the other direction as he can, leaving them to what he hoped was their fate.
On the ship he boards to run to the other side of the world he goes in the bottom to take a nap. And just to tell us something else about his character, he’s literally on the run from God and yet at peace enough to sleep like a baby through a violent storm. What a prophet he was!
Speaking of that, while he’s asleep a huge storm blows up on the water and threatens to destroy the ship. Unwittingly, but correctly, identifying the storm as of divine origins, the pagan sailors begin crying out to every god they can think of in order to get him to stop the storm. Nothing works. Finally, they remember their passenger is asleep in the bottom of the ship and go wake him up to make sure he adds his connections with his own god to the pile.
When they entreat Jonah to cry out to his own god, he spouts off this theologically correct identification of God as the one who made the heavens and the seas and the dry land too (which in the minds of the sailors made Him far more powerful than any of the gods to whom they were crying), but against the backdrop of his behavior it sounds trite and fake on his lips.
As disconnected from what he actually believes as his words may sound to us, the sailors don’t know any better than to take him at his word and react in two ways. First, they’re terrified because he’s offended and defied such a powerful God and used their ship to do it. Second, they’re mystified at how stupid he could be to defy his God like this. Pagan though they may be, they all understand that if your god gives you a command, you keep it.
They recognize the only solution as far as they are concerned is to get him off the ship as fast as they can. So, they head to shore. But, the storm is such that they’re not making any progress. Finally, Jonah proposes a solution: Throw me overboard and the storm will stop.
At first read, this seems like something remarkably noble of Jonah. He’s so concerned for the sailors’ welfare and remorseful for his actions causing them potential harm that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for their sake. But then you think about the character he’s demonstrated so far in the story and realize that’s absolute nonsense. He’s running to the other side of the world and has put these sailors in jeopardy because doesn’t care about people who aren’t like him.
Jonah doesn’t care about the sailors at all. Instead, he’s so committed to not fulfilling the command God has given him that he’s willing to die rather than to do it. Think about that. He would literally rather die than do what God said. He’d rather put his death on the consciences of these otherwise innocent sailors than go tell someone God planned to destroy them. The truth is that Jonah doesn’t care about anyone but himself.
What happens next is really incredible. The sailors had every reason to toss Jonah overboard just exactly like he told them. After all, he was the reason for their misfortune. They would have been right to toss him over the side to appease his god and sail on to their next port without a care in the world. But they don’t. They value his life more than he does theirs, more even than he does his own. Rather than tossing him over the side, they try harder to row to shore in order to save him—the very thing he wasn’t willing to do for the pagan Ninevites. This whole story is bonkers; it’s nuts.
So, what do we do with this? What’s the takeaway? A few things. For starters, just because someone waves the name of God around like a banner doesn’t mean they’re really faithful to Him. Faithfulness isn’t borne out primarily by words, but by actions. Or, to put it like James would a few hundreds of years later, faith without works is dead. What’s more, sometimes faithfulness can pop up in the places we’d least expect when given the chance to rise.
Second, God really isn’t limited in who He can use to accomplish His purposes. He can get things done with a willing and faithful servant. He can get things done with a servant who doesn’t realized he is being used to accomplish God’s plans (like the Persian King Cyrus). He can even get things done with folks who are faithless and cowardly and even downright disobedient. He’s even so big as to be able to advance His plans through our disobedience. These sailors wouldn’t have started following Him (although it might be a bit bold to assume a lifelong, genuine faith on their part) had Jonah not disobediently boarded their ship while running from God’s command. Their commitment to life and righteousness saved their lives and put Jonah to shame. They were more reflective of the character of God than he was and yet God was using him to save them.
Third, and we’ll end the week with this and pick back up on Monday with a kickoff for the season of Advent: It’s always better to choose obedience than disobedience. God can still use us when we choose disobedience, but our way is always going to be harder than it will be otherwise. We’ll have to back up, back track, and back off, all of which will cost us valuable time we could have spent enjoying the bounty of our God’s good plans for us and His world. When we have received a call to go and serve, let us gratefully walk forward with confidence in our sender no matter how dark or inconvenient or undesirable the path may be because what He has ahead of us is unfailingly life in abundance. May your heart be filled with gratitude in excess as you celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow. Blessings to you.