Every year thousands of eastern Pacific gray whales make the long trek south from cold waters of Alaska to the warm coast of Baja California, traveling just off shore from Washington, Oregon and California. Entire industries have been built around this annual migration, with everyone from Captain Ahab to Gilligan willing to sell you a ticket to go whale watching and catch these magnificent creatures in action. It’s something I have always wanted to do, but frankly, I’m afraid. Not of the whale, mind you. And not even the ocean trip. What I’m afraid of is that God has other plans for me, and like Jonah, I’ve spent jut a little too much time headed in the opposite direction.
So what exactly happened out there all those centuries ago? The short version goes like this – God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, in modern day Iraq, and let them know that basically, they had made God mad and if they didn’t straighten up, God was going to smite them (that means destroy them). Jonah had other plans and it didn’t take him long before he boarded a ship headed for Tarshish, which is located in modern day Spain, just about as far away as one can get from Nineveh at the time. But God said, “not so fast, Jonah”. He caused a great storm to come upon the ship, and Jonah, being the somewhat decent guy God believed him to be, told his shipmates he was running away from the Lord and that the storm was his fault. His shipmates were ordinary folk and did was perhaps any of us would have done – they threw him overboard in hopes that the Lord would go after Jonah and leave them alone.
Again the Lord said, “not so fast, Jonah”. He sent a large fish, believed now to have been a sperm whale with their 20 inch esophagus and the ability to swallow large bites of food whole without chewing, to fetch Jonah out of the murky waters and allow him to dry out and think about what he had done. Here is where things get interesting. According to scripture, Jonah spent three days in the belly of this fish. Three days and three nights in darkness. Sound familiar?
Finally, Jonah calls out to the Lord in his distress, and the Lord hears him, and the fish vomits Jonah up onto the shore. Where? Why Nineveh of course!
Jonah goes on to preach to the people of Nineveh, blah, blah, blah, and lo and behold they turn from their wicked ways and repent. The Lord is happy, the King of Nineveh is happy. The people are happy. Jonah, on the other hand, is upset. He claims to have known that God was going to show mercy all along, and therefore why did he have to come to Nineveh and why did God go to all the trouble of bringing him back from Tarshish on the Moby Dick Cruise Line?
Here’s the thing. The Story of Jonah isn’t about Nineveh. The Story of Jonah isn’t even about spending three days in the belly of a whale. The Story of Jonah is about Jonah, and his unwillingness to do that one thing that God called him to do. If Jonah had just listened the first time and gone to Nineveh, that would have been the end of the story for Jonah and I wouldn’t be so afraid to go whale watching. The good news is God is very patient, and very creative, about putting second and third and even fourth chances in front of us to get it right.
Many people experience this. They feel like God is calling them to do something but they turn their back on it. Then the opportunity presents itself again, maybe in a slightly different way, and again, they turn their back on it. Finally, after much struggle and sometimes a lot of heartache, they get the message and do what God has asked them to do. God is happy and by extension, the people are happy.
So what is God calling you to do? It might be something simple, like calling up that old friend who you had a falling out with and making things right. Maybe it is a little more complicated, like leaving an abusive relationship behind and moving forward in grace. It might even be something that is flat out hard – like committing to tithe 10% of your income to the stewardship of the Church. You know what it is. It’s that thing that keeps popping up in your thoughts. That thing that keeps showing itself in your prayers. That thing that no matter what you do, you can’t stop feeling the silent tug in your heart to complete, or in some cases, just to get started on.
Unlike Jonah, we have to believe that we’re important in the grand scheme of things, and yes, while God can take care of any situation without our help, it’s not about the situation. It’s about our willingness to follow God, even to the ends of the earth if that is what he asks.
So I ask again, what is God calling you to do? I know what I have to do. I’m just glad I’ve got a few months before the whales start migrating again.