God can be quite persuasive. He doesn’t take "No!" to mean "never!" - merely a staging post on the way to "Yes!"
Jonah 1:1-16, Mark 4:35-40, Matthew 14:25-31
It all started off with a snippet from a daily reading of Oswald Chambers, where he says this:
"If you do not cut the lines that tie you to the dock, God will have to use a storm to sever them and send you out to sea. Put everything in your life afloat upon God, going out to sea on the great swelling tide of His purpose, and your eyes will be opened. If you believe in Jesus, you are not to spend all your time in the calm waters just inside the harbour, full of joy, but always tied up to the dock. You have to get out past the harbour into the great depths of God, and begin to know things for yourself" (Oswald Chambers: My Utmost for His Highest)
For someone who isn’t exactly equipped with sea legs, setting out in a small boat from the safety of a harbour is actually quite a daunting prospect! I would make a great weekend sailor, pottering around on deck, polishing things and looking the very model of a seafaring captain but never actually going very far. I like calm waters, calm waters are good!
I started thinking about others who might have had a bad experience while sailing, and three came to mind. Firstly there were the disciples in the boat with Jesus asleep, when the storm starts off and they’re thrown into panic. Then there’s Jesus telling Peter to step out of the boat and walk on the water - I think that classifies as a scary-water-moment. Thirdly is a favourite of mine, Jonah, and there are parallels because this time it was Jonah asleep in the boat when the storm starts up and the crew start to panic.
So, a nautical theme you might think? Well, not exactly! I want to talk about the call of God on our lives, and I think our examples from Scripture shed some light on that, to which the good Oswald Chambers adds his own illumination.
If we’re talking about God’s call on our lives then I guess that above and beyond anything else I might say, we have to hold in our minds the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18
"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'"
Yes, it was said to the disciples, but by a process of spiritual osmosis it has passed down from generation to generation of Christians. It is still the Great Commission - otherwise how would we be here? How would we have found out about Jesus if someone hadn’t told us?
The greatest call on the life of any Christian is to spread the word through our lives and our words. We are Christ’s hands and feet and messengers in this world. But of course God’s call is not restricted to that, he calls people to do lots of things. God calls people to be his Ministers, teachers, Deacons, evangelists, prophets, musicians, singers, sound technicians, flag wavers, flower arrangers, treasurers, church wardens, cup-of-tea-makers - whatever he wants.
He might prompt you to visit someone, put right a quarrel that has soured
a relationship, offer forgiveness in a difficult situation. God calls
people to do things for him and for his church, all sorts of things. And
why? Because we’re here and available, and it’s all to do
with the building up of the church - not the building but the people,!
Building it up to be a witness to Him, a beacon of light in the darkness.
God wants everyone in this town and all the villages and towns around to know about his Word, and he uses us because we are his hands and feet and voices - that’s what the Great Commission is all about. But when God’s will stretches beyond our comfortable boundaries that’s when God’s will sometimes comes up against our will!
But God can be quite persuasive. He doesn’t take "No!" to mean "never!" - merely a staging post on the way to "Yes!"
Jonah is a great example of that. Look at the beginning of the book of Jonah, and remind yourself how Jonah reacted to the call of God on his life.
So what does does Jonah have to say to us? God says "Go!" and Jonah goes, unfortunately in the wrong direction. There seems a bit of confusion as to where Tarshish was, (could have been Carthage in Tunisia, or Spain, or Rhodes in Greece) but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near Ninevah, which is apparently across the river from the modern town of Mosel in Iraq.
What was the problem? Jonah was a prophet, and what do prophets do but proclaim God’s word to the people. Sometimes it’s good news and sometimes it’s bad news, but that’s part of the job description of being a prophet. Perhaps the problem was that Jonah wasn’t expecting to go to Ninevah, which was full of nasty wicked cruel foreigners who might not appreciate being told that God was going to wipe them out if they didn’t repent. They deserved what was coming to them as far as Jonah was concerned. They didn’t need him to point out their sins.
Perhaps Jonah would have preferred to have spoken God’s word to the Israelites somewhere a bit nearer home in Galilee? Told them to pull their socks up and do a better job of worshipping God. Certainly that would have been an easier option, more comfortable, a safer bet. Calmer waters!
"Ninevah? Sorry God, think I misheard you there!"
So Jonah puts his fingers in his ears, sings "Nah nah nah nah nah!" so he can’t hear any other unwelcome calls from God, and sidles off to Joppa where he catches a boat to anywhere that might be in the opposite direction to Ninevah.
What was Jonah thinking? Did he really think that there was anywhere he could go that would take him out of God’s sight and influence? Was Tarshish a "no go" area for God? I don’t think so!
Now there may be a bit of a sub-plot going on here. Could it be that God says to himself, "OK Jonah, you’d like to go to Ninevah via Tarshish? I can handle that! Oh, and while we’re about it what about a little water themed evangelism?"
So the storm comes, "All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship."
Doesn’t sound much like evangelism as I know it - or maybe this is an early example of "Fresh Expressions" - doing church differently!
Everyone’s life is in danger, an ideal opportunity for Jonah to show strength of character, put his faith in action and rally the crew. But who’s showing all the concern? Jonah? No! It’s the crew, the non-believers, or at least the believers in many gods (small g).
goes to sleep! While he snoozes the crew are doing their best to preserve
his life. In the end the captain gives him a kick back on deck and tells
Jonah to call upon his god to help save the ship and its crew from certain
destruction. The crew join in and bombard him with questions, “Tell
us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you
do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are
When they discover that Jonah’s God is the God who made the seas in which they are now floundering what do they do? Sacrifice Jonah to their gods? That might have been reasonable from their point of view!
No, even when Jonah in desperation tells them to throw him overboard, they continue to do everything they can to avoid doing that until all hope disappears. Eventually they have to chuck Jonah over the side and the storm dies down. But even then the crew don’t just sigh with relief and go on their way - they offer a sacrifice to Jonah’s God, ‘"At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him."
Jonah said ‘No!’ to taking God’s word to foreigners and inadvertently is the means by which a boat load of them seem to come to faith. And he still finds himself in Ninevah after his little fishy experience, despite his disobedience, despite his pride and lack of enthusiasm. And of course, just as God planned, Jonah is the means by which the whole city turn taway from sin.
I think Jonah is a wonderful example of how God uses us despite the people we are; weak, disobedient, full of pride, wanting our own way. God’s call clashed with Jonah’s call. God wanted one thing, Jonah another. There was only ever one winner.
How often do we try and rationalise God’s call on our life and try and mould it into ours - enter into a bit of spiritual re-negotiation with God, persuade him that we know best?
How often are we guilty of saying to God, "I feel I have a calling to do this or that!" rather than waiting for God to do the calling?
How often do we bring God into our lives and our decision making and planning only on those occasions when we want him to do something? Which is our call on God’s life rather than the other way around!
If God wants to use us, then he will and is very persistent! We may find ourselves doing exactly the same as Jonah, hearing the call but going off and doing our own thing, only to find that circumstances bring us back full circle to where God wanted us in the first place. Bit of a waste of time really, when we could have just as easily been obedient at the start.
Jonah also reminds us that the Great Commission of Jesus was not just about spreading God’s world to the small world in which we walk but into the larger world outside our experience. And that might not mean going off to foreign places, simply going to places where we are out of our comfort zone, where we don’t feel so much in control, where the waters are a bit choppy and we can’t manage in our own strength. And that might be just down the road or in our neighbourhood!
It might mean, as Oswald Chambers says that we have to loose the line that holds us safe in harbour and venture out into deeper water, or we run the risk of God whipping up a storm and doing it for us.
Let’s turn to Mark’s Gospel and some more choppy seas. Mark 4:35-40
What a difference when it’s Jesus doing the sleeping! Jonah tried
going alone and failed, the storm came and he ended up in the sea - it
took a fish to bring him to the point of submission. The fish was in more
ways than one his saviour in the story as we have it!
The disciples were doing fine until the storm came and then they panicked. Why did they panic? Had they forgotten who was in the boat with them? Did they even need to wake him? That’s an interesting question! With Jesus beside them did they really think that the boat would sink? In whose power were they trusting, theirs or his?
If Jesus calls us to be his disciples, if we are called to sail out of the safety and comfort of the harbour and into more dangerous waters, with whom does our faith lie? With our own knowledge and experience, or with Gods? When God asks us to
do something out of our comfort zone, away from the safety of our harbour, in whose power do we do it?
I think there’s probably a little bit of Peter in each of us! Hidden
away there’s a little bit of recklessness that says, "Yes,
I could do that!" Then when we try there’s that dreadful moment
when we realise that despite what we thought, we’re actually doing
it in our own strength - that like the storm on the lake we’ve forgotten
who’s with us. "If Jesus said walk on water then I can do it... Oh,
hang on, not sure if humans are supposed to be able to do this. Help!"
Back to Jonah! He ends up where God wanted him in the first place, and hand in hand with God he brings the word of judgement to the people of Ninevah, who repent en masse. At which point God forgives them, as he always intended to. The outcome was right, despite Jonah. His story even ends unresolved, with him still wingeing that God could have managed without him. To a certain extent I like that because it adds a realism to the story which might be lacking if it resolved itself to a happy-ever-after scenario. It also leaves Jonah just like any of us, with his faults and weaknesses, but most importantly still useful to God!
Peter was like that, full of enthusiasm on the outside, but when the going got tough he struggled. After Jesus’ arrest he even denied the one who he had seen walking upon the water, the one he had called "Lord!" Peter was weak, reckless, slow to understand. Peter was human like us!
It was only when he was filled with the Spirit at Pentecost that Peter became the person that God knew he could be, from the moment Peter packed his bags and responded to the call to ‘Follow me!’
Who has a call on your life - is it God or is it you? Do you try and twist God’s arm and bring him around to your assessment of the situation? When he calls you to do something, insignificantly small or a huge undertaking, do you feel prompted to run away and hide? Do you sit down and try and rationalise the situation, try and bargain with God, bring him round to your way of thinking? Or do you loose the line that keeps you in the harbour and set out for the ocean, trusting not in your own strength and wisdom, but in Gods?
God’s call might be to do something brave and exciting, or it may be to do something small and seemingly insignificant - but if it’s God’s call it needs picking up and answering. Oswald Chambers adds this note ‘‘The greatest hindrance in our spiritual life is that we will only look for big things to do. Yet ‘Jesus ...took a towel...and began to wash the disciples’ feet...’’ (John 13:3-5)