This Sunday, February 24, I will debut a One Man Show program entitled “Sea Change.” It’s a new drama or, more accurately, a series of dramatic vignettes set in a Lenten worship service. The vignettes are delivered by Peter the fisherman, who traces his relationship with Jesus from call to crucifixion. The service ends with Peter looking out at the sea, announcing that he will return to what he knows best–fishing. It is an ironic conclusion for a man who was supposed to be fishing for people (Matt 4:19).
In doing research for the part, I came across one of my sermons entitled Gone Fishin’. The message focuses on the story of Jonah:
It’s the Bible story that everybody knows, right? Even unchurched folks can tell you about Jonah. He was the guy swallowed by the whale. A story immortalized in children’s picture books everywhere. A fantastic, bizarre tale of a reluctant prophet, a huge fish, and a pagan city.
Do you remember the story?
God commanded Jonah to go to a sinful town called Nineveh with a stern message: turn or burn. Jonah didn’t want to do it, because no self-respecting Jew would set foot among rank heathens. If I were to make Jonah into a dramatic character, I would do him as Archie Bunker. If you remember, Archie was a conservative, patriotic, God-fearing bigot. So was Jonah. Remember Archie’s opinion of California? He insensitively branded it the “land of fruits and nuts.” Jonah held the same low opinion of Nineveh, the glittery, glamorous capital of Assyria— an area now occupied by Syria, Jordan and Iran.
But being the obedient, dutiful prophet that he was, Jonah swallowed his objections and shuffled off to Nineveh anyway—right? Wrong.
Matter of fact, Jonah heads the opposite direction. He buys a boat ticket for Tarshish and runs away from God. Some scholars believe Tarshish was a port city in Spain—not exactly in the vicinity of Nineveh. Kind of like God telling you to go to New York, and you decide to head toward L.A.
What happens next is a comedy of errors. A fierce storm blows in, the sailors want to know who made the gods angry, and they finally pin the blame on Jonah. Splash–into the water he goes! Enter the whale—actually, a “great fish,” according to the Bible (Jonah 1:17). He swallows Jonah, who camps out in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights. Then God commanded the fish, and the fish (if you want to use a sanitized version) “spit up” Jonah – or, if you prefer the gross version, puked Jonah up on dry land.
It’s so easy to get hung up at this point in the story. A man living three days in the craw of a fish? Sounds about as realistic as Pinocchio making dinner in Monstro’s belly. But the story isn’t about fish—it’s about fishing.
Fishing? Yes. God wanted Jonah to fish for Ninevites, hook them with a divine message, lower the nets of love and compassion. But Jonah wasn’t in the mood to pack his tackle box. In his mind, the Ninevites didn’t deserve good preaching. Weren’t worthy of God’s love. He couldn’t justify wasting his ministerial skills on people who kissed idols, bowed down to materialism and worshiped war. So he ran.
God caught up with Jonah, of course. God’s that way. He will get our attention somehow— whether it’s sending a hungry fish to swallow us up or allowing our pride to devour us until we cry for divine help.
Jonah finally obeyed God and held an evangelistic crusade in Nineveh. The response was the stuff of preachers’ dreams. Jonah 3:5 simply states, “The Ninevites believed God.” Like an arrow, Jonah’s message shot straight into their hearts. Even the king repented, ripping his robes and declaring a fast. He ordered that the people wear sackcloth as a sign of mourning for their sins—and went so far as to directing everyone to put sackcloth on his livestock!
Ever slip a burlap suit on a cow? I’m sure it was a chore.
Now you would think that Jonah would have danced a jig. Talk about your altar calls! A city of 120,000 turning to God! But Jonah was not happy. He resented the fact that God loved Nineveh, “the city of blood,” as another Hebrew prophet called it (Nahum 3:1). These were pagans. Idol worshippers. Militaristic and motley. Why would the Lord bother with them?
After his preaching crusade, Jonah pouted outside the city and debated God. The little book of Jonah ends with a penetrating question from God’s lips, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
God is utterly consistent. His purposes do not change. The New Testament declares that God wants all people to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4).
Teenagers with nose rings and neon-pink hair?
Bikers with tattoos slathered all over their bodies?
That little terror who comes to church with a foul mouth?
The eccentric old man on the hill?
Transients and ne’er do wells?
People of other religions, tribes and tongues?
Should we be reaching out to them? And what if they actually start attending?
God answers our questions with one of his own, “Should I not be concerned about this great city?”Jonah allowed his prejudice to get in the way of outreach. Do we have our own excuses?
Are we fearful? God says, “Fear not” (Luke 5:10).
Apathetic or indifferent? God says, “The hour has come to put away your slumber and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).
Do we use lack of knowledge as an alibi? God says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).
Do you think that evangelism is the pastor’s job or belongs to a committee? God says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Peter 2:9).
Jesus said to follow Him so we could fish for people–and Jesus never splashed around in the shallow end of the pool. You see, we Christians are meant for the deep—not the dock. The church is not a lighthouse warning people to stay away; we are a fishing boat, fashioned to strike out into the sea and rescue the perishing. Years ago, during the Christmas holidays, a cocky young man ran his motorcycle into the back of my ministry van. My insurance paid for the damages, but I was still out the deductible. I tried for months to get him to pay up, but he kept making excuses, giving me hard-luck stories. I was copping a judgmental attitude until I heard God saying, “Forgive him the debt—as I have forgiven yours.”
“But, Lord,” I pleaded, “there’s money involved, and I’m on a preacher’s salary.” Then I sensed the Lord directing me to witness to the young man and I, like Jonah, balked. But God’s Spirit kept nudging me until finally I wrote him a brief letter, telling him I was releasing him from his debt and striving not to be too preachy as I gave my testimony. I never heard back from him—but that’s not the point, is it? We plant seeds and God is responsible for the growth.
Yes, there are people out there who don’t look like us…talk like us….dress like us….or act like us. But Christ died for them—and Christ wants to change them. Our job is not to fix people or manage their lives—but to love them with God’s love. That’s what changes people—grace. My life didn’t change because someone browbeat me into Christianity; it changed when the compassion of God flowed to me through other Christians.
I saw a sign outside a church recently: JESUS SAYS, ‘YOU CATCH ‘EM…I’LL CLEAN ‘EM.’
Anybody up for fishing?
(Fishing village photo by scherer through stock.xchng)