Jonah 1.1-3, 3.10-4.4
Jose sat down in the front hallway of his home. He was dressed nicely – a tie and sport coat – like he had been every work day for decades. But he was not going to work today. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he was not headed into the office this work day morning.
You see, right before the holidays, he had turned in his resignation letter. He couldn’t do it anymore. The corporate structure. The long thankless hours, just so that his boss could get a bigger raise. He had had enough, so he turned in his letter…without any real idea what he was going to do next. He was lucky enough to have a bit of a nest egg reserved. But he knew he was on the clock. He had to do something soon.
So, on this first Monday in which he wasn’t going to work, he sat in the front hallway of his home. His wife was off to her job, and the kids to school. And now, he sat, with two pieces of paper – one in each hand.
His left hand held his resume. His list of gifts. Of skills. Of experience. It was long and he was proud. His work over the last weeks getting it ready reminded him how he really had some good gifts. He had been proud of his work, even if his boss never was. With his resume in hand, his goal for the morning was to visit banks. To convince one of them to give him a loan, so that he could open his own business. His first love. His passion.
But in his right hand was another list. A list of his fears. He had written them out, as a “pro” and “con” list before he turned in his letter. What if he didn’t make enough money to keep the house and the lifestyle that his family was used to? What if he had to work even longer hours in order to keep this business up and going? What if he wasn’t as gifted as he thought he was…what if his talents and experience weren’t enough to get the job done?
As he sat, he looked from list to list. Resume to fears. Good news to bad.
He knew that he could take off his tie and go read a book in his favorite chair. Or go down to the coffeehouse up the street. Or even jump back into bed and go back to sleep. He knew that he could run from these fears. No one would know the difference. And so he sat, for a long time, as the hallway clock ticked off the minutes.
Maybe you can understand Jose and his dilemma. This week, we finish our series on vocation and calling. Over the last few weeks, we have looked at what it means for us to be called – not just those calling into the ministry. No, this is about your personal vocation. The calling that brings you purpose and meaning. It could be ministry, or it could be education, or law, or medicine, or business, or working with your hands, or one of a thousand different vocations. What is it that God has gifted and called you to do? As the Frederick Beuchner quotation from a couple of weeks ago asked, “where is the place where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness meet?”
But it isn’t that easy, is it? For how often is there a deep hunger in the world…and a deep longing and gladness and giftedness on our parts…but the two still fail to match up? The reality is that sometimes we have a clear sense of call, but things still get in the way:
- Mistrust. We don’t trust ourselves or our gifts. I have often heard folks say that they don’t think that God has gifted them, which is actually a mistrust not only of themselves but also of God. God’s servants have often mistrusted God’s wisdom when they were called.
- Work. Just because we are called doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work at it. The part of Beuchner’s quote that I left out is that vocation is “neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth.” In other words, vocation is not about punishing ourselves in a work that we find no gladness in. But it is also not a “soft berth.” It requires work. Perhaps intense education. Or hard sacrifices. Sometimes what we put in the way of our calling is our willingness to work.
- Money. We wouldn’t get paid enough to afford us the lifestyle we want, so we don’t follow our hearts and our calling. I am not saying that there are no practical financial considerations when it comes to vocation. But do we need to make enough for the square footage or the extra car or the chance to eat out so often? Perhaps what we define as need is actually want.
- Noise. Sometimes, we just don’t listen. How often are we simply too busy to stop and ask God about our calling? Or distracted by so many other voices and expectations that we don’t hear God’s voice in the chaos?
- Maybe we are sexist and think “a man can’t do that job or a woman can’t be that.” Or maybe we don’t like someone’s race and nationality, so we ignore God’s call to work beside them.
No one would be that prejudiced, right? To avoid or deny God’s call on their lives simply because of racist or nationalistic prejudice?
Think again. That is exactly the story that is in front of us today. Today, we explore the story of Jonah and what it means to our understanding of calling. Many of us know the basics of the story – God called Jonah, Jonah didn’t want to go, so he ran the opposite way.
But what we might or might not know is why Jonah was so opposed to God’s calling. Didn’t seem to be about hard work, or about ability, or about money, or about listening and understanding God’s call. But there was still something in the way: Jonah hated the Ninevites.
Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians. And if you remember your Bible history, the Assyrians were the ones who defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrian army defeated the Israelites, violently deported its citizens, and a reign of terror upon the southern Kingdom of Judah, where Jonah lived. One commentator, James Limberg, suggests that for God to ask Jonah to preach salvation to the city of Ninevah would be like a Jew who had lost family in the Holocaust being asked to engage in a mission to the Germans right after the Nazi movement. Jonah’s contemporary Nahum calls Nineveh the “bloody city.” Surely God wouldn’t ask him to preach to them?
But that’s exactly what God did.
And Jonah seemed to know what was going to happen. Jonah would preach…they would repent…God would relent…and the people that Jonah hated the most would be spared.
So he ran.
The last thing that he wanted was to participate in the salvation of the people he hated. So he went the opposite direction of God and God’s call. And perhaps we can understand Jonah here. For perhaps the list of things that gets in our way has stopped you from following God’s call on your life. Perhaps you know what it is like to run. And we all know what happened next – the storm at sea…the sailors toss him overboard…the fish swallows him…he gets God’s point…he goes to Nineveh and preaches…and the people repent.
And Jonah is mad.
By chapter four, we find Jonah yelling at God for being too loving and filled with mercy and grace. “This is why I ran. I told you this was going to happen. God, why didn’t you kill the NInevites like they deserved?!?”
But notice God’s response: “Is it right for you to be angry?” God responds to Jonah by reminding him how many people live in Nineveh. People that God had made. God reminds Jonah that he is indeed a God of grace and salvation.
And what I would argue is happening here is that God had two goals in mind:
God wanted to change the hearts of the Ninevites and bring about their salvation, and…
God wanted to change the heart of Jonah and bring about his salvation.
I think that God’s goal was not only transformation through Jonah…but the transformation of Jonah. God wanted Jonah to see for himself that there was a better way than looking with contempt at people who talk differently and act differently and live differently. There is a better way than racism and prejudice. There is a better way than hatred and anger of those who are different. There is a better way than assuming that unless someone is from the same country as you are, they are inferior to you. So often, those with attitudes like Jonah believe that they can force or shame or bully others into being the way that you want them to be. But Jonah is right: God is a gracious God, and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. At the heart of transformation is not hatred or anger, but love and grace. And God wanted to use Jonah to show that to Nineveh…and to use Ninevah to show that to Jonah.
Their salvation…their transformation…their vocation was caught up with each other.
Jonah lived out the rest of the story struggling with his call. It wasn’t easy to minister to people who he had been raised to hate. Even after his success, he struggled. While the story never tells us what happens with Jonah, I would love to think that he fulfilled his ultimate purpose, found greater meaning, and found himself at one with God’s call.
And so, what does this teach you and me about our calling? Our vocation? About the things that we allow to get in our way?
I would suggest that for everything that we put in the way, God makes a way.
- Mistrust. When we don’t trust ourselves or God, God gives us reason to trust Step back and look at how God has used your gifts. In place of mistrust, God helps us to trust.
- Work. When it is hard to put in the work needed to accomplish our calling, God gifts us with joy. How often have you or someone you know found a new energy to do what is painful or difficult, because you know that fulfilling that purpose brings you joy?
- Money. One of God’s greatest gifts is for us to be satisfied with what we have, what we need, and not simply what we want. It is sometimes called simplicity, and it is a gift of God to allow ourselves to do something that doesn’t pay as much, because we set priorities on need and not want.
- Noise. Do you notice how God’s people are called throughout Scripture? Moses is alone with the sheep when he notices a burning bush. Samuel is called in the quiet of the night. Mary in her home. Gideon while he threshed wheat alone. Elijah in the still small voice. And you don’t get much more solitude than the belly of a whale! Each of them heard God’s voice calling in the midst of their solitude. It is a gift of God to have moments of devotion, meditation, and solitude, where the voices that distract us are quieted, and God’s calling becomes clearer.
- Prejudice. Just like Jonah, God transforms us and our prejudices. Our assumptions and our biases are re-created in the way of grace. Because God has showed us grace, we can show grace to others.
Perhaps what it teaches us is that while we put things in the way – of God’s calling, of our ultimate purpose and meaning – God makes a way. God is at work transforming our priorities, teaching us a new way, giving us new mental models for how we might use our gifts, and who we might use them with. Vocation is intimately tied up with transformation. Sometimes, our calling is to use our “old” gifts in a new way. And sometimes, in the course of using those gifts to save others, God saves us.
Perhaps you know the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a watchmaker in the Netherlands during the rise of the Nazi regime. One day, a Jewish neighbor showed up on her doorstep, begging to hide in Corrie’s home. She let her in, and it began a new life for her of hiding those whom the Nazis targeted, especially Jews and those who are mentally challenged. Her home, just a few blocks from the military headquarters, became a pipeline for those fleeing the Nazis.
Until she got caught.
She and her sister were taken to a concentration camp, where she saw the atrocities common to the camps. The girls like her, gaunt and malnourished, forced to stand naked in line in front of the guards. Her sister got sick and died in the camp, like so many of the girls. Corrie was suddenly released, because of a clerical error, she found out later. A week after she was released, all of the girls in the camp were set to the gas chambers.
Her life had been forever changed by this evil.
And yet, she chose to respond to that evil with grace. She wrote and spoke about her experiences, proclaiming her Christian faith and the joy that God had thrown her sins deep into the ocean. Even when God called her to go speak in Germany – to her Ninevites – she went. She spoke of grace and forgiveness and God’s love.
Until the day when a man stepped to the front of the room after her speech. Before he said a thing, she knew exactly who he was – he was one of the guards at the concentration camp. He had no memory of her, but his face was burned into her memory. As Corrie stood aghast at this man, he explained that he was a guard in the camp and had since become a Christian. He knew that God had forgiven him, but he now sought her forgiveness. So he stuck out his hand to her.
In that moment, Corrie was stunned. How should she respond? This is usually where we put things in the way of God and God’s calling. She had no desire to touch that man, even more to shake his hand, even more to offer a word of forgiveness. And yet, the words that she spoke of grace rang in her head.
Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of decision with the man standing there, she reached out her hand. And when she touched his hand, she recounts, it was like a pulse of electric energy shot through her arm. She had experienced the power of forgiveness. She lived out in real time the story of grace. God had made a way.