Jonah is one of those stories that we're pretty sure we know. Even those who don't go to church know the story of Jonah - the guy who ran from God and got stuck in a whale for three days before washing up on a beach somewhere.
Yet, every time I read through the book of Jonah, something new strikes me about the story, something that I don't often (or ever) hear preached from it. So I thought I'd take a few days to talk about some of the things that are striking me right now in case you, too, aren't hearing them anywhere else.
The first comes from Jonah 1, right from the set-up of the story.
Jonah is on a boat, headed to Tarshish (and thus, away from Nineveh, despite the direct order of the Lord to go), and the boat is rocking heavily in a severe storm that has come on. The sailors are panicking up on the deck, and Jonah is sleeping underneath; the crew comes running to him, screaming for him to wake up and start praying to his God for the ship, for the storm, for anything! They don't want to die!
Now, I have heard this part of the story preached every now and then, related often to Jesus, who was also asleep in a ship in a storm and had to be woken up to pray for the safety of those on board. I have heard it said that the crew came to Jonah because they knew his God was powerful and they knew that if he prayed, something would happen that would save them from their sure-at-this-point fate. They knew what they needed was the Lord, and Jonah was the guy to get Him for them.
Have you heard this? It's a nice story, but it's not the Jonah story. Not according to the Scriptures, anyway.
Jonah lived in a time not entirely unlike our own, where everyone had their own version of God and where there wasn't a big cultural commitment to any one God over another, but it was assumed that if you had a God, you prayed to your God in times of trouble or need and your God probably answered you. In fact, if you look a few verses prior to this more well-known verse, you'll see that everyone on the ship was praying to his god. Not to the Lord, necessarily, but each man to his own god, that some god might show up and save them.
So when the crew goes down into the boat and wakes Jonah up to pray to his God, it's not because they have some powerful belief in who his God is; they might not even have known at all which God Jonah would pray to. But everyone on this boat is praying to his god, except the guy who is sleeping under deck, and they'll be darned if they aren't going to wake him up to pray, too. Everyone on board, get on board!
We need to stop, then, thinking that there's this pre-existing disposition for everyone to believe in the Lord. It's just not there. It's easy for us to read that into it because we know the power of the Lord and want Him to come out on top, but the sailors on that boat didn't know the Lord from Dagon from Molech from whoever. They were simply men in need of a god, and they wanted everyone to be praying to one.
It's the same way in our world today. Our world offers "thoughts and prayers" rather frequently, even those whose god is not our God and who maybe never set foot in a church. We read "thoughts and prayers" and we think, oh, they must on some level then believe in the Lord and know His power, but that's not necessarily the case.
The truth is we're living in a world much like Jonah's boat, where every man has his own god and in times of need, will call upon that god. And what this world is looking for is not the Lord, but anything - anything at all in the midst of a choppy sea. And so they pray. And they wake us up and ask us to pray. Everyone on board, get on board!
But it's not because our God is anything special to them. Not at all. It's just not that easy.
Let us never fool ourselves into believing that it is.