Tempest in a Teapot
Running from God is a skill I developed early in life. I abandoned my faith for 20 years, but even though I’ve returned to Him – fully committed, all in – sometimes I still find myself taking off like a sprinter at the starter’s gun. Certain commands make my skin crawl, some verses slay me so I put them away for another day when I feel more spiritual, when I have time, when the stars align and obedience will be more convenient.
That’s why I love Jonah. This short book, only four chapters, has been imprinted on our minds since Sunday School. Jonah was the only prophet sent to the Gentiles (i.e. anyone who wasn’t Jewish). Specifically, God told Jonah to go to the exceedingly great and wicked city of Nineveh and give them the business (i.e. preach a message of repentance). Nineveh was 800 miles east of Israel near the modern-day city of Mosul in Iraq. Nineveh was huge! Three chariots could ride abreast on its walls; it was 60 miles in circumference and took three very long days just to walk from one end of the city to the other. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a country that had attacked and oppressed Israel for centuries.
Jonah feared that if God had mercy upon the Ninevites it would give them the edge they needed to attack Israel again. This enemy needed to be annihilated, not redeemed! Who wants to march across the desert to tell your mortal enemy that God is gonna get ’em? Best case, they kill you. Worst case, they kill your entire country.
When Jonah ran, he didn’t just run from God’s command – he ran from God Himself. Jonah 1:3 says Jonah fled “from the presence of the Lord” by hopping on a ship to Tarshish, thought to be on the coast of Spain… the opposite direction of Nineveh (in case your geography is a little shaky, like mine). But Jonah didn’t get very far.
“…the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up.” Jonah 1:4 NKJV
While the sailors dumped cargo and cried out to their gods for answers (no answer… surprise), Jonah, meanwhile, was sleeping like a baby in the bottom of the ship. Jonah wasn’t sleeping like Jesus during the storm in Matthew 8 or Mark 4, without a care in the world; nope, he was sleeping like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, overwhelmed with fear and grief and sorrow. Jonah was so afraid to obey God that he avoided Him physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. He was real-ly messed up!
“Dispositionally, [Jonah] is represented as strong-willed, fretful, pouting, hasty and clannish. Politically, it is obvious that he was a loyal lover of Israel and a committed patriot. Religiously, he professed a fear of the Lord as God of heaven, the Creator of the sea and land. But his initial willful disobedience, his later reluctant obedience and his anger over the extension of mercy to the Ninevites reveal obvious inconsistencies in the application of his faith.”
I get it, Jonah, I really do.
I had a command from God, too, and I didn’t like it, either.
This whole “love your neighbor” thing was terrifying.
My particular instructions were to invite my neighbors over for coffee. It was as clear as day: I had an invitation, a name, a date, a plan. You have the same command, but your details will be different. God might tell you to deliver a meal or change someone’s oil, He might ask you to help a single mom on your street.
No matter how we are instructed to obey, God asks each of us to selflessly and sacrificially love the people He has placed around us.
But I was afraid. Just like Jonah, I was afraid that if I obeyed God’s command the very people He asked me to serve would turn around and hurt me. Wouldn’t they think I was weird? Or maybe they would they reject me completely? That would hurt my feelings! If we became friends, wouldn’t they want to talk all the time or hang out every weekend? Wouldn’t they press me with hard questions that trip up the world’s greatest theologians? Wouldn’t they start arguments about religion? What would they think of my house? I didn’t have time, I didn’t have answers.
I was afraid, and so I ran in the opposite direction of my neighbors. I ran to my work, which kept me busier than ever. I ran to my family, who needed their wife and mama. I ran to my church, where I volunteered like a maniac. Who could obey these silly ol’ commands when my real life needed me so badly?
And just like Jonah, God sent me a tempest. There were storms at work, where I was unproductive in spite of working harder than ever. He sent storms in my family, where I felt estrangement and ineptitude. There were storms at church, where my worship was dry. I tried sleeping through it like Jonah did, pretending I hadn’t heard God’s clear command and had no idea why this was happening to me. I ignored the cries of the people innocently affected by my storm. And I missed God, I really did – I knew He was gone from me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Then one day it hit me: wasn’t I supposed to invite my neighbors over for coffee? What ever happened to that?
My tempest didn’t come at sea, it came in the teapot I was supposed to be serving to my neighbors.
When we run, we don’t just miss the goal God has pointed us toward. We miss Him. We can’t feel His presence while we’re fleeing the presence of His people. Some of His people are from far-away cultures and have different faiths, unsettling lifestyles and upsetting worldviews.
Until we leave our comfortable church pews and sit on our neighbors’ front porches, we will have no idea how many people God has placed in our cities who are on His side. Some of the people we meet will be Saints-In-Waiting, people who have not yet met Jesus and whose lives haven’t yet been transformed by His love and power. We will be pulled out of the cozy places where everyone speaks our language and sings our hymns, and plopped into strange spaces where the language is blue and country music booms. We’ll hear things that make our hearts sink, and learn stories that make us heartsick.
This is exactly where we need to be.