God, Jonah, and the Great Fish

I’m presently fulfilling an internship as a chaplain at a home for the elderly.  It’s unbelievably rewarding work; I feel deeply blessed to work there.  I’m sure I’ll have more to offer about what I’m actually doing as the summer goes on.

One of my responsibilities is to lead morning chapel worship periodically.  This includes preaching occasionally.  What follows is my recent reflection on the call of God as experienced by Jonah – and the Great Fish (clearly, a subject that happens to be a favorite of mine). 

(Jonah 1:1-4, 12, 15, 17):

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.

Jonah said to the sailors, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

So they picked him up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

These rather abridged readings comprise the first half of the Book of Jonah.  So far, Jonah has been called by God, but he ran the other way.  God summoned the great fish to swallow Jonah up, and this had the two purposes of saving him from drowning, and forcing him to be still and really think over his situation.  Finally, Jonah is ready to submit to the will of God, and he cries out to the Lord.

Now the story continues, but I wanted to stop at this point because I think the first half of this story is revealing as to how God calls us into action.  In the Book of Jonah, there are at least two different experiences of the call of God:  first, when God calls Jonah, and second, when God calls the great fish.  Both of these reveal different ways in which God may call us to service.

God’s call to Jonah, would result in a life-changing career move – a brand new identity that he was to adopt, from now on.  Whatever Jonah had been before, now he was supposed to go into an unsafe den of sin, and become a street evangelist.  It was a total, unnatural switch for Jonah, one which demanded a serious shift into a new role and identity as preacher.

Some of us have experienced this sort of life-changing call from God.  I’ve met many people who decided to go to seminary much later on in life because they felt the insistent pull of God’s call, which did not relent until they finally submitted to it.  One guy at Chicago Theological Seminary is 67 years old, and he is fulfilling a call that he experienced in his twenties.

More than a few of us seem to anticipate – and experience – a little doubt and difficulty along the way of one of these life-changing calls:  You want me to do what, God?  For how long?  Where?  With whom?  Those people?  What if I get hurt?  What if I can’t afford to change careers right now?  What if I just plain don’t want to?  At which point, of course, God causes a great fish to come and swallow you up.

Well, maybe not.  But to be sure: the life-changing call to submit to the will of God is not always an easy or clearly-lit road, can I get an Amen?

But this is not the only way God uses us.

Consider how God also calls the Great Fish into service.  Unlike with Jonah, the Great Fish was (1) simply in the right place at the right time, uniquely equipped to fulfill the need at that moment.  (2) The Great Fish was willing to respond to this need.  It was not a life’s worth of ministry to which God called the Great Fish, but rather three days of service that only the Great Fish could fulfill.

Quite frankly, the fish probably didn’t even understand how she was contributing to God’s greater plan, in the whole scheme of things.  Now we humans like to know everything before we commit ourselves too much.  “Why don’t you give me some more details and then I’ll decide whether I want to help out or not.”

But what the Great Fish helps us to understand, is that sometimes there will be only a need to fulfill in front of us – we won’t get the back story, and we may never understand how it fits into God’s greater plan for the world, and yet, we are nonetheless being called to do that which we and we alone are uniquely situated to do.

In these instances, let us strive to be like the Great Fish:  unhesitant, obedient to the task at hand, and fully using the gifts we have received from God, whether they be gills and fins, or education, compassion, and an internship at a home for the elderly.  Thanks be to God for these gifts and so many more.  Let us respond to the call.


2 Responses to “God, Jonah, and the Great Fish”

  1. FranIAm Says:

    Tom- you have written another outstanding post. Feel the mad e-love baby, it comes flying your way with many prayers of gratitude that God has chosen to put us in the same bloggy universe.

    I have been really praying with and studying this piece of Scripture of late. Me being an neo-idol worshipping pagan with the theological imperative to not take my Scripture literally (another thing I have been studying, the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission on Scripture. What a life, huh?) I have done a lot with this.

    But the fish! The FISH! How did I miss the FISH. Oh – you have no idea how much I needed the message of your sermon in general and that analogy in particular.

    Must head off to bed, I have an early service at 7.30am tomorrow, but I will be reflecting on this a lot now.

  2. FranIAm Says:

    Well here I am, FranIam returned with some fishy thoughts and reflections.

    I have thought about this a lot this summer as I ponder my own vocation and try to cooperate with grace.

    Normally I see myself as an uncooperative Jonah, but your image of the Great Fish is a lovely contemplative thought that has helped to carry me on challenging days.

    To that end, I leaped off a boat and into a fish I think… just today. I graduated from college in 1979 and have never returned to do post grad work.

    For so many years I would think of Masters in Theology, but would not allow that thought to rest. There were many reasons I avoided it- time, practicality, money, the fact that I traveled all the time for my job.

    Well there is a good MoT program here in town and today I called, I hope to take one course in the fall. I have no idea how I will pay for this in my unemployed state and I am scared silly.

    And filled with great joy as well.

    Sorry for the long comment!!! Back to the Great Fish for me.

    Blessings to you Tom!

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