When I was in the 5th or 6th grade, Jonah's Tale of a Whale was a musical we spent a week learning at a South Carolina Baptist music camp called Camp Harmony. The week was filled with swimming, games, making new friends, and taking a variety of music classes. Every camper was also a part of the camp choir.
The last day of camp was performance day, the highlight of the week, where we all participated in telling the story of Jonah through song. All of these years later, Camp Harmony is still on my list of favorite childhood memories.
The ancient book of Jonah from the Scriptures tells of a defiant, called, messenger of God who seeks to escape the presence of the Lord by purchasing a fare on a ship that's about to set sail. God prepares to deal with Jonah's heart by swelling the sea waters into massive waves and turning up the wind speed to severe storm levels. Other pieces of the story include the ship's tossing to-and-fro, a big fish which swallows Jonah, the wicked people of Nineveh Jonah should be delivering God's message to, and God's saving grace.
While listening to a sermon on this familiar story, the Holy Spirit exposed something more, nestled underneath the obvious.
Who else was there? Who else is part of this redemptive story?
The Ship-men! The "all hands on deck" guys.
The life of a ship-man was hard. They weren't simply taking a joy ride, sailing across the ocean blue. These men were loading, transporting goods, manning the ship's sails, battling treacherous waters and weather only to return to the docks, prepare to unload and load the ship again, and sail back out to sea.
On this particular day, Jonah had paid the fare to sail along with them. As these ship-men were going about their business, they were completely unaware of what was going to take place over and under the deep waters. Not only would a vicious storm arise, the very foundation of what they believed in would be shaken to the core. Their false gods, their worthless idols, were about to be exposed for what they really were and destroyed by the one true God right before their very eyes.
Salvation was not only coming to the repentant people of Nineveh in chapter three, it was coming to all hearts on deck in chapter one.
Jonah chose to flee Tarshish because he didn't think the people of Nineveh deserved God's mercy and grace. He was angry with God for wanting to save such a wicked people. Little did he know that his own rebellion and the consequences of his disobedience would be used by God to save all hearts on deck.
Isn't that just like God to call the lost to Himself even while His children are pitching hissy fits?
Aren't you glad this is the God we love and serve? One of justice for sure, but who's also filled with extreme compassion, mercy, and grace. One who does not wish anyone to perish. (John 3:16)
When God orchestrated a dangerous storm which threatened all of their lives, the ship-men cast lots to determine who the culprit might be in bringing this calamity to their ship. The lot fell to Jonah. They knew he was fleeing the presence of the Lord because he had already told them that much. The severity of the storm was proof that the Lord was not pleased with Jonah, and the ship-men were afraid of getting caught in the cross-hairs of God's dealing with Jonah's disobedience.
Crying out to their man-made gods did not help, so they deferred to the God that was not thought up by the human mind and began calling out to the Lord, Creator of heaven and earth.
O LORD, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you (Jonah 1:14, ESV).
After crying out in desperation to Jonah's God, the ship-men hurled Jonah into the sea, and the sea immediately ceased its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows (1:15-16).
They feared the Lord exceedingly! They offered a sacrifice to Him. They made vows.
We aren't told what those vows were, but we can infer that these ship-men's lives were changed forevermore.
Have you ever examined this piece of the story before? When we only focus on the obvious - the storm, the throwing of Jonah overboard, the big fish, the escaping judgement for a repentant people, we can miss the more - the whole heart of God.
God's plan for redeeming hearts is never thwarted, even in the midst of His children's rebellious behavior. The hearts of the ship-men were just as important to Him as the struggling heart of Jonah. Just as God was warning the rebellious hearts of the people of Nineveh, so is He calling back the rebellious hearts of the people today in cities all across America and around the world. God is moving and dispensing His love on so many levels at the same time, it's mind boggling.
God not only has a message for the wicked, a message for His own people who are running away from His presence, but He is also continuing to move His Redemption Story forward, to prove Himself faithful and true in all circumstances. Until Jesus returns, God will continue to seek and soften hardened hearts, break through the walls of unbelief, trample false worship, crumble weak foundations, and heal hearts. God is still the God of hope, love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, new beginnings, and second chances. In Him, our foundation is secure, built on the Cornerstone of Christ who is worthy of our worship and who we will reign with forevermore.
When God saw what they [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it (Jonah 3:10, ESV).
Calling all hearts on deck!
Are you running from what God has called you to do? Are you living a rebellious life? Have you succumbed to false teaching, false worship? God is calling you to repent and to turn back to Him now. He's waiting for you, my friend, to come home.