Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
Feb. 17, 2002
Some of the finest stories ever written may be found scattered through the book popularly known as “the good book.” The Bible contains stories of romance, intrigue, murder, wars, shipwrecks, suicide, and adventure, just to mention a few.
Even pagans and agnostics would enjoy reading the Bible. You don’t have to believe that it is the greatest book ever written to enjoy its fascinating stories of human struggle, failure, and achievement.
One of my favorite stories, for example, is that of Jonah and the whale. That story has had such an impact upon the world that the very word “Jonah” brings us the image of the whale. But when you read the story, no whale is mentioned. Instead it is a “fish” that swallows Jonah.
Here, though, is where some people stumble. They reason that even if a big fish could swallow a man, the man could not possibly survive the ordeal. They conclude then that this is not a real story, but one like that of Jack and the Bean Stalk. This conclusion does not really bother me, for the significance of Jonah does not hinge on whether you believe that a big fish could swallow a man.
Actually the Jonah story suggests some funny observations we may enjoy. The fish obeyed God when Jonah did not. God “commanded” the fish to vomit Jonah out of his belly on land. Jonah, however, was at sea because he was running from God. God had commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah ran the other way.
Running, then, may not be the great exercise that health experts believe it is. It could be hazardous to your future, if not your health, especially if you are running from God.
Perhaps the best chuckle Jonah can give us is this: even a fish cannot stomach a backslider for more than three days before it becomes sick of him. I will leave it to you to ask your own pastor if backsliders cause preachers to be nauseated. Or you can draw your own conclusion.
All chuckles aside, in many ways the story of Jonah is the story of every person. Look at the sequence of events. God called. Jonah ran. Jonah was miserable. God showed mercy. Jonah stopped running and obeyed God. Then things go better for Jonah.
Is that not much like our own experience? God calls. We run. We are miserable. God shows us mercy. Then, if we are wise, we respond to God’s mercy by obeying him. Otherwise our story is likely to have a sad ending.
I have often compared my own life to that of Jonah. Not that a big fish ever swallowed me, but for years I stayed busy thinking up excuses for not obeying God.
God called me to preach when I was in my teens, still in high school. But I doubted. I ran. I tried to write my own ticket in college. But I was miserable. Only when I surrendered to God’s call and stopped running did I find peace. Ever since then I have pleaded for sufficient grace to continue to obey God. In his mercy God has given me a sense of fulfillment about the mission of my life.
Our oldest son, Matt, heard God call. Like Jonah he ran, and he even ran to the sea. He spent 10 years in the Navy. He saw the world but in no port did he find peace for all those years he was running from God.
Finally God’s mercy overwhelmed Matt’s misery. Like Jonah he gave up and began to obey God. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me, “Dad, I think God is calling me to preach.” In my great wisdom I tried to talk him out of it. I told him that God needs Christian men in every arena of life. He listened patiently, then asked, “But, Dad, what if God really is calling me to preach?” I replied, “Then, son, you had better do what God wants you to do.”
In May Matt is finishing his final year of seminary at age 44. Like Jonah Matt has found peace by obeying God. Is Matt a late bloomer? Perhaps. But Matt says, “I believe I am on God’s time table, right on schedule.”
Bible stories are useful for much more than Vacation Bible Schools. We can learn from biblical stories much about God, and much about ourselves. I reckon that’s why I love the story of Jonah so much. I could identify with Jonah. And I learned a powerful lesson from his story. I learned that I could never have peace with God while running and making excuses. That peace only comes through obeying God.
When I get to heaven, Jonah will be one of the first fellows I want to talk to. And I want to find out just how big that fish really was!