Have you ever been stuck in a big fish taxi?
Has God ever asked you to do something that you just didn’t want to do? Was there an important message you did not heed? Jonah had that happen to him. Here is his story.
Jonah, here’s your mission. Go to the great city of Nineveh and tell the people who live there that their sins and wickedness have come to my attention.
Me? Go to Nineveh? That lousy neighborhood? It’s a hotbed of violent crime. There’s no industry. Their infrastructure is crumbling. Those thugs own the black market on weapons, Cedar and Tyrian purple. I don’t want to go to Nineveh. Anyway, those people are hopeless.
Jonah, go to Nineveh.
No way. I’ll hop on a cruise ship and sail somewhere else — anywhere but Nineveh. I could use a vacation. Life is exhausting.
Jonah falls into a deep sleep aboard the ship when suddenly . . .
Excuse me, sir. Jonah, please wake up!
(Groggy.) I was taking a quick nap. What is it? What’s wrong?
A storm, sir. The crew tried everything. We’re afraid the ship will capsize in this wind. The captain sent me to ask you to pray to your God to help us.
(Sounds of storm increasing. The boat tosses to and fro.)
Jonah, we think this storm is your fault! What terrible thing have you done to bring all this trouble on us poor seamen? Tell us.
Listen, I am a Hebrew. But right now I am running away from Him and what He wants me to do. I didn’t think he could find me. A small boat on the sea must be outside of the Lord’s GPS.
What should we do? We’ve already thrown all the cargo off the ship and it hasn’t helped. We are all going to die.
I ran from my mission. The problem must be ME. I guess the Divine one really does see what I’m doing in secret. Pick me up and throw me into the sea.
No, sir, we can’t do that. That would be murder. Let’s try rowing again.
(Sounds of storm increasing.)
It’s no use. We are going to have to throw Jonah overboard. Oh God of Jonah, please don’t let us die.
The sailors throw Jonah overboard. While he doggy paddles in the turbulent sea, a large fish appeared and swallowed him up.
(The storm fades into quiet.)
Stuck in the dark belly of the fish with no sheep’s milk or Netflix, Jonah prays to God. For three days and three nights, he lay there contemplating his life. That was quite a time out.
I’ve reevaluated this situation. Lord, my God, when I almost drowned, I called for help. And You listened to my cry. I will sing you a song of thanks. I will do what I have promised. Lord, I will not run. You are the one who saves.
God hears the prayer of Jonah and causes the fish to spit Jonah to vomit the reluctant prophet out on the shore. Then Jonah keeps his promise to God and goes to Nineveh.
(Sounds of crowded city)
People of Nineveh, I have a message for you from God. In 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed because of your wickedness.
People of Nineveh:
Oh, no! We need to repent for our sins. We will wear black clothes and we won’t eat to show God how sorry we are. Please, Lord God, turn away your anger. We will turn our evil ways.
I will have compassion on you, and I will not destroy you.
The Jonah story is traditionally read the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holiday of repentance. Jonah runs from himself, from his people, moral responsibility, and God. But when things seem the most desolate, he turns his life around.
Like Jonah, I have been in the belly of the big fish. I’ve felt forever stuck. Unable to change my character and the direction of my life.
The central theme of the High Holiday season is we can return to our truest selves. Even when we “hit bottom” and descend to the depths of despair, change is possible. The way we are today need not be who we remain tomorrow. We are not condemned to stagnation, but can fashion a new way of being in our own lives.
The story of Jonah’s descent into the bleak netherworld urges us to transcend the impediments that prevent our personal transformation, and the creation of a more hopeful future. Jonah and the Ninevites choose life.
And so can we.