I have yet to meet a clergy person who does not have their own Jonah-esque account of fleeing from the call to ordained ministry. There is something about being told that you are not your own that terrifies and overwhelms. Sure, we as Christians know this, but it is entirely different when you are demanded to live it out. The transformative power of grace is that clergy come out on the other side. We work our way through it, past it, and emerge for the Kingdom beyond it. It may take years, even decades, but God is patient as well as persistent. Yet we cannot be so naive as to think only clergy have this affinity for Jonah. Indeed, there is a little Jonah in us all, and sometime we need to be careful.
The prophet Jonah’s story is incredible. There is no other way to describe it. He is one of the only successful prophets; the people he calls to repent actually do! Even as he flees from God he manages to convert an entire ship of sailors without even trying. In many ways, it reminds me of the success the Church had in its history. There was a time when Christians were made without effort. People wanted to join the Church. They wanted to raise their children in the community of faith, and saying you were Christian carried weight, even social prestige. But those days are gone. Now it takes serious effort and intentionality to make disciples. People aren’t knocking on our doors, and they have come to resent us knocking on theirs. And yet it feels like we have been Jonah-dized, morphing into people who claim the name, but are not into the foot work.
Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He did not want those people to repent. He wanted to stay where he was, doing what he had been doing. God had other plans. Just as Jonah got thrown overboard, tossed into the sea, and then swallowed by the fish, I have to wonder if the Church is languishing in the belly of the metaphorical fish. Have we become too complicit? Have we stopped demanding more of ourselves, sloughing the duty and work off on others? Maybe it is the clergy, or the paid staff, or maybe we assume some other person in the our local church will pick up the slack? God called Jonah specifically, and we are specifically called too. Christ came and died for us, and the call to faith is ours. It comes with duty, responsibility, and expectation that we will labor in the field so that we will bear fruit for God. As much as I would love to ignore that divine and biblical truth, it is smacking us as the Church Universal in the face right now.
Ironically, we do not know what happened to Jonah. He slips into obscurity. I fear the Church may be following in his footsteps. God raised up other prophets, and it is within God’s power and right to raise up other conduits for speaking divine truth and igniting hearts with a passionate faith. When was the last time you invited someone to join you at church? When was the last time you consciously give up something you wanted in order to give to another in the name of Jesus Christ? When was the last time you took ownness of your church’s resources, and made sure they were applied to Kingdom building? We all fall short. We all have times of failure, but acquiescing to inertia is not an option. We can’t stay in the fish. We need to pray for God to liberate us from the prison we have allowed our church buildings to become, locked into the ways that we have refused to change or adapt to keep the Message vital and vibrant for the current social context. If we ask for liberation, we shall receive it. Jonah prayed, “What I have vowed I will pay” (Jonah 2:9b), and immediately the fish spat him out on dry land. We made a vow when we joined the church, and we must pay what we pledged: our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Or these ornate and costly buildings will become our tombs.