By Curtis Peter van Gorder
I love quirky news stories, especially the ones that can be a springboard to dive deep into spiritual realities and are good conversation starters. They kind of jolt you out of your complacency and make you realize that life is full of surprises.
It’s easy just to rock along as one day blurs into the next, but sometimes there is an interruption in our way—a deer runs in front of our car and totals it; we find out our wife is going to have triplets, and on the day of her delivery one more pops out, making it quadruplets1; we discover a lost diamond ring with a carrot growing through it when digging up veggies in our garden 13 years after it was lost2; we get hit by lightning for the seventh time3; or a whale swallows us for 40 seconds, as happened to Michael Packard when he was diving in deep waters off of Cape Cod in search of lobsters.
“All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” he relates. Confused at first, he then realized he was in a humpback whale’s mouth and that it was trying to swallow him. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys—they’re 12 and 15 years old.” Then the whale surfaced, shook its head, and spat the ill-tasting morsel out into the ocean, where Michael was rescued by his first mate, who was looking for him in their boat.4
It is times like these that make us realize what is really important in life, as it did to the prophet Jonah—a story I found out that many people I have talked to don’t know. Our flawed hero, Jonah, was commanded by God to go to Nineveh, the flourishing capital city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It was the largest city in the world for 50 years. His purpose was to warn them to repent of their wicked deeds, of which Nineveh had plenty—too many to enumerate here, but suffice it to say they were grotesquely cruel to their enemies in an attempt to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who would defy them.
Well, instead of obeying the Lord and going to Nineveh, he ships off to Spain, which was in the opposite direction. As always, God’s plan would not be frustrated, and so He has a hurricane-force gale blow to rattle the cages of everyone on board. After doing all they could to escape certain calamity, the crew tossed Jonah overboard to appease the wrath of God. It seemed to work, because the ocean became calm. Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish, just like Michael in the story above.
He is three days and nights in the whale and cries out desperately to the Lord, pleading for deliverance from a watery grave. The Lord answers his prayers and has the whale spit him out… Guess what happened next! That’s right—he went where God wanted him—Nineveh. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches to them “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”5 A short sermon indeed!
It is interesting to note that in one translation of this verse, the word "overturned" is used instead of overthrown, which can also mean completely transformed, which is what happens. But is Jonas happy when the whole city repents in sackcloth and ashes, asking for forgiveness? No! When the day of destruction comes and goes without fire falling from heaven, he goes off to sulk, waiting to see what will happen next.
It is blooming hot, hot, hot out there, and he is frying his brains when God shows up again and has a gourd plant grow up to give him some shade over his lean-to shelter. All this time Jonah is yelling at God and complaining that the Ninevites didn’t get their just deserts. God isn’t finished, though, and He sends a worm to eat the leafy gourd plant, which shrivels up and dies. Then to put the icing on the cake, He has a vehement east wind come blowing and heating up Jonah some more until he is ready to die to escape baking in this outdoor oven. God ends the story by saying, “You had pity on the gourd plant, and shouldn’t I spare the people of Nineveh who don’t know their right hand from their left and also many cattle?” Curtain!
More than just a story about a disobedient prophet, who even when he does the right things gets a lot wrong, this is a story about God working. He is the God of Jonah, but also the God of the ship’s crew, the God of the whale, the God of the Ninevites, the God of the gourd plant, the God of the worm, and the God of the east wind. Where is God not in this story?
He’s on every page of our life’s story as well, if we will open our eyes, read, and take to heart what He has written for us. And the next time you are the main character of a quirky occurrence, remember who is writing your script and trust Him for the outcome. He is more often in the interruptions of our lives than in the plans that we have made.
5 Jonah 3:4.