Which Door, God? God’s Yes Is Bigger Than Our No

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of the long-awaited moments of each new year is the awarding of the Darwin Award. This prestigious award recognizes those people, who, through their own incredible foolishness kill themselves, thus improving society by removing their genes from the gene pool. DO NOT try these things on your own!

     •    Two men pull over a jet fuel tanker and force the driver at gunpoint to fill the
           tank of their truck with jet fuel. The driver says, “You know you really shouldn’t
           put jet fuel in your tank.” They shoot the driver in the leg, jump into their cab and
           start it up. The wounded driver makes it to the ditch before the robber’s truck
           explodes.

     •    Iraqi terrorist Khay Rahnajet, didn't put enough postage on a letter bomb, and it
          comes back marked "return to sender." He opens the package he made himself. [1]

When I hear these stories, I wonder, “How could they be such knuckleheads?” But of course, the point is that they were not thinking. I see a measure of that in Jonah’s story. Jonah is a prophet, a man devoted to God. God comes and tells him, in the second verse of the book, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah runs the opposite way. I wonder “How could he be such a knucklehead? It’s not that he doesn’t know how great and loving God is!” When God opens the door in front of him, why does Jonah run away?
     Maybe fear is why Jonah runs away. That’s understandable. A prophet like Jonah was called to speak messages from God, even if it made other people feel mad or uncomfortable. Prophets are to say it as God sees it. Some of the Old Testament prophets are given words against other nations, and they can say them from Israel. God tells Jonah he’s going to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and preach against it there. The word God uses for the Ninehvites is wickedness. When someone knows something is wrong and hurtful and cruel, does it anyway and likes it? The Old Testament calls that wickedness. The Assyrian Empire was THE superpower of the Middle East for hundreds of years, and it majored in wickedness. When they defeated a country, they would cart off most of the people to a new country, and then bring some other defeated country’s citizens to replace them. When they did that to the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, the country basically disappeared. Nineveh was called the city of blood, by the prophet Nahum. He prophesied, “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims…(Nahum 3:1) Nineveh, a juggernaut of cruel empire—you can almost hear the theme—[hum the “Empire Strikes Back” theme]—and God wants Jonah to go there and preach against it? Sure, we might say, we’ll have that conversation with Darth Vader and the Emperor and see how well it goes. Maybe we can understand why Jonah ran away.
     Or maybe Jonah just thought he had a better plan. John Ortberg draws our attention to one of the little details—“Jonah paid the fare. This is a big deal. In Jonah’s day, money was still relatively new. The ancient world used a barter economy, and money was tremendously scarce among the people of Israel…Jonah had money enough to buy passage for a long voyage…He had mobility; he had options…Nineveh was a military city. Tarshish was a pioneer in trade. Commerce over the sea was kind of like new technology and was making some people rich…The ships of Tarshish became symbols of wealth and self-sufficiency and power and greed. Is it hard to imagine that once a group of human beings was so deluded that they thought technology, wealth, and a clever economic system could make them secure?”[2] Jonah had enough money to have choices, and well, what if going to Tarshish seemed like a smarter move. Instead of the open door to Nineveh, was he running away to his version of Wall Street and Silicon Valley?

     Or maybe Jonah just doesn’t think he’s good enough. Ortberg tells the story of Arthur Kemp. From a very young age, his family knew he had the makings of a preacher, and Arthur heard God telling him over and over, “Go and feed my sheep.” He spent years running to Tarshish. He writes, “I determined that I was going to be the worst possible human being you could be, to make myself unfit to be a minister.” Drinking, gambling, dealing drugs, running prostitution—all Tarshish, as far away from God as he could get. “Until he went to prayer meeting one night and the storm broke and he sobbed, ‘I’ve got to preach, I’ve got to preach,’ and the pastor told him he would not have any peace until he did.” Kemp wrote a book entitled, God’s Yes Was Louder than My No, and it’s true even for Jonah. He said no in his hometown, and no at the docks, and no on the ship and no in the storm, and finally no, just throw me overboard. Perhaps Jonah thinks he’s not good enough, but when we look at the story of the sailors, who leave their ordinary gods to come to believe in the Lord, God uses even Jonah’s “NO!” to get others to say, “Yes!” Ortberg says, “Jonah’s closed door to God becomes God’s open door to the sailors.”[3]
     I love the story of Jonah because I think we can all find ourselves in it. We have the chance to say a kind word to someone who looks lost or lonely, to show kindness to a neighbor we don’t really know, but instead we run for Tarshish. We know we need to confront someone with an uncomfortable truth in love, but it’s going to be tough, and rather than go through the pain we head for Tarshish. We have a chance to do something insanely good, but it’s going to take commitment, and we might feel nervous, like we don’t have what it takes, so get on board for Tarshish. We think we are preserving our lives—we don’t want to win a Darwin Award after all. And yet, if we are honest, we come to realize that we are knuckleheads, just like Jonah. When the open door is before us, and we know it’s God leading us, and we know God is more than enough to handle whatever we will face through that open door, still how often do we head to Tarshish?
     As it turns out, the story of Jonah is also the story of the greatness of God’s grace—bigger than Jonah can imagine. God works through Jonah’s “No!” to bring sailors to “Yes!” And God can work through even our “No!” to bring more kindness and justice to the world. God works through a fish—and Jonah, in the belly, finally prays. Especially in our darkest hour, God is present as we finally surrender our lives to God. God works through Jonah’s half-hearted preaching to bring about true, saving repentance in the people he hates the most. God can use us even when we are dragging our feet to bring blessings to the people around us. God works through the shade of a plant, to start a conversation with Jonah. And today God has brought you and me here, to start a conversation about an open door, the very ones we face today. If God can show this kind of grace with knuckleheads who say, “No!”, imagine what God could do with someone who prays, “Not my will but yours be done.” The promise is that God’s yes is way bigger than our no, and when we say yes, we become a little more like Jesus, both in the sacrifice and the resurrection. God’s “Yes!” is way more than our “NO!”


[1] www.darwinawards.com. Some of the winners of the Darwin Award are hilarious and some are just sad.

[2]John Ortberg, All the Places to Go! How Will I Know? (2016), p. 188.

[1]Ortberg, ibid, p. 195.