(Read Jonah 1)
One of my favorite scenes in the Academy Award winning film, American Beauty, is this wonder-filled moment when the camera follows a plastic bag being blown by the wind. As the wind whips and stirs, the bag rises in a spiral like motion up into the air, and as the wind calms, the bag drops down to the ground. It dances along in the street for a moment, before it is again taken up by the wind. It is as though the bag has a life, not of its own, but because of the wind. The interaction between the bag and the wind reminds me of the dance between the creature and the Creator.
God is like the wind, bringing forth life and movement. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, God is the wind in my sails. Imagine that you are a sailboat, propelled forward by God’s strength and energy, by God’s breath and Spirit. When our sails are in line with the wind, we move forward swiftly on the course chartered by God. But when our sails don’t align with the wind, we can find ourselves barley moving or at a rocky standstill. Our lives are more dynamic and flow easier when our sails are filled with God’s Spirit.
God is always trying to do something in our lives. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that God is always trying to get us to do something with our lives. After all, our God is the God of direction. There is always some path we are supposed to be following and some decisions we need to be making. When we resist God, when we effectively say “no,” it is as though our sails are not aligned with the wind. Our boat doesn’t follow God’s trajectory. But when we are willing, when we effectively say “yes” to God, our sails are filled with wind, and we move forward as God intends.
Take the story of Jonah for example. God wants Jonah to do something, to go to Nineveh and cry out against the city because of their wicked ways, but Jonah refuses. He makes his refusal known by fleeing to a different city called Tarshish; this is a place that Scripture says is “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1: 3). And that’s when things really start to go wrong for Jonah. While on the ship, God raises up a storm, perhaps in his anger, which causes all the men on the ship to quake with fear. When the sailors realize that Jonah is the reason for the storm, they throw him overboard. Jonah brought calamity to himself and others because he said “no” to God.
Throughout my life, this has happened to me in subtle ways, but one time, just like with my friend Jonah, God was very direct. It was in 2002 when I was working in Los Angeles as an assistant to a film producer. I felt God calling me into the ministry, and I even applied to two seminaries in an attempt to follow the calling, but when I got accepted, I decided to turn the offers down so I could stay in Hollywood. In my heart of hearts, I knew the film industry wasn’t for me. I knew because I was actually quite unhappy working there, but I had hopes that things would get better.
One day, I told my boss, Keri, that I had been accepted to seminary, but that as long as I had a job with her, I was going to pass on the option. She assured me that my job was safe and that things were going well. Only a few days later, I left for a week to attend my sister’s wedding in Hawaii. While there, I heard God speaking to me, telling me that he had plans for my life. In my mind I heard a very clear statement that I wrote in my journal. It was: “I am going to give you your land.” I didn’t know it at the time, but God meant that he was sending me to seminary.
When I returned to California, I found out a little bit more about the way God works when we say “no” to his plan. You see, the night I returned, I opened up my mailbox to find a letter from Keri, my boss. I wish I could say it was a letter of thanks for what a great employee I was, but I cannot. It read, “Mandy, I hate to do this to you because you are a very nice person, but you are fired. I think you belong in seminary.” Talk about taking the wind out of my sails! In a matter of second, I had been brought to a dead halt. God was intervening. I had said “no,” but God was saying “yes.”
After crying all night, I called Harvard, the school I really wanted to go to, but they said my position had already been filled. Now, I was really panicking. I called Princeton next, my back up school. They said “yes” I could still attend. I was relieved and overjoyed. I boarded a plane a few days later, and as I was driving through the lush green town of Princeton, I heard the words again, “I am going to give you your land.”
God did what he had to do to get Jonah to go to Nineveh. God did what he had to do to get me to go to seminary. And I imagine, God does what he has to do to get all people following in the direction he wants them to go, for our God is a God of direction. In what direction has God urged you? Or in what direction is God urging you?
Maybe you’re estranged from a loved one. Perhaps God is urging you to reconnect with a family member or distant friend. Maybe you have been working 70 hours a week and are completely stressed out. Perhaps God is urging you to take a vacation or even just a walk in Central Park. Maybe you have been lonely and without the support you need in your life. Perhaps God is urging you to meet new people, to develop relationships. Maybe you feel unfulfilled in your current work. Perhaps God is urging you to take a class or switch fields.
I have learned that saying “yes” to God is the best response because it will make our lives easier and lead us towards our highest callings. Saying “no” can lead us to estrangement, fatigue, loneliness and unfulfillment. Saying “No” is frustrating, moreso for us than for God, because let’s face it, God always gets his way in the end.
Here I am in the ministry, and trust me, getting fired from that Hollywood job was not the route I wanted to take. And I’m sure Jonah didn’t want to get hated by people, thrown from a boat, and swallowed by a fish. But that fish actually saved Jonah’s life, and after three days in its belly, Jonah had a change of heart. When he returns to dry land and God asks him a second time to go to Nineveh, this time you best believe he goes. Saying “yes” is like aligning your sails with the wind. You get to your destination more quickly and with less turmoil.
Remember that bag and how it danced in the wind. This is the dance that happens when we say “yes.” Yes to changing, yes to growing, yes to challenges, yes to the journey, and ultimately, yes to God.
Instead of ending this sermon by saying the traditional, “Amen.” I’ll simply end it by raising my hands to heaven and saying “Yes!”