It was Easter Sunday morning that two friends from Europe and I strolled into a jewelry shop nestled in the middle of the tourist area of the predominantly Muslim mega city that I call home. As we entered the store, an elderly man greeted us in English and asked us to sit down so he could show us his jewelry. This silversmith’s talents are remarkable but not as remarkable as the divinely orchestrated meeting that was about to take place.
We introduced ourselves to this Syrian silversmith and upon meeting my friend, whose name resembles the Arabic name for Jonah, the silversmith started telling us a story of a man who was swallowed by a sea creature. I immediately saw this was our moment – the moment to take his words and use them to bridge the conversation to Jesus.
“I know that story,” I excitedly said to the silversmith.
Although timidity threatened to close my mouth, the God who has not given me a spirit of fear, was strong in my weakness. I jumped right in, and after I briefly gave a recap of the story, the silversmith looked at me, a western woman he assumes is a Christian, and asked “you have studied the Islamic writings?” “No, the story I just told you is from the Bible. And actually today is Easter! Do you know why we celebrate Easter? It’s such an important holiday for us” I asked him. He didn’t say much, but his warm demeanor invited me to share more. I explained to him the death and resurrection of Christ and how that is the reason we celebrate Easter. And just like that, the Lord’s saving Light penetrated the strangling darkness the silversmith lives in as he was told the good news that is found in Jesus. Without much thought or planning, I continued “hmmm and actually the story of Jonah that we just talked about – well that can be seen as a symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Just like Jonah was in the fish for 3 days before he was spit out, Jesus was in the grave for 3 days before coming back alive!” The silversmith nodded his head as he listened. Honestly I could not believe what was happening. I had not planned to walk in that shop and share the story of Jonah or the gospel, and there was no script in my hands. It was the Holy Spirit creating the opportunity and reminding me of scripture that was written on my heart. When Jesus is our life, and His mission becomes ours, everyday life moments, such as shopping in a jewelry store, can be an opportunity to share the saving message of Christ. I praise the Lord that he uses normal people to speak his extraordinary Truth in ordinary moments. The silversmith then showed us more of his beautifully crafted jewelry and told us he is a refugee before we thanked him for having us and went on with our day.
I had not put much thought into how amazing it was to have used the story of Jonah on Easter until I shared with a dear sister in Christ back home in America about what had happened. Her response helped me see the beauty of what had taken place with fresh vision…
“I was thinking about Jonah and what a great story to have shared yesterday. Especially since Jesus referenced it to his own death and return. That’s so awesome!” she wrote me in a text message.
Hmmm. I sat and pondered and went back to scripture to refresh my memory. As I flipped open to the book of Matthew, tears welled up as I saw just how remarkable my conversation with the silversmith had been. And really, my lack of seeing the magnitude of what had taken place somewhat showed me that it was not me, but Him in that shop. I was a mouthpiece and a warm body to show compassion, but only He could have designed that moment.
“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
The weeks following Easter have been full of God-given opportunities like the one above as we have returned to visit our silversmith friend. We’ve heard of the horrors he’s lived through in Aleppo and of the traumatic escape he made with his wife and children. We’ve heard of the murders of his brothers and we have seen the sadness in his eyes as he describes how beautiful his rich lifestyle once was in Syria. We’ve heard of his daughter who he says has changed and now sees and talks to demons. We’ve prayed for this daughter’s deliverance and my husband has explained that through the name of Jesus, freedom and healing can be found. We’ve heard him share how the verses from the Quran that he reads over his daughter don’t work, and have given him an Arabic New Testament, telling him that all the answers are found within it. This man and his family need freedom. They’ve only been out of Syria for one year and the frightening experiences they’ve lived still seem fresh and raw. I stand before this man and sometimes feel so inadequate – a housewife from the land of opportunity speaking to a man who has escaped ISIS territory. But His ways are higher than mine and I know that what I have, I can give, and what I have is Hope.
Will you please join me in praying for the silversmith’s family? His daughter needs freedom – they all do.
Jonah. The story that started it all with the silversmith has been heavy on my heart and because of its children’s Bible popularity, sometimes gets neglected. I figure I know this story, why go read it again? Go read it again – it’s alive and active and full of treasures that I had not previously noticed. It’s a story full of irony that is really all about Jonah – about you and me – and a reminder that we should be merciful like our merciful God. Most of us are familiar with this story – Jonah’s rebellion; the fish that swallowed him; how he finally goes to Nineveh; and the lessons God patiently tries to teach Jonah.
But nestled right in the middle of the four chapter book is a prayer that Jonah offers to God from inside the fish. As I thoughtfully went over the words, painting a real life picture in my head of what it must have been like to have been thrown overboard and swallowed by an animal, correction in how I once viewed the fish leapt off the page. The fish wasn’t the distress, it was the salvation. The water was death; the fish was life. Jonah called to the Lord in his distress – from deep in the realm of the dead. Currents swirled around him, and waves swept over him. Engulfing waters threatened him and deep surrounded him. He felt trapped below the surface as if the earth had barred him in forever. When he was as good as dead, completely in a pit of darkness, he cried out to God. His guilt did not keep him from remembering the Lord as his life was ebbing away. The Lord, who is merciful, slow to anger, and rich in love, heard his cry and appointed a fish as a means of salvation.
I sat at my desk and pondered how the fish – what I used to think of as only the distressing trial – could really be the way the Lord brought his child up from the depths of darkness into the land of the living. So much encouragement can be found here. God answers his children when they cry out to Him in their distress. Rescue comes, but sometimes after God has allowed us to fall into impossible situations, and the rescue might not come as we usually expect it to. I thought back to the times in my life when things seemed to have gone from bad to worse, but how it was in the worst of times, when I found myself in an unbelievably impossible situation, that the Lord was saving me. I am reminded of my first 3 years on the mission field. My first year in Central Asia was difficult and I often felt trapped in despair. We then moved to Europe where things got harder. The European experience is not how I would have imagined the Lord would turn me into who I am today, but because of His wise plan, I have been able to return to our first home in Central Asia as a new person- as a more effective missionary – full of joy, hope, mercy, and with lessons of forgiveness under my belt. The European “fish” I was swallowed by was the very means God used to save me and thrust me back into the world to walk confidently in my calling. What joyful sorrow the fish moments in our life can be – sorrowful as sometimes the Lord rescues us by allowing us to walk through difficulty rather than removing it, but joy as we see the Lord, in all His glory, as He comes to the aid of His children. He never abandons, and always sustains. I wonder what it was really like for Jonah inside the fish. Did he lose consciousness? Was he hot? Did it smell horrible? Where did he go to the bathroom? Wasn’t he lonely? Was he in pain? Surely it was dark. Surely he was reeling from the trauma of nearly drowning. But God, only our creative and perfect Teacher, can use circumstances that naturally may seem like the end of us as the vehicle that takes us from the pit to the surface – from death to life.
My prayer for you today is that if you are in a “fish” that you will have the spiritual eyes to see it as the salvation that it is. Whatever it is, the Lord is with you. Refining, teaching, molding, and creating a merciful vessel who, like Jonah, is not perfect, but will be powerful. As we are being brought up to the surface, may we praise the Lord in the fish and wait with hope.
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”