It is so that I have come to this reflection late this week. In large part this is because I found myself unexpectedly spending more time in hospital waiting rooms than I ever could have anticipated when the week first began. It is also so that my own preaching this next week will be more thematic for it is soon Confirmation Sunday in the place where I serve. My tradition has been to cull pieces of wisdom from the confirmation essays written by our confirmands which reflect their journeys of faith and since I do not have them all yet, my writing of next week’s sermon is necessarily delayed past the deadline I normally meet in writing here. Even so, here are some first thoughts on Jonah.
Indeed, around the edges in these last days I have been trying to find my way into the mind, the heart, the experience of Jonah. Perhaps it is because the story is too familiar. Or maybe my imagination is stunted now by other demands upon my spirit. Or maybe it is so that I find him rather annoying as we meet up with him today. I have simply found it hard to relate to the obstinate pettiness on display in Jonah here at the end of the book.
- For Jonah was one with a clear and direct sense of God’s call on his life — something many would envy right from the start.
- And Jonah had no doubt about the character and identity of the God who called him. Again, how often do we struggle to understand and articulate who and how God is?
- And once he got around to it, Jonah was by most any measure clearly ‘successful’ as he answered God’s call. Unlike a host of other prophets whose stories we know, Jonah preached and was immediately heard. Jonah preached and a congregation of 120,000 — not to mention their animals — immediately responded by repenting!
So I cannot help but wonder, what does Jonah have to be so unhappy about?
And oh, since I cannot yet seem to move beyond my lack of understanding of Jonah, I’ve decided to take another approach. I intend to spend the next days immersed in the following questions, all of which seek to enter into the entire story of Jonah as we know it. Perhaps you will join me there:
- Where and how have I felt God’s persistent call on m life?
- Have I ever run away from what I knew I was called to be or do? What made me run? Did it work? Was I able to elude it?
- When I finally gave up and did what I ‘could no longer avoid,’ how did it turn out?
- Jonah is very clear that God’s very nature is ‘mercy.’ What am I absolutely confident about in terms of God’s nature? What makes me so sure?
- Have I ever felt myself resenting God’s gifts given to others? Why was that? When was this so?
- How has God used me in spite of myself? When, like Jonah, have I seen remarkable results in spite of my own half-hearted efforts?
In the end, God shows mercy to not only 120,000 Ninevites, but also all their animals. God also shows mercy to Jonah — first with a sheltering bush in the heat of the day and then by withholding God’s well-deserved wrath for his petulant resentment at God’s generosity. Indeed, at the very end, God continues to treat Jonah as a partner in the mission they share, inviting him to respond to a powerful question:
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
And so I ask myself:
How have I experienced God’s undeserved mercy? When I am able to recognize it, does it make a difference for how I respond to God’s generosity to others?
And finally this:
- Who are my Ninevites? What would happen if I were to substitute them into God’s final question here? How would I then respond to God’s wondering about them?
May the questions I am asking myself in the days to come somehow also be a blessing to you.
May the story of Jonah be a mirror held up to our own lives and experiences, our own journeys of faith and hope and mercy.
As we reflect on Jonah’s journey, may our understandings of God’s mercy be more deeply recognized and celebrated and shared.
Indeed, may our answer to God’s final question here be ‘Yes’ — not only with our words but also in our lives — whoever our Ninevites may be.