Jonah and God’s call (May 30, 2021)

Uniform Lesson for May 30, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Jonah 3

It seems ridiculous to list Jonah under the heading of “Courageous Prophets of Change.” Jonah is almost the antitype of the “courageous prophet.” He does everything in his power to avoid both his mission and his message. While it’s expected that a prophet may protest his calling and beg off for reasons of speech (Moses) or age (Jeremiah), it’s another thing to run from one’s call and make hash of one’s message. And yet, Jonah not only does both, but asks for God to put him out of his misery when his stint as God’s prophet succeeds! Maybe it’s wise for us to end our series on faithful prophets with a humorous (yet serious) parable on the persistent and pervasive faithfulness of God.

Jonah 3:1-3 — Running from God’s call

While we pick up Jonah’s story in chapter 3, the first half of this story might be called “The great escape (not!).” Note that our passage begins with these words: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” Why a second time? Because Jonah had done everything and anything in his power to avoid God’s call the first time!

Indeed, Jonah had not only not gone where the Lord tried to send him (west, to Ninevah), but had fled in the opposite direction (east, to Tarshish; Jonah 1:3).

Jonah therefore stands as the archetype of the person who attempts to escape God’s call by traveling in the wrong direction. Thus, while this story wrestles with the theological conundrum of God’s repenting (3:9-10), it also sketches out the mystery of what we might call involuntary repentance, where Jonah has his life’s trajectory and direction changed for him — with the intervention of a storm, a fish and an extended lament. In my location at a seminary, the story of Jonah is a favorite parable for the real-life experience of many who attempt to flee God’s call and claim on their lives and ministry. “Good luck!” many say to prospective students still wrestling with which direction to go in their lives. “One thing’s for sure. You can never outrun God’s call!”

Jonah 3:4-10 — Running from God’s grace

If you read Jonah’s story a little more deeply, it becomes clear that Jonah is not running only from the vocation of prophecy. Jonah is determined not to participate in the particular prophetic role God has assigned him: to preach judgment against his peoples’ enemies. The central joke of this story is that Jonah wants to avoid this call not because this mission might fail (with his rejection, humiliation and perhaps execution), but that it might succeed and the Ninevites be forgiven. Thus, Jonah continues to resist. He waits one day into his journey before he speaks (missing a third of his intended audience). He gives one of the worst (though shortest!) sermons ever delivered: “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (with no why or whence, only when). And yet Jonah’s message is spectacularly successful, leading to the repentance of the king, all the city’s human inhabitants and even the animals.

This story is funny, but in a deadly serious kind of way. As the final chapter makes clear, Jonah can be thankful and then resentful regarding a measly vine that temporarily provides him shade. But God is thankful and grateful whenever any creature turns God’s direction, no matter their crime (intentional or unintentional). If God is concerned for even a sparrow who falls from the sky (Matthew 10:29), then God must be concerned for a city of 120,000 persons who are clueless, “and also many animals” (4:11).

God raises up prophets

Therefore this story must be read both for fun and for “prophets”! God has a word of judgment and mercy that must go out to the ends of the earth. Ever since Moses, God has been raising up prophets (of all genders and genotypes) to participate in this saving work (Deuteronomy 18). Jonah is quite literally raised up from the depths of the sea. Jesus will later be raised up from the dark of a tomb. Willing or unwilling, with our assistance or despite our resistance, crossing boundaries and barriers we hate or revere, inviting responses from all kinds of creatures, God’s message of judgment and mercy will not return void, but “shall prosper in the thing whereto [God] sent it” (Isaiah 59:11). The joke’s not just on Jonah. The joke is on us. Thanks be
to God.

For discussion: Have you ever tried to flee from God? How did that turn out?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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