A reflection on Jonah 3:1-10 and Psalm 62:5-12 for the Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 24, 2021
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Jonah 3:1-10 (NRSVA)
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work.
Psalm 62:5-12 (NRSVA)
Jonah’s story is a challenging one.
Called to warn the hated Ninevites of God’s coming wrath, he chose to flee in the opposite direction.
We assume to easily this was a fear response. More likely, it is a response to a deep knowledge of the gracious heart of God.
You see, Jonah wants to see the Ninevites destroyed. As far as he is concerned the world – and Israel – would be better off without them.
The Ninevites were a terribly violent and powerful enemy.
So when God asked Jonah to warn them of the coming judgment he was – perhaps oddly and understandably – concerned that they would repent. In turn, he was also concerned that, should this happen, God would not go through with his promise to overthrow.
Jonah, however, wanted to see Nineveh burn.
And so we have God’s prophet running from his call. For Jonah the risk of God’s gracious action toward his enemies was too much.
As you know, Jonah ended up miraculously saved by a whale and vomited up on shore. It was enough to finally get him heading in the opposite direction – toward Nineveh.
So the reluctant prophet obeyed, walked through enemy territory, and proclaimed the coming judgment of God.
And all Jonah‘s fears came true.
This barbaric people repented. They listened, agreed with God and Jonah’s assessment of their wicked ways, and turned from them. Everyone – from the least to the greatest got involved in a fast.
They listened – and responded in the hope that God would not do as God promised.
Jonah is deeply disappointed. In a very human way he wanted to see the judgment of God rain down upon his enemies. He ran the other way because he knew that the grace of God was bigger than his own.
Whatever epiphany – or appearing – Jonah encountered had revealed to this prophet that God’s grace was far bigger and broader than his.
As Psalm 62 repeatedly reminds us, God is a ‘refuge’. The challenge is for us to allow God to be our refuge and the refuge of our enemies.
So we do well to humbly say with the Psamist: ‘…steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’
Have you ever felt the same way as Jonah about God’s broad offer of repentance? Who are the ones you think – or wish – were beyond the grace of God?
How does the bringing of Jonah back to his call through a sea monster tell us about the extent God will go to to enable us to fulfil – and learn from – our call?
How is God a ‘refuge’ for you? Can you offer this to others?