So… “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.’” Jonah had been chosen by God for an important mission and, this time, he was going to do it. The first two chapters of the Book of Jonah only appear in the Daily Office Lectionary so, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to recapitulate Jonah’s story up to this point. It’s a story that you know.
Jonah, Son of Amittai, received a call from God to go to the city of Nineveh… to warn the people of their imminent destruction, and call them to repentance. Like other prophets, however, Jonah was hesitant to take on the task that God had set before him. Actually, hesitant is a bit of an understatement. Not only did Jonah not go to Nineveh, he boarded a ship headed to Tarshish… in the opposite direction and on the other side of the known world from Nineveh! He wanted no part of God’s call.
God, of course, had other plans. Jonah’s ship was beset mid-voyage by a violent storm… a storm which, as it turned out, was sent by God to help Jonah change his mind. The ship’s crew prayed to their gods and struggled mightily to save their vessel, to no avail. It was only when Jonah confessed to his shipmates that he was running from his own God… and begged them to throw him overboard so that the rest might be spared, which they did… that the sea quietened. Jonah hoped to die, but God wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily. A large fish was sent to swallow Jonah… and Jonah had three days and three nights in the belly of this fish to ponder his predicament. There in the dark, Jonah prayed a psalm to the Lord his God:
“In my trouble I called to the LORD . . . and you heard my voice. You cast me into the depths . . . into the heart of the sea. The floods engulfed me . . . all your breakers and billows swept over me. I thought I was driven away … out of your sight. Would I ever gaze again upon your holy Temple? The waters closed in over me . . . the deep engulfed me.
Yet you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called the LORD to mind . . . my prayer came before you . . . into Your holy Temple. They who cling to empty folly forsake their own welfare . . . but I, with loud thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will perform. Deliverance is the LORD’s!” (Jon 2:1-10)
At last, Jonah had embraced God’s will. And now, having been released from belly of the fish, Jonah found himself sitting on the beach, being commissioned by God… for a second time.
While no one is precisely sure when Jonah lived, he is named in 2 Kings as a prophet during the rule of King Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (14:25). This would place him, timewise, in the mid-eighth century BCE. At this time, Nineveh was an “exceedingly large city” in Assyria, on the banks of the Tigris River… in modern-day Iraq, near the city of Mosul. It was also a very wicked city. While the Book of Jonah doesn’t detail the precise nature of Nineveh’s wickedness, we do know that it was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire when it overran the Northern Kingdom of Israel towards the end of the eighth century. No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh! But he went… and despite the brevity of his words, something in Jonah’s demeanor must have convinced the Ninevites that God was serious… because they immediately “proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, [from the King on down… even the animals!] put on sackcloth.” And then, an amazing thing happened: God changed his mind, and spared the City and all of its inhabitants. Or did he? Perhaps… maybe… it was the people changing their minds that brought about the change of outcome. What do you think?
In any case, what’s the lesson here? How about this: You can run, but you can’t hide? On the surface, we see that God had a plan and, despite Jonah’s recalcitrance, God would see that plan carried out. The word of the LORD came to Jonah… and he ran away. A storm ensued, and the sailors tried to save the ship and Jonah by their own devices… and the ship nearly foundered. The sailors finally heeded Jonah’s pleas to throw him overboard, delivering him to the fate which God had prepared… and the storm abated. The sailors got a second chance. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed a psalm of supplication and humility, opening himself to God’s movement and purpose in his life… and suddenly found himself redeemed from the sea… with a second chance to live into the vocation God had in store for him. The Ninevites, in their wickedness, failed to fear God and obey his statutes. But as the hosts of heaven sat poised to witness Nineveh’s destruction, the people of the City turned from evil, embraced repentance and received God’s mercy and forgiveness. The Ninevites got a second chance. Over and over again in Scripture we see this pattern repeated: God commands… creatures balk… bad things happen. It is only when people repent of their stubbornness and embrace God’s will that things begin to smooth out.
And it doesn’t only happen in the Bible. It happens to us whenever we stray from the path God has set before us. Haven’t most of us, from time to time, found ourselves engaged in plans and schemes that we knew (or at least suspected) might not be precisely what God had in store for us? Maybe it was a job or business endeavor… or maybe a relationship or family matter. It wasn’t that we were doing anything wrong… what we were doing just didn’t feel right, somehow… it was like we were swimming upstream. But it was something we wanted to do, by golly… or to be… or to have. For ourselves. And so, we did it! And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We are often tempted to live for ourselves instead of for God. And in so doing, we lose our way. I’m particularly fond of the words of the General Confession in the Rite 1 Daily Office. Beautiful words of supplication and humility: “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” We do that all the time, don’t we? At least I know I do. But here’s the thing: no matter off-track we get, no matter how deep-in over our heads we get, the Good Shepherd will reach out and get our attention… and save us. By hook or by crook. Does our repentance come as the result of crisis? Or is it “a still, small voice” correcting and redirecting us? It doesn’t matter. Different people and situations require different sorts of attention getters. The takeaway here is that, if we listen to God and mend our ways then, like Jonah… and the sailors… and the Ninevites, we get a second chance.
Of course, getting a second chance doesn’t mean that everything will turn out “OK” in the near term… far from it. We may not even know what OK looks like in the near term. And here’s a question for you to ponder: Why was Jonah so resistant to go and “cry out against” the wickedness of Nineveh in the first place? Was he lazy? Is that why he ran? Or was he afraid? And if he was afraid, then what was he afraid of? How about this? MAYBE… Jonah was afraid that the Ninevites, when confronted with God’s warning, would repent… and God would spare them. Might Jonah (the prophet) have been prescient enough to foresee the destruction that would be visited upon his own homeland by the regime ruling the very city God had commissioned him to save? And if he had, would that not have seemed ample reason to “flee from the presence of the LORD?” And, if so, would Tarshish have been a far-enough-away place to run? Can anyone ever outrun the love of God? Because here’s the thing: I wonder… if Jonah had opened the “eyes of his heart” a little wider, might he also have been able to envision a future second chance for the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which in the 8th century BCE had clearly lost their way… having become hopelessly mired in idol worship and sectarian strife? Might Jonah have been able to see the new thing that God had in store for his people: “mak[ing] a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” in preparation for the coming Messiah (Isa 43:19)? A second chance that could only be made possible by an “intervention” at the hands of the Assyrians and, later, the Babylonians? But I guess we shouldn’t be too hard on Jonah. After all, God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isa. 55:8).
And that’s why obedience is so important. We can never know the mind of God, but we are often able to feel the difference between being on the “right path…” and not. When we find ourselves in the fish’s belly—and we will, from time to time—following Jonah’s example, we must call out to the LORD . . . and know that the LORD will hear our cries. Even out of the depths . . . from the heart of the sea . . . when we are beset by flood and storm and wave. Even when we feel abandoned and out of God’s sight . . . the LORD our God will hear our prayers. Deliverance is the LORD’s! Our God is a God of a million second chances, whose arms are always outstretched and beckoning to us… but we must accept the embrace. The Apostles Andrew, Peter, James and John left their former lives and livelihoods behind to follow Jesus (Mark 1:14-20). As modern-day disciples of God’s Christ, we are called to do the same. Don’t run from it… answer the call! You’ll be amazed at what God can do with—and through you.