Most of us, like Jonah, would prefer to be sent to Tarshish than to Nineveh. The story of the call of Jonah is in many ways the grumpy person's guide to the experience of call - one I identify more with than the good disciples who said Yes straight away. (RCL Jonah 3:1-10 & Mark 1:14-20)
This is the second week in a row that the RCL has given us stories about the call of the disciples. But the story of call in the gospel of Mark is somehow a little too squeaky clean and full of certainty to be about me. All that clarity leaves me out, on this occasion. (Thank goodness I know that Peter is recorded else where as having a fairly human journey of getting it right and terribly wrong.)
But Jonah! Here is a man after my own heart! For I don’t know about you but I did not immediately hear my name, let alone get up and follow. And I certainly did not understand my call as being that of being a fisher of folk for a very long time. The story of Jonah is in many ways the grumpy person’s guide to the experience of call.
Let’s refresh our memory of the story of Jonah. Jonah is one of the shorter books within the prophets although in the text he is never referred to as a prophet although that is his job – to go and announce the need for repentance and then announce the mercy of God. It was probably written in the fourth or fifth century before the common era. It is unusually funny – no other book of the prophets relies so much on humour to teach the great lessons of repentance and deliverance. And so strongly and beautifully does this story speak of God’s mercy that it is the book read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of Atonement.
The story begins with Jonah receiving the word of the Lord to go to Nineveh. But Jonah seeks to flee to Tarshish by buying passage on a ship. The Lord in response causes a great storm which leads the ship’s crew to fear destruction. Jonah sleeps through this until the crew waken him and beg him to pray to his God. Jonah realizes that the storm is in response to his disobedience so tells the sailors to through him overboard which they do. He is swallowed by the great fish where he spends three days and three nights. Eventually Jonah prays to the Lord and he is spat out onto dry land.
Then the Lord asks him again to go to Nineveh. Jonah does what he is asked to and calls upon them to repent. To Jonah’s great surprise the people of Nineveh repent and God decides not to bring calamity upon them. But this does not please Jonah who then engages in a wonderful dummy spit. It is a deeply irrationally response – which is always a clue that something very deep, ancient and important is being touched! “This is exactly why I didn’t want to come out here. I knew you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Now let me die!”
The last delightful part of the story is God’s response which is to cause a bush to bring wonderful shade over Jonah as he sits outside the city sulking. Jonah is happy about the bush which then is infested with a worm that causes it to die. Jonah has had enough of it all and wishes to die. And the response that Jonah received is filled with patience, humour, warmth, compassion. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” I do commend to you to read it again for yourself, it is so rich, dark, humorous, compassionate. It is an incredibly contemporary story in many ways.
Most of us can probably identify with being in the dark place of the belly of a large fish and of being spewed out somewhere strange and not of our choosing. If we are really honest which one of us cannot identify with being called to preach or tend to or even just to care about those we believe are beyond help or are not interested in redemption. And that we only do so with reluctance and little if any expectation that it will do any good. And harder still to admit that when the people respond and treated mercifully we are angry, resentful, inconvenienced: that the people given to us to care for are somehow the wrong ones, not the ones that we are interested in. Whenever I become irrationally angry, particularly at others, I have learnt to ask myself “What is being touched? What are you really angry about? What are you afraid of?” We cannot really know what Jonah is angry about, but we can speculate based on our own experience.
I think that the Jonah story takes us to that deep dark place where we are unsure not only of the call but of the value of the call, of the truth of our life’s direction, of the value of our life – to all the big and small and frightening existential questions that from time to time whisper: “Why not Tarshish? Why was I not sent to Tarshish? Why was I not thought well enough of to be sent where I wanted, where I might have flourished and been in wonderful company and life might have been all I dreamed and desired?”
Of course Tarshish is not just a place – it can be a relationship, an achievement we wanted, a lifestyle, a state of health. Tarshish is everything that we wanted but didn’t get given in life. I suspect we all whisper at some time or another “Why not Tarshish?” Or conversely, “Why Nineveh – why this place, this experience, this life?” The story of Jonah takes us to that place where we must sit quietly with our soul in silence and wait for the voice of God. In which we might hear “Jonah ...( hear your own name here) ... am I not concerned with you, my precious one who struggles to know your right hand from your left .. are you not as precious to me as a city of lost souls? To you I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and for you I abound in steadfast love and am always ready to relent from punishing.” Whilst we might think God is more easily found and enjoyed in Tarshish the story of Jonah reminds us that God is very much present in Nineveh, the city of lost souls, the place of everyday struggle and confusion.
Many of us think that the place we have been called to, if we are in ministry, is like Tarshish – for while. And then we start to see things and be treated in ways that let us know that our parish is also like Nineveh. Our own family and life is like this. Yes we are beautiful desirable Tarshish. And we are Nineveh, city of lost souls in need of mercy.
The beauty of our readings is that we are reminded not only of our call but that the call is made to us, each of us, in the full and compassionate knowledge of who we are, of just how confused, reluctant, broken we are. And we are being reminded that the call into life abundant and forgiven is to everyone, even those we feel less than generously toward. For we are called still and always into full and life giving relationship with God so that we and others might know ourselves loved, forgiven and healed.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come.