Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
A prophet might expect a word from God with a new commission; but a command to go ‘at once’ to an enemy nation is unprecedented in scripture. Nineveh became symbolic for the barbaric behaviour of the Assyrians who wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8 th century BCE. It represents the most wicked place imaginable on earth.
How would you respond if God called you to go and confront a regime such as the Khmer Rouge, or the perpetrators of the holocausts at the height of their powers? To call out their wickedness in the name of God?
I suspect I might react somewhat like Jonah and flee in the opposite direction. Nineveh lay far to the east, while Tarshish was possibly in southern Spain, in the far west, each at the end of the known world in the story’s context. But Jonah doesn’t just renounce his commission, he tries to flee from God.
The open sea was associated with the waters of Chaos by ancient Israelites; a deadly, godless, environment that threatened to overwhelm God’s created lands. Sailors were de facto foreigners, at best worshippers of other gods and idols. When Jonah buys a passage on a ship he’s fleeing to a realm which he believes is beyond God’s reach and entrusting himself to powers and agents he would normally regard fearfully. He is fleeing ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’; but also abandoning his covenant relationship with God.
Fear can cause us to make irrational decisions and to forget Christ’s promise to be with us always. It can cause us to say ‘no’ to God’s call before stopping to consider how God intends to equip and sustain us for any task. Thankfully, as we will discover from Jonah’s story, God never abandons us.
Faithful God, forgive us when we run from you and your call to service because we’re fearful and feel inadequate for the task.
Forgive us when we seek security from the powers of this world instead of entrusting ourselves to your loving embrace.
Help us to recognise our foolishness and strengthen our faith in you.
Fill us with a desire to serve and a readiness to go wherever you send, that Christ’s kingdom might come. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge