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.
So, with Jonah, we’re back where the story began – almost. The narrator tells us that God makes a second attempt at commissioning Jonah but there are subtle differences in God’s words. In both 1:2 and 3:2 the Hebrew reads, ‘Get up, go…’, so the urgency of the mission conveyed in 1:2 was introduced by the translator, who omits it here. That decision emphasises the contrary nature of Jonah who, of course, complies immediately this time! Here, though, the text indicates that God is giving Jonah an actual message to convey to Nineveh; but we are not told what it is.
Off goes Jonah obediently; or does he? Nineveh’s size is greatly exaggerated but Jonah only begins to enter it. When he’s less than half way to its centre, he proclaims the impending destruction of the city. But where is he speaking out? Who is his audience? Why doesn’t he announce himself as a prophet of God? Are his words the message he received from God? – or his personal opinion of what should happen to this wicked city? Jonah says nothing about God, nor gives any indication why, or how, this destruction will come.
Irrationally the Ninevites believe God, who hasn’t been mentioned; and the population at large proclaim a fast – a traditional response to a national emergency – and embark on a public show of mourning.
It’s easy to miss all the unexpected or unexplained aspects of this short narrative; but then we miss its powerful message for us. First, God’s call on our lives will be repeated until we respond appropriately, so we may as well stop prevaricating and say ‘yes’. Secondly, God has ways of communicating with humanity that don’t depend on us being faithful messengers; but chooses us to be witnesses to the gospel in Christ’s name.
Gracious God, thank you for continuing to love me and to trust me as your spokesperson in the world, especially when I’ve failed to fulfil your expectations.
Forgive me when I’m half-hearted in my service, or if I distort your message of love for the world, preferring to condemn what offends me.
Work your miracle of grace in me and wherever hearts are hardened, that your kingdom may come. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge