And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
God’s response challenges Jonah to reflect on his behaviour. This isn’t what Jonah expected and he turns tail and goes right through the city further east, sets up camp as though anticipating that God would nonetheless act in some dramatic way against Nineveh. He’s behaving somewhat like a sulky, defiant, child who refuses to admit they may have got things wrong.
However, God goes after Jonah and recognises how inadequate Jonah’s attempts to shelter himself actually are. God initially provides additional comfort for Jonah against the heat of the day, which delights him. God then removes the protective canopy the following day that prompts a totally opposite response from Jonah; he repeats his request to die. Jonah’s reactions are out of all proportion to the situation and his volte face is extreme.
This bit of the story reminds us that the natural world is under God’s control. Plants flourish, tiny creatures play their part in the cycle of life and death, the weather changes, all through God’s creative power. As humans we experience these wonders; and perhaps simply take them for granted all too often without acknowledging that they reveal God’s glory. We do well to reflect how little we understand the intricate complexity of the world around us; and how little control over it we really have.
The story also tells us that God’s love towards Jonah, who represents God’s chosen people, never falters. However much Jonah fails, wherever he goes in an attempt to escape God’s presence, he discovers that God is still with him, watching over him, providing for his needs. But God also challenges Jonah to look at things differently and discover more of God.
Am I guilty of imagining I can look after myself or of ignoring God’s challenge? God save me from my folly!
Loving God, thank you for your presence with us, through the risen Christ, and for the constancy of your love.
Help us to discern your loving purposes at work in our lives when things go well and when they don’t.
Teach us to look beyond the blessings we receive that we might praise you for all the experiences that help us grow into the likeness of Christ, who gave his life, so we might live. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge