Given as an address before Compline at Croydon Minster: Week One of Lent
The Church, in her great wisdom, commends that we undertake a Holy Lent through ‘self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’ (Common Worship: Times and Seasons, The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday).
I hope that two elements of that intention will be met through the singing of Compline, with its penitential element of self-examination and repentance and psalmody, and through the address that will precede it each Thursday through Lent: we will be reading and meditating upon God’s holy word. As for prayer, fasting and self-denial: over to you!
1Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ 3But 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.
Paul Murray, whose book on Jonah I thoroughly recommend, notes that Hermann Melville’s novel Moby Dick is a brilliant response to the Book of Jonah, in particular the famous sermon delivered by Father Mapple, the sailors’ chaplain: “‘Shipmates’ the priest explains, ‘this book [the Book of Jonah] … is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet’”.
Tonight I want to consider ‘Call and commission’ through the lens of the book of Jonah. Before getting underway, I should note that this is a Hebrew text, it is in the Old Testament, but I will flit between it and its Christian understanding and usage. After all, Christ himself speaks of the ‘sign of Jonah’.
Jonah is an archetypal human being who is respectful of God, but struggles with the implications of what life following God might mean.
Jonah’s name means ‘dove’, which naturally has all sorts of biblical connotations: the Holy Spirit; the offering made when Christ is presented in the Temple; the bird that found the sign of life, an olive branch, when sent out from the ark Noah had built.
Jonah is someone, like each of us, into whom the spirit of God has been breathed.
Jonah is son of Amittai. The name Amittai means ‘truth’. Jonah is a son of truth.
All this connects with Jesus’ words that the Spirit of Truth will guide us into all the truth (John 16.13).
Jonah is a deeply human character, and the book of Jonah is a short and whimsical read of his ups and downs. It invites us to read it not in a pedantic literalism, but, in fact, to allow it to read us.
It’s more like a mirror that reflects back than a pane of glass that we look through. After all, we might recognise elements of ourselves in Jonah. Jonah is called by, but runs away from, God. In that flight Jonah is caught up in the storms of life. Jonah knows what life is like at rock bottom; but Jonah knows redemption, scooped up by the great fish, in whose belly he was for three days. Even after that miracle, he experiences bewilderment and anger when his own expectations and machinations of missionary zeal go awry. In the end he finds shelter from God, a bush, which then withers away and Jonah is again angry, resentful and grumpy with God. There is no neat resolution to Jonah’s story, and neither is there to ours. His life was a mess, and from time to time, or perhaps a lot, so can ours be.
That’s the case for looking at Jonah in Lent from the point of view of our inner journey. And there’s one more reason too - the ‘Sign of Jonah’: ‘For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.’ (Matthew 12.40)
This takes us to the heart of our Lenten destination which is Easter. The allusions to baptism are clear: Jonah was called by God and fled; Jonah cried out to God, and acknowledged his need of God, when plunged in the waters; and after three days the great fish spat him out – spewed him out as the AV has it – onto the beach.
It was from the beach that Jonah had to recalibrate, work out what his life was about as he breathed the fresh air of the world into which he had been delivered, as if born again.
Day by day, Christians try to work out what it means to live the life of the new air of being born again in Christ.
Last night at the Ash Wednesday Liturgy I suggested that the sign of Jonah points us to a challenge. The challenge is this: not to go through Lent, and then end it, in dust and ashes, like Jonah, grumpy and resentful; but prepared, expectant and alert to the purposes of God in our lives and in our world.
But let’s now go back to those opening verses of the book -you might want to have them in front of you - they’re beautifully concise and punchy.
v.1 ‘Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah’. St John tells us that ‘in the beginning was the Word’ (John 1.1), and it was God’s almighty Word that spoke over the chaos and darkness of the raging waters at the creation which brought light and life (Genesis 1.3). Of course later Jonah would plunge into the swirling waters, but more of that next week, but here the divine initiative of God’s word and call has come to Jonah.
v.2 ‘Get up at once’, or as other translations say ‘Arise, go…’ This is what we might know as an apostolic command, someone sent. The commission at the end of the Eucharist is ‘arise, go…’, or you could say when you go in peace to love and serve the Lord, have some ‘get up and go’ in you!
v.2 The ‘City of Nineveh’ had a reputation as a place of violence, that is their wickedness. (Here in Croydon we know what it means for a city to have a 'reputation': deserved or undeserved). Jonah’s cry against it is a cry for the nameless victims of that violence. Jonah himself as we will see, next week on the boat is an innocent who succumbs to violence (Jonah 1.14) as the perpetrators ask not to have the violence held against them. There is something Christ-like here, the innocent victim of the violence of others.
v.3 Jonah did what he was told, he arose, he got up, but promptly headed off in the opposite direction. He ‘set out to flee from the presence of the Lord’. That sounds like a pretty futile endeavour if God is omniscient and omnipresent. We know, as the psalm puts it,
‘Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?’
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…’ (Psalm 139.6-8)
Jonah looked to flee through the ‘uttermost parts of the sea’. It sounds ludicrous, yet we can distance ourselves from God too, and we do, through hardness of heart, indeed through all things we confess to in the Eucharist: ‘through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’. (Common Worship)
No doubt Jonah had reason for heading off in the opposite direction: fear, self-preservation. For an Israelite sent to tell Nineveh its fortune would be a forlorn task, likely to fail, and more likely to result in a gruesome death for Jonah.
No doubt we justify our times of fleeing from God through ‘negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’; and yet… we associate ourselves with Jesus Christ, the One who turns to face into and face down the violence, injustice and pain of the world through walking the way of the cross.
Our call and commission is, like Jonah’s, to proclaim God’s peace in a violent world, God’s healing in a wounded world and the sovereignty of God in a disbelieving world. Jonah had the opportunity to proclaim the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, to a world in need of God, and he chose to flee. It is only in Christ that humanity becomes equipped, through the apostolic faith, to hear the call, to heed the commission and to go and live ‘good news to the ends of the earth’.
With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
O hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas. (Psalm 65.4)
Tonight may you ponder God call and claim on your life – terrifying, unsettling, daunting, as that might be – and ask yourself three questions:
1. What is it that God calls me to in my life and in his service?
2. Do I run from this call or into this call?
3. How can I take hold of the call God places upon me: who might I need to speak to?
So now let us keep silence before Compline begins.
© Andrew Bishop, 2019
 Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment. Dublin: Columba Press, 2002. p. 13.