Jonah or Jesus? Which of these is the prophet after the heart of God? We are spoiled for drama with this week’s texts. On the one hand, we have Mark’s play that hurtles us from scene to scene with dramatic suddenness, and on the other, the second act of the drama of Jonah – surely the highest point of biblical comedy. And in all the parallels of the prophetic announcement of Good News, the thing that stands out most clearly is the fact that Jesus is himself part of the Good News he announces, whereas Jonah decidedly is not!
Reluctant prophet of Yahweh (Jonah 3: 1-5, 10)
Act 2, Scene 1: The Beach. The curtain rises on a huge pile of the stomach contents of a whale (yes, let’s call the great fish a whale: it makes for a whale of a story, anyhow!). Suddenly, the voice of Yahweh is heard: “Jonah, let’s talk about you and Nineveh again, shall we?”
Act 1 began almost identically. Yahweh calls Jonah to go to the “great city” of Nineveh and prophesy against it. Jonah foolishly responds by trying to flee from Yahweh. There is a delicious, hilarious irony to the chapter. Imagine trying to hide from Yahweh! We see Jonah, crouched among the sailors on a ship, apparently hoping that Yahweh won’t spot him! Jonah ends up in the belly of the fish, which is his place of conversion. He refers to the belly of the fish as the belly of Sheol – the grave (2:2). He prays, and Yahweh causes the fish to vomit Jonah up on to dry land! Imagine it – the fish swims into the shallows of a bay, and from several yards offshore, gives a mighty heave of the stomach. And in the fountain of stomach contents that fly through the air and land on the shore, there we see the prophet of Yahweh. Well, we probably don’t, at first: he’s indistinguishable from the rest of the stomach contents! And Yahweh addresses the pile of dead fish, plankton, seaweed, shells etc: “Jonah, get up!”
Now the pile begins to shake and dissolve, and a bedraggled, stinking human being emerges. It is Jonah! This time, Jonah’s only response is to set off for Nineveh without a word.
He arrives at the “great city”. Everything in the story is in hyperbole, exaggerated for comic effect. The city is apparently three day’s walk across – some 108 miles! The irony, of course, is that this is precisely the length of time that Jonah has wasted in the whale’s stomach!
But look at his sermon – all of 8 words long! Hardly a great sermon – but note how astoundingly, ridiculously effective it is. The people believe, proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth. Everyone! And when the news reaches the palace, the king decrees that even the animals must don sackcloth and repent. Has there ever been such a wholehearted response to the word of the Lord? And so, in verse 10, Yahweh changes his mind about visiting calamity on the city.
The whole focus of the book, however, is not Nineveh, or the success of the prophet’s message. Rather, it is about the prophet himself. In the very next verse (4:1), Jonah is displeased! He goes into a grand sulk, and rails at God.
“I knew it! I knew this would happen! I knew you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing! That’s why I ran away in the first place! And see? I was right all along! No fire from heaven, and all that satisfying judgement! Instead, you’ve let them off!”
Jonah is furious because Yahweh is loving and merciful, so that what he fondly hoped would be Bad News to the people of Nineveh turned out to be Good News after all. God’s love and mercy mean that God always desires the best for us. This is a book about a prophet who bitterly resents the fact that the God whom he serves is a God of love and salvation. It is a comedy about the contrast between God and one of God’s people. The book ends with Yahweh chiding Jonah: “Jonah, isn’t it right that I be concerned about Nineveh? After all, there are more than 12,000 people there, and many animals!”
“Come, follow me!” (Mark 1: 14-20)
We’re in Act 1, scenes 4 &5. This is a very different sort of play. “Scenes” is actually a misleading term: “vignettes” is more accurate. We’ve been hurtled from the Prologue to Scene 1 (the appearance and preaching of John outside Jerusalem) to Scene 2 (the appearance and baptism of Jesus) to Scene 3 (Jesus wrestling with Satan and the wild animals in the wilderness). Here in Scene 4 (Galilee), the stage is cleared of John, that other great character. He’s been arrested. He’s offstage. Mark begins his focus on the great central character of his drama, Jesus. Here in v14 is the Man and his Message – his Gospel. This is a summary statement of Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the Good News!”
We have already been given strong hints that the Kingdom of God is something that is going to cause huge ructions. This is a message of confrontation between the powers of Imperial Rome and the religious authority of the Temple and its leaders. This isn’t a message that will be received with the enthusiasm that Nineveh showed! The message of the Kingdom will set Jesus and those who respond on a collision course with those who will oppose it. It is the beginning of a life and death struggle. This is not a message to be assimilated quietly and easily. To “repent and believe” requires a fundamental reorientation and the embracing of a whole new set of values and norms. It will change forever the way in which those who respond – the disciples – will view the world and live in it. It is a call to take up the Struggle against the Strong Man and all the powers that hold the world and its people captive – demons, sickness, hatred, discrimination, political and religious authorities.
That is the point of Scene 5 – the lakeshore near Capernaum. Jesus calls – and the fishermen get up and follow immediately! There is no demurring, or argument, or demand for further details or explanation. It’s as though they recognise in an instant both the authority of the one calling them and the truth and urgency of the message.
These first disciples show us what Jesus means by “repent”. In this context, it doesn’t mean to don sackcloth and ashes. It isn’t a call to a religious act. It takes us to the root meaning of the word – to change one’s whole way of thinking and being in the world. “Stop living how you are doing! Change your plans for your life’s work and your future! You thought you were going to be fishermen? You’re going to fish – for people! You thought you were going to live out your days in this village on the lakeshore? You’re never coming back here!”
“The time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15Ma/1 Corinthians 7: 29-31)
To announce “The time is fulfilled!” was political, social and religious dynamite in Jesus’ context. It meant that all that God had promised was coming to pass. The time of waiting and agonising was over. Jesus was telling the people that all they had been waiting, hoping and yearning for was about to happen. Time (as they had known it) was running out. This is the equivalent of Jonah’s “Forty days – and then it happens!”
1 Corinthians 7 is similarly Paul’s message that time is running out. Paul was expecting Jesus to return at any moment. After all, Jesus had promised that the fulfilment of everything was going to take place within the life of that very generation. We are right in the middle of one of the earliest New Testament shocks – the delay of the Parousia. In fact, this is written as expectation of Jesus’ return is reaching fever pitch, before disillusionment, puzzlement and despair, and before Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence.
Paul is not anti-marriage, or anti-sex, or anti mourning, celebration, or commerce. He’s saying, though, that these things require energy, time, priorities, reserves and long-term planning which is fine if you have time stretching ahead, but wholly inappropriate now, given that Jesus is coming back at any minute. These priorities belong to the world as we have always known it, and that world is in the very process of passing away (7:31).
Paul was wrong about timing. So was Jesus. Yet he was right about the urgency of the gospel call. The Kingdom of God is indeed at hand. We still stand at the moment of decision: are we going to live life as though the world is still held captive, nothing has changed and we can plan as we have always done, or are we going to recognise that God is at work right now, transforming the world into the Kingdom? Because if the latter is true, that requires urgent decision and change.
Living with God (Psalm 62: 5-12)
The comedy of Jonah runs the risk of disguising the fact that God is not easy to live with. God’s call radically alters life – and not necessarily for the better. That is certainly true in the sense that we are not called to The Quiet Life”! For Jonah, it involves shipwreck, spending time in a fish’s belly, and having his worst fears about his calling coming true. For the disciples and for Paul, it means leaving everything and being called to follow a person and a way that leads to isolation, suffering, grief, misunderstanding and ultimately, death.
One of the most difficult things about living with God is God! God is no more a “tame God” than Aslan is a tame lion (as Mr Tumnus the fawn reminds Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). God is sovereign. Not only is God not in hock to our expectations and demands that God act in certain ways, but God is also curiously and disturbingly as absent and inscrutable as God is present and knowable.
Look at the experience of Yahweh reflected by the psalmist in this week’s reading: in v5, his soul “waits for God in silence”. Waiting for God to speak, to act, to reassure, to comfort, to be palpably present – behind this wonderfully faithful statement lies agony and doubt and the fear of abandonment. The decision to “wait for God” is a deliberate choice made in the face of (more reasonable?) anger and rejection. Yahweh is silent – and the psalmist is likewise reduced to dumb waiting: to holding on and to gritting his teeth until Yahweh deigns to speak and act – to “remember” the psalmist.
The ringing assertions of Yahweh’s character (“my rock, my salvation, my fortress, my refuge”) are almost a “hope against hope” – a determination that Yahweh is all these things, even though experience seems to shout out that the contrary is true. This is true of the experience of God. God does not conform to our expectations of how God should be and act, or how God should treat those whom God calls. God is sovereign – beyond comprehension and criticism.
And yet, look at what the psalmist says without any sense of irony in v8: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him!” This is something we can learn about Old Testament spirituality: for all Yahweh’s sovereignty and apparent remoteness, it is absolutely appropriate to pour out one’s heart to this God.
This is about honesty. It’s the honesty of a Jonah who can rail at Yahweh about his disappointment and frustration. It’s the Gethsemane honesty of Jesus, who will beg God as an intimately-known Father to let him off the hook. And most astoundingly of all, it’s the honesty of someone who believes that their feelings and experiences make a difference to how God will choose to act!
Power belongs to God (v11), but so does steadfast love (v12). “Steadfast love” is not abstract theology: it is the testimony of someone who has lived the mystery of God firsthand, and can say, “It isn’t easy. It isn’t always pleasant. But God can be trusted – because God loves, cares and listens. Trust in him at all times, O people!”
So – Jonah or Jesus?
Jonah was the living contradiction of the character of the God who called him. The messenger was definitely not part of the Good News! Part of the good news for the Ninevites was that God is not like God’s people! The people of Nineveh were being saved from precisely the sort of attitudes exemplified by the prophet. Mark presents us with a stark contrast. The Kingdom is near because Jesus is present. Jesus is the living presence of the Good News. To be committed to the Kingdom is therefore also to be committed to Jesus. Jesus is the Good News, in this sense. And therefore, like those first disciples, we are called to come and follow – to repent and believe in the Good News.