17 March 2011Jonah 3:1-10
"And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth." (v. 5)
The book of Jonah is a somewhat surprising and unconventional
piece of prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible (the Old
Testament). Rather than a collection of proclamations it is a
short, colourful story about a reluctant prophet, repentant
'foreigners' and a merciful God.
When God first approached Jonah to go and proclaim God's message to the great but wicked city of Nineveh, he ran away, eventually finding himself in the belly of a large fish! Jonah had suspected that God might be prepared to forgive these nasty 'outsiders' and he didn't want any part in it!
Today's reading relates God's second attempt to call Jonah and though he still appears slightly unwilling off he goes. Threatened with being overthrown, a fast is called in Nineveh (for people and animals alike!) and the king decrees that all should turn from their evil and violent ways.
Thankfully for Nineveh - though disappointingly for Jonah - God is gracious, merciful and abounding in steadfast love, and the city is spared. The message that God might act to redeem nations other than Israel was of course a radical one - and for some such as Jonah an unpalatable one. We also can all too readily limit God's grace and mercy to those who we feel meet certain criteria. God is bigger than that!
The story of Jonah includes helpful pointers for us as we continue our journey through Lent. The power of prayer, the value of fasting and the merit of good deeds are all highlighted. Lent offers us an opportunity to focus on one or more of these disciplines as we seek to be more like God - and perhaps a little less like Jonah!
What do you think causes some religious people to be mean-spirited like Jonah rather than generous and gracious like God?
Have you ever considered fasting - during Lent or as a regular part of your spiritual journey? Why not explore the place of fasting in Christian tradition and practice.
What are your experiences of running away from God - and of God's persistence?