by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go.’
Near the beginning of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, as they are about to go into hyperspace, one character says to another, ‘it’s rather unpleasantly like being drunk.’ ‘Oh,’ says the other, ‘what’s unpleasant about being drunk?’ ‘Just ask a glass of water,’ is the reply.
The story of Jonah is a bit like that turnaround in perspective. In the bit of the story before the part we heard this morning, God has called Jonah to go east to Nineveh, so he has gone west to the sea – and it was rather unpleasantly like being drunk. Fishing would never be the same again. ‘I will make you fish for people,’ says Jesus to the fishermen, but Jonah is thrown into a whole new world, engulfed by a mission he didn’t want, swallowed by the will of God, ‘fished’ in a way that ought to have taken his breath away – never to be returned.
But his breath was returned – and so was he. In what is probably the yuckiest bit of what is a fairly yucky story, he is vomited up on the shore. It seems he was completely indigestible; the poor fish regretted his indiscriminate swallowing (as most of us probably have at some time or another) and the body knows only one way to solve the problem – and that is to put everything into reverse.
So out comes Jonah, as sorry as the fish was, and in a sorrier state. But there is no divine waste of sympathy, no solicitous pampering, no checking that he’s feeling alright (he probably isn’t). No, there is none of that. Instead, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go.’ Now, you might think that by this time Jonah’s get up and go would have got up and went (by the way, the Microsoft grammar checker thought that sentence was just fine); but God was having no slacking, no pitying – certainly no self-pitying. Get up and go to Nineveh.
So what was the problem with Nineveh? Why did God want Jonah to go there? And why did Jonah not want to go? Why did Jonah run away to sea (trying to get to Tarshish – right at the far end of the Mediterranean, in other words as far as he could go), and have to be spewed back onto the path of righteousness? Where is the fault line between the way God looks at things – and the way Jonah did and, maybe, we do?
Nineveh was ‘them’, the very centre of ‘them’. Built up by Sennacherib to be truly immense, magnificent; it was rich beyond Jonah’s imagination (and probably beyond ours). And Jonah didn’t want anything to with it or its inhabitants. They were not, in Jonah’s mind, the people of God; he didn’t know them – and he didn’t want to know them. They meant nothing to him, and he wanted to keep it that way.
He was not alone. If you move forward in the bible from Jonah, past Micah, you come to Nahum. And Nahum is almost exclusively made up of the prophet’s attacks on Nineveh:
Nineveh is like a pool
whose waters run away.
but no one turns back.
‘Plunder the silver,
plunder the gold!
There is no end of treasure!
An abundance of every precious thing!’
Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
all faces grow pale!
And the book ends like this:
Your shepherds are asleep,
O king of Assyria;
your nobles slumber.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
There is no assuaging your hurt,
your wound is mortal.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
your endless cruelty?
Zephaniah too predicts a grisly end for Nineveh:
And he will stretch out his hand against the north,
and destroy Assyria;
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert.
Herds shall lie down in it,
every wild animal;
the desert-owl and the screech-owl
shall lodge on its capitals;
the owl shall hoot at the window,
the raven croak on the threshold;
for its cedar-work will be laid bare.
Is this the exultant city
that lived secure,
that said to itself,
‘I am, and there is no one else’?
What a desolation it has become,
a lair for wild animals!
Everyone who passes by it
hisses and shakes the fist.
It is reckoned that Nineveh may not have been exactly as Jonah describes it: three days walk across; but it would indeed have taken three days to walk around all its districts. However you look at it, though, Nineveh was another planet, another universe, for Jonah. All he knew was that the great and powerful Assyrian Empire had its capital there – and so, apart from anything else, it would not have been unreasonable for him to be just very scared.
But, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh.’ God clearly doesn’t see things the way Jonah sees them. And the trouble is that Jonah may not know Nineveh, but he does know God – and he knows that God see things differently. So we might, in Jonah’s position, have been reluctant to go to Nineveh because we thought there was no point – it’s a big place, it’s very powerful, very successful, so who’s going to listen to me (or indeed to God)? Actually, Jonah’s problem is that he thinks there is a point – that people will pay attention, people will listen, people will respond. And Jonah knows God well enough to know that Nineveh will be saved – and that’s the last thing he (or any other Hebrew prophet) wants.
But, not wanting to be fished again, Jonah – though he did need a second telling – goes to Nineveh. But, in a sense, he is fished again. The ideogram, or symbol, used at the time for Nineveh could also mean ‘house of the fish’, and is echoed in Aramaic with the word ‘nuna’, which means ‘fish’. So Jonah walks, as he would have it, into the belly of the beast – but it could equally well be interpreted as a walk – once again – into the belly of the fish. Jonah certainly finds it no less distasteful.
So why do those whom Jesus calls need no second bidding?
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Maybe it’s because the job description is a lot less specific. ‘Follow me,’ doesn’t tell you much, really. Even ‘I will make you fish for people’ is not a particularly illuminating phrase – though it does conjure up images of people being caught, or netted, or even captured.
But this passage about Jesus is attached to the same message of repentance:
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Maybe it’s blissful ignorance on the part of these fishermen; maybe they don’t have the same insight into the ways of God that Jonah had. Or maybe the call they hear is not about great and mighty powers, but just about ‘people’. After all, in the book of Jonah, when Jonah remonstrates with God for all this indiscriminate pardon and forgiveness, it is people (and, actually, their animals) who form the core of God’s reply:
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people,’ says Jesus. And have we noticed the real, the significant, the enormous, difference between that statement and the encounter between Jonah and God? It seems to me that the difference is that in Jesus of Nazareth God is now walking, talking, operating, at our level; the difference is in the incarnation. No longer is the divine command issued in a voice from heaven: ‘go’. Now there is a human person, talking to people, talking about people, saying, ‘come’.
The Book of Jonah begins:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’
It is a command that betrays not how God thinks, but how Jonah thinks. Jonah, like the other prophets whose words we have heard, does not think of the people; he thinks of ‘that great city’. It is easier to judge and condemn ‘that great city’ than it is to annihilate a hundred and twenty thousand people. By the end of the book Jonah has had to come to terms with how God thinks; has had to recognise in his heart, not just in his head, where God’s goodness lies – and it lies not in the condemnation of sin, but in the love of all those people who are caught in sin’s nets.
I reckon that, from the time that Jonah starts his journey into Nineveh to the end of the tale, when God converts Jonah to his way of thinking, is three days. There is one day’s walk into the heart of the city, followed by two nights when a bush grows and withers. In other words, Jonah is in Nineveh (the house of fish) for the same length of time that he is in the fish.
But of course this three days is significant for other reasons; in Matthew we find this:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet 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.
The three days in the fish converted Jonah from one who would ignore God and run away from his commands to one who would listen and obey, even if the obedience was reluctant. The three days in Nineveh converts Jonah, again reluctantly, from a demand for punishment to an acceptance of forgiveness. And that conversion is a conversion from seeing an abstraction to seeing the actual people.
Jesus came to his first disciples, a real person who converted them to the search for real people. Jesus too would disappear for three days, but by that time his disciples had followed him for long enough to have seen the meaning of his life in the people they met, and healed, and inspired. They knew by then that there were no signs, and no explanations, available that did not have their meaning in people, in an incarnate, down to earth, faith.
So when, finally, they were converted by those three days in the earth, it was to the good news that would reach to the ends of the earth, abolishing division, overcoming old enmities, converting each to love of the other, because each was now a person, not an abstraction.
We are still called not by the voice of condemnation but by the voice of a real person who walked this same earth searching in love for real people. We are still called to follow and to fish, to proclaim a new beginning and a new life. ‘Repent,’ says Jesus, ‘and believe in the good news.’ Believe in the good news, not the bad; believe in the new life, not the old. Don’t believe the worst of people, believe in the best – and go searching for it, go fishing for it; and, when you catch it, hang on to it. It’s a repentance of conversion to one another for all humanity – and Jesus spent three days in the belly of the earth, so that we, like Jonah, might be converted.