Jonah was unlike any other prophet and his story is told unlike any other story. One of the twelve prophets, Jonah is atypical in the book of prophets. More reluctant than Amos, more fearful than Jeremiah, less confident than Hosea or Isaiah, Jonah was a prophet all to himself.
While others tell history and contain much biographical material, and stand firmly on Israelite soil proclaiming God’s Word to God’s chosen people, God had to chase Jonah a bit first. Then God told Jonah to speak God’s Word in a foreign land to sworn enemies of God. It is a wild tale, with only a small portion being prophetic word and a large portion being a lesson in how God both pursues and persuades; never giving up and always using opportunities, moments and experiences in our lives to reveal God’s presence and purpose...to reveal that place where worth and purpose reside. Our worth - God’s purpose.
If you knew anything about Nineveh, you would run too. Nineveh was a long-time capital of the Assyrian empire - the largest empire ever to rule the Middle East in ancient times. At its largest, it stretched from Iran to Egypt and as far north as the Caucasus Mountains. It took three days just to walk across this massive powerhouse city.
Nineveh and its king were the most powerful political and military force in the known world of the time. As such it represented to Jews the cruelty of Assyrian warfare and iron rule. They were an evil, ruthless people. If you are Jonah - you might be thinking it's one thing to give my own people bad news of their behavior and God’s expectations, but it's another to speak such truth to the enemy. Not the first place I would want to go.
Jonah gets a bad rap but if we are honest, I am certain, not many of us would have done any different than he did. That is why I think there is a Jonah in all of us, and we too run in the opposite direction sometimes.
Why do we say no to God? Perhaps we are afraid of what God is asking us to do or be? Maybe we fear failure, judgement, or criticism? We tell ourselves we don’t have time, we aren’t trained enough, we don’t know enough. We tell others we are busy, it someone else’s job, or its just not our thing. We may not run away to timbuktu Tarshish like Jonah and we may not physically run, but we run in other ways - emotionally, spiritually and even mentally turning our mental focus and energy elsewhere.
We say no for all kinds of reasons but mostly I think we say no because we are afraid to say yes. We are afraid to do what we know is good, true and beautiful in the eyes of God. We have been conditioned by culture, social norms, governments, institutions or even long standing good intentioned traditions - if they say no, we say no. We are afraid of how we might be perceived, treated, left out or labeled. We are afraid we might have it all wrong. We are afraid of being vulnerable with others and with ourselves. We are afraid of pressure and expectations. And so we say no.
No is easier. Yes is hard. No is safe. Yes is risky. No puts us in control. Yes puts God in control. No is small and manageable. Yes is big and colors outside the lines.
I invite you to think about what you are saying no to and by saying no what are you actually saying yes to. When we say no to God are we not saying yes to our selfishness, our limited understanding, and our narrow sighted perceptions? When we say no to the ways we are to treat others, those the bible calls our “neighbors;” the least, the last, the lost; the widows, orphans and children. When we say no to them, are we not saying yes to fear? Our fear of the other? Of what is different or unknown? When we say no to peace, forgiveness, and unity, are we not saying yes to division, hate, and shame? When we say no to surrendering all that we are to God, are we not saying yes to that which takes us farther and farther away from God?
I don’t know what God is asking you to do with what you have, who you are, or where you are in your life. I don’t know where God is asking you to go with your relationships, your vocation, your decisions, retirement, future, investments of time, money, and skills. I don’t know where God is asking you to go with your heart, mind and soul. I don’t know how God is calling for your attention, or asking for you to say yes, but I do know God did not give up on the prophet Jonah, nor does God give up on the Jonah residing in each one of us.
Wherever you are beloved, working on your yes or searching through your no, God will chase you - pursue and persuade you. Not as a threat or punishment, but because you have something valuable to offer. God has something to say through you and your life. God has a promise that is bigger than you but that needs you in order for it to be told.
It is time the Jonah in us stops running.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine