Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – January 25, 2015 The Sign of Jonah
The Sign of Jonah
The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest books in the Bible yet one of the most fascinating and spiritually rewarding.
It takes about 20 minutes to read. It’s always surprising, funny, puzzling and spiritually rewarding.
Our 1st reading this week is from the Book of Jonah. It’s good to go back and look closer at the story of Jonah.
We hear the word of the Lord came to Jonah commanding him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh.
Biblical heroes are always summoned. They are always in the passive voice. Paul refers to himself as “the one who is called”.Biblical heroes don’t make up their own minds. They don’t act according to their own designs.
They are always called by a higher will.
Paul says in Ephesians; ”There is a power already at work in you that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine”. That’s the biblical mind.
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans”. Said John Lennon, you are busy making plans but life is happening to you behind your own back.
Biblical heroes are never just called in some generic way. They are summoned to do some particular work.
One of the prayers of John Henry Newman starts with. ”Lord you have made me for some definite service.”
I may not know it in this life but I will in the next.
There is a particular way and the whole drama, fun and excitement of life is discovering that and living it out.
We could say generically that the divine call is to be a bearer of grace to the world, but God made you and me for some definite purpose.
In Jonah’s case it was to announce repentance to Nineveh. Jonah is calling this great city to turn back to the Lord.
At this point we reach one of the hinges of the narrative. We hear that Jonah refused his call. Jonah knew that the Assyrians were their worst enemy and that one day they would destroy his people. It’s not easy to preach to the people who humiliate you and are your enemies. Fleeing as far as he could from Nineveh. He sails west, away from his call. From a biblical perspective, this is the central tragedy of human life. The tragedy is not failing to achieve worldly fame or power, all the things we use to measure people’s lives.
The bible doesn’t care about that. What it cares about is, did you follow God’s call or not?
That’s why Lean Blois could say; “There is only one real sadness in life; not to be a saint.”
It’s that line that changed Jacques Maritain’s whole life. It could change yours if you leave it sink in.
What happens as a result of Jonah’s disobedience is that his ship is met with disaster. There is a great storm at sea that threatens him and everyone else on the ship.
The spiritual message is simple but powerful, the refusal of the divine mission means trouble. Both for the one who refuses and for those around him.
Often our struggles and unhappiness are a refusal to do what God wants us to do.
Jonah’s shipmates realize he is the reason for their peril and they throw him over board. And then famously he is swallowed by a great fish.
Jonah thought he cold escape from the presence of God. But God is everywhere.
St Thomas says that God is in all things by essence, presence and power. His more precise way of saying God is everywhere. God is in all things.
The Psalmist said, “Lord where can I run from your love? If I climb to the heavens you are there. If I go to the sea’s furthest end, even there your right hand holds me up”.
That’s what Jonah is trying to do, he tries to go to the sea’s furthest end. He hit for Tarsish… the furthest point known. The end of the world for the biblical people.
There is no point though, he can’t escape from God.
So don’t resist your call, it just causes trouble and its finally fruitless.
The 2nd lesson from the fish, is that the fish’s interior provided very little room for manoeuver. That’s the point, Jonah’s will, that was running the wrong way, is swallowed up and brought into a greater will.
That can feel like an imprisonment, and that’s the whole point of the symbolism of the fish here swallowing him up. It can feel like imprisonment but in fact what is happening, your errant will is being drawn into the power of a greater will.
Where does the fish take him? Exactly where God wants him to be. The fish vomits him out on the shore, in the vicinity of Nineveh; he takes him exactly where he wants him to go. Sometimes the worst experiences in life are bringing you exactly where God wants you to be.
Read the famous prayer from the belly of the fish, this prayer from the depths. From the depths of his depression and anxiety. Sometimes the worst experiences in life are taking you where God wants you to be.
It’s at this point in the story that our reading for today picks up.
Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, which is described as an enormously large city, taking 3 days to walk through it.
In other words, Jonah has a very daunting task in front of him. To go through this huge place with a very unwelcome message. Which is “repent”.
Imagine if you are given the call, walk through Paris, the whole city, and call them to repentance. Good luck with that! It’s overwhelming.
Thomas Merton says that when you are facing a choice and you are wondering which option is God’s will, rest assured the harder of the two is what God wants you to do.
It’s not because God is being difficult, its because God is always calling us out of ourselves and that means self-sacrifice.
God is always calling us to a path of greater love. That beautiful Ignatian principle, always more, always greater, Ad majorem Dei gloriam, to the greater glory of God.
God wants us to be great saints, which has nothing to do with worldly greatness, who cares.
As Mother Teresa said following the Little Flower, we are called to do the simplest things, but with great love. That’s what your sanctity consists in.
After only one day of preaching, the entire city of Nineveh repented, putting on sackcloth and proclaiming a fast.
Do you have any idea how much power is unleashed when we follow the will of God?
The slightest cooperation with God’s grace can provoke a massive spiritual change. If you cooperate with God’s will, you will be amazed how much energy and power are unleashed.
The story of Jonah takes a final and unexpected twist.
Jonah, who was waiting expectantly for the judgment of God to fall on Nineveh, is deeply disappointed when God decides to have mercy on Nineveh.
Because of their repentance God says ok I am not going to go back and destroy this city.
As a result of this, Jonah, who has finally gotten it together, who finally did what was asked of him, sulks on a hillside outside the city, disappointed that God is not going to destroy Nineveh.
One of the pitfalls of discipleship is self righteousness. A feeling of moral superiority. Our purpose is always to channel God’s grace into this world. Therefore the one thing we should never feel is let down when that grace appears. If by your words people are brought to repentance, rejoice in it.
Your purpose is always to bring life, joy, grace to the world.
So what is God calling you to do right now?
Jonah hummed and hawed and baulked but finally he responded. Unleashing thereby an enormous reserve of God’s grace and power into the world.
What is the Nineveh that God is calling you to?
What is the task that God has given to you?
What is the definite service you have been created to perform?
That is the only question worth answering and once you find out…then do it!
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