The Sign of Jonah

Wednesday 17th February 2016

Jesus said,
‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ (Luke 11:29)

Jonah was a prophet. A reluctant prophet. God said to Jonah, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and cry out against it!’ So Jonah set out in the opposite direction. He gets on a ship that is going to Tarshish. God sends a mighty storm and the ship is likely to be destroyed. The mariners each cry to their god while Jonah sleeps in the hold of the ship. Why aren’t you praying?, they want to know. They cast lots to find out whose fault it is that the boat is in danger and the lot indicates that it is Jonah. Which god do you worship? I worship the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. So, what have you done, Jonah?!

Jonah admits that he is fleeing from God and eventually the men throw him into the sea and the storm ceases.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2:10)

The ‘sign of Jonah’ is a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not a reluctant prophet, far from it, but he is ‘swallowed up’ by death in the ‘belly’ of the grave, before being ‘spewed out’ into resurrection life.

In “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent“, Richard Rohr (American Roman Catholic priest) takes the story of Jonah and uses it as a picture of our spiritual journey. We may find ourselves in the belly of darkness, thrown there by circumstance. Jonah ends up in the place where God wanted him to be, even though he had rushed headlong in the opposite direction. Rohr says our spiritual journey is “more like giving up control than taking control”. In life, we may boldly set out in one direction, perhaps knowing that it is the wrong one, perhaps not, but end up somewhere we never expected to be. Who knows whether we might not end up where God wants us to be, despite ourselves?

Faith is a leap into the unknown. Religion likes certainties and absolutes. (Religion is a ‘first half of life’ activity; faith is more possible in the ‘second half’ of life.) Faith is more like falling or being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow we might just end up where we were meant to be.

Rohr quotes the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

“Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.”

Jonah knows what God is doing only after emerging from the belly of the whale. Despite his best efforts to avoid God’s call he ends up being transformed by it. (Actually, he still has much to learn – spoiler alert: the wicked city of Nineveh hears his message and repents. God changes his mind about destroying the wicked city of Nineveh and that really annoys Jonah! He knew all along that God was merciful. That’s why he fled to Tarshish, so that Nineveh wouldn’t benefit from God’s mercy! Jonah gets really depressed and sits down to sulk. A bush grows over his head and shelters it from the harsh sun. And then God appoints a worm to kill the bush and that makes Jonah angrier still. ‘Why are you angry about the bush? Well, do you not think that I care about the people of Nineveh?’)

“God of surprising journeys, help me to live my life forward, trusting that you are steering the ship. Help me to understand my life backward by seeing and forgiving the many ‘signs of Jonah’.”
(Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent”.)

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