Jonah always takes me by surprise. Well, not Jonah really; he is utterly understandable, completely relatable and fits nicely into my expectations for reality, because I can see me in his footprints. I know his merciless, biting words in a crumbling city, his desire for vengeance, because I’ve tasted them in my heart, caught before they catch my tongue, but still there, like diluted poison.
What does take me by surprise, pulling my heartbeat along by a string, is the God who follows Jonah. He is incredible, like the good king in a fairy tale you believed in until you grew up and found the only king around wearing an expensive suit in a big white house, lies dripping through gleaming white teeth. And then, just when you thought all the stories with happy endings and the hero on the white horse was confined to the realms of fiction, a bitter man cries out over an entire city of people who were lost, “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” and all those people are saved, forever. It’s like a fairy tale (Disney, not Grimm), seemingly too good to be true, when God whispers back to the bitter man the exact number of children he saved in that city.
I can see, really, how people might have trouble believing it. We’re so used to the cold, the biting sting of what we think is reality, how could something so good be so real? I trip over it sometimes, blink in the blinding light and find the darkness behind my eyelids. But then I open my eyes again, and I know, like a pillar in my heart that bridges empty spaces, that this is real. I know because I have been Jonah, bitter, and angry, and I have been Peter, alone and afraid, and I have been ancient Israel throwing myself down at the feet of another alter like a whore. I have been all these, but I am none of them now.
Sometimes I see a glimpse of her, the one I would have been. She is a terrible thing to see, selfish and withdrawn, worshiping and despairing at herself all at the same time as her life passes like grass burning. But I am not her. I am me; Jonah drawn out of the pit, crying, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord!” I stand on the shore, washed clean and free, like the pit never happened as he takes my hand and whispers, “Come away with me.” And that is more real than anything.
Now, go read Jonah and keep a few things in mind:
- Nineveh was really, really bad. They did some pretty horrible stuff to a lot of people, including Jonah's people, the Israelites. You know the story of Corrie ten Boom forgiving one of her guards from the concentration camp when he came to her asking for forgiveness? Think along those lines. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/boom.html
- Notice that Jonah's only message to Nineveh was about oncoming destruction, they sought salvation even though no one was telling them it was being offered.
- Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh because he knew the goodness of God, that God would want to and take any opportunity to forgive and deliver Nineveh, and Jonah hated Nineveh and wanted it destroyed.
- This one left me in tears when I realized. Read the last verse of the book of Jonah. "120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle." Do you know what God is referring to there? Children and animals, Nineveh's innocent.