Do you know the Jonah-man Zazz? It opens:
Nineveh city was a city of sin
The jazzin’ and a-jivin’ made a terrible din
Beat groups playin’ a rock and roll
And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul!”
Jonah is in the great prophetic tradition of Israel, mentioned in II Kings 14: 25, the Son of Amittai, which means truth. Jewish tradition suggests that he the boy was raised by Elijah from the dead.
There are two contexts we need to ponder in relation to Jonah’s book, both the context of when it was set, and, when it was written which may have been rather later. It seems to be set in the lead up to one of the greatest catastrophes in Israel’s history, the 8th BC c overthrow of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. We know this happened, and the accounts in II Kings 18 and the Assyrian records tally remarkably. It was truly a horrific moment, which changed Israel’s history completely. That’s the context of the story, but we think the Book of Jonah may possibly have been written much later, possibly as late as the 3rd c BC, as Judaism faced big questions about its relations with its neighbours and Gentiles in their midst.
It is read in its entirety on the Jewish Day of Atonement each year in the afternoon.
And it is no surprise that at our most important celebration, the Easter Vigil, on Holy Saturday, one of the twelve readings which we are encouraged to have (though tend to cut them to five), is from Jonah. But, as even 5 readings is rather a lot, we read this one from a children’s bible, to keep people listening. There’s a wonderful refrain in the one I like to use, which is called Jonah the Groaner: And what did Jonah do? Jonah groaned. Indeed, Jonah is one of the Bible’s groaners.
The first two chapters of the Book are taken up with the Jonah and the Whale narrative: Jonah is called to go to Nineveh, but he does the opposite of what God wants. Jonah takes a boat from Joppa, in the exact opposite direction to Spain – Tarshish. But of course, en route, Jonah’s recalcitrance causes the most terrible storm and he gets thrown overboard into the drink, and swallowed by a fish, who lands him three days later on the shores of (landlocked) Nineveh, (don’t worry too much about geography) to do what God asked him.
Jonah then heads into the city, which takes three days to cross, and he proclaims the message, which God has charged him to give. In eight short words, he warns the Ninevites, in their rock and rolling, to repent. YET FORTY DAYS AND NINEVEH SHALL BE OVERTHROWN.
The humour of the book reaches a crescendo at this point. The unnamed King immediately removes his royal robes (in the part which is cut today). He requires everyone – man and beast – to put on sackcloth and ashes and to begin a fast. We are meant to find the whole thing funny, we are meant to find Jonah ridiculous. It is all one very serious message dressed up in a long catalogue of funnies.
Remember the context of the story: Jonah did not want to visit the Imperial HQ of a nation which was menacing his own; no wonder he wanted to flee in the opposite direction as far as he could.
Prophets, Jonah, like Jeremiah before him have to do daunting things; like telling world leaders when they are generating blah blah blah, more hot air than the environment can cope with; or criticising a government when it is changing the rules in the middle of serious enquiry for their own political ends. Prophecy is not the path to popularity, it is the way of derision, contempt and ostracism.
This is a Daniel in the Lions’ Den sort of story: Who was going to listen to the message of repentance from him? Better to be drowned, or head to the ends of earth, than to proclaim a fast in Nineveh.
The hilarities extend. The vaunting over-lords hear first time round. Rather than being lionised, God’s urgent call to repentance to the people of Nineveh is heard straight away. The plot thickens, we don’t hear it this morning, but Jonah goes off into a huge sulk. Jonah groans, because he thought he was unlikely to be successful in what he had to say, but in his heart he wanted the Assyrian capital to come crashing down around itself and be laid waste. But unfair God was going to spare the marauders and show them a sign of love.
We think that the potentially introverted, isolationism of much later Judaism in perhaps in the 3rd c BC, when it may have been written, was being pricked and teased from inside. It’s Jewish humour at its quintessential best.
There’s quite a lot about repentance in the story, as you may have noticed. There is the call to repentance, which Jonah is made to bring to the Ninevites. And rather poignantly there is the prayer in verse 9 of the King: “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger so that we perish not?” Then we hear, mercifully, in verse 10 “and God repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them, and he did it not.” The repentance is not just human. God, even when faced with the repentance of his people’s enemies, may turn Himself.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus appears right at the beginning of our Gospel writer St Mark’s narrative. We are coming to the end of the liturgical year, and ironically we go back to the beginning again. In our end is our beginning as Eliot reminds us. Jesus bursts on the stage and says two earth shattering things in the same breath “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye and believe the Gospel.” Our end is our beginning. Our red vestments denote these final Sundays of the Kingdom, as we prepare to celebrate Christ the King. That kingdom is denoted by repentance, turning from destruction towards the truth. Jonah calls his hearers to repent, and his story shows that when they do, God’s heart is melted too, God can repent and turn to us and receive even the furthest off. There is no seaside call to follow for Peter at the start of John’s Gospel, just a renaming of him. The call to follow comes at the end, the very last verses of the Gospel, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” “Lord you know that I love you.” Then he is told, at THE END “Follow me.” In this end is Peter’s beginning. Simon, the Son of Jonah, the son of Truth begins his journey just as the Gospel ends.
“We had a wonderful party and Jonah had a whale of a time
But now that we’ve really repented everythin’s goin’ to be fine
We let our hair down in plenty and boy we had the blues on the run
But even though we have repented, our dancin’ days ain’t done.”