Daily Office Readings – Old Testament ( Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 )

Years ago, during one spring break at seminary, I loaded up all my gear and headed out to the desert for some solitary camping. During that time I hoped to read, to write, to hike, to just spend some time in quiet contemplation and free myself from the stress of work and school.

It took a few days for my mind to quiet down. To rid itself of all the things I had planned when I got back, things I needed to do before the next quarter started, and other things going on in my personal life that could wait for resolution until I got back. On the third morning, I woke up, had my coffee, went for a hike, and came back to the campsite to read. More so than the last few days, my mind felt quiet and distraction-free enough to really spend some time reading both the Bible and some pastoral theology books I had brought with me.

As I sat there with a book next to the coals from the morning fire, a wind began to blow. And it continued to blow, and it got stronger and stronger, blowing sand into my pages, and blowing the pages over so that I had to keep my hand firmly on the book to be able to read at all. I finally got so frustrated I shouted at the wind, at God, at the universe, “Really?!?! I’m finally in the right mindset to read, and now this? Stop with the sand blowing already.”

And God answered.

“Sure. And do you want me to grow you a shade tree too, Jonah?”

Despite the slap in the face, and never one to shy away from sarcasm, I responded, “Sure, Lord, I’d love some shade. But you’ll just take it away from me tomorrow, right?”

Silence.

No answer necessary.

Jonah had at first run away from God (Jonah 1), because he didn’t want to go to the people of Nineveh. And in today’s reading, we find out why. Jonah prophesied, the people repented, and God spared the people of Nineveh because they turned from their wickedness. But Jonah is angry, because “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

Jonah was angry because the work that God had asked him to do seemed like just going through the motions. He already knew that this would be the outcome, so why did he have to travel across the world, just to watch people do what he expected them to do? How was this not a punishment for Jonah? He was the only one who had to endure any kind of discomfort in order to watch the inevitable happen, so why wouldn’t he be mad, right? Wasn’t his anger at God justified because he was asked to merely go through the motions?

At the time of my conversation with God in the desert, I had been avoiding doing something I knew I needed to do. In my mind, the results of my actions were a foregone conclusion. The task involved correcting someone, and I didn’t look forward to the inevitable anger and moral outrage that would come my way. But I knew it needed to happen, even if I felt that I knew the outcome of the conversation. And since I knew the inevitable outcome of the conversation, why did it matter when the conversation happened, I thought. And besides, maybe by putting off the conversation, someone else might feel prompted to have the conversation in my place… I could hope, right?

But the conversation was for me to have, not for someone else, just as Jonah was the one who needed to travel to Nineveh. In the end, the conversation went just as I expected, with me feeling a bit more like Jonah, minus the repentance of the Ninevites. But the conversation was a necessity.

Going through the motions, as unnecessary as it might seem sometimes, is part of our work. Nineveh needed to hear God’s condemnation against it, so that it’s people could repent and avoid their fate. Sometimes we are the only ones who see a problem, and know we need to confront it. Sometimes we know that people will not change even when confronted, but our action is still required, futile though it may seem.

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