Today’s Bible reading
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. — Jonah 1:1-3
More thoughts for meditation
Later in the book, Jonah will explain his flight, but before we arrive at that explanation we have only the flight. In the same way, before any of us understands our own flight, we have the fact of our own flight from God as the condition of our existence. Why are we running? We’re not sure… we’ve always been running. When we were born, the whole world was running, and we never knew or thought to wonder why, and maybe never even thought that we were in flight.
Jonah, in a way, recapitulates the story of humanity. The word of the Lord comes to Jonah just like it did when the word created Adam in the very beginning. And just as it gives Jonah a charge to carry to Nineveh, so it gave Adam the charge to till the garden he was given. And in both cases, this is followed by disobedience: flight from our intended destination. Instead of arriving at that shore for which the Word of God has created us, called us, and prepared us, we have boarded a ship and fled to other lands. What is Tarshish, but the name of any other place we want to go except the one that we can call home?
But, there is no flight without pursuit. Like a hound from heaven, God pursues Jonah, and pursues us as well. First with a storm, then with a great fish, then with a worm and the heat of the sun. Jonah says that he fled because God is “a gracious God and merciful.” Why would he flee grace and mercy? The name of the hound does not matter except the fact that you can feel it at your heels. Whether we call it love or fear, we only know that it pursues us hotly and will consume us when it catches us, as a giant sea monster would swallow us up. Even if we know that the name of our pursuer is Love, we fear the teeth of love because they will pierce us like nails.
Our intuition is true: we will not survive the encounter with grace. It will devour us completely. But though we are swallowed by God’s love, it does not mean that we are swallowed up. Love strips us bare, but it is only the falsehoods that the world has clothed us with and we have clothed ourselves with that are taken away. When we pass through the teeth of love, our outer person is destroyed – and painful it is – but our inner person is brought to life.
The multitude of all our flights, millions and billions of them, are finally met by our Pursuer on the hill of Calvary. Here is a great fish provided, with teeth like nails and a mouth like a tomb. It is large enough to swallow us all who are floundering in the wind and waves, not for the sake of our destruction but of our resurrection.
Suggestions for action
The cross is the possibility of turning, no matter how long we have been running or how far away we feel. Prayer is the act of stopping, and turning around. It is listening for the God who is looking for us. It is letting ourselves be found, even at the bottom of the ocean. Take some time (a few minutes) to be still, a crucial discipline for listening for God’s presence. Use this as a refrain to begin and end: “If I ascend to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”