The Tent: A safe place for shepherds to reflect together
Joined: 12 Sep 2007
|Posted: Thu Jun 03, 2010 2:07 pm Post subject: The Other Reason for Calling
| The Other Reason for Calling (or Why Jonah Has Four Chapters)
One of the common topics discussed among Christian leaders is â€œcalling.â€ The Bible uses a variety of examples to illustrate the diversity of ways God calls people â€“ from the dramatic burning bushes and Damascus roads to the normal process of selecting people of character and gifting as elders. The call is virtually always to a task of some sort. Consequently we are prone to think of ourselves as accountable for â€œdoingâ€ Godâ€™s will and we focus our energies on our special assignments. The question of why God calls people is quickly answered in terms of the projects that we feel called to do.
But is that the only reason? Does God call us simply to get jobs done?
I believe Jonah provides a fuller answer to the question.
The first three chapters make it clear that God does call people to do specific tasks. The book begins, â€œAnd the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai: Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against itâ€¦â€ (Jonah 1:1-2; cf. 3:1-2). The first chapter makes it abundantly clear that running away from Godâ€™s calling isnâ€™t worth it. The second chapter reveals a God who is willing to save a recalcitrant prophet and set him up for a â€œrecallâ€ in 3:1.
One certainly gets the impression that God is intent on getting this prophet to obey. The most obvious reason is to give the Ninevites an opportunity to hear the word of judgment. When they do hear this word, there is city-wide penitence led by the pagan king. Even the animals are clothed in sackcloth in an effort to appease Yahweh and avoid the impending disaster. And, as we know, the God of Israel did respond to their repentance with his own change of heart (3:10).
If the story of Jonah ended here, we would have a fabulous Old Testament story of Godâ€™s calling, a hesitant but ultimately obedient prophet, and the saving of many Gentile lives. And it is all about these topics to be sure.
But there is a fourth chapter in Jonah that focuses our attention on the heart of the prophet from Israel. Jonah is â€œgreatly displeasedâ€ and â€œangryâ€ (v. 1; cf. vv. 4, 9). The reason? He knew that Yahweh would be a â€œgracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in loveâ€ (v. 2). Watching Godâ€™s pity for the Ninevites was so abhorrent to Jonah that he wanted to die (vv. 3, 9).
To give Jonah some credit, the Assyrians (whose capital was Nineveh) formed the most malicious empire that the world had seen. Their sense of manifest destiny included conquering the world through cruel and inhumane means, decimating cities and temples, and deporting and repopulating survivors so that no sense of ethnic identity would remain. The Assyrian boot was moving closer to Israel during the eighth century and would, after Jonahâ€™s time, destroy the Northern Kingdom and most of Judah. It would have been a hope and pleasure for any Israelite to see divine justice executed on this ruthless enemy.
However, God was intent on showing mercy to the Ninevites, and, in the process, teaching Jonah a personal lesson. To get at the prophet, God incites his emotions. He causes a plant to grow up and provide shade for him, only then to have it wither. A scorching east wind from the desert (still feared in Bible lands today) pushes him further toward his anger and death wish (vv. 8-9). Having Jonahâ€™s emotional attention, God then asks him a rhetorical question with which the book ends: â€œYou have been concerned about this vine, thought you did not tend it or make it growâ€¦But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?!â€ (vv. 10-11).
The fourth chapter of Jonah reveals a God not only with a mission to the Ninevites, but also a mission to his prophet. Jonah needed to be rescued from a hollow orthodoxy. He was glad to repeat the familiar words from Exodus 34:6-7 (in v. 2) which articulated Godâ€™s amazing mercy when Israel had sinned at the foot of Mt. Sinai. But he couldnâ€™t bear the thought of God being merciful to others who were also sinful. This was serious enough for God to discipline his messanger.
Godâ€™s mission to the prophet seems, in the end, more difficult than his mission to the pagans. The eager repentance of the Ninevites in chapter 3 echoes the willingness of the sailors in chapter 1 to sacrifice to Yahweh. These two instances of turning to the Lord are silent witnesses against the Jonah whose answer to the final question is never heard.
Let me summarize what I believe this little book has to offer us on the topic of calling. God doesnâ€™t need messengers or â€œmailmen.â€ If he did, the book of Jonah would have three chapters, and the rest of us could go on in an unqualified obsession with what we do for God. Put differently, God doesnâ€™t need our help; he needs our hearts. Of course, humans have been delegated great responsibilities with eternal significance. Genesis 1-2 make that patently clear. But, like any parent asking children to do chores, God can get things done much more efficiently without us â€“ if all he wants is getting jobs done.
To state this all more theologically: Service is the forum for our sanctification. God uses ministry to get a hold of our hearts and conform them to his own. This is the ultimate, though most subtle, reason for our calling. We serve not only to get things done for others but, at least as importantly, for God to get things done inside us.
The book of Jonah uses a Hebrew word for Godâ€™s activity (manah) to show his sovereignty over the elements of nature: He â€œappointedâ€ a fish, a gourd, a worm, and the wind. These various forces in Jonahâ€™s life are mobilized to create a learning moment for the prophet. The question is, Will he â€œget itâ€? Will the stirring of his own passions and the chaos in his life help him existentially comprehend the doctrine lodged exclusively in his head? God works holistically with Jonah because the divine agenda goes below the neck. Will you care about others more than yourself? Our calling to service will relentlessly drive us to this question.
And the divine Example will be waiting for our answer.
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