The season of Epiphany is nearly at an end. It is a season of unfolding and revealing. It is a season of searching – not only do we set off to follow a wild star, but we also miraculously discover a God who searches for us.

One of  the lectionary readings today comes from the short and enigmatic book of Jonah. The strange story of Jonah takes me back to school days learning the collection of songs known as Jonah Man Jazz, which was written by Michael John Hurd in the 1960s. It begins: Nineveh city was a city of sin. The jazzin’ and the jivin’ made a terrible din. Beat groups playin’ at rock and roll, and the Lord when he heard it said. Bless my soul!

Today we have one of just two readings our Lectionary gives us from the book of Jonah. If, like me, it’s a while since you read the book of Jonah, can I encourage you to? It’s only 4 chapters long. Jonah is an enchanting and unusual book. A prophetic book with lots of story and very little preaching. It’s a story told with plenty of good humour, which takes place partly at sea and partly in the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh, though it is impossible to give the story an assured historical location. It is also hard to place in time – it may have been written as early as the second century BCE. What is the book about? Some scholars point to the fact that the name ‘Jonah’ is the Hebrew for ‘dove’ and that the prophet spends a good deal of his time in flight. Others take the book as a satire on the self-righteousness of religious people. Jewish scholars understand this book as teaching fellow Jews that God’s loving forgiveness is not exclusive, not for one group of people only.

One of the reasons I love Jonah is that he is another of those really human characters found in the rich variety of Scripture. He is a wonderfully reluctant prophet – no heroic follower of God, he resists and resists the insistent voice that tells him to go, that tells him that he can turn around an entire city by reminding them of God’s way. He is criticised for his reluctance to preach to Nineveh. Jonah is angry with and at God. He has a very low opinion of this God who has such poor taste that he even extends salvation to non-Jews. Jonah tries his utmost to avoid the call and voice of God. Yet, the voice of God is insistent, is close and familiar, and hard to ignore. We heard this last week in the story of the boy Samuel, in the story of Philip and Nathanael, who thought that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. This week we hear of the compelling call that comes to Simon, Andrew, James and John. And maybe in a similar way to these people (and to ourselves) Jonah’s encounter with God does not leave him warm and cozy, but discomforted, angry, disturbed by the extent of God’s abundant mercy. Epiphanies are untameable, unpredictable – they just happen, and they change us immediately. Whether we turn and follow straightaway, or we run as far as we can, they change us immediately and forever.

So, reading the book of Jonah all the way through invites us to contemplate just what sort of God we follow. We discover a God who in a time of peril sends provision in the form of a great sea monster. We discover a God who is moved to change, whose mind is changed, and whose love is abundant, unchanging and transforming.

I wonder in what unexpected form or place you might find refuge this week? How will you keep your eyes open for the God who is bent on drenching us in such abundant love?

Jonah’s Blessing by Jan Richardson

It comes as small surprise
that you would turn your back on this blessing,
that you would run far from the direction
in which it calls, that you would try to put an ocean
between yourself and what it asks.

Something in you knows
this blessing could swallow you whole no matter which way
you turn. …

What to do, then, with such a blessing
that depends so little on us and yet asks of us everything?

…Trust me when I say
all it wants is for you to fall in, to let yourself find yourself engulfed within the curious refuge that it holds

and then to go in the direction it propels you,
following its flow that will bear you where you desired not,

where you dreamed not yet none but you could land.

(inspiration and some text in this sermon taken from Jan Richardson and Nicholas King’s Study Bible, © 2013 Kevin Mayhew)

A visit to Staffa in September 2011.

A visit to Staffa in September 2011.