After I read the story of Jonah bringing God’s message to Nineveh and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee, the concept of time is on my mind. In these texts I see that we relate to time differently then God does.
Jonah is definitely a difficult child among the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. It takes at least two callings, a life-threatening storm and a fish with a dysfunctional digestive system to get him to Nineveh. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. After receiving his initial call, he wastes time by running away from God. He delays the salvation of the entire city because of his bigotry. God not only changes Jonah’s itinerary and brings him to Nineveh, God also applies a sense of urgency to Jonah’s mission, “Get up, go to Nineveh… and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (3:2) No fooling around, resting, reflecting, praying, soul searching. Jonah is called to get to work immediately (we will come back to this word again later.)
Once Jonah gets to Nineveh and fulfills his purpose, the residents led by their king do not waste a single day. It is truly a phenomenal response to the proclamation of the good news – the entire city repents and pleads God for mercy. No other prophet had such quick success in the Hebrew Bible. For the people of Nineveh time is precious, because according to Jonah, they do not have much of it left – forty days. The king performs a dramatic ritual of repentance right after he hears the news that Jonah brought. His reaction is immediate. Not only people, but also animals are set to spend the remaining days of their lives in repentance and hope for God’s forgiveness.
God appears in this text as the one with authority over time. God is patient and in control. First, God observes Jonah’s attempt to run away before God intervenes. Then God watches how the people of Nineveh respond to Jonah’s message and reconsiders their fate. In the end God still attempts to deal with Jonah’s bigotry and rage to no effect. God has the authority over time, in fact God sets the deadline for Nineveh. The Creator has total control over time and is above time.
Mark 4:15 contains another time mystery: “The time is fulfilled” (or completed, or rendered perfect). This is how Jesus opens his proclamation. He again creates a sense of urgency by this statement. There is no more time, not a single day or hour or minute. God set the time and now it has been fulfilled. Just as the people of Nineveh, Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately to Jesus’ call. The gospel of Mark carries on this sense of urgency until the very end – the work “immediately” appears in the gospel no less than 40 times. It is like a fast-flowing action movie. The disciples’ actions are not just urgent, they are quite radical. The men leave behind their families and their only way of making a living. They also disrupt whatever financial stability their families had. Two families lost two able-bodies adult males each in a moment’s notice. That must have hurt. But God’s timeline does not allow room for a smooth and slow transition into ministry (while still fishing part-time and on the weekends). Unlike Jonah, the disciples do not waste any time but obediently follow the call.
What kind of message do I get from these two stories? I like to be in control of my time. I manage it carefully with calendars, reminders, appointments, and planning way ahead. I do not like uninvited visitors or last-minute changes to the plan. So I am reminded today that it is just an illusion that I am in control of my time. God is, I am not. When God calls, my response should be immediate, my actions should be filled with urgency. And that is where faith and trust in God comes in, when all my plans are ruined. In those times I want to remember the words of Jonah: “…you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Jonah spoke these words with anger and resentment, but I find in them hope. God has time to delay his anger, God at any second could relent from punishment. We, however, do not have such luxury of time. Our response to God’s call should be immediate.
One more interesting detail that I spot in Jonah’s story. Although his message was brief, the people knew exactly what they need to repent of and change – “their evil ways” and “the violence in their hands” (3:8). This stuff needs to stop immediately, that is very clear. And how relevant is this message right now! I do not need to explain it to you. There is no room for evil and violence in the kingdom of God – it’s that simple. That is the utmost urgent message for me today, and my repentance and change start immediately.
Cover image Time in Abstract source