By Josh Seligman
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city.
In my foreword introducing the season, I reflected on the prophet Jonah, especially how, at one turning point in his life, he reorients his life to God: 'I worship the LORD', he says, accepting responsibility for his actions and offering himself entirely to God. This, I suggested, can serve as a model of how we, too, are called to continually reorient ourselves towards God. (This calling to worship God will be explored more deeply next year.)
But there is a second turning point in Jonah's story, and this takes place at the very end. Jonah has (reluctantly) proclaimed God's word to Nineveh; the Ninevites have repented. Mission accomplished! But the story is not over. There is still more work to be done: although Jonah has performed his task, although the Ninevites have turned from their violent ways and although even God seems to have changed his mind, now sparing the Ninevites from destruction, Jonah's heart remains unchanged.
Jonah leaves Nineveh and sits down somewhere east of it, '[waiting] to see what would happen to the city' (Jonah 4:5), perhaps hoping that it would be destroyed anyway. Then, through growing a vine to shelter Jonah from the scorching wind and later destroying the vine, God teaches Jonah that, just as Jonah has cared for the vine, so God also cares for Nineveh. The story ends with God's question to Jonah: 'Should I not be concerned about that great city?' (4:11).
Here, Jonah is faced with another turning point. Will he remain as he is, angry enough to die, or will he understand the great love and mercy God has for Jonah's enemies, and so live the richer, fuller life that God has for him? Although Jonah has completed the first task God has given him, resulting in the salvation of his enemies, there is a deeper task to which he is called, resulting in his own salvation. He is now called to understand more completely the mystery of God's love, to be transformed so that he might begin to love the people and land he has been sent to save.
This second calling of Jonah surprises me because when I think about vocation, I usually think about it in terms of external work people do for God or others. As examples of such work, I can point to the abundance of compelling writing and conversations we have published this year, such as Kathryn Sadakierski's description of serving children as a spiritual mother, Alina Sayre's personal essay on her calling as a writer or my interview with Tim Harvey on tending a congregation as an ordained minister, to name just a few.
While such external tasks are important, the ending of Jonah's story suggests that they are only made complete with our inward transformation. In other words, vocation is not only about our deeds but also about our character formation. It's not only about the work we do in the world; it's more fundamentally about the work that God is doing in us, with our cooperation, to change us, heal us and make us whole.
When Jesus calls the Apostle Peter to follow him, for example, this calling certainly involves specific tasks he must do, such as strengthening, nourishing and teaching the other disciples. But in order to do these and other things, Peter's heart must first be transformed. Indeed, after Jesus' resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we see that Peter develops the courage and power to serve Christ faithfully (this ongoing transformation of Peter's character is expressed wonderfully in Sandro F. Piedrahita's short story 'The Crucifixion of St. Peter').
As Peter would write concerning vocation, such a transformation is nothing less than '[participation] in the divine nature' (2 Peter 1:3–4). Who we are called to become, therefore, are humans ablaze with divinity. The Church has historically understood that such a transformation is the very reason God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. As Church Father Athanasius said, 'God became man that man might become [like] God'.
Although this transformation is a gift from God, it requires our engagement. Peter urges his listeners to 'make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love' (vv. 5–7) so that our work for Christ does not become 'ineffective or unproductive' (v. 8).
In other words, these qualities, the foremost of which is love, are required ingredients for living fully into our calling, enlivening and empowering our activity. Also, we must do all we can, with God's help, to cultivate these qualities. Without this internal work, whatever external work we do is incomplete at best. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, even if we do the holiest and most sacrificial deeds, if we do not have love, we gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3).
Our podcast guest Valencio Jackson, for example, has held a variety of different jobs, from engineer to aquatics director to music teacher. But as he describes to Will, he understands his calling as putting God and other people above himself in whatever he is doing, keeping himself open to God's voice. I imagine that, like sunlight shining through several different stained-glass panels at once, such an orientation has enlivened and empowered each of Valencio's roles.
Such a disposition, I would argue, is also what God is trying to cultivate in Jonah. The book named after him ends with a question: 'Should I not be concerned about that great city?' (Jonah 4:11). This implies, 'Should you, Jonah, not also be concerned about that great city? Should you not also pray and work for the well-being of the people and animals that live there? Should you not also be transformed so that your heart resembles mine, offering mercy even to your enemies?'
As we go about seeking to fulfil the work God has given us to do, may we hear for ourselves God's question to Jonah. May we understand our calling not only in terms of what we do but also who we are becoming -- and may we continually embark on that pilgrimage towards transformation in Christ.
Thank you to all of our contributors and guests this season! It has been a privilege meeting and working with you all, and the Foreshadow team hope to see more of your work next year.
Thank you also to the Foreshadow/Forecast editorial team for their insights and hard work.
I've included links to many, but not all, of the work we published this season in the article above based on their relevance to my message. Unfortunately, I was unable to include everyone's work here, but I encourage you to check out all of the writing and conversations from this past season.
Next year, our theme will be 'Songs of Ascents: Pilgrimage and Worship'. Stay tuned for a foreword introducing the theme in January 2023.
In the meantime, submissions for next year open on 1 December 2022, and look out for bonus material over Advent and Christmas.
Josh is the founding editor of Foreshadow and a co-host of its podcast, Forecast.
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