Sunday 24 September 2017
Readings: Jonah 3:10 – 4.end, Matthew 20:1-16
Trinity 15 Year A
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of you may know that I have a particular fondness for the book of Jonah, and I don’t think it comes from colourful childhood pictures of happy looking men being swallowed by happy looking whales.
If you have heard this story before I apologise, it you haven’t this is why I always smile when the book of Jonah comes up in the readings:
About 13 or 14 years ago I was going through the process of discerning whether to go forward for ordination in the Church of England. As I am sure you can imagine there is much more to this process than simply saying to the church “I am here, do you want me?” The church, quite rightly, encourages you to spend time reflecting on the sense of calling.
Now my mum will happily tell you the story of the time I spent hours umming and ahhing about whether to buy a new jacket, one has to weigh up all the pros and cons quite carefully you understand, so the decision whether to completely change the life our whole family forever took some proper thinking about.
Anyway, one Saturday morning, I took myself out for a bike ride around the Essex country lanes. I was probably training for the London to Brighton bike ride but I was also taking the time to think about this huge decision. That morning I was coming down quite strongly on the side of walking away from the whole process. Yes, the call of God on my life felt genuine but on any sensible basis it looked like madness – best just to stop the thing now and get back to normal life.
And then I came across a little church in the middle of nowhere. I decided to have a look in the church and to have a pray about the whole discernment thing.
I went in and had a look around which didn’t take long as it was a small and plain country church. I then sat in a pew with a bible and probably prayed something pretty straightforward like – “Lord, show me the way you would have me go.”
I then opened the bible and, of course, it opened at the book of Jonah.
Jonah was in no doubt that God had called him to an important, prophetic, ministry. Verses 1 & 2 of the first chapter make it crystal clear:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Ammitai. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come to me.”
Jonah does not spend any time seeking to discern whether this call was really from God and nor, it has to be said, does he spend any time riding his bike around trying to decide how to respond to it. Jonah knows exactly what he is going to do – he is going to run away from God’s call as far and as fast as possible:
Verse 3: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarhish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarhish to flee from the Lord.”
You will have noticed both the words ‘run’ and ‘flee’ in that verse. We are being left in on doubt about Jonah’s motives.
A very quick geography lesson. Israel is at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Ninevah, the place to which God wants to send Jonah, lies inland about 300 miles further to the east, in the middle of the Assyrian emplre. Tarshish, the place to which the ship is bound, is believed to have been a port on the coast of Spain – i.e. several hundred miles to the west, across the Mediterranean.
As Jonah sailed west, away from the place God called him to, a storm blew up and eventually it was decided to throw Jonah overboard on the basis that this was all his fault. To be fair to the poor, much maligned sailors, it is Jonah himself who persuades them to throw him in – have a look at verse 12. In fact, do read the whole story when you get home – it is only 4 short chapters and will only take 10 minutes.
As we know when Jonah landed into the sea he is swallowed by a large fish, we are told, provided by the Lord. This particular part of the story, although it is the most memorable and provides the colourful pictures for Sunday school books, also makes many question whether it is literally true or whether it was written and intended as an extended parable.
Although I am very open and amenable to this being read purely as a parable, after all it doesn’t change the truth behind the story, I also think that we should not be too quick to dismiss the possibility of the miraculous. Jonah is said to have been in the belly of this fish for three days, praying the prayer that we have in chapter two. Some theologians see this three days in the belly of the fish as a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus’ three days in the tomb. Now whatever you think about that theory it does present us with an interesting question – if we as Christians believe that Jesus could perform all sorts of miracles, including raising Lazarus from the dead, and then be raised from the dead himself, then perhaps we ought to be cautious about assuming that the miraculous elsewhere must not be literally true. However, at the risk of sounding agnostic, it is not actually necessary to decide whether or not it is literally true – the fact is that the story exists in the form we have and God would have us learn from it what we can.
Anyway, at the end of the third day of being in its belly we are told that the fish ‘vomited’ Jonah back onto dry land. There are many more euphemistic ways the writer could have described this moment but the use of the word ‘vomit’ says rather clearly that this was not Jonah’s most dignified moment. He heard the word of God, he ran away as fast as he could and he is now lying on a beach as the vomit of a large fish.
We are not told whether he got a chance to clean himself up before the word of the Lord came to him again:
“Go to the great city of Ninevah and proclaim the message I give to you.”
Jonah knew when he was beaten and this time he obeyed the call of God, he set off for the long journey East and when he reached the city he proclaimed long and loud that Ninevah would be overthrown in 40 days unless the people repented of their ways.
The thing about being a prophet is that although the prophets are compelled to speak the message that God has given them the people who hear it are free to accept or reject the prophet’s words and, if God then carries out his punishment, it is their fault for rejecting the warning. It was therefore totally possible that the people of Ninevah would hear this Hebrew prophet proclaiming his message in their streets and then entirely ignore it.
But the unexpected and the miraculous occurs again. The whole city from the king downwards observes a penitential fast, put on sackcloth and repented of their sins. This should be a Lenten reading really.
When God saw that they had repented he changed his mind and spared them. Did it make Jonah happy that his work as a prophet had saved an entire city from God’s wrath?
Did it heck as like.
Jonah was angry with God. But this is different from the anger we see in the book of Job. Jonah is not angry about the storm and the fish and the whole vomit thing, Jonah is angry because God has been loving and forgiving towards these undeserving Ninevites:
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents in sending calamity.”
These sound like words of praise but they are actually words of accusation from an angry man. The people of Ninevah and the Assyrians were not Hebrews and they were no friends of the Hebrew people. It seems that Jonah himself would have liked nothing better than for his prophetic mission to have been an utter failure and for the people to have ignored him, to their own destruction.
Jonah is angry not because of the perceived failure of God but because God’s compassion for the world is so much greater than his own. We may be used to thinking of the Jewish people as being very exclusivist about who was in and who was out of God’s favour but here, in the book of Jonah, we are being shown loud and clear that God’s plan to save the world reaches out across borders, across cultures and across religions. God wants everyone to repent of their sins and be saved.
But, like the rather miserable workers in the vineyard from the gospel reading, those who are on the inside already can be very ungracious to God and to those thought to be on the outside when it is made clear to them that their boundaries and expectations are not be the same as God’s. That God keeps calling and keeps inviting everyone into his kingdom. Although Jonah, and perhaps us, think that some people fully deserve God’s wrath God is slow to anger and abounding in love and the size of his graciousness, compassion and mercy far exceed our own.
Offering oneself for ministry in the Church of England is not quite the same as being called to be a prophet, and Hadlow is not Ninevah, not least as it does not take three days to walk across. Nonetheless the story of Jonah had a lot to say to me that day about what it means to respond to God’s call, about the fact that running is probably futile and can even result in lying on a beach in a pile of sick, although for some people that is an average weekend.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet, to put it mildly, he did everything possible to resist God’s call and even when he did what was asked he remained angry, ungracious and barely comprehending the immense love of God which underlay his mission. But the good news for the Ninevites, the good news for those called late to the harvest and the good news for us all is that God is more than capable of working his will despite all the imperfections of those called into his service.
And to that we can all say