Jonah under the gourd vine
Sermon for Sunday 17th February 2013
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
And we all think, ‘God I thank you that I am not like this tax collector with his puffed up self righteousness . . .’ Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
Jesus’ parables have a habit of getting Us – we think that this one is about those dreadful people – those self righteous folk, and then it sneaks round the corner and comes up from behind, to undo us
Earlier this week I was in the company of a Saint – someone who offered me a cup of tea in the midst of a demanding day – not just a cup of water, but a cup of tea and some very unLenten cake – certainly, she will not lose her reward – but what marked this lady out was her pity, her mercy. As we talked of someone of a fair degree of notoriety, a real rogue – all that was in her voice and her demeanour was mercy and pity – no judgement – just mercy and pity.
Blessed, says Jesus, Blessed are the merciful, for THEY will obtain mercy – Father, forgive us, as we forgive others – the merciful receive mercy, the forgiving receive forgiveness. Those who reflect the image of God, receive the image of God in themselves.
At the heart of the Christian faith is God’s Urgent desire that his children once more reflect his image – become like him – merciful, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. This is why Christ comes to die for us, that we might be restored to the fullness of the divine image, that that which was seemingly irretrievably broken and damaged, that that humanly speaking was beyond hope, might reveal the life of God in the world. He comes to Save us, and that Salvation is the full restoration of who we are.
To be frank, one of the reasons at root we make such a poor fist of the Christian life is actually a subtle rejection of this life. We’re quite happy by and large with continuing to be in charge of our own life – to judge those we think worthy of judgement, to withold forgiveness and restoration to those whom, well, ‘You have No idea of how they have hurt me!!’ – we remain hidden from the life of God – His way of doing things when we are confronted with it seems Outrageous – at one level or another, we Are Jonah
The book of Jonah is one of the great books of the bible for so many reasons – it is the absolute epitome of an hilarious Hebrew story, full of humour, full of wonderful detail – and it encapsulates the Gospel, the Good News. This story is all about the Outrageous Love of God . . . and the smallness of the unredeemed prophet who sits and sulks at God’s mercy.
It has a powerful parallel in the parable of the Prodigal Son – Jonah is the elder son, the one who does not live with the mercy and forgiveness of the father – who Will not enter into the joy of his master. God’s forgiveness is too much for him to swallow. As I’ve said before, Once in my time of ministry, I discovered someone who really Understood, the story of the prodigal. Telling the familiar story in a small group, someone exclaimed – ‘That’s not fair!’ – interestingly, it was an eldest child – the parable had snuck round the back and her defences were down and she was exposed to the recklessly abundant mercy of God – and it was too much for her – she couldn’t swallow it. She, like the elder Son and like Jonah couldn’t allow herself to live in a world where the love of God truly reigned, where all of a sudden she wasn’t the judge of those around her, where those she thought were worthy of getting their just deserts jolly well got them . . . I’m glad to say that my friend has made some progress in that area now, but it is a long journey, into the reality of the Life of God, his outrageous Love, his Utter mercy, and his Complete forgiveness, it is hard to swallow
Which is an appalling cue for the story of Jonah and the fish . . . Jonah as we know has heard God – the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ Nineveh – in the story of GOd’s people a byword for wickedness and evil – out of the line of Cain was proud Nineveh built. It is like being sent to some dreadful city in Mexico or Columbia, controlled by the drugs gangs – full of Violence and hatred and death – a place beyond human redemption – And he does what any reasonable person would do – he flees – he runs off in entirely the opposite direction – But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord – Immediately we are confronted with the humour of the story – ‘where can I go from your Spirit?’ says the Psalmist
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Our hiding from God is perhaps the most ridiculous thing about us – but Jonah does what we all do – flee from the command of God – to Love, to show mercy, to declare forgiveness – but God as business to do with Nineveh and also Jonah – and Jonah is not let off the hook – another bad cue for the fish.
The fish is the place of repentance – deep in the smelly innards – Jonah is confronted with the reality of a life away from God. It’s one of those moments when the reality of our lives breaks in – like the prodigal we discover ourselves sat amongst the pigs, hungry for swill. The idolatries of our lives are revealed for what they are – the truth of a life separated from God hits us – we discover we are in hell and out of the belly of Sheol we cry to the Lord. So Jonah cries out to God from the belly of the fish As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ And the fish spews him out – and so we pick up with the story this evening, The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time . . . and of course we immediately see the grace and mercy of God, in not abandoning Jonah. Of course we maybe miss this – we think of being abandoned by GOd in the midst of our circumstances, which we never are – but here is something deeper – that God is working with Jonah through calling him to serve him.
When Jesus calls the disciples, they think that they are the centre of things – James and John want to call fire from heaven, Peter is continually setting himself up as the head of operations, even to the point of telling Jesus what he can and cannot do. They think that as his servants, they have made it – but actually in calling them to serve, to be involved in this Redemption, he is also working on them – God works his purposes out through his people, Through Jonah and Peter and James and John – but as he does this he also works out his purposes In his people. We need saving, every bit as much as those amongst whom we live and work and serve. God is at work through his church, he is also at work on and in his church, calling us also to the life we are chosen to proclaim
So Jonah, chosen to proclaim the judgement of God, and his mercy in the call to repentance – is also the object of God’s Saving love – this has as much to do with Jonah as it does with Nineveh. And Nineveh is converted – Extravagantly so! Jonah cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
We are so distracted by the fish- is it a real fish – is it a whale – is it just a metaphor – Jonah and the whale is the story we tell in Sunday School – not God and the Repentance of Nineveh – this place of wickedness ad hate and death – and they repent.
AND God forgives – Jonah does not stick in the throat of the fish – but God’s forgiveness sticks in the throat of Jonah. And his heart is revealed. He has not come to Nineveh because he has pity on the people of Nineveh – he does not come to Nineveh because he has mercy, but as the utterly unwilling servant – he would call down fire – God has poured down pity and mercy and forgiveness. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
Jonah cannot accept the Love and mercy of God. He has worshipped God with his lips from the belly of the fish – but his heart is far from him. Like the elder son in the parable, he cannot enter into the Joy of the Lord – he cannot rejoice that Nineveh has repented – he is as yet Far from the Kingdom of God – far far more troubled over a withered plant, that had given him shade, than anything or anyone else. And God opens the door to him ‘should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
People are caught up in wickedness and sin – and we don’t know why – but we try and separate out the worthy from the unworthy – God’s blanket forgiveness of Nineveh is voiced in terms of pity – ‘they do not know their right hand from their left’ – like the saint I was with the other day, all there was was mercy and pity – as there is from the heart of God revealed to us in Christ. ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing – and we say – YEs they do, It’s obvious isn’t it???’ And so we judge others and in judging others judge ourselves, being unknown to ourselves guilty of the very same things of which we accuse others
We see the Pharisee in all his pompous self righteousness ‘I thank you that I am not like other men – and we think I thank you I am not like that Pharisee . . .’
Jonah’s outward actions were right, but his heart was all wrong – Jonah’s story is a great story for Lent – a time, not for outward displays or actions, but for opening our hearts to the inner work of God – soaking in the utterly unreasonable love and mercy of God. Allow this story to confront us – to question us. What is Our Nineveh? What work of mercy are We fleeing from? What is the plant we are more concerned for than 120,000 souls and many animals? What is the scope of the outrageous love and mercy of God, and where are we holding out on it?
We see the mercy of God, the outrageous forgiveness and Love, we see that we cannot forgive everyone for everything, that we do not love our neighbour as ourselves – in God’s mercy he shows us that we are yet far from the Kingdom of God, and then if we like the prodigal come to our senses – we say with the Publican, Lord have mercy on ME, a sinner . . . and finding mercy from God, we grow in that mercy and pity towards others – those who do not know their right hand from their left, finding the words of Jesus on our lips and in our heart, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.