15th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 4.9.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
“Are you sitting comfortably. Then I’ll begin…”
We love stories, don’t we. From the earliest age, children delight in being read stories, in being lost in a world beyond themselves. And as adults we are no different. Novels outsell non-fiction books; dramas are more popular than documentaries; and stories in sermons are remembered long after the the theological point has been forgotten.
So its not surprising that the book of Jonah, which we will be looking at over these next three Sundays, is so well known. People may not know many other Bible stories, but they often know this one. Its a great story: of huge sea storms, giant fish, unusual forms of water transportation; of animals as well as humans wearing sackcloth and ashes; of plants growing one day and dying the next.
And at the heart of the story is an impetuous, head-strong, stubborn and bad-tempered character called Jonah, a person perhaps not a little like me or you on our bad days.
The first thing to notice about Jonah is his view of God. Jonah was a prophet, a professional religious man, if you will, who told kings and dignitaries what God was saying. One would expect him to have a pretty good understanding of who God is. But he doesn’t.
Jonah’s view was that God was just God for the people of Israel. Israel knew they had a good thing with God on their side and the last thing they wanted to do was to share him with other nations, especially other nations like the mighty superpower of the East, Assyria. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was notorious for its evil ways and bullying, and yet it is to this city that God wants Jonah to go.
But Jonah is just not prepared to countenance the idea that his God could become their God. He just cannot comprehend that his God could be interested in other people and other nations. Jonah’s view of the world is myopic – it is all about him, his community, his nation. His view of God doesn’t go beyond that.
Taking a wider view is helped by our appreciation of who God is. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s, the UN’s director of the genocide investigation had to examine mass graves and interview countless children who had seen their parents killed. The director, a Christian, reflected later on how what he saw changed his faith. He said: “Approaching God in prayer, I could hear his gentle voice asking: “Do you have any idea where I have been already this day?” We come before a God who this Sunday morning has already been present in a Syrian refugee camp, a Congolese village torn apart by war and hunger, an inner city drugs squat, a family who have have just lost their child. When we come to appreciate that, we come to realise that God is concerned with our immediate concerns, but he is also concerned about so much more. Jonah wanted a tame, domesticated God – one who would answer his prayers and meet his needs. Instead he encounters a God who cares about and has compassion for the whole world. Such an encounter can change us and our faith too.
Jonah had a wrong view of God. He also had a wrong view of himself. He thinks he can escape from God. Having been told to go to Nineveh, he boards a ship to Tarshish. He thinks he can reject God’s call, not be the person God is calling him to be, and not face any consequences for such a decision.
As Harry pointed out a couple of weeks ago, whilst Nineveh was due East, Tarshish was as far due West as you could possibly go. Jonah wasn’t just going to ignore God’s call. He wanted to put as much distance between him and the destination of that call as he could.
Here is Jonah, called to be a prophet, to speak God’s word, doing the exact opposite of his calling, jumping on a boat to go in the opposite direction. Its sobering how the impact of that choice already begins to take its toll, long before he is thrown overboard. Whilst the storm mounts and the sailors desperately try to lighten the load, throwing cargo, their livelihoods, into the sea, Jonah, so caught up in himself and his own problems, goes below deck and sleeps.
Jonah is not the only one with a calling. God calls each one of us to live for him too. Our calling may not be to preach to nations. It may be to care for those around us; it may be to pray faithfully for those who we know; it may be to do the job we do as best we can; it may be to stand up for justice in the world around us.
What Jonah shows us is that we cannot ignore that call and think there won’t be consequences, either for us or for others. We cannot ignore God and think that it won’t matter.
Ultimately, Jonah realises that the only way to avert death for everyone is for him to be thrown overboard and to die. But, of course, in giving up his life, he finds it. He is saved. Jonah is the fore-runner to that amazing Christian message, that in death we find life, in dying to self we rise in Christ to new life.
There may be areas in our own life where Tarshish feels a far more attractive destination than Nineveh. The sacrifice, the demands on us, of doing the right thing, of following God’s call, may feel just too high. We are trying to avoid going to our Nineveh. We may not have been so unsubtle as to jump on a boat to our equivalent of Tarshish, but maybe we are lying low hoping that the call to Nineveh will be forgotten. Well, if that’s you, it may be time to jump overboard, for, like with Jonah, in following God’s call, in losing our life, we may discover it again. Whatever that call may be, however God’s Spirit may be prompting you, take heed and respond. It is never too late.
Well, if Jonah had a wrong view of God, and a wrong view of himself, he also had a wrong view of others. He has such a low view of non-Jews that he can’t believe God would be interested in them. It was the reason he was refusing to go to Nineveh.
And yet, as we will see in a fortnight’s time, the people of Nineveh confound his expectations, and are more responsive to God’s call than certainly he is. And even in this chapter we find pagan sailors who put Jonah’s faith to shame. When the storm picks up, they are the ones willing to pray. They are the ones who wake Jonah up and plead with him to pray to his God too. They are the ones who show real respect for Jonah’s God when he confesses it is his disobedience that has more than likely caused the storm. And it is they who show compassion, unwilling to throw Jonah off the boat, even at risk of their own lives.
It is a reminder, if we needed one, that the people of God do not have a monopoly on faith and virtue – far from it; that being religious, or even a professional holy man like Jonah, counts for little, unless it leads to acknowledging and worshipping God, praying to him and obeying him.
In a world that increasingly seeks to polarise opinion rather than seek consensus – look at the US presidential election, or events in Turkey, or the current struggles within the Labour Party for examples of such polarisation – the message of Jonah is an important reminder: the Spirit of God is at work in all people, believers or not. Our own faith should be open to being challenged and moved by the compassion, the dedication, the prayerfulness of those who do not share our faith. We can learn from those different from us.
In this wonderful story of Jonah there is much that speaks to us:
Is our view of God too small, or do we see him as the God who cares for all people?
Is our view of ourselves sufficiently honest, open to recognising when we may be running away from God’s call on our lives?
And is our view of others humble enough, that we are willing to learn from others, no matter how unlikely they may seem?
May God help us to see him more truly, to see ourselves more honestly, and to see others more humbly. Amen.