4th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 02.07.2023 (8am)
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Almost despite ourselves, I find myself occasionally drawn into reality TV shows, whether that is something like The Traitors or Australian Survivor or things a little bit more benign such as the Great British Bake Off. In some ways, it is not the content of the programmes that become addictive, but the way that we are slowly drawn into caring about the contestants. We discover something about their back-story, their history, why winning the competition would mean so much to them or to their families. During the series, we inevitably see them cope with both failure and success, and we see acts of generosity and kindness alongside acts of rivalry and occasional unpleasantness. Before long, we end up caring about people we had previously never heard of, and who more than likely, we will never meet or hear of again after the series ends. Almost despite myself, I am drawn in, and find myself tuning in each week, or in this era of streamed programming, binge-watching several episodes a night.
The story of Jonah, which we began to look at three weeks ago, would have had a similarly captivating effect on people 2,500 years ago. With no TV or radio, or books, evening entertainment was to sit round the fire and tell stories, and this story would have been requested time and time again. For it too in a most profound yet engaging way is the story of disaster and redemption, of failure and success, of petty resentfulness and divine grace.
We rejoin the story with Jonah back on dry land, and this time willing to do God’s will, willing to go to Nineveh, if albeit still reluctantly.
It is worth noting this remarkable turn-around. Just three days earlier, Jonah was heading as fast as he could in the opposite direction, to Tarshish, which in the ancient world had the same reputation as Timbuktu or Shangri-la today – a semi-mythical place that offered an escape from the realities of life. As he headed in that direction, as he tried to ignore God’s call on his life, it was evident that this was impacting his relationship with God. Whilst everyone else was praying as the ship was tossed about in the storm, he didn’t. But once he stopped running, he started praying again.
There is a simple and obvious connection between doing God’s will and experiencing and seeking God’s presence. For us, we might not always hear God’s call to specific places or to do specific things, but there is no denying the clarity of God’s call to each of us to love one another and to love others. When we fail to heed and obey that call, when we run towards our Tarshish, we should not be surprised that our spiritual lives may run a little dry too. Equally, as we respond to God’s call to be people of love and grace, of generosity and thankfulness, we may well find that our love for God and our experience of Him, grows too.
That Jonah could give good reasons for not wanting to go to Nineveh is undeniable. It was the super-power of the age. Culturally, it was way ahead of everyone else in terms of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, glass making and architecture. Its royal library contained 26,000 tablets. The British Museum today has a whole section reserved for the finds of this great empire. Militarily, however, it was ruthless and utterly dominant. It treated its enemies harshly, it impaled its victims on spikes, it burnt cities to the ground and it moved whole peoples hundreds of miles and deposited them in alien lands as refugees. The prophet Nahum described Nineveh elsewhere in the Old Testament as “a city of bloodshed, utterly deceitfu”.
They were the last people imaginable for either God to show mercy to, or for them to show any desire to repent. No wonder Jonah had been reluctant to go.
And yet extraordinarily, the people of Nineveh do repent. One can almost hear the gasps of astonishment around the fireplace as people hear the story for the first time; the shaking of heads in continued disbelief amongst those who had heard it before. (As well no doubt as a few chuckles at the thought of cattle fasting and wearing sack-cloth and ashes). For surely God would not forgive his people’s worst enemy; surely God would not have compassion on an entire city of 120,000 people (an almost unimaginably large number in those days). And yet gradually the penny would drop. God forgives all people who repent. No person is beyond the pale; no person is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.
Some writers have called it the “scandal” of God’s grace. All can receive the forgiveness of God if we but turn to him to receive it. That is wonderful news for me and for you, because it means that I, that you, are not beyond God’s forgiveness, no matter how we may feel, no matter how unworthy we may feel, no matter how much we feel we may have done something that has let God or others down.
Our God is a God of overwhelming grace. As Jonah acknowledges later in chapter 4, albeit through gritted teeth, he is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
We live in a world where huge questions are thrown up about identity – who we are, what our purpose for living is – and questions too about our value and worth – especially post-retirement or if we’re unemployed – questions which often lead to a great deal of uncertainty and doubt. The book of Jonah reminds us of a truth of the utmost importance: whoever we are, we are loved by God. If God could forgive and love the Ninevites, the story of Jonah suggests, then he will forgive and love anyone, including us.
But the Ninevites’ repentance would also have left an uncomfortable question hanging in the air around those fireplaces. If such a supposedly evil people as the Ninevites had repented and received God’s forgiveness, why had the people of Israel so singularly failed to do so? Despite a long line of prophets calling them to repentance, why had their message gone unheeded, when Jonah’s grudging message was responded to with such urgency and contrition by the ungodly Ninevites?
The listeners to the story of Jonah would have felt somewhat uncomfortable. Being righteous, being God’s chosen people, seems to matter less to God than being people willing to repent and receive forgiveness. Its a message that can make us feel uncomfortable too. If we are ever tempted to think that being a Christian makes us superior or better than others, the story of Jonah brings us back to earth with a bump!
In both Jonah’s and Nineveh’s about-turns, we see God’s amazing grace. No matter what we have done, no matter who we are, turning round to God is simply all we need to do to receive his love and grace. But as the people of Israel, and Jonah next week, will show us, we can find all sorts of spurious reasons to make that difficult, not just for us but for others too. Let us instead walk in the footsteps of Christ and live a life that freely offers and accepts love and grace.