An Evensong Sermon preached by Ms Leslie Spatt
A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt
Evening Prayer, Sunday 14th August
I wonder what Jonah was actually running away from. If it was God, what was the reason – was he afraid of God? Is there any backstory to this reading? It seems like such an easy thing to do – go to Nineveh and tell them they’ve been naughty. God has noticed! What WAS Jonah’s problem? Was he afraid of his mission? Maybe he wanted a quiet life and just couldn’t be bothered going off to what everyone knew was a really troublesome place and anything he did would be a waste of his time.
Maybe he had something better to do with his life – but then we might ask, what would be better than doing something God asks you to do? And then, perhaps he felt that whatever he said to the people of Nineveh they wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t obey the Lord and then Jonah would be to blame. God would punish him instead of the Ninevites.
Christian writers make lots of attempts to connect Jonah to various bits of Christian interpretation: Jonah offering himself as a sacrifice to save the ship in distress, Jonah as an innocent victim who needs to be sacrificed by the sailors to save their own lives – even though the sailors were reluctant to make the sacrifice ‘Do not make us guilty of innocent blood’. And of course, Jonah being in the belly of the large fish for three days and nights. Connect this up to Christ being in the tomb for the same amount of time before the Resurrection, just for starters.
There’s a somewhat more tenuous link of the storm itself: But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.’ plus Jonah being asleep in the hold of the ship. This could, obviously, be reflected in the storm on the sea of Galilee where Jesus was the one asleep in the boat – but the disciples didn’t need to throw him overboard to save themselves – Jesus calmed the storm himself. but eventually offered himself as the sacrifice in the Crucifixion.
However….it’s possible to look at this story without necessarily tying it to something Christian – almost as though the Hebrew scriptures have no meaning for Christians unless they’re directly connected to the New Testament. I think that’s a bit of an insult to our Jewish heritage in what we call the Old Testament. We can use examples from it to illustrate or enlighten us about what the New Testament and Jesus might mean, but not to predict anything.
What does Jonah do – he’s the one who rebels against the Lord. He’s the one who’s disobedient; so, to teach him a lesson about what he’s actually called to do, the Lord gets him to eventually realise that it’s impossible to run away from God. And so, after this bit of the story ends, Jonah goes off muttering and grumbling to have long talks with the people of Nineveh. Who do actually repent, and change.
We could get just a bit suspicious of Jonah’s motives – is there maybe a more sinister side to the story? Perhaps Jonah actually wants God to punish the Ninevites, that they don’t deserve saving. The thought that they might really change and start to act as the Lord wants them to worries him. After all they’re foreigners, not part of the Chosen People of Israel like he is. So… Jonah tries to get out of the job he’s been given. He set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Not a good choice, as we find out – how can one escape from God?
Could it be that Jonah wonders why God should waste time on them, these foreigners. Well, God does the choosing. God wants everyone and everything to be brought together, unified and complete, into the family of what Jesus and we might call the Kingdom of Heaven. Each and every one of us has equal worth in God’s eyes even though we all have different abilities and live very different lives; because we’ve been given the gift of making our own good, bad or indifferent choices. God will never forget us, even if we forget God.
But, I wonder – would we, like Jonah, run away from trying to change the behaviour of people who seem to be damaging either themselves or the ideal of a unified, balanced creation? Just too much trouble, we might think, what’s the point anyway; they’ll just go back to their wicked ways once I leave. Or would we set out enthusiastically, with the aim of converting others to our own, perhaps narrow and equally damaging values.
Or might we, just possibly, work with difficult people to help them build better lives instead of destroying themselves and others in the process? One of the implications for us is that we need to be on our guard against judging and then rejecting others who aren’t ‘like us.’ Who may have different beliefs, lifestyles, cultures. We see this in too many places, where people are persecuted for being ‘different’. What gives us the right to assume that they’re inferior, and need to change how they live or what they do into what one section of society determines is ‘normal’?
Running all through the Hebrew scriptures is the sense that the Lord brought creation into being as something perfect in itself. It was united, all together, balanced. It was GOOD. God said so! But human disobedience, sinfulness, has ruined this unity and cased all sorts of awful things to happen. The people of Nineveh were just one example of disobedience – so, the Lord asked Jonah to go and sort them out. Jonah was to preach to the Ninevites, remind them of how they were supposed to live in harmony with what the Lord wanted of them.
There’s no hint that the Lord is going to punish the people of Nineveh, just that they’re supposed to behave properly. Neither is there any hint that the people of Nineveh needed to convert to being followers of the Hebrew God.
I expect that none of us would be really comfortable in the belly of a great fish for a second, let alone 3 days. But maybe we need the equivalent of being swallowed up into a sort of nothing-ness place, time to think about what really matters to the world, humanity and us. Time to listen to God’s voice more clearly without distractions.
God doesn’t care about tribe, or country, or whether we think we’re specially chosen because we happen to be Christians. Isn’t it that God wants all of creation to come back together? Nobody, nothing is to be left out and there’s always a way to return to the heavenly family. There’s no price of admission. Sending someone to wake up the unruly and disobedient, finding the lost, reuniting creation is God’s purpose. Not punishment or exclusion.
Leslie Spatt ©2022
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