In 2018, the Uniting Church Assembly decided that the Sunday before Australia Day would be observed as a Day of Mourning. This was a request of our sisters and brothers in the First Peoples council of our church, the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
So today, we are remembering the tragic history of our nation and the violent dispossession of its First Peoples. Today, we lament the truth of our shared history, and we lift up to God our prayers for our First Peoples and our nation. We say sorry and we pray for forgiveness, healing and hope. We come together and give thanks to God for the abundant grace and liberating hope that we know through Jesus Christ and which is for all people.
Jonah 3.1–5, 10
The book of Jonah is a satire, skewering prophets who can go bad. The author had a whale of a good time (pun intended), attacking those who claim to know God but whose actions are far from God’s desires.… — John C Holbert, Connections, Year B Vol 1
I’m always excited when I see it’s time to hear the story of Jonah the runaway prophet again. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the library of books we call the Bible.
The Book of Jonah is only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home — it’s far more than a whale of a tale about a prophet who went feral. No, the Book of Jonah is a hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people. Any people.
We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as as though he were an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t heroic. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, not a hero at all.
Jonah flees to Tarshish when God calls him to speak out against Nineveh. Nineveh was the superpower of the time; it was a bit like God saying to me, ‘Ok Paul, I want you to go to North Korea and tell Kim Jong Un to change his ways’. I’d be off in a flash, somewhere the back of beyond.
Tarshish was a ‘back of beyond’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but this is the thing about Tarshish: it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. I reckon Jonah thought, God can’t reach me there.
We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights the fish throws him up. While in the fish, he composes a psalm.
After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins his grudging cooperation with God.
Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims
Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!
But Nineveh, the great enemy of Israel, is not overthrown. At least not in the way Jonah wants it.
Jonah wants Nineveh and everyone in it to be totally obliterated, but that’s not what happens.
Everyone in Nineveh, from the king to the cattle, repents. Yes, even the livestock turn to God.
What gives? Did God say one thing and do another? Maybe, but maybe not. Remember, Jonah said, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
That word ‘overthrown’ translates the Hebrew word hapak. Like a lot of English words, hapak has two meanings. It may mean ‘destroy’, or ‘change’.
‘Destroy’ was Jonah’s understanding. It’s what Jonah meant. He wanted Nineveh and all its people to be razed to the ground. Pulverised.
But the people and animals of Nineveh repented; God did not destroy them. They changed.
So did God say one thing, and do another? Jonah thought so, and we’ll look at him again in a minute.
But look at what happened: Jonah said, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
In the Book of Jonah, Nineveh is not destroyed. But its violent way of life is overthrown. Nineveh, the all-conquering, all devouring beast, is overthrown. The people and livestock live; but the old order of violence is gone. Overthrown.
Just a little note: Jonah is a a short story. In history, in fact, Nineveh did not repent. Nineveh destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered its people. You may have heard of the ‘ten lost tribes’ of many stories — that refers to the scattered and lost people of Israel.
Let me repeat: the historical Nineveh did not repent. The Book of Jonah is a story, a wonderful, brilliant story about the God who is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’.
That’s the whole point of Jonah. This book gives us a clear picture of God’s will for us all. It is for the powers of evil to be overthrown and for all to repent. It is for a future of peace and wholeness.
But what about Jonah?
Jonah was very unhappy about this and became angry. So he prayed, ‘Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.’
Here we have a really distressing insight into Jonah. He wants a God who will punish his enemies. He doesn’t want them to hear God’s message and repent; he knows God is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh.
The people of Nineveh experienced a good mourning; as the book ends, Jonah has a bad mourning. He is the most spectacularly successful evangelist ever, but Jonah wishes he’d failed. If he had, Nineveh would now be a smouldering pile of dust and ashes.
Jonah’s grief is more a feeling sorry for himself, and his bad mourning an unwillingness to grasp the vision that God was offering him. He just wants to die. Literally!
In Nineveh, they caught the vision that God offered. ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ So they repented and their violent ways were overthrown.
What can we learn from this on the Sunday before 26 January, on this Day of Mourning?
When Europeans came to these lands now called Australia, they wanted everything to stay the same. (I get that. I remember when we came from England. I was eleven; I thought Australia was England but with good weather. It took me a long time to internalise the reality that Australia isn’t much like England at all. And the weather isn’t always good either!)
Back to the first white settlers; they wanted to plant Britain in the Great Southland. They brought their laws and their convicts; they planted their crops, raised their livestock and introduced cute little bunny rabbits to these lands.
When the first European artists painted Australian landscapes, they made gum trees look more like English trees. They wanted it to look like home.
They also disregarded Aboriginal and Islander people. They subjected them to land grabs, massacres, poisonings, and border wars. Along with that, they conducted a systemic separation of children from their parents. The churches were complicit in this.
Today, we still have no treaty, Aboriginal people are more likely to do jail time, and black lives are still lost in custody. Aboriginal people die earlier than Second Peoples, and suffer from chronic illnesses at a higher rate than others. The Australian government persists with a demeaning policy of cashless welfare cards.
How can we respond? In terms of the story of Jonah, we later comers, especially we who are of British ancestry, are the Ninevites. We are the people of Nineveh, the ones who are causing the problem. There is a message of hapak, being overthrown, squarely directed at us. But will the end result be destruction or change? Ways of domination must be overthrown — and believe it or not, that is good news. Australia can go through a good mourning by catching God’s vision of shalom and putting it into practice. The Uluru Statement from the Heart may be a good place to start. This statement seeks the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. What does Makarrata mean? The Uluru Statement says
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
What about here in West End Uniting Church? We must discern with the Spirit of Jesus how we act locally. How will we be part of a better world for the First Peoples of these lands now called Australia?
West End Uniting Church 24 January 2021