Sermon for Epiphany 3 (25 January 2009)
Jonah 3.1-5, 10
The Book of Jonah is one of the prophetic books of the Bible, and it’s my favourite book of the whole Bible. The main character of the story—Jonah, of course—is called by God to be a prophet. The word ‘prophet’ simply means ‘to speak for’; a prophet doesn’t necessarily foretell the future. A prophet listens to, understands, and proclaims a message that comes from the very heart of God.
You know, if this book were written these days, we wouldn’t call it a prophecy; we’d call it a satirical short story. And as a short story, it’s a rollicking good tale of a very reluctant prophet.
And as a prophecy, the Book of Jonah proclaims this message right from God’s heart: God is a gracious God, a merciful God, a slow-to-anger God.
Note that this is ‘the God of the Old Testament’, which some people think is a different God to the God of the New Testament. The atheist celebrity Richard Dawkins, for example, says that ‘the God of the Old Testament’ is ‘jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak…’ And Dawkins goes on and on—and on—with a list of twelve more insults, the least of which is that God is ‘megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic and a capriciously malevolent bully’. So let’s see what the prophecy of Jonah has to say for God.
The Book of Jonah imagines a world in which God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh to ‘cry out against it’. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the superpower of the day. Israelites like Jonah hated the Assyrians because of the evil they had done in destroying the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC.
No way did Jonah want to bring God’s word to the people of Nineveh. Not even if that word was to ‘cry out against it’, and bring God’s judgement against it. So good ol’ Jonah hops on a boat—a very scary thing indeed for an Israelite, because they fancied the sea was home to all sorts of monsters. Jonah gets on a boat to Tarshish. Where was Tarshish? No one knows, but it was probably in what we call Spain. Maybe it was the Rock of Gibraltar. I like to think it was as far as Jonah could go without falling off the edge of the world. He was absolutely desperate to get away from God.
But God sends a ‘mighty storm’, and Jonah is tossed into the deep. Then, God provides a ‘large fish’ to swallow him. This fish takes him all the way back across the Mediterranean, from the farthest west to the farthest east, and while Jonah is in its belly he composes a psalm.
The fish couldn’t have thought much of the psalm, because tree days later it throws Jonah up onto the beach. And so finally, smelling like a refuse heap, dripping fishy stomach juices, he trudges off to Nineveh to proclaim this very satisfying message: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
What happens? The inhabitants of Nineveh repent—the king, the people, and even the animals. They turn to God; God changes his mind, and decides not to destroy them.
And Jonah? He sulks and becomes angry. He prays like this:
O Lord! Is this not what I said 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. (4.2-3)
And Jonah asks that he might die.
Jonah wanted to avoid God’s call because he knew that God would forgive the Assyrians if they turned away from their sin. Jonah can’t forgive God for being a forgiving God, a gracious God, a merciful God, a slow-to-anger God, a God whose kindness appalls Jonah. He knew God would change his mind if the people of Nineveh repented, and he wanted no part of it.
What do you think of Jonah? I think each one of us can identify the experience of knowing that God wants us to go somewhere—and we take off in the opposite direction. Or we believe God wants us to do something, and we find something else that needs doing. Through the years, I have often heard preachers put my desire to go the opposite direction squarely before me. But they’ve generally done it in terms if God commanding me to do something, and me disobeying. Yes, God does command Jonah; he says (Jonah 1.2),
Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.
But I doubt that God was looking for a lackey, a dogsbody, to do his work. I believe that God—the forgiving God, the gracious God, the merciful God, the slow-to-anger God—this God was seeking a willing partner in the work of reconciliation, someone who would co-operate in the work of telling of God’s amazing kindness. God desired that the people of Nineveh, the enemies of Israel, should turn to him. God wanted Jonah to join him in this work; but Jonah didn’t want to.
If a prophecy is a message that comes from the very heart of God, one prophetic message this book has for us today is that this slow-to-anger God wants us to be his partners in the work of reconciliation.
Sometimes, you’ve got to go to Nineveh to be reconciled. We’ve seen something of that this week from the new President of the United States, Barack Obama, a practising Christian.
A Democrat, Obama has reached out to his Republican political rival, John McCain for his wisdom. That feels like going to Nineveh to me. He asked a range of church figures to pray at his inauguration, including the conservative Rick Warren, who wrote Forty Days of Purpose, and Bishop Gene Robinson, who is a gay man. That feels like going to Nineveh to me. He asked Hilary Clinton, his opponent for the Democratic Party’s nomination, to be Secretary of State. A shrewd political move? Or is it going to Nineveh? Obama has said he wants to negotiate with Iran. That is almost literally going to Nineveh.
Jonah’s message was
Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!
What was overthrown? Not Nineveh. What was overthrown was this: the belief that God is unforgiving, ungracious, unmerciful and quick-to-anger. What was overthrown was this: the belief that anyone on God’s earth could be beyond the reach of God’s mercy and love.
Obama isn’t saying to John McCain, Rick Warren, Gene Robinson, Hilary Clinton and the leaders of Iran that We all believe the same things. No, he’s saying, whatever our differences, let’s explore our common ground and see how we can move forward. It’s not an easy route. It’s not wishy-washy. It doesn’t avoid the hard ground. It feels like going to Nineveh.
Tomorrow is Australia Day. What can the Uniting Church do for Australia Day? The best gift this Uniting Church can offer to the people of this nation is this: to go to Nineveh. To do whatever it takes to proclaim that God is forgiving, gracious, merciful, and slow-to-anger. To announce that God’s forgiveness is so generous that it may appall and shock and scandalise decent society. To speak a judgement on all talk about God that portrays God as unloving and ungracious. This can appall us too. It can shock and scandalise us too.
Our Church has gone to Nineveh. It has looked at the existence of gay people in its midst—and many of us have seen the amazing grace of God at work. The next Assembly, in July this year, will explore recognising the First Peoples of this land in the Church’s Constitution, an act that is long overdue. Only a Church that confesses the grace, mercy and patience of God can do what our Church does.
Going to Nineveh is not an easy route. It’s not wishy-washy. It doesn’t avoid the hard ground. Sometimes, we have felt like Jonah at the end of the book. Angry. Perhaps not angry enough to die, but angry enough to cause dissension within the church fellowship. Angry enough to kick out at others. Angry enough to leave. That’s because there is something to be overthrown—that false idol of a god who is punitive and wrathful, and, in Richard Dawkins’ words, a bully. And some Christians resist the overthrow of this false god.
The best gift the Uniting Church can offer to us its members, as well as the nation, is simply this—the good news:
God forgives the sinner. God is gracious to the undeserving. God is merciful. God is slow-to-anger. And God has shown this to us and to the world in Jesus Christ.
That’s the best thing we can offer to those people we know, our friends, family and work colleagues too.
And when we are called, we will go to Nineveh again and again to proclaim this truth. Amen.