Tag Archives: Jonah

Jonah’s Backstory

Readings
Jonah 3.1–5, 10
Mark 1.14–20

The LORD is nothing if not persistent, always ready to begin again. But this time things should be different. For Jonah is not just starting over again; he has been given a new life out of the depths of Sheol, like Israel freed from exile in Babylon, like a man buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life. The second half of the book of Jonah tells the story of one reborn from the dead. — Phillip Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 2279-2282). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Often, I find when I’m at the funeral of an older person that they had a very interesting backstory over their long life. I think, I wish I’d known about that before. I would have loved to have heard more about that!

But it’s too late.

People are much more interesting when you know their backstory. All you have to do is ask questions! It’s a great way to get to know someone.

We have two stories of people called to God’s service today: Jonah the runaway prophet; and the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John.

People sometimes try to invent a backstory for the four disciples, to explain why they followed Jesus so immediately. They must have met Jesus at some earlier time. But Mark gives us nothing.  Mark wants us to see that the power of Jesus’ call summons them away from their boats and their nets, and into a new life. It’s almost as if  the word of Jesus has recreated them.

But today, I want to look more at the main character, Jonah, and his backstory. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the Bible. It’s only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home—it’s far more than a story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t always like that. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, and 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 Bourke.

Tarshish was a ‘back of Bourke’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. God can’t reach me there, he thought.

We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights he is thrown up. While in the fish, he has time to sing a psalm.

After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins to cooperate with God.

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Reading the Scriptures three dimensionally: “Should I not be concerned about Syria?” (Year B, 1 November 2015)

Readings
Ruth 1.1–18 (Psalm 146)
Mark 12.28–34

The Lord keeps faith for ever,
giving food to the hungry,
justice to the poor,
freedom to captives…
comforting widows and orphans,
protecting the stranger… from Psalm 146

As I come towards the end of my time here at Centenary, I wonder about what to say to you. So I have a particular question in mind as we approach the wonderful readings before us today. It is this:

Do you read the scriptures as two-dimensional words, or do you read them as a three-dimensional Word?

And what on earth does that even mean?

We can read the scriptures in two dimensions, as flat words on a flat page. When we read in two dimensions, every part of the scriptures is as important as every other part. So in the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites to kill whole populations; and Jesus says ‘Love your neighbour’.

How does that fit together? In my younger years, I heard preachers saying that the Israelites killing every man, woman and child was loving their Israelite neighbour, delivering them from temptation to a life of idolatry. I was never convinced.

That’s a two-dimensional way of looking at the scriptures. It seeks to harmonise things in the Bible. But you know, it’s really not possible to harmonise everything.

Perhaps it could be that the people of Israel grew out of the idea that genocide serves God’s purposes? If so, later they may have looked back at what their ancestors did and think they were just plain wrong. Perhaps they learned to read these stories as a kind of illustration of how to deal with sin in the human heart? An illustration of how sin needs to be removed, root and branch, but not a model of foreign policy?

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Spirit, open our hearts (17 August, 2014: Year A)

Readings
Isaiah 56.1–8
Matthew 15.10–28

 

When we began our service this morning, we sang

Gather us in, the lost and forsaken;
Gather us in, the blind and the lame…

Our lectionary scriptures today prompt us to ask some very important questions: How far do we go in gathering people in? Where do we stop?

Isaiah 56 relates to a time when the exiles are returning from Babylon and being gathered into Jerusalem. Remember, the Temple had been demolished and Jerusalem left in ruins in 587BC, and much of the population had been taken into captivity in Babylon. Today, the once-mighty Babylon is a pile of ruins about 85km south of Baghdad.

We say the exiles ‘returned’ to Jerusalem, but most if not all of them had never been there; it was their grandparents and great-grandparents who had been taken away. They knew Babylon, it was where they were born; they’d grown up on tales of the wonders of Jerusalem, but when they were gathered back in they didn’t like what Jerusalem had become.

Jerusalem was in ruins but worse still, it was full of foreigners! (I think the irony that they’d never seen the place before would’ve been lost on them.)

How did the returnees deal with the foreigners who had occupied their houses and land? They were divided about that.

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Jonah, the reluctant prophet (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, 22 January 2012)

Jonah, the reluctant prophet

Readings
Jonah 3.1-5, 10
Mark 1.14-20

Do you have a favourite book of the Bible? I do. It’s the Book of Jonah.

So I want to talk about Jonah, the most reluctant prophet ever. 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 story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a great satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

I don’t mind saying that the first time I read it in one sitting I found it to be hilarious. I laughed out loud. Don’t worry if you do too—it is meant to be funny!

The story begins with the word of God to Jonah:

Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Seems straightforward enough. God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh, which was situated on the edge of modern-day Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq and the site of much of the fighting in that unfortunate country. Jonah was to cry out against Nineveh because of its wickedness.

What problem could Jonah have with that? The most obvious objection he might have had was that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the superpower of the time. And Assyria was the enemy of Israel. Perhaps we might assume that Jonah thought he may be killed by his enemies?

Nice try, but Jonah’s real problem was somewhere else. We’ll come to it soon.

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Going to Nineveh

Sermon for Epiphany 3 (25 January 2009)

Jonah 3.1-5, 10
Mark 1.14-20

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.

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