St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

A Second Time

A Second Time

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Third Sunday after Epi­phany, 21st Janu­ary 2018

Bible Read­ings: Jonah 3: 1–5,10. Mark 1: 14–20. 1 Cor. 7:29–31

If any­one tells you that there is no humour in the Bible, then they haven’t read the Book of Jonah. Jonah is a com­ic fig­ure, who does nearly everything wrong and gets into a ter­rible mess. We love to laugh at him, this reluct­ant proph­et who does his best to avoid doing the one thing God asks him to do and then gets depressed because he ends up being suc­cess­ful. Everything in the story is exag­ger­ated and extreme. God tells Jonah to go east to Ninev­eh but he goes as far west as he pos­sibly can head­ing for Tar­shish which may have been on the Span­ish coast. The storm that God sends is a mighty one, the fish that swal­lows the hap­less proph­et is a very big one. The city of Ninev­eh is exceed­ingly large, so large that it takes three days to walk from one side to the oth­er. The response to Jonah’s preach­ing is extraordin­ary, evok­ing such deep repent­ance that even the anim­als wear sack­cloth and ashes. Jonah may be a comic/tragic fig­ure and the nar­rat­ive may bor­der on the absurd but this is a book with a ser­i­ous mes­sage which remains just as rel­ev­ant today as it was when first com­posed prob­ably around the fifth or sixth cen­tury B.C.

The lec­tion­ary takes us into the story when the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Ninev­eh that great city.” I sus­pect most of us know what happened to Jonah when the word of the Lord came to him the first time. Told to go and preach a mes­sage of repent­ance to the wicked city of Ninev­eh, Jonah runs away in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion buy­ing pas­sage on a ship sail­ing to the oth­er end of the Medi­ter­ranean Sea. He is attempt­ing to get away ‘from the pres­ence of the Lord.’ Jonah has good reas­ons for dis­obey­ing God’s call. Ninev­eh was the cap­it­al city of the dreaded Assyr­i­an Empire. This Empire was noted for its cruelty and acts of tor­ture designed to cre­ate fear and sub­mis­sion among its enemies, Israel being one of them. For Jonah to walk into Ninev­eh call­ing on them to repent would be like ask­ing a Jew­ish man to walk into Ber­lin in 1939 and call on them to lay down their arms.

While Jonah sleeps below decks, a huge storm brews and the ship is soon threatened by the tur­bu­lent seas. With the ship about to founder, Jonah con­fesses that he is respons­ible for this calam­ity as he has dis­obeyed his God. He asks to be thrown over­board and is then swal­lowed by a giant fish. In the belly of the fish Jonah reflects on his situ­ation and calls out to the Lord to be delivered. God hears his cry and causes the fish to vomit out Jonah onto dry land. God then calls Jonah a second time and this time he is obed­i­ent. Jonah enters the city of Ninev­eh and cries out, “Forty days more and Ninev­eh will be over­thrown.” It’s not a com­plic­ated mes­sage but it gets a remark­able response. The people of Ninev­eh heed the words of Jonah and believe that their lives are in per­il because of Israel’s God. Their King demands that they all turn from their evil ways, fast and put on sack­cloth and ashes as a sign of their repent­ance. As a con­sequence, God changes his mind and refrains from pun­ish­ing the people of Ninev­eh. He accepts their repent­ance and for­gives them.

But that is not the end of the story. Jonah is not happy. In fact he is very angry. He is angry because God has been mer­ci­ful and his anger is dir­ec­ted at God’s char­ac­ter. Jonah declares: “This 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.” Jonah wanted God’s justice to be vis­ited on Ninev­eh, not his mercy. Before we con­demn Jonah we have to ask the ques­tion, “Are we not like Jonah?” Most of us have people we love to hate. It may be a politi­cian, or a par­tic­u­lar world lead­er or per­haps it’s someone closer to home. Some people are really hard to love.

Learn­ing how to love one’s enemies has chal­lenged peace makers through­out his­tory. In a ser­mon preached at Christ­mas in 1967, Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. said that Afric­an Amer­ic­ans could not win people to their cause through hatred. He said he felt for­tu­nate that Jesus had not told us to like our enemies because there were some people he could not pos­sibly like. He declared: “I can’t like any­one who would bomb my home. I can’t like any­body who would exploit me. I can’t like any­body who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like any­body who threatens to kill me day in and day out.” But remark­ably King could love them and in church base­ment gath­er­ings in the 1960’s Afric­an Amer­ic­ans with some white Amer­ic­ans came togeth­er to repent of their anger and hatred and to com­mit them­selves to non­vi­ol­ent change. King under­stood what Jonah had trouble accept­ing namely that God’s love and mercy embraces every­one who is will­ing to receive it. The Jonah story reminds us of God’s abil­ity to do the unthink­able, to extend mercy to the most undeserving and it is that abil­ity which opens the door to our own hope. For we are all in need of mercy.

Mat­thew and Luke both tell us that on one occa­sion in Jesus’ min­istry he was asked by the Scribes and Phar­isees to give them a sign that he was really from God. Jesus’ response was to say, “an evil and adul­ter­ous gen­er­a­tion seeks a sign and no sign will be giv­en to it except the sign of Jonah.” What did Jesus mean? Jesus him­self was the sign of Jonah because he was a sign in the same way Jonah was. Jonah offered Ninev­eh no sign but him­self. He did no mir­acles and had little to say but the people of Ninev­eh believed that Jonah’s warn­ing was from God him­self. The reli­gious lead­ers who ques­tioned Jesus, failed to under­stand that Jesus him­self was God’s sign. No oth­er sign was needed and their insist­ence on a sign in the face of Jesus’ extraordin­ary min­istry of heal­ing was evid­ence of their determ­ined unbe­lief.

If we look at the Jonah story as a call nar­rat­ive, then our Gos­pel for the day gives us a very sharp con­trast. Mark’s account of Jesus call­ing Peter and Andrew and then call­ing James and John is start­ling in its brev­ity. Jesus sees, Jesus calls and the fish­er­men fol­low, imme­di­ately. Imme­di­ately is one of Mark’s favour­ite words and he uses it fre­quently through­out his Gos­pel but it has par­tic­u­lar force in this pas­sage. What was it about Jesus that led those tough fish­er­men to give up their job, leave their fam­il­ies and embrace an itin­er­ant life without any secur­ity. Com­ment­ing on this account, Bon­hoef­fer wrote: “This encounter is a testi­mony to the abso­lute, dir­ect and unac­count­able author­ity of Jesus. Because it is Jesus who calls they obey. Nor do they under­stand any par­tic­u­lar con­tent to that obed­i­ence oth­er than simply fol­low­ing.” The con­trast between Jonah’s response to God’s call and the fishermen’s response to Jesus’ call could not be more strik­ing. Jesus con­tin­ues to call all sorts of unlikely people to be his fol­low­ers, includ­ing people like you and me. When we say yes to that call we embark on a jour­ney which may not be as chal­len­ging as that faced by Jonah or the dis­ciples but it will be life chan­ging. To fol­low Jesus means being will­ing to be made like him and that will not always be easy. But we have his prom­ise that he will nev­er leave us for­sake us.

Finally a very brief word about the epistle read­ing from 1 Cor­inthi­ans which cries out for some explan­a­tion. 1 Cor­inthi­ans is one of Paul’s early let­ters and was writ­ten at a time when Paul believed that Christ was to return very soon. This is what he means by the expres­sion: “the appoin­ted time has grown short.” Giv­en this belief Paul argues that Chris­ti­ans should spend most of their time and ener­gies pre­par­ing for that event. All oth­er aspects of life, fam­ily, work, recre­ation etc. should become of sec­ond­ary import­ance. Paul later came to under­stand that Christ’s return was not going to be hap­pen­ing any day soon and that Chris­ti­ans should get on with their lives, work­ing for the build­ing of Christ’s king­dom on earth. He did not aban­don the future hope of Christ’s return but he no longer expec­ted it in his life­time. So the read­ing we had from 1 Cor­inthi­ans this morn­ing should be read with that con­text in mind. I’m reminded of a story about Fran­cis of Assisi who on one occa­sion was busy sweep­ing dust and dirt from the fri­ary when one of the broth­ers came to him and asked what he would do if he knew that Christ was to return that very day. Fran­cis paused for a moment and then replied that he thought he would get on with his sweep­ing. Per­haps Fran­cis recalled the words of Jesus, ‘Happy is the one whom his mas­ter will find at work when he arrives.’ (Matt. 24.46)

 

Philip Brad­ford