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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 19 August 2018 – Trinity 12 – Matins
Jonah 1 & 2 Peter 3.14-end
There are many great prophets in the Old Testament. There is Isaiah with his writing about holiness, righteousness and judgment. There is Jeremiah who speaks of judgement and hope. Then there is Hosea who uses his own marriage as an illustration, calling the people to be faithful to God. Then there is Amos who speaks about social justice and warns against hypocrisy. There are many other prophets who speak the word of God with courage and clarity. Their lives are often hard but they are faithful in their calling to guide God’s people and to share in God’s work of salvation. There are all these great prophets in the Old Testament …… and then there is Jonah …… as a prophet Jonah could be described today as , ‘a bit rubbish’!
God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and Jonah went to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. On the ship to Tarshish a huge storm blew up and all the sailors were praying hard to their gods. Where is Jonah, the prophet of the one true God? Is he helping the sailors control the boat in the midst of the appalling storm? Is he saying his prayers? No, he is fast asleep in the hold! The sailors work out that the person to blame for the storm is Jonah who has been disobedient to his God. Jonah, showing some remorse, suggests that the way to end the storm is for the sailors to throw him in to the sea. They show compassion and do not immediately do that, they keep rowing hard and battling the storm. So the foreign sailors did what they could to avoid throwing Jonah overboard, but in the end they had to, the storm was so fierce, and immediately the storm ceased and Jonah, who should have drowned, was swallowed by a large fish.
The whole story of Jonah is like this. He is portrayed as a self-centred, disobedient and ineffective prophet while all those around him, mainly foreigners, are seen to be good, compassionate and obedient.
The question screaming from the pages of the story of Jonah is; why is this book, about a prophet who is ‘a bit rubbish’, in the bible at all?
There are many ways of thinking about this. What is important is that almost despite Jonah, good things happen. The sailors encounter the power of the one true God and as a result they offer sacrifices and make vows to the one true God. Because of the great fish Jonah gets a second chance and goes go to the massive city of Nineveh, walks into its centre and preaches the shortest ever sermon, ‘Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown’. As a result of this the king of Nineveh orders everyone to repent, which they do, obediently and God does not destroy them all, God’s mind is changed!
Wow, what a great story of redemption – in the end Jonah does the right thing and they all lived happily ever after. But there is another chapter …. Jonah is very displeased that Nineveh is not subject to God’s wrath and so he is very angry with God. Jonah says to God that he fled to Tarshish because he knew what God was like and that the bad people of Nineveh, if he didn’t go to them, would get their just deserts. This is what Jonah says
‘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 4.2
This is true. We believe it is true and Jonah believed it to be true. The problem is that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but Jonah isn’t! He is a self-righteous, arrogant man who thinks he knows best.
In the service of baptism one of the questions the parents and godparents are asked is, ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father, source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist?’ When I am talking with candidates or parents before a baptism I always talk about this question. What is important is that the question is not simply, ‘Do you believe in God the Father’, but ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father’. Believing in God is one thing, for many it is a philosophical decision. Many people say that they believe in God but it makes no difference to the way they live their lives. The challenege comes when you say that you trust in God. Trusting in God is much more difficult. It is easy to trust in God when looking at a beautiful, healthy new born baby sleeping soundly in a cot, it is more difficult when you turn on the news and hear of some terrible tragedy or a friend rings you up with awful news about a loved one being seriously ill – then, trusting God is much more challenging.
The problem for Jonah was that he believed in God, he even believed in God as being gracious and merciful, abounding in love, but he did not trust that the world would be a better place if God was able to manifest God’s love and mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah believed they should suffer for their sins, he didn’t trust that God’s forgiveness and mercy was the right and best course of action for that wayward people.
It is easy for us to condemn Jonah for his lack of trust in God, but, could you walk into a prison and visit a convicted terrorist or a convicted paedophile and tell them that God is gracious and merciful, ‘slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’, thus opening the door for them to repent and receive God’s mercy and love? Maybe if we felt God calling us to go to speak the good news of God’s love to a notorious criminal, in a prison in Nineveh, we would get on the bus and go shopping or to the cinema in Tarshish instead!
Jonah believed in God, he believed in God’s goodness, but he did not trust in God. The question is, do we believe and trust in God?
Let us pray
Spirit of God, breathe into our hearts peace that is content in your love. Spirit of God, unite us in honouring the gift we are to each other. Spirit of God, give nations common cause to strive for justice and the welfare of all people. Spirit of God, fill us with your grace to trust in your promises and accept your forgiveness for ourselves and others. Spirit of God, breathe into the whole of your creation the peace that comes from you alone through Jesus Christ. Amen
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