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Sunday 26 August 2018 – 11.30am Matins
Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Jonah 2 Revelation 1
Size matters. If you’ve heard that phrase before, you might well be quietly sniggering to yourself just a little, since those two words are likely to trigger visions of the male anatomy in your imagination – or, indeed, in your memory! Does size matter? Well, actually, I want to say yes, but not primarily with reference to the male sexual organs. The question of size arises in all sorts of contexts.
Take York Minster, for example. What effect does its size have on you? Those of us who live and work here often hear of the ‘wow factor’ people experience as they come through the West doors, and that’s partly the impact of the building’s size. The sheer scale impresses us with the ambition of its conception and execution. Built ostensibly to the glory of God, it conveys by its size something of the awesome immensity and transcendence of God. Its size is directly related to the experience of God it’s intended to evoke. At the same time, though, its size was also intended by those who conceived its design to speak not just of God but of political authority. With Church and state working hand-in-glove in the medieval period, the scale of the building was intended to send a subliminal message about political power and control. ‘We’re too big and strong for you to mess with us’, was the signal. The tiny little wooden shack built as the first Minster for the baptism of King Edwin in 627 wouldn’t have had quite the same force. So size does matter.
This isn’t to say that bigger is always better, though; it’s a question of proportion. It doesn’t follow, for example, that taller human beings are necessarily better than shorter ones, or that bees are less important than beetles in the natural world because they tend to be smaller. Bees might be relatively small in size but their role in terms of pollination is colossal. And while we’re about it, what about sermons? I’ve yet to find anyone who argues the longer the sermon the better. It’s usually the reverse – so I’ll keep that in mind!
The question of size arises directly in relation to something like the book of Jonah. I received notification two years ago that a collection of short stories entitled, That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written, was due to be published in 2017. It so happens that the book of Jonah appears as the first story in the collection. The stories were assembled by David Miller, who acknowledges that the very notion of the finest 100 short stories is simply outrageous. The finest says who? By what criteria? Miller explained that he wanted to choose stories that reflected as many genres, moods and voices as possible, readily acknowledging that his choices would inevitably be contested. What’s of note, though, is that the book of Jonah appears in such an anthology at all. Depending on precisely how you measure it, the only book in the Old Testament that’s shorter than Jonah is Obadiah, so Jonah undoubtedly qualifies as a short story in terms of size. In most editions of the Bible it’s less than two pages long. In terms of size, though, the significant thing about it is the sheer size of its spiritual and theological impact, which seems to be in inverse proportion to the number of words to be found in it.
If you’re at all familiar with the story, you’ll probably be aware of the role of the whale, the big fish, about which we heard in the first lesson. Despite the brevity of the story, its impact was sufficient to cause Jesus himself to refer to it in the gospels, and indeed the image of Jonah inside the whale, and his eventual emergence from it, is often seen as a type of death and resurrection, which itself is so central to the whole Christian story.
The story of Jonah’s primarily about human small-mindedness compared to the vast and limitless nature of God’s love and compassion. Jonah’s called by God to go to the people of Nineveh to draw attention to the wickedness in that city, not to rub the people’s noses in it, but to convey to them the compassion and concern of God for them, who wants to give them a chance to change. Jonah resents the fact that God’s care is broader than he himself feels comfortable with, so he sets off in the opposite direction. While on board ship, though, a storm arises and the sailors assume that Jonah’s jinxed them. He tells them that they’ll just have to throw him overboard but, pagan, though they are, they try to get him ashore first, thus showing more concern for Jonah’s welfare than Jonah did for the people of Nineveh. Seeing that they’re unable to achieve their objective, Jonah’s thrown into the sea and gets swallowed by the fish, not as a punishment but as a mark of God’s desire to save him. After three days he’s spewed out of the fish’s belly onto dry land.
Reluctantly, Jonah proceeds to Nineveh, bitterly resentful of God’s desire to save them. When Jonah sees that the Ninevites heed his message, Jonah’s angry, and with heavy irony denounces God for God’s compassion and mercy to those whom Jonah deems to be undeserving of it. Jonah’s almost a prototype of the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, who just can’t bring himself to rejoice in his younger brother’s return home to be reconciled with his father after messing up his life. Both stories are at pains to communicate something of the magnitude of God’s love, and in so doing convict us of our small-mindedness. The message of the story of Jonah is quite simply: your God is too small – the title of a book by the 20th century New Testament scholar J.B. Phillips.
The story of Jonah’s really a comedy, because Jonah’s just so ridiculous. In Jonah, though, we see ourselves and the ways in which we seek to cut God down to size. By the end of the story, it becomes clear, to quote the words of Frederick Faber, that ‘the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind,’ compared with the ways ‘we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own.’
We’re called to live with a largeness of heart, not as something alien to us, imposed from the outside, but as who we truly are as created in the image and likeness of God, the God who’s bigger than we can ever conceive and whose love and compassion is so great that it blows our minds wide open.
So, you see, as I told you: size does matter!
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