Sermon from Sunday 21st January

Jonah 3 : 1 – 5, 10

Mark 1 : 14 - 20

Sermon

It is unfortunate that we only ever get to hear a small excerpt from the story of Jonah in our bible readings in church.  It’s a great story - a whale of a tale, we might say.  Jonah was certainly a reluctant preacher.  The instruction he got did not fit in with what he thought God ought to be doing.  He didn’t seem to think he could get God to change his plans and he had no intention of changing his mind, so he did what he thought he had to do.  God told him to go one way and immediately scampered off in the opposite direction.

In the end, of course, it is God’s will that is done, and after all that adventures, Jonah turns out to be a remarkably successful preacher.  The entire population of the capital city of Assyria turned to God when they heard the message the brought.  They repented of all the wrong they had been doing, to the extent that even the animals began scavenging in the streets wearing sackcloth and ashes.

But the key to the story is to ask why Jonah was so reluctant to go to Nineveh and preach God’s word.  It was not, as we might imagine, because he feared he would not be good enough, or that he might be attacked by the people of the city who did not like the message he brought.  It was in fact because he feared that he would be successful, and that the people would accept the warning he brought.  The outcome was precisely what he had been so anxious to avoid.  As a good, well brought-up man of faith, Jonah hated Nineveh and all that it stood for.  It was a place of foreign gods and no doubt many strange practices that went with them, practices abhorrent to all that he had been taught was good and right.  He hated those people and he wanted to believe that his God hated them as well.  He wanted to see them punished and destroyed, but he suspected that God would turn out to be soft, that he would find a way to let these evil people off the hook, and he didn’t want to be any part of that.

He knew what he wanted God to be like, and found it very hard to cope with the notion that reality might be different from the way he wanted it be.  We miss the point of the story if we get too astonished at the idea that a man could survive in the belly of a fish.  The real shock element of the story was the idea that God could love foreign, alien, sinful people like those of Nineveh, love them just as much as he loved good living religious types like Jonah.  For of course, that is how things turn out.  And no sooner are we told that God had relented and decided not to punish the people of Nineveh, than we find Jonah raging with righteous indignation.

Jonah wanted God to be his God, sharing his ideas and values, making what he wanted happen in the world.  I guess at some level we all do.  The story tells of how Jonah had to learn through his experiences that God was far greater than he could understand.  In that sense this divinely inspired story calls us to reconsider the way in which we serve God, even the way we believe in God.  The narrow-minded nationalism that afflicted Jonah should not be a problem for us.  We surely have no trouble in believing that the love and compassion of our universal creator are for people of all nations, equally and unreservedly.  But that doesn’t make us immune to the sin of Jonah and just as God created us in his image, we too tend to want to create him in our image.  Are we not all tempted to go along willingly in obeying those biblical teachings that we perceive to be attractive and right, those things which suit our personalities and our values, but to shy away from responding to other aspects of biblical faith, bits that make us feel less comfortable, bits which sit uncomfortably with our personalities and our values.

How often do we hear people using words from the bible to back up their arguments?  How rarely do we hear people use words from the bible to question their own assumptions?  This is not like going out to a friend’s house for a meal, where you are told reassuringly,  if there’s anything you don’t like just leave it!  The call to Christian living is not a call to do something when we feel like it, or when it seems right, it is a call to have our hearts and our minds and our lives transformed by Christ, rather than using Christ as support for our own plans and hopes.

That is brought home very starkly when we read of Jesus actually calling people to follow him.  Simon and Andrew leave their nets, the tools of their trade, the source of their living, and give their attention entirely to catching people for Jesus.  James and John leave their father Zebedee to run the family business single handed, and give their complete attention to their heavenly father’s business.  No negotiations, no terms and conditions, just the conviction that Jesus was worth trusting, and the humility to go with his plans rather than their own.  Of course blind faith can be a dangerous thing, but so too can blind pride, and a set of personal opinions so solid that it becomes impossible to see anything accurately through them.

It is difficult to be open to a bigger understanding of the Holy One when our minds are so locked in to our own values and traditions and ways of thinking.  That is not a criticism.  It is perfectly natural that we think of God through the filter of our human emotions, of our human desires and assumptions.  We are, after all, only human.  We get jealous when we see others with something we haven’t got, and greedy for more when we get it.  We get defensive when we feel threatened, and want to hit back when we are hurt.  We feel revulsion when we see evil in our world, and we want those we regard as wicked to be punished.  We naturally surround ourselves with like-minded people, and build up our opinions until they start to feel like facts.

We are only human.  Which is precisely why the bible is such a powerful book.  If we are regularly exposed to its subversive words, we will be regularly reminded that there is more to this world than our thoughts and feelings, that there are greater truths than our beliefs and opinions.  That exposure, that reminder, is humbling, and challenging, and ultimately, wonderfully liberating.

Trying to force the world to fit in with our view of how it should be is not easy.  Trying to force the eternal energy of the creating spirit to restrict itself to the channels formed by our opinions, is impossible.  Yet still we do it, convinced that we know what is right, and using the name of a higher authority to back us up.  There is a form of religion that makes people proud and arrogant and seems to rob them both of their humanity and their divinely inspired compassion.  It is the kind of bad religion that Jonah had, and God had to resort to drastic measures to heal him of it.  It exists in all the world’s religions, and those who claim the name of Jesus are certainly not immune.

Bad religion is all too evident in our world the bad religion that claims God is our side, the bad religion that steals religious words with which to demonise those who seem different, those we don’t approve of, the bad religion that picks pieces out of ancient wisdom to create the pretence of a moral justification for doing what we want to do anyway.

Bad religion, the religion of Jonah, is to be found on all sides of our current global divisions.  But we thank God that there is also a form of religion that makes people humble, and gentle, that makes us fully human and fill us with compassion.  I am in no position to make statements about other religions, but certainly for those who claim the name and the way of Jesus, there should be no excuse for bad religion.  Our scriptures are full of stories like Jonah, that challenge narrow mindedness and call us to spread the mercy of God.  And of course we have the plain example of Jesus, reaching out, accepting, forgiving, healing, giving himself completely, for the sake of God’s mercy.

And this Jesus call us to follow him.  Jonah is a model for us of the wrong kind of faith, a model of those who forget the lesson of their own salvation.  Jesus is the model for us of what faith really means, a model of humility, and gentle grace and the strongest kind of love.  As we seek to respond to all that God has done for us,

as we make that response in the small things and the big things of our lives, may we have the faith to follow Christ, even when it leads us in directions we are reluctant to go.