Sermon preached by
This week is I understand tourist week in Iraq, You are encouraged to go to Iraq and in the main hotel in Baghdad you will see a wall size picture of Saddam skiing, with the caption 'Tourism is a river of Gold.'
Now why on earth would you want to go to Iraq? Well if it was not one the top three sites in the world to be bombed, one reason might be to see the ruins of Nineveh which lie in the country of Iraq.
Our story today is from the Book of Jonah, which in only 48 verses tells about Jonah, a prophet called to go to Nineveh to preach. In this sense the story is rooted in history.
The Book of Jonah is a wonderful story and it is different from the other prophetic books, having the form of a story rather than being a collection of prophetic oracles. In some ways it is a beautiful children's story because it contains magical elements of amusing impossibility, but with a strong moral tale.
Many Christians like Luther would prefer that Jonah had just failed to get into the canon of scripture. Voltaire and others have mocked the farcical elements of the story and many Christians prefer to see the book of Jonah as a parable than a real event.
The fact that Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah neither validates the historicity of the events or disproves them. It would be perfectly reasonable for Jesus to refer to stories which were in the religious consciousness of his hearers, without needing to establish that they were literally true. Indeed many people today will use Biblical stories as illustrations, without believing in the historical reality of the people to whom they refer, we might think of the phrase 'The patience of Job.'
But the historicity of the events is not where our preoccupations should lie. Those people who wish to believe that Jonah lived inside a fish for three days should be allowed to do so, as should those who prefer to see this as a story with an important teaching. Of real importance is the message which the book proclaims about God and his way of dealing with people, it is a story about grace and forgiveness
The story of Jonah
Jonah son of Amittai hears the prompting of God and is told to be a prophet to the great city of Nineveh. Nineveh became the capital city of Assyria in the reign of Sennacherib, 704-681.In the mind of our author it stood for all the wickedness which had been endemic in the Assyrian empire. He is told to preach against it, because it is a wicked place.
But Jonah runs away. He goes to the port of Joppa and gets onto a boat headed for Tarshish. He pays the fare and sets sail, possibly for Spain. (Tarshish may have been Tartessus in Spain, in the far west.)
We are then told that God sent a violent storm on the sea and the boat threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
The sailors cast lots to see if they can determine who has brought the wrath of God on the ship. They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah and Jonah offered to be thrown in to the sea because he had run from God.
The sailors decide to try and make for land but are defeated and reluctantly throw Jonah into the sea as a sacrifice.
But God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights, and Jonah prayed and praised God from the fish.
Then suddenly the fish vomits Jonah up onto dry land and God tells Jonah a second time to go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim the message
Jonah obeys God this time and goes to Nineveh. This is a city which we are told takes three days to get across and Jonah goes and proclaims: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." His heart was obviously not really in his preaching.
Then we have a classic case of the effectiveness of short sermons! Jonah preached a very cursory message, yet his preaching had its effect in city-wide repentance.
We are told the Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. Even the king of Nineveh rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
Of course when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
Now we might think Jonah would be pleased but he was not, Jonah was displeased and became angry. Jonah complains to God 'I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. A vine grew over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live."
God said to Jonah, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" God compares and contrasts Jonah's apparent concern for a plant which grew up over night with a whole city full of people and animals.
The Assyrians were not nice to Israel. Byron wrote
'The Assyrians came down like the wolf on the fold
and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold'
He was referring to the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 who came from Nineveh. Jonah would have known of atrocities inflicted upon people by the Assyrians and he would have wanted God to punish them for their war crimes.
Perhaps firstly therefore we must remember that at the beginning of the story it is God who notices the sin of Nineveh and God who wants something to be done about it. God does not turn a blind eye to wickedness. The story is about God's grace- his giving of forgiveness to those who do not deserve it, but that does not mean he approves of bad things.
God wants to see an end to wickedness, he wants repentance, turning away from sin, that is clear. What Jonah was afraid of was the way that God would deal with the problem, which was entirely different to the way that Jonah would have responded.
Jonah wanted the city destroyed and he was angry that God would be perceived as backing down. I suppose in some ways Jonah was like the Apostle Peter who tried to convince Jesus that he should not take the road to the cross, but rather should establish his kingdom there and then. The image of a Jesus on a cross was one of weakness. Peter and Jonah wanted a God who would bring down the fire from heaven and destroy those who had not behaved themselves properly. Peter, Jonah, all of us if we are honest, we don't want mercy (what God gives us freely) but justice (what we have earned). To let Nineveh off, this was not justice this was a give away we want justice!
We are brought up in life to expect justice and we want our fair share.
A piece of cake left for evening desert and two children look at the cake and wonder who will get the biggest piece. How should the cake be cut? It must be cut by one child and the other child chooses their piece first. That way we can be sure that they both get what is fair!
We like the concept of fairness, a fair days work for a fair days pay. That is why the reading from Matthew today goes against the grain. Late workers getting paid just as much as those who have worked all day? Such treatment if it were to catch on would quickly undermine the economy.
We imagine that Gods grace and mercy are like cutting out the cake, if we all have a piece there won't be enough left to go round. Some people will understandably ask, 'how can God forgive people like the Islamic terrorists who crashed planes into the towers in New York, surely they do not deserve God's grace?'
This is an interesting question, to claim that some people do not deserve grace implies that other people do deserve grace. I wonder if we can agree a definition of an oxymoron? "A contradictory figure of speech" Well the statement that 'we are deserving of grace' is a good example of an oxymoron.
None of us deserve grace, we cannot, grace is unmerited forgiveness, forgiveness that you do not deserve.
Fortunately in the economy of God there is a lot of giving away. I remember as a child buying fruit from a shop on the estate of Lord Leverhulme. You asked for a pound of oranges and you got about two and a half pounds. You asked for a dozen apples and he would just give you a big bag with perhaps 20. This wasn't Lord Leverhulme in the shop of course this was one of the workers, but presumably Lord Leverhulme knew what was going on! Everybody who went there thought they had gone mad, but nobody complained because everybody thought 'Old Lord Leverhulme could afford it.'
God's economy is like that, it isn't fair, everybody gets more than they deserve, and because everybody gets more than they deserve nobody should complain that another person got even more than they deserve. It would be ridiculous to complain that you asked for a pound of oranges and got two, but somebody else got three! Everybody gets more than they deserve.
So it is with God's mercy, nobody gets justice everybody gets grace. And actually like Lord Leverhulme, God will not go broke, he has enough grace to go around, all can be forgiven. As soon as we start working with principles of our own righteousness then we have missed the point. Instead of envying what God does for others, we should be grateful for what we have got.
So perhaps we ask how God's justice can possibly tie in with forgiveness, how can God be just, fair and forgiving of sin? I wonder if you had to make a guess, how much of God would you say that we knew about?
I am not asking who has come to know God, I am asking how much we know about God, how much we understand about God, 90%? 60%? 50%? Does anybody think that they know half of what there is to know about God? I think we will stop there! We could probably go a lot lower. But what is certain is that there is infinitely more to know about God than we can possibly fit in our finite minds.
Having agreed that much then we must acknowledge that we will find it difficult to understand the manner in which God can exercise grace and forgiveness and yet still be a just God. What however is clear is that for God there is no contradiction between his justice and his grace.
There is much which Jonah needs to learn too about God. That God does not condemn if there is the possibility that he can find a way to forgive. He sees the sin of Nineveh and he recognizes that their sin is born of ignorance ('who do not know their right hand from their left', v. 11), he excuses the sin which is not their fault because they do not know any better!
We can all think of somebody else who did that - Jesus on the cross, 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do!'
How much would we have wanted to see Jesus come down from the cross and sort out the soldiers and religious leaders who put him there. God's very nature is compassion and mercy, not just to Israel, as perhaps Jonah would have liked, not just to the righteous as he would most certainly have liked, not even just to humans but to the animals in Nineveh also!