Sermon 25 January 2015
St George’s, Dunsborough
There have been Christians in Iraq since the earliest times, probably as long as, or even longer than there have been Christians in Syria. The Iraqi Christian community may be the oldest continuous Christian community in the world. In recent years, their numbers have been decimated. In 1987, there were 1.4 million or about 8% of the population. We should not have been surprised that Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister, was a Christian. By 2010, the number had dropped to between 200,000 and 400,000.
The terror group calling itself Islamic State in Syria and the Levant has reduced the number of Christians even further; and, it should be said, the number of Yezidi, and Shia Muslims, and even Sunni Muslims who are not intense enough in their beliefs, all have been reduced by ISIL.
ISIL proclaimed its “caliphate” in Mosul just across the river from the ruins of Nineveh, and made its destructive presence felt not only in beheadings and mass executions but also by blowing up Jonah’s tomb, not because they had anything against Jonah, who is also a prophet in Islam, but because their brand of fundamentalism worries that people might worship the shrine instead of the God to whom it is dedicated.
Even so it’s not immediately obvious why Jonah is an exemplary prophet. The rabbis debated as to whether Jonah should be included in the Bible, and many Protestant scholars regard him as a failed prophet.
His story is told as a four chapter novella – a fictional form. Whether there’s history or not behind the story is your judgement call. In the first chapter, God told Jonah to go and proclaim to Nineveh, the largest city in the world. Go to New Delhi; or go to Shanghai; go to Nineveh. But Jonah booked a passage for Tarshish. That’s like buying a ticket for South America. He headed as far as possible in the opposite direction.
Then “the Lord hurled a powerful wind on the sea. Such a violent tempest arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” (Jonah 1:4) The terrified sailors each cried out to their own gods. Jonah went below and went to sleep. He didn’t help. He didn’t even pray. This storm, he knew, was his doing, and he was still running from responsibility.
Eventually the sailors drew lots to discover who was the cause of the storm. Jonah drew the short straw. The sailors questioned Jonah, who then – at last – began to preach. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). This made the sailors more frightened and the storm grew worse and worse until Jonah offered to be thrown overboard.
It’s only then that the storm stopped. Many commentators believe that the storm was an internal storm. It was happening in Jonah’s head. It was telling of his emotional state. Denying his responsibility caused turmoil within him. The moment he took responsibility the storm stopped. But he didn’t admit full responsibility. The admission was squeezed out of him. So a further step had to be taken before Jonah was behaving like an adult.
As the storm calmed, a big fish swallowed Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. Three days and three nights is a significant period in the Bible. One life ends and a new life begins. Sometimes the bible talks about two days, sometimes three days; sometimes it talks about a new life beginning “on the third day”. It all means the same. You can easily get confused with the numbers, just like when you are talking with a travel agent about a travel package – a week’s holiday might be six days. Two days, three days – it depends when you start counting from – but it always signals a transition time.
So in the fish’s stomach for three days Jonah told God how sorry he was, and after the transition time, the Lord commanded the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. (2:10)
All that was being mulled over in his head, stirred up, with that feeling in the pit of his stomach, unable to see the way ahead, suddenly became calm and light: Jonah could see the way ahead.
The Lord then gave Jonah a second chance to go to huge Nineveh, the enormous city, and proclaim the message that the Lord will give. Jonah’s message was five words in Hebrew, the shortest and most effective sermon ever. “Forty days until Nineveh’s overthrown!” ‘
Much to Jonah’s surprise the people heeded Jonah’s message: they repented. The king, the people, the cattle, the sheep, everyone repented; and so whole-heartedly that God repented too and decided not to destroy the city.
“This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry.” (4:1) Chapter 4 is wonderful comedy starring the irate Jonah. God appointed a little plant to grow over Jonah and shade his head to rescue him from his misery. And “Jonah rejoiced with great joy” (4:6) over the little plant.
But then God sent a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah was furious about the destruction of the plant. God mildly made the point that God was concerned about destroying a mega-city with more than 120,000 people – plus animals – and Jonah was concerned about one plant.
If it wasn’t so tragic, Jonah’s story would be funny.
Jonah was not at ease in his own skin, he was a prophet who ran away, who was churned up inside about his vocation, and the story reveals what happened when these inner emotions were allowed out.
Rather than take responsibility Jonah was quite happy to let a ship full of sailors break up and go down. When he got to Nineveh, he was still a reluctant prophet. He went only one day’s walk into the city. He preached only five words. He pronounced the destruction of an entire city.
There’s an old riddle: how do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A liturgist is an expert in how things go in worship, what colour you should use for what season, what vestment you should wear, what gestures you should make. What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist. The joke is funny only because negotiation is not what terrorists do. They hold to ransom. They demand. They stipulate destruction.
Jonah’s job, on the other hand, was to “proclaim”. The difference between “proclaiming” and “stipulating” may be difficult for a fundamentalist to grasp, but for the rest of us, “proclaiming” includes “engaging with”. Jonah was supposed to learn that his task involved discussion, persuasion and responsibility. Instead he contemplated the annihilation of the biggest city in the world.
God does not work through mass destruction, whether it is the massacre of journalists in Paris or the beheading of Christians in Iraq.
Jonah’s story brings us up short with its perceptive psychology. It’s not really about recruitment for ISIS. It’s about us and how we can be like Jonahs in our own homes and in our own communities.
When we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, we can become manipulative and destructive towards others. We blame. We blame God. We blame people who are different. We blame people who are close to us. We confuse our feelings with the world outside. The dark side of Jonah leads me to create a check-list so that I don’t end up like him caring more about the life of one little plant than a whole community.
- Am I leaving others room to make their own decisions?
- Am I really taking responsibility for my own actions?
- Am I acknowledging my changing moods and feelings?
- Am I really prepared to repent, and to change?
- Am I open to God so that God’s love can flow through me to others?
“No sign will be given this adulterous and sinful generation,” declares Jesus, “except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4, Luke 11:29). Jesus rescues Jonah’s reputation on two counts. Firstly, Jonah and Jesus both sleep through a raging storm, and then with the stilling of the storm it is revealed who is the Creator of the sea and the wind.
Secondly, Jonah’s three days in the big fish, being swallowed at the end of his old life of denial and being disgorged to a new life of obedience, pre-figure the three days Jesus spends in the earth between the crucifixion and the resurrection, entering the tomb a dead man and rising to new life for all people.
By that calculation, Jonah is far from being a failed prophet. He’ll go on causing laughter and discussion and leading us into deeper insight into being real before God.