For those who want a change from the Gospel
3rd before Advent (Kingdom 2) – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
What actually is the book of Jonah? A whale of a Sunday School story for the kids? A folk tale about an ancient hero? A myth? A prophetic oracle? Well, all of the above, but it will help us today if we think of it as an important manifesto for the ‘Gentile Lives Matter’ campaign. Post-exilic Israel had a tendency, you see, to think it itself as the bee’s knees. They were, and always had been, God’s ‘chosen people’ and yes, they may have been a bit naughty at times, but God was on their side and had rescued them and allowed their city and their national life to be rebuilt. So Jonah, an otherwise almost unknown prophet from a former age, had his story retold as a salutary tale against those who felt that all these Gentiles had no future in God’s glorious kingdom. The book is a treatise against the narrow and dangerous nationalism of Israel.
So Jonah (eventually) goes to preach in the streets of Nineveh, a city which was the capital of the wicked Assyrian empire, but which the readers knew, with hindsight, was responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. The city was a byword for depravity and cruelty, and God had seen it and determined to destroy it. Fair enough. But Jonah knew God only too well: in 4:2 he tells him that he understood that he would show mercy to those awful Ninevites if given half a chance. And so he had. Chapter 3 ends with the whole nation, from the king downwards, repenting in a heartfelt (some might say over the top) manner – animals in sackcloth? Really? But in the end there was no punishment after all.
So who does Jonah represent? Not just the nationalistic and xenophobic Israelites, but actually all those who put their own preferences before the will of God. Since Genesis 12, in the time of Abraham, God had made it clear that his purpose was to bless all the nations on earth, and that his ‘chosen’ people were in fact those chosen to gather the Gentiles into the kingdom. This is a theme which runs through the OT, and is of course reiterated in Simeon’s Song, what Anglicans call the Nunc dimittis, in the New. Israel constantly forgot this idea, just as the Church so often does today, whenever it does things the way we, the insiders like it, and react with horror at the idea that we might do something different which might be attractive to other, perhaps younger, seekers.
But while the reluctance of Christians to engage in evangelism might be partly down to the fear of doing something new, there are far more obvious reasons why the E-word is such a negative one for 20th century Western Christians. But again there is a subtle twist in Jonah’s tale here. Yes, he runs a mile (actually many hundreds) at the idea of his missionary calling, but it isn’t until the final chapter that we get to see why. Most of us run from evangelism because of the fear that people won’t listen. But Jonah’s reluctance comes from the opposite direction: he fears that they will, in which case God’s mercy will prevent them from getting the good thrashing they so deserve. We fear failure: Jonah feared success.
But then, when you think about it, are we actually so very different? Many of our churches, of all kinds and theological positions, are actually comfy clubs for those who are already members, and who do things they way we like them. The very idea that we might be evangelistically effective, and find our churches overrun with people who are new, different, maybe younger, who really don’t know how to behave in the House of the Lord, can be scary, if seldom articulated. We may be happy to help feed the poor through our foodbanks, but would we really like them worshipping with us on a Sunday morning? The immediate answer ought to be ‘Yes, we would!’, but it doesn’t take much to begin to imagine the potential problems. In a small way we experienced this when we planted a Fresh Expression congregation, which was resisted vigorously by some in power in the ‘proper’ church because ‘We never see them in church’. We know the gospel is for everyone, but in some cases we’re as closed as Jonah was to anything new.
If that seems miserable, then there are two bits of good news for us in this chapter, which fit around it like a pair of brackets. The first is in v.1: ‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time’. Our God is a God of second chances. When we have resisted, run away from his will, made excuses, or just plain ignored him, he speaks again. In his mercy and love he doesn’t give up after a first refusal. We’re invited to ask ourselves where the word of the Lord needs to come again to us, perhaps after a period of trying to drown it out.
The second bit of good news comes in the final verse: in response to Jonah’s preaching, there was repentance and mercy. If God’s people listened to him calling a second time, who knows what might happen to our corrupt and cruel nation?