17th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 18.9.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
The Great British Bake Off has been much in the news this week. One could hardly imagine that a programme about baking could stir up so much controversy. The programme has an extraordinary popularity. It was the most watched programme on TV last year, and one of the reasons Channel 4 have bought it for such a high price is that it offers advertisers pure gold dust – half of the viewers are under 30, a group who are less and less watching the mainstream channels.
One of the reasons for its success, like with a number of these type of shows, is that slowly but surely we are drawn into caring about the fate of the contestants. We see their disasters – the breads that fail to rise, the ginger-bread houses that collapse, the yorkshire puddings that fall flat – and yet we see their chances for redemption too, those moments when out the blue, they deliver the perfect iced bun. Almost despite ourselves, we are drawn in, and find ourselves tuning in each week.
The story of Jonah would have had a similarly captivating effect on people 2,500 years ago. With no TV or radio, or books, evening entertainment was to sit round the fire and tell stories, and this story would have been requested time and time again. For it too in a most profound yet engaging way is the story of disaster and redemption, of failure and success, of petty resentfulness and divine grace.
We rejoin the story with Jonah back on dry land, and this time willing to do God’s will, willing to go to Nineveh, if albeit still reluctantly. Jonah had good reasons for not wanting to go there. It was the super-power of the age. Culturally, it was way ahead of everyone else in terms of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, glass making and architecture. Its royal library contained 26,000 tablets. The British Museum today has a whole section reserved for the finds of this great empire. Militarily, it was ruthless and utterly dominant. It treated its enemies harshly, it impaled its victims on spikes, it burnt cities to the ground and it moved whole people’s hundreds of miles and deposited them in alien lands as refugees.
They were the last people imaginable for either God to show mercy to, or for them to show any desire to repent. No wonder Jonah has been reluctant to go.
And yet extraordinarily, the people of Nineveh do repent. One can almost hear the gasps of astonishment around the fireplace as people hear the story for the first time; the shaking of heads in continued disbelief amongst those who had heard it before. For surely God would not forgive his people’s worst enemy; surely God would not have compassion on an entire city of 120,000 people (an almost unimaginably large number in those days). And yet gradually the penny would drop. God forgives all people who repent. No person is beyond the pail; no person is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.
Some writers have called it the “scandal” of God’s grace. All can receive the forgivenness of God if we but turn to him to receive it. That is wonderful news for me and for you, because it means that I, that you, are not beyond God’s forgiveness, no matter how we may feel, no matter how unworthy we may feel, no matter how much we feel we may have done something that has let God or others down.
Our God is a God of overwhelming grace. As Jonah acknowledges, albeit through gritted teeth, he is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
We live in a world where huge questions are thrown up about identity – who we are, what our purpose for living is – and questions too about our value and worth – especially post-retirement or if we’re unemployed – questions which often lead to a great deal of uncertainty and doubt. The book of Jonah reminds us of a truth of the utmost importance: whoever we are, we are loved by God. If God could forgive and love the Ninevites, the book of Jonah suggests, then he will forgive and love anyone, including us.
The story could finish there, with God’s grace and love being poured out on the city of Nineveh but it doesn’t. When Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son he didn’t just tell of the one son, the son who returned and was joyously forgiven by his father. He tells the story of the older son too, the one who is resentful that his brother should return and be forgiven so readily. Likewise, the story of Jonah ends not with the forgiven Ninevites, but with a resentful and very grumpy Jonah.
Jonah is furious with God for forgiving the Ninevites. He sees it as a calamity, an outrageous injustice. He felt Nineveh deserved to be destroyed, to be crushed, and instead it is saved. So he goes off in an almighty huff.
Even as we receive God’s grace for ourselves, and Jonah just a few days previously had been praying a prayer of thanks to God for his own forgiveness as he sat inside the big fish, there is a part of us that can resent God extending that grace to others. We can want those who have wronged us to receive their comeuppance, not to receive forgiveness. It could be a colleague at work who seems to undermine us at every turn; or a neighbour who is less than neighbourly; or a person here at church who annoys and upsets us; or a member of our family from whom we have become estranged. Jonah reflects a very human part of ourselves – the part that wants justice/ vengeance when we feel wronged – and that struggles to see the other person as God himself sees them. We fail to see the bigger picture.
God gently tries to alert Jonah to his blinkered vision. As he sits fuming outside the city, God prompts a vine to grow to give him shade. When the next day, the vine dies and Jonah’s shade is gone, he claims he is so angry about it that he wants to die. Its the kind of response that is so blatantly over-the-top, Jonah is so focused in on himself, that it would probably have prompted most of the story’s listeners to burst out laughing. Jonah’s behaviour is absurd. But its the kind of absurdity that most observational comedy is based on. What makes Michael MacIntyre or Peter Kay so funny is that they hold a mirror up to ourselves and show us how we so often are. And the book of Jonah is the same. For in the humour of it all, we may possibly just catch a glimpse of ourselves. Like Jonah, we can get so caught up in what we think are own needs, that we fail to see the bigger picture of God’s grace in the world, a grace that seeks to reach out to all people with his love and compassion.
We can choose to be part of that work, to be part of the loving purposes of God in bringing hope and comfort and redemption, or we can be like Jonah, fuming at perceived slights or injustices, unwilling to acknowledge the extraordinary all-encompassing nature of God’s grace.
The Jonah story has an unusual ending, and with this I too will end. It finishes in mid-conversation with a question that we never hear the answer to. God asks Jonah whether He does not indeed have the right to be concerned about the thousands of people living in Nineveh. We never get to hear Jonah’s reply. Does he storm off in anger and catch the next boat to Tarshish? Or does he stay in Nineveh, and gradually discover within himself the love that God has for these people? We don’t know. The question is left hanging in the air, for us to answer about our own lives. What will we choose? Tarshish or Nineveh? Judgment or mercy? Hatred or love?
It is left to each of us to write the next chapter of this remarkable book.