Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 21 January 2018
Readings were Jonah 3: 1-10 and Mark 1: 14-20
The story of Jonah is given to us from the lectionary today. Of course it’s only part of the famous story of this…delinquent prophet.
As it is with this part of the story, the lectionary omits the verses we’ve heard today about the actions of the King of Nineveh. But I think these are important to keep in, to better understand what is going on.
The passage we’ve heard starts:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…
When God spoke to Jonah the first time, Jonah took off in the opposite direction! After this massive disobedient interruption, the trajectory of God’s mission for Jonah resumes:
go to Nineveh, that great city,
and proclaim to it the message that I tell you (v2)
And this time, Jonah (having learned his lesson the hard way) goes to Nineveh. The city of Nineveh is a city like Wellington, but also NOT like Wellington. It is geographically ‘exceedingly large’ – three days to walk across. But more significantly, the city of Nineveh represents a massive concentration of human power. Nineveh is a superpower of the day.
And so it is to this concentration of human power that Jonah is sent to bring God’s message.
What was God’s message? (What did you hear in the reading?) Only this:
in forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown! (v4)
The word translated ‘overthrown’ is the same word used to describe the earthquake that would destroy Sodom (Genesis 19:25). The message is ominous. The city is doomed. We can perhaps picture Jonah walking through the city with a large sign: “The end is nigh!”
The response (in the very next verse) is immediate and surprising:
the people of Nineveh believed God (v5)
This verb ‘believe’ does not seem to suggest any faith in God, but only that they heard and accepted the threat of doom as a real and imminent one. They believed that Yahweh meant what he said.
We need to recognise here that their response is their own. The text gives no suggestion that Jonah’s message included an invitation to respond. Jonah simply declared God’s impending destruction.
Therefore, how remarkable is the daring, imaginative and inventive movement forward to respond with repentance. This response of the city is personified by the King.
And I want us to consider these verses about the King’s actions. The actions of the King are immediate:
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
These are traditional actions of repentance, and they tell us a lot. The immediate actions of King reveal that he accepts the message, …but not as the last word. The King has a theology of his own, not borrowed from Jonah or the message Jonah brings. The King believes that God may change; the plan for punishment might be avoided.
This is a daring theological position: that human action might be able to influence God. And that God does indeed have the freedom to act in a different way. This is of course precisely what Jonah is worried about: that God will change his mind and NOT destroy Nineveh as threatened!
This week I saw the movie ‘Darkest Hour’. It’s about Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister during the early stages of WWII, and immediately facing pressure to enter into peace negotiations with Hitler. Churchill knows that to move into negotiations is to acknowledge uncertainty about Great Britain’s ability to prevail in war. The line from Churchill that stands out for me is:
When will we realise you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!
Underlying Churchill’s reluctance to negotiate is a concern about whether Hitler will ever cease from pursuing total conquest. Churchill discerns Hitler will never be dissuaded from total conquest.
The king of Nineveh discerns God is not like this. Jonah does what God asks and moves toward the city of Nineveh, but Jonah would prefer God to be unrelenting and destroy the wicked city.
However, this story becomes one of God’s generous freedom. The King of Nineveh becomes a symbol of good theology. He discerns the character of God accurately. God does indeed have the capacity for exercising judgement, but also has the freedom to forgive.
This is an important example for us, as we discern God’s character for our own life and faith. Can we trust God? Is God interested in us? What does God think of us and what we do? Is God loving and forgiving?
Our theology matters.
This side of Christmas we celebrate the movement of God into human space. We celebrate the incarnation. We celebrate that love comes to town. Jesus is the personification of God’s purposes materialising in our midst. We have this symbol of the manger as God’s purposes moving into human space.
And today’s Gospel reading continues the movement of God’s purposes. Jesus proclaims:
the kingdom of God has come near (v15)
Jonah walks through the city; Jesus walks through Galilee. Both move in proclamation of God’s purposes. Both movements invite a response.
This Gospel passage in Mark is the birth of Jesus’ public ministry, and is a similar proclamation to Jonah’s. …But it is also different. As has been said by one scholar
the proclaimer becomes the proclaimed. (Bultmann)
The first disciples are invited to follow Jesus; to move as he moves. And they do so without any suggestion of hesitation.
The journey of moving with God starts with a step of faith. This is true for everyone – those first disciples and for us today. How wonderful it is to have our young people here at St John’s taking the steps of faith of Baptism and Confirmation! We celebrate and encourage them in moving forward in faith as the best response we know to recognising God’s purposes in our midst – following the ‘love that has come to town’.
The word ‘movement’ can describe the verb to move. It can also describe a common understanding between people who advance a growing idea. And to move with the purposes of God can form a movement.Life can become re-ordered. A hated city like Nineveh, whom the best people have given up on, can live differently. Disciples can dare to go in a radical new direction, and change according to God’s purposes.
This movement can be a reorientation of loyalties, of social relations, of vocation and occupation, and of public power. Our movement has at the heart: a move to follow the proclaimer who becomes the proclaimed.
In Jesus we find the purposes of God in human form; this is our truest encounter with the purposes of God, our most real (really real) encounter with the purposes of God. When we follow Jesus we are swept into a movement; we are moving with Jesus together.
This is why it is so exciting to welcome new members today. Bastian and Edy are expressing they want to be part of God’s ‘movement’ here in Wellington, as part of this community called to action! And by their commitment we are encouraged to move forward together; to follow obediently and discern diligently our response of faith.
I want to say a lot more, but let me wrap up this message, by bringing this Word from scripture home; to this city; to Wellington. Tomorrow is Wellington Anniversary Day – a public holiday. And whatever your plans for tomorrow, I urge you to include in your prayers: the city of Wellington and its people. That God will move in our city, with compassion and generosity to those who need it most.
Let us not sit comfortably (or even selfishly) like Jonah, but let us ask God for His best for the people of Wellington. That this city will be blessed and move ahead with the purposes of God.
And, in fact, I want to lead us in prayer now using a prayer by Walter Brueggeman.
You are the God who has set us
in families and clans and tribes,
in communities and finally in cities.
We give you thanks this day that you are
Lord of this city and all cities.
We pray for this city today,
and for Jerusalem and
a thousand other cities.
In all our cities this day
there will be crime and sharp moneymaking
and compassion and forgiveness, and generosity,
and regulations about justice and injustice.
Be our God this day and prosper our city.
We pray in the name of the one who wept over the city.
Prayers for Privileged People (2008)