This sermon was written and presented by Rev’d Pamela Phillips.
Many years ago, there was a comedy skit about preaching by Peter Cook, of “Peter Cook and Dudley Moore” fame, if I remember rightly. Peter Cook, who could take off a pompous Church of England cleric with devilish skill, solemnly proclaimed that the text for his sermon was “Esau was an hairy man”.
Roberta has previously commented on the occasional peculiarities of the Lectionary’s choice of readings. Often it’s obvious that they’ve been chosen because of a common theme, and the whole purpose of the Common Lectionary is to cover all the main points of Christian faith over the course of three years. This ensures that preachers don’t get carried away with certain parts of the Christian message and neglect others. Or preach from a text that is as incidental as the relative hairiness of two brothers.
So if you look at the Old Testament and the Gospel readings today, the theme’s clearly that of responding to God’s call, though how the Epistle reading fits in is a bit more problematic. We have the middle bit of the story of Jonah, the most reluctant prophet in the Bible, contrasted with the whole-hearted response of the Galilean fishermen.
It’s a pity we don’t have time to read all three chapters of the Jonah story, because it’s one of the funniest in the Bible.
In our reading today, we entered the story of Jonah right in the middle of the action. It began “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” We know what happened the first time. God said, “Get up and go to Nineveh”, and Jonah got up and ran in the opposite direction. Go to Nineveh? The capital of the Assyrian Empire, that destroyer of Israel, that brutal occupying force? No way! So he boarded a ship to get away, but God threw a storm at him, and the sailors eventually reluctantly did as he said and threw him overboard to pacify his God. Then God sent the big fish which swallowed him and presumably started swimming in the right direction, while Jonah sat for three days in its belly. Not the most comfortable mode of transport, but at least he didn’t drown, as he grudgingly acknowledged in his prayer. Eventually the fish vomited him up on dry land.
Which is where we came in. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city.” And this time, now covered in sea water and fish vomit, Jonah obeyed.
So Jonah got to Nineveh, a large city which was situated across the river from where modern-day Mosul is in Iraq. It was the largest city in the world for about 50 years, with a total area of about 7 square kilometres. Jonah marched into the middle of Nineveh, then preached the shortest sermon ever recorded – “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” – only 5 words in Hebrew.
The response was amazing. Immediately, the people of Nineveh believed God, and here’s where the humour builds. The people declared a fast. The king, not to be outdone, ordered human and animal alike to fast, which they were already doing, and put on sackcloth. Then all those sackcloth-covered and now hungry cows and sheep and people bellowed, bleated or cried out their repentance to God, and God changed his mind about the punishment.
That’s where our reading ends but the story continues. You’d think Jonah would have been ecstatic. After all, he’s just about the most successful prophet in the whole Bible. He’d brought about a mass conversion. Every inhabitant of the city, human and animal alike, had responded.
But instead, he had a tantrum. He told God “I knew you’d let them off the hook” and he stomped off to sit and sulk while he waited to see what would happen. And I’m sure you remember the rest of the story. He got angry again because the bush sheltering him died. And God said to him, basically “What’s your problem? You’re angry about a bush, but don’t care about a hundred and twenty thousand people who don’t know any better, plus all their animals.”
Contrast the story of Jonah with the Gospel account of Jesus calling his first disciples.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee after his cousin John the Baptist had been arrested. In John’s Gospel from which we read last week, Andrew had been one of John the Baptist’s followers. He’d met Jesus, and then introduced his brother Simon to him, so we can assume that they didn’t just follow Jesus on impulse, and that James and John were also aware of this charismatic new preacher. Nevertheless, when Jesus called, they responded wholeheartedly, and left everything to follow him.
I don’t think they realised what they were letting themselves in for. To travel in the company of Christ does bestow great joy and peace. But he can also be a most discomforting companion and Lord. The one who calls us often wants to take us outside our comfort zone. Even when we grow old, our God isn’t likely to let us retire. There are calls that come to the elderly as well as to the young. As our life unfolds, we may reach plateaus of orderly calm. Then just when we are ready for a spiritual snooze, there are new calls, new challenges, and new uphill tracks to climb.
We’re in the season of Epiphany at the moment. In Christianity, the Epiphany refers to the revelation that Jesus is the son of God, beginning with the visit of the wise men. We still talk about people “having an epiphany” – meaning something that has broken through the regular pattern of their lives and altered them forever. Both Jonah and the disciples experienced an epiphany. They’re often not comfortable. Epiphanies, especially of the divine kind, demand an immediate response. There’s no invitation for contemplation or reflection but instantaneous commitment and risk.
When people talk about following Jesus, or being in the presence of God, there’s sometimes an assumption that all will be comfortable and peaceful. That’s often true. But we sometimes forget to admit to ourselves or to others how confronting it can also be – even how scary at times.
We have a tendency to think that only certain people with particular gifts are “called” to follow Jesus. Throughout Christian history, the Church has frequently been guilty of fostering this tendency, making a sort of two-tier Christianity. The Gospels tell us otherwise.
The few people that Jesus selected to follow him on his journeys were certainly called to a particular service, to form a nucleus who Jesus could teach so that they could go out and minister to others, spreading the Good News. But they were ordinary people by all accounts, and Mark’s Gospel certainly doesn’t portray them as heroic figures. They seem obtuse, having to ask for explanations of the parables, bickering among themselves about who was the most important and in the end, all running away and deserting him. The only disciples Mark describes as being present at the Crucifixion were the women who’d followed him and provided for him.
By far the majority who believed in Jesus’ message stayed at home and got on with their lives. Someone still needed to catch the fish and mend the nets. It’s worth noting that Zebedee, the father of James and John, was an employer with hired staff. The disciples weren’t poverty-stricken, as they’re sometimes portrayed. Rather the disciples and Jesus himself were all what we would today consider middle class. Then, as now, tradesmen could earn a decent living and had standing in their communities.
The new disciples had a lot to learn. They needed to be taught that Jesus’ ministry, and theirs, was to all people, destitute as well as comfortable. In God’s kingdom, standing and status counted for nothing. Many of the people Jesus healed or welcomed were not well accepted in society. Mentally ill, disabled, lepers, children – Jesus showed they were all accepted by God. He even called one of the despised collaborators – the tax collector Matthew – to be a disciple. Every person is equally a loved child of God.
That’s another lesson the story of Jonah can teach us. The people of Nineveh were also still of concern to God, even though they were the race that tore apart the Chosen People. No-one is outside God’s love.
Jonah had demonised the enemy and wanted only the destruction of the entire population. God’s final words to Jonah clearly state God’s concern for even the Ninevites. The disciples had similar hard lessons to learn from Jesus, who told them to love their enemies.
Today we see graphically what demonisation and hatred can do. God’s love for all people’s a vital thing for us to remember, living as we do in a time and a culture that’s increasingly polarised into “them” and “us”, that’s being stirred up to hatred and suspicion of foreigners and outsiders. As followers of Christ, we don’t have the option to accept the demonisation of anyone.
In a way, I’ve experienced the sort of epiphany that God sometimes throws as us. I had two spiritual experiences many years ago that powerfully connected me with the humanity and suffering of people who aren’t like us. Both were the result of something I saw on TV, which isn’t the first thing you think to go to for spiritual experiences. One was a broadcast about the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. In the middle of a scene of utter desolation, huge crowds with no food or shelter, a woman held the body of her young child, who was one of the many who had died during the night in the sheds where the sickest were taken. The camera caught her in the throes of her grief, supported by another woman. I had two small children myself at that time. I found myself totally identified with that devastated young mother.
The second was during the invasion of Afghanistan by Russia, also in the 80s. It showed the suffering of the Afghan people during the decade-long war. Again, I found myself totally caught up in the despair and misery of those people.
In both instances, I found myself, quite consciously, weeping God’s tears for his suffering children. That sounds rather grandiose, but really both events were profoundly sacred moments to me, and I was filled with a sense of physically expressing God’s grief. The Afghan people were the mujahideen – the Muslim freedom fighters. I had no doubt about God’s love for them.
The call of God to Jonah, and the call of God through Christ to the fishermen, was a call to radical obedience. Each one of us is also called to a life of radical obedience, to be lived out in the ordinary circumstances of our lives, or in more dramatic ways should they arise. There are so many ways that humanity is bringing grief to God today. The horrific cruelty and violence that we hear of daily. The unjust treatment of refugees who haven’t done anything illegal in seeking refuge in our country, no matter how much the government and the media say they have. The destruction of so much of God’s wonderful creation in our addiction to excessive consumption, with complete disregard of how that impacts on the poor and vulnerable around the world. When faced with the apparently endless stream of misery, cruelty and destruction on the nightly news, it can be very difficult not to turn away and seek mindless distractions.
God’s call to us is to see the world he loves through the eyes of compassion – which really means “suffering with”. Jesus called the disciples to follow him and learn from him to see the world – and people – differently.
The call of God is not asking us to do something that is alien to our nature.
It is a call to be true to our own deepest, holiest nature. We were made to love. In spite of the way the powerful, the manipulators, and the cynics, have tried to brainwash us, compassion, not hatred, is nearer to our true nature, as you can see in the responses of ordinary people when disaster strikes. Love is more truly natural for creatures that are, deep down, made in the spiritual likeness of God.
In the words of an old song, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. No, not just for some but for everyone.”
Jesus’ message was “The kingdom of God has come near” not in some distant time and place, but here, and now. That is still his message. And we are called to live it out.