Friday, 29 March 2019

Lent Address 4: Jonah - ‘God’s mercy: our resentment’

Lent 2019


Week Four:   Jonah 3, 4.1-5 ‘God’s mercy: our resentment’

Blessed are you, sovereign God of all,
to you be glory and praise for ever.
You are our light and our salvation.
From the deep waters of death
you have raised your Son to life in triumph.
Grant that all who have been born anew by water and the Spirit,
may daily be renewed in your image,
walk by the light of faith,
and serve you in newness of life;
through your anointed Son, Jesus Christ,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
we lift our voices of praise.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All       Blessed be God for ever.

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
All       Amen.


Chapter Three
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
            6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
            10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Chapter Four
            But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ 4And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

 “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” (3.1,2) In other words, “Let’s try that again”.

Jonah ran away on the first occasion the Lord called him to go to Nineveh. That’s what brought about his predicament in the first place. The old Jonah was emphatic that he was not going to do what the Lord asked of him and headed off in the opposite direction.

So the word of the Lord came a second time. And this time Jonah’s response is quite different.

This seems a different Jonah: for a start he goes and does what the Lord asks of him and, so unlike the Jonah we knew, he went a whole day’s journey into the midst of the expansive city of Nineveh calling to them that they should repent of their sins.

The thing is, it’s not quite “Let’s try that again” because this is a new Jonah. As one writer on this passage has said,

Jonah is not just starting over again; he has been given a new life out of the depths of Sheol, like Israel freed from exile in Babylon, like a [person] buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life. The second half of the book of Jonah tells the story of one reborn from the dead.[1]

Let’s just think about that: ‘as one reborn from the dead’. Someone coming back from the dead is most likely to have a pretty compelling life; surely everyone will do what the person who was dead says? Jonah speaks the word of the Lord and the people of Nineveh – small and great, and even the king - repent immediately. And not just the people even the animals would wear sackcloth and ashes and repent. Jonah is as one come back from the dead and people listened to what he had to say.

This where perhaps the whimsical nature of the book of Jonah lures us in and delivers a firm message. On one level it’s rather amusing: Jonah, who was convinced they would never amend their ways, has prompted wholesale repentance and the slightly ludicrous notion that animals should repent is there too. But that amusement turns to something more sobering, because we come to see clearly God’s mercy and human resentment.

Before we explore that further there is an interesting question of how we hear and receive the word of the Lord, and what transformation it effects in us. More penetratingly is how we accept the testimony of others in relation to the acts of God.

So, in this season of preparation for Easter we are asked to consider how the Easter witness that Christ is risen is to be received by us, proclaimed by us, and then in turn received and proclaimed.

If someone were to come back from the dead then surely we would have to believe what they tell us?

Jesus tells a parable that juxtaposes Jonah’s experience and the ongoing propensity for human beings not to accept the testimony of God. It’s the parable of Lazarus and Dives in chapter 16 of St Luke’s gospel, when, as you will recall, a rich man, Dives, and the poor beggar, Lazarus, who begged at his gate, both died. Subverting the expectation that the rich should be okay and the poor left to it, in the afterlife the beggar Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man in the place of torment. From there the rich man pleads with Abraham for comfort and asks him to help prevent this fate for his family:

27“Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ (Luke 16.27-31)

The issue in the book of Jonah is that the prophet who comes back, as if from the dead, is the one who won’t believe what God is proclaiming. Nineveh believed him; Jonah didn’t. The new man Jonah, the one who had come back from the dead, found a city willing to listen to him, yet he could not see God’s merciful hand at work.

Repentance will lead to new life; turning around means we can walk life in new directions. That is at the heart of baptism it seals and commissions our new pathways in living. Jonah couldn’t see that. He was still locked into resentment.

In our reading of Jonah’s story we are forced to ask ourselves some searching question: what locks me into resentment? How can I be unlocked from my resentment? How can I live life beyond resentment?

In Jonah we see, exposed to the full, God’s mercy and our human resentment. In Jonah’s case it stems from what God failed to do.

God did not destroy the city as threatened: he saw their repentance and relented. ‘Repent and he’ll relent’ could be the banner headline to this part of the story. And Jonah, who himself had a second chance, is incandescent with rage and begins the recourse from resentment to self-justification, the besetting sin of us all, essentially saying, , ‘Because I knew you would do this, that’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place’ (4.2).

Jonah dares to use God’s mercy not as gift to share with the people of Nineveh but as a weapon to attack God: ‘for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (4.2b). Jonah’s new life is unravelling already, he is not walking in newness of life, in fact he goes further, he’s not actually interested in this new life: ‘And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (4.3) What is more he had only walked one day into a three day journey across Nineveh (v3.4)

So Jonah is as one reborn from the dead and can’t handle his new life. There are echoes perhaps for us. Can we handle our new life in Christ, life in the Spirit? As people baptised in the name of the Trinity we know that we still fall short, still are bound up with resentment, still proud, angry, lusting and envious, still greedy, avaricious and slothful.

This is the dilemma of ‘post-baptismal sin’, the fact that after we are baptised and washed from our sins and sharing the divine life of Christ we still tend to the fallen nature of our humanity. It is something the early Church was far more sensitised to, and we far too desensitised to.

Like Jonah we need constantly to reorient ourselves, to be like an old style transistor radio tuning in the signal that God continues to speak. The Lord never stops broadcasting, calling us to him, revealing his love, compassion and pity, but we tune ourselves out, locked in by our resentfulness, vanity and ultimately fear.

How we do that is through regular confession of our sins. For most of us that is primarily a corporate action, most obviously at the Eucharist, but also at the beginning of Sunday evensong or as tonight at Compline.

There is also great merit in considering the personal confession of sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession as it’s traditionally known. It is a grace-filled way of opening ourselves to God in the presence of a priest who can declare the forgiveness of God that Jonah came to bring to Nineveh. I know it to be a great liberation in my own life, always daunting, yet always liberating. It is a moment in one’s discipleship akin to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, when Jesus called out ‘unbind him’, and we step out of the tomb into resurrection life.

Tonight then we have considered the reception of the word of the Lord and God’s call to life, in Jonah and in the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we have asked what life beyond resentment might mean for us, and how that is unlocked.

Next Thursday we will conclude the book of Jonah, and this series of addresses, by asking what life in the resurrection means. But now let’s just make one other connection.

Jesus ended his parable of Lazarus and Dives saying, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” I think he is prodding and poking us, and asking if that really is true, we will just accept that we will never hear the message, as Jonah thought Nineveh never would?

On the Day of Resurrection two disciples were walking away from a city, and not towards it. They had turned and fled not from Nineveh but from Jerusalem; they were heading to Emmaus not Tarshish; it’s a Jonah type flight. They were saved not by a great fish but by Jesus Christ, the Risen One, who had fulfilled the Sign of Jonah, coming and walking with them and unfolding the word of the Lord to them, starting, Luke notes most carefully, with Moses and the prophets (Luke 24.27) he interpreted the scriptures to them. Once bread was broken They believed and ran back to the City to proclaim the news.

Recommended further reading:
Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment. Dublin: Columba Press, 2002.
(A limited number of copies are available to borrow, or buy second hand, from the Minster.)

[1] Phillip Cary. Jonah. (2008: SCM Brazos). 105.

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