Sermon - 24th September 2017
Running from God
Scripture - Matthew 12:39-41; Jonah 1:1-4, 11-12, 15, 17; Jonah 2:1-2, 9-10; Jonah 3:1-4; Jonah 3:10-4:2
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
<1st Reading – Matthew 12:39-41>
Many of you will have heard about Jonah in the context of the Bible story “Jonah and the whale (or ‘big fish’)”. In our short Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus refer to “miracle of the prophet Jonah” and the three days and nights Jonah spent in the big fish. In the context of this Gospel reading, Jesus was responding to a challenge made by the Pharisees that He prove Himself by performing a miracle.
The story of Jonah would have been well-known by Jesus’ contemporary audience. Jesus was speaking prophetically about the time between His crucifixion and resurrection. While the Pharisees may have expected in their demand a miracle like a healing, Jesus offered them a greater miracle – the defeat of death itself and His resurrection.
Jesus also compared Himself to Jonah. As we will learn soon, Jonah was an unusual prophet in that people took action when they heard his words. Jesus went further in saying that He is yet greater!
Let us look a little more at Jonah. The last 12 books of the Old Testament are collectively referred to as ‘The Minor Prophets’: Jonah is one of these. There is also a reference to him in 2 Kings (14:25) as having lived during the time of bad king Jeroboam II, king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, sometime in the mid-8th century BCE, (although scholar believe it was written post-exile in the 4th century BCE). The book is short, just 4 chapters and is mainly a narrative.
We heard Jesus refer to Nineveh: God’s call to Jonah was that he go to the city of Nineveh, a major city in the Assyrian Empire, which ultimately conquered Israel in 722 BCE, a few decades after Jonah’s time. (The ruins of Nineveh are to be found near Mosul in Iraq.)
The narrative begins with God calling Jonah…
<2nd Reading – Jonah 1:1-4, 11-12, 15, 17>
Jonah ran away! Jonah’s response to God’s call was to run away.
God wanted Jonah to go East to Nineveh; Jonah tried to get as far West as he could by catching a boat to Tarshish. (Historians think that Tarshish was either Carthage (now modern-day Tunis, Tunisia) or Tartessus (Southern Spain, near Gibraltar).
So why did Jonah run away? Maybe he felt overwhelmed – after all, Nineveh was “great” city and a long way away, and God said the people were “wicked”. Maybe Jonah felt inadequate to the task. Maybe he was afraid that these “wicked” people in the “great” city would ignore him, or worse, would kill him.
He does not sound like other prophets we read about. By comparison, Isaiah was bold and said: “Here I am, send me!” There are many hymns and songs about the call of Isaiah, not so many when it comes to Jonah!
Scientists who study physiology talk of the “fight or flight response” as being a core reaction in humans and many other animals. Jonah chose flight. And sometimes, flight is the right thing to do. Many of our congregation will have chosen to flee the countries of their birth because of the persecution for being anything other than straight. Even in the UK, LGBT people are sometimes the target of hate-crime incidents, and escaping to safety is often the better course of action.
While we can seek to understand Jonah on the level of a physiological response, there is another aspect to it: Jonah was trying to evade God’s call. Nineveh, after all, was a long way off, hundreds of kilometres. Jonah could have simply remained in his home town of Gath-Hepher in Israel. In the ancient world, even in Israel, there was a common belief that deities were geographically local, and it could have been this idea that have caused Jonah to get on the ship bound for the most distant place he knew.
God did not give up on Jonah. God pursued him, causing the storm. A few verses we missed out of the reading tell of how Jonah continued to hide, ignoring the storm and hid in the hold of the boat. But as we heard in the reading, the sailors confronted Jonah, accused him of being responsible for the deathly storm, guilt which Jonah accepted and resulted in him being thrown overboard.
God still did not give up on Jonah: that is how he ended up in the fish!
<3rd Reading – Jonah 2:1-2, 9-10>
- Is there a time when you have run from God?
- Is there a time when you have run from something inside yourself?
- Are you still running from God?
- Are you still running from something inside yourself?
God did not give up on Jonah. After our prayer of confession, we sometimes mention the “mother eagle who tends her young” and the “father who runs to welcome home the estranged”. Jesus (Luke 15:4-6) spoke about the shepherd who would seek the lost sheep; Jesus called Himself the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).
God will never give up on us, ever. In Exodus 20:5, God calls Himself a “jealous God”, meaning that He will not let us go. Psalm 139 speaks about the all-encompassing, all-knowing nature of God’s love:
“Where could I go to escape from you?
Where could I get away from your presence?
If I flew away beyond the east
or lived in the farthest place in the west,
you would be there to lead me,
you would be there to help me.” (Psalm 139:7,9-10)
While still in the boat, Jonah realised that running from God was pointless. Also, he had wasted his money. God brought Jonah to a place where he stopped running. But it also brought Jonah to a low point in his life, and the time he spent in the depths – which for the sake of the story is in the belly of the fish – it is also the turning point and Jonah chooses to go God’s way.
What happened next is not the prettiest bit of the Bible: Jonah began his new life by being vomited up by the fish on to the beach.
Running from God, and running from ourselves, will exhaust our resources eventually and we will reach a low point in our lives. And it is at this point, where we can choose to stop running and choose something better.
<4th Reading – Jonah 3:1-4>
Jonah seems to be a brilliant prophet! He spoke just one sentence (5 words in Hebrew) and the whole city repented! If only speaking God’s word were so easy and so effective in the 21st century!
The following may not have occurred to you: Nineveh, part of the Assyrian Empire, was not Israel; they were not Jewish, but a Jewish prophet, Jonah, came to them: and they listened and repented.
We can learn many things from Jonah:
- God is sovereign, demonstrated in the control of creation: the weather, the fish (and also the worm and the plant – Jonah 4).
- God is interested in all people, not just Israel.
- God is in control of the nations. God gave Nineveh the choice. (Their repentance did not last, falling to the Babylonians in 622 BCE.)
- Prophecy is not a definitive future, sometimes conditional. After all, humankind has free-will. The people of Nineveh made a choice.
- We might not like how God’s plan turns out…
<5th Reading – Jonah 3:10-4:2>
Jonah did not like how God’s plan had turned out. Maybe Jonah had wanted to see the city destroyed!
The book of Jonah ends with God trying to teach Jonah one final lesson which involves a rapidly growing plant and a worm. It is a very personal encounter between God and Jonah, very honest about their feelings: Jonah’s anger and God’s pity for the people (and animals) of Nineveh (Jonah 4:11) Twice in the encounter, God asks Jonah: “What right have you to be angry?”
If we are running from God, or from ourselves, and we are exhausted by it all, and if it does not seem to be going our way, we are probably feeling angry, too!
So-called queer theologians have considered two views of the Jonah story: firstly (by Michael Carden, Australia), that “Jonah’s flight from and subsequent acceptance of his mission can be read as an allegory of coming out.” (In: “The Queer Bible Commentary”, p.466)
Secondly, (Revd. Dr.) Sharon Bezner (MCC Houston, USA) sees Jonah as the traditional church and Nineveh as the LGBT community, and “God’s call to Jonah becomes an opportunity for him to examine himself and rethink his homophobia and self-righteousness.” She goes to say that “Jonah challenges the religious right to recognize the fact that they do not determine whom God loves.” (ibid.)
The account of Jonah is much more than an allegory or a simple, even ridiculous, story. Jesus used it to speak of the Resurrection. Like Jesus did with the religious bigots of His day, we can use it to speak of God’s love. We can also empathise with the Jonah story personally in how we might be running from God or from ourselves.