The Metropolitan Congregation

- serving and celebrating the LGBT communities of Manchester and the North West

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Sermon - 21st September 2014

Ain't necessarily so

Scripture - Jonah 3:10-4:11

Rev Andy Braunston

[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video]

Introduction

The reading from Jonah is the end of the book.  It’s not a book we read much in church but the story of Jonah is reasonably well known and a bit of it has even been set to music…

{Play Ain’t Necessarily So}

So, thanks to Jimmy Sommerville, we’ve heard a bit of the story.  What do we know about Jonah?  What’s the story?  Is it true?

The story is one that was written to get the Jewish people to think more deeply about their faith – especially about the limitations they put on God’s love and mercy.  The component parts are rather simple – Jonah hears from God, disobeys and runs off in the opposite direction, the ship he escapes founders in a storm, the pagans on the ship try and protect Jonah but he realises it’s hopeless and is dumped overboard, a great fish (the song said a whale) comes and gobbles Jonah up and then obeys God by vomiting him out.  Jonah gives in and goes to Nineveh and preaches and then gets annoyed when the Ninevens repent! 

It’s a fun story, a story designed to make us laugh and a story that gets us to question ourselves rather deeply and gets us to think more deeply about God.

Listening & Responding to God

The book opens with the Word of the Lord coming to Jonah.  This is a traditional way of opening one of the books of the Prophets and clearly sets Jonah as a prophet.  Prophets weren’t those who told the future but people who knew what God wanted said into the contemporary society of the day.  Jonah was given a clear command; he had to go to Nineveh and preach to the inhabitants.

Nineveh was, at one point, the capital of an old enemy of Israel – Assyria.  So Jonah is called, in the story, to preach to one of Israel’s more powerful enemies and to call them to repentance.  Not the best of assignments but then the prophetic ministry isn’t one that people aspire to! 

Jonah clearly isn’t excited by his mission; I suppose a modern day equivalent might be a calling to preach the Gospel to the Taliban.  He disobeys and runs in the opposite direction.  Interestingly everyone in the story of Jonah, except Jonah, obeys God.  The sailors try to protect him from the storm, the great fish both swallows him and spews him at God’s command, the Ninevens repent, the worm kills the tree under which Jonah shelters at God’s command.  Yet Jonah, the prophet, disobeyed. 

There is no suggestion that Jonah was struggling to understand his call, no sense that he didn’t know what God wanted.  He knew: yet he disobeyed.  This, of course makes us reflect on our discernment of and obedience to God’s will.

Sometimes we’re not sure of God’s call to us; sometimes we need to seek God’s will through systems and structures of the Church as we trust that God’s will is more easily discerned in the creative partnership and prayerful thought of a congregation.  Sometimes, however, we’re sure of God’s will but we just aren’t willing to obey.

It could be that God is calling us to any number of things: to leave a bad relationship, to change our job and do something different, to show love to the stranger, to do more with our money, to offer ourselves for some form of ministry: yet we’re just not ready to obey.

What interests me is that even though Jonah disobeys God, repeatedly, God doesn’t give up on Jonah.  He sends the sailors and the fish, he gives Jonah the words to call the Ninevens to repentance.  So it is with us – despite our turning away from God, our refusal to do God’s will, God never gives up on us, God always is ready to work with and through us.  As Francis Thompson put it in his famous poem the Hound of Heaven:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind;
and in the mist of tears I hid from Him,
and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat More instant than the Feet—
All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

The poem continues depicting the Holy Spirit as the Hound of Heaven that pursues the poet until he finally gives in and surrenders to God as one might surrender to a lover.  Jonah eventually surrendered, but in rather bad grace.  Do we surrender to God and, if we do, do we do so in joy and grace or in resentment and irritation?

Love and Wrath

The second thing we can learn from the story is that even prophets get it wrong!  Jonah really didn’t get that God is about love not wrath.  He is annoyed that God is merciful and forgives the Ninevens.

Jonah reminds me a little of Ian Paisley.  For many long years Paisley was the scourge of Catholics, Nationalists and anyone who wanted a political settlement in the North of Ireland.  He built up a religious and political power-base devoted to saying “no” to civil rights for Catholics and power-sharing across the communities. In the 1970s he killed off, through a General Strike, a power-sharing agreement rather similar to the one he eventually signed up to.

He was a nightmare for British prime ministers to deal with as he was certain of the rightness of his position.  Whilst he came a long way on his journey and whilst it was moving to see him work with Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein, he bears much responsibility for the continuation of the Troubles.

On one occasion the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was trying to find common ground with Paisley and Callaghan said, “Oh come Mr Paisley, we are all, after all, children of God.”  Paisley responded, “We are all children of wrath.”  Paisley and Jonah would have got on. 

Some Christians like to focus on God’s anger, God’s wrath, His justifiable horror of sin.  These Christians often, it seems to me at least, tend to be quite grumpy themselves!  It’s not that God doesn’t care about sin, oppression or injustice but that often Christians seem to relish the prospect of God’s wrath burning against the ungodly – with whom, of course, they are not numbered.

Other Christians, and I suspect the nameless story teller who wrote Jonah, are more concerned with God’s love and mercy.  God wanted the Ninevens to repent, Jonah wanted to sit back and watch the fire rain from heaven. 

In recent weeks we have seen more and more news stories about the threat that the so-called Islamic State organisation is posing.  I wonder if, in the West, we want Islamic State folk to repent and turn back to God or if we’re just spoiling for a fight which we shall justify in the name of freedom, justice and tolerance.

Why Should I not be Concerned About that Great City

The book ends with the stunning phrase attributed to God: why should I not be concerned about the Great City?  Jonah is concerned about his own comfort, God is concerned about this huge city, its inhabitants and its animals.

Often religious people forget what God tells us He is concerned about.  We think God is concerned about our squabbles, our worship, our doctrines, our mission, our buildings, our ways of doing things.  Often we think God is concerned about our petty sins (which sometimes is another way of being self-centred); but the witness of the bible is that God is concerned for humanity, for the peoples of the earth and for the inhabited order of the world.

Jonah was written, or first told, at a time of great nationalism in Israel.  The Jewish people had returned from Exile, not in Nineveh – which was an older enemy – but from Babylon.  On their return they had to rebuild their nation and this involved voices calling for the foreign wives (and their children), that those who hadn’t been deported had taken, to be cast out from the community – to their certain death.

It is hard to argue against nationalism and to speak out for the despised, so the author of this tale told the story of God’s concern for pagans, God’s love for Israel’s enemies and showed that these detested pagans obeyed God whereas the prophet didn’t.  Of course if the prophet could mistake God’s call then maybe, just maybe, the current leaders were wrong too. 

Drawing Strings Together

The song we heard at the start is subversive.  It was originally written for the Porgy and Bess musical by Ira Gershwin.  It urges us to be cautious with the Bible and to question and recognise that the things that are written in the Bible aren’t necessarily true or maybe not as true as we think they are.

The song was revived by Jimmy Sommerville and the gay band Bronski Beat in the 80s.  They used the song to make some points about the Bible in a context of fighting for lesbian and gay acceptance in a society which often used the Bible as a tool to oppress so the question about whether, or not, the Bible is true is one that was a useful tool. 

The author of Jonah is also getting his hearers, and later, readers, to question and ask deep questions about truth.  If the leaders of the day were stressing God’s truth in casting out those foreign wives and children – and so sending them to their deaths – maybe they were wrong.  If those pagans in the story could understand and obey God better than the prophet Jonah did, then maybe the present day leaders were wrong. 

Jonah makes us question – it makes us question our attitude to the bible, to those who are not Christian, those who are sure of God’s will, and ourselves as we think about our willingness to follow where God calls.  It makes us wonder if things are, or “ain’t necessarily so.”

Amen.

(Andy Braunston)

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