Eucharist Sermon - 7 November 2021

The Third Sunday before Advent
Jonah 3:1–5, 10; Hebrews 9:24–end; Mark 1:14–20
The Very Revd Robert Grimley, Honorary Cathedral Chaplain
‘Some lessons to be drawn from the story of Jonah’

Our first reading came from the Book of Jonah, which many of us were fond of as young children, because the story of Jonah is a natural for children’s picture books, with the giant fish swallowing poor Jonah, and then spitting him out again on to dry land. Here in Christ Church there is an additional reason to have a soft spot for Jonah, because he is depicted in an outstanding stained glass window at the west end of the North Aisle (see the accompanying photograph). More about that window in a moment.

I said that many of us loved the story as children, but perhaps as we grew up we felt a twinge of doubt – could you really be swallowed by a giant fish, and then be spewed up again three days later, still alive? Similar queries arise if you reflect on what the book tells us about Nineveh: it was one of the fabulously big, powerful and wealthy cities of the ancient world – think New York City or Los Angeles in modern terms – a place of arrogance and conspicuous consumption. But did it really take three days to walk across it? To get my mind around that I consulted Google Maps, and I found that it would take about 12 hours to walk from east to west across London, say Heathrow to Epping Forest, and a bit less than that from north to south, say Enfield to Epsom; and the biggest cities of the ancient world were all much smaller than a modern metropolis like London. So we gradually realise that this story is not intended to be taken as a historical record, but it is more like the parables of Jesus, in other words a story to jolt us into thinking about eternal realities.

Jonah is described as a prophet, and that doesn’t primarily mean foretelling the coming of the Messiah, it means proclaiming God’s demands about the way people should live their lives; he was given the prophetic task of proclaiming to Nineveh God’s call to repent from their self-indulgent and wicked ways. But Jonah didn’t want to do that, perhaps he was frit, to borrow the phrase made famous by Margaret Thatcher from her Lincolnshire childhood, or perhaps he thought that those arrogant citizens of Nineveh didn’t deserve to be offered a message of salvation. Either way, he ran away from God’s command, and tried to get as far away as possible from Nineveh. Nineveh is in what is now Iraq, and he took a ship to Tarshish which is about 600 miles in the opposite direction! When the ship ran into a terrible storm, the sailors decided that someone on board must have incurred divine wrath, and a process of casting lots pinpointed Jonah. He admitted that he had behaved wickedly, and he told the sailors that they should save themselves by ditching him, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.”

In this vivid parable, soon after Jonah had hit the water he was swallowed by the giant fish, which took him back towards Nineveh, and spewed him out on to dry land. And that is where our reading picks up the story, with Jonah being commanded by God a second time to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. This time he did as he was told, and surprisingly effectively too, so that the citizens repented in sackcloth and ashes. Jonah should have rejoiced at their conversion to more godly living, but unfortunately he felt bitterly disappointed that he was not going to have the satisfaction of seeing these people suffering terrible vengeance from God for their sins. He clearly had wanted to wallow in Schadenfreude (a malicious satisfaction in their destruction), and he was bitterly disappointed that God had been merciful to them. The Jonah story, of course, is set in the time before Christ, but his determination not to let go of his grudge is the exact opposite of some words of Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel (Lk 15.7), “I say to you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”

At this point let’s take stock of the lessons this parable has for us so far: first, we cannot run away from God’s will. Of course we shouldn’t be so silly as to try to do that by booking a passage on a ship or an aircraft, but we are more than capable of blotting out in our minds a call from God which we would rather not hear. The second point is that we should not fall into the sort of self-righteous, holier than thou, attitude which had made Jonah want to gloat over God’s punishment of the citizens of Nineveh. We need to remember, “…joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents…” Or, as Jonah puts it just after the conclusion of our reading this morning, “I knew that thou art a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” Those verses are not only a proclamation that God is always ready to show mercy to others; they also offer a message of hope for us, because we too are sinners who need to repent.

Jonah Window - stained glassNow we must take the story on from there, and reflect on the part of the story depicted in our stained glass window. Jonah, still seething with anger against God for being such a softie, chose a vantage point from which he could watch and wait, in the hope of seeing the fire and brimstone which he devoutly hoped that God would rain down on the people of Nineveh. The window depicts a great number of beautiful houses, sturdy towers and the city wall, all of which Jonah hopes will soon be utterly destroyed in punishment for the wickedness of the citizens.

God, in the story, had compassion on his grumpy and ungracious servant Jonah, and made a gourd tree to spring up, to provide him with some shelter from the heat of the sun; our window has a wonderfully tall and luxuriant plant, with heavy crop of large fruits, a bit like butternut squashes; and there is a brilliant blazing sun in the sky above. We need to realise that this flamboyant depiction of the foliage and fruit in our window is not just a bit of artistic bravura; it is there for our benefit as a symbol and a reminder to us of the fruitfulness of God’s mercy and life-transforming grace. For me it calls to mind the verse from Isaiah (45.8) which opens one of the traditional chants which we shall hear in the coming season of Advent: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the heavens pour down righteousness”: you see how Isaiah is there using the imagery of the fertility brought by rain in the natural world to teach us about the fructifying power of God in our lives: the same truth is expressed in a lovely phrase from the Epistle of St James, where we are told that the wisdom from above is “full of mercy and good fruits”. (James 3.17) Every time you pass our Jonah window, and see the bounty of God depicted in the fruit and foliage, remember that verse – the wisdom from above is full of mercy and good fruits.

As Jonah is waiting to witness the fire and brimstone, there comes a twist in the story: because Jonah is so keen to see the destruction of Nineveh, God teaches him a lesson by causing the destruction of the plant which has been giving him shade from the burning sun! That, of course, makes Jonah even more resentful, because he then started to feel very ill from the fierce sun, which was beating down on him once the shade of the plant was no longer there to protect him. God challenged him about that, saying, “You mourn the destruction of that luxuriant foliage, which you didn’t even plant or tend, so why do you object to me sparing from destruction the city of Nineveh and the multitude of its people?”

As we think of Jonah feeling so superior to the sinners of Nineveh, and longing to see their come-uppance, so that he could take a self-satisfied delight in their destruction, let us remember a similar exchange from St Matthew’s Gospel (9.12), when Jesus heard that he had been criticised by the Pharisees for consorting with publicans and sinners, to which he retorted, “Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick.” And he spelled that out, saying, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

It is good that today’s liturgy has prompted us to think again about the story of Jonah, so let’s recall the lessons we can draw from it:

  • We must not try to block our ears to God’s call, as Jonah did: we must respond whole-heartedly.
  • We must not allow ourselves to feel self-righteous, or to look down on those we think are less worthy than we are – remember Jesus’s saying that he come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
  • We must remember that God is not an avenging God, but as Jonah came to realise, he is a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. Remember that the wisdom from above is full of mercy and good fruits.

As you go on your way after this service, go, trusting in the gracious God, who is merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.