Sermon - Epiphany 4 (Ordinary 3) Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Does Australia need a Jonah?

[Note: The introduction is addressed to Australian conditions, but the Biblical material on Jonah has a necessary quality of universality, and its exposition is applicable to any society.]

During this week there is a holiday for Australia Day. Although there are some suggested readings for Australia Day in the Uniting Church version of the Lectionary, and I chose one of them, it is not a special day in the calendar of the church, but a secular holiday. Come to think of it, holidays were once holy-days. What we have now is a secular 'holy-day', and that is a strange idea. Usually a 'holiday' for us is a day free from work. Not many people would feel any obligation to offers prayers for the nation on this day. The secular nation, or one that largely thinks of itself as secular even if it much more religious than it knows, probably feels is has done such religious duty as it might have by having celebrated Christmas.

There will be a few formal occasions for officials, but most citizens will celebrate Australia Day at the beach or the cricket ground or visiting family or some such social activity. Still it is a significant day, commemorating the beginning of the British settlement in this land. That was the origin of our nation which has had a continuous identity since that time, even if we have not yet worked how to include with full benefits the original inhabitants of the land. We enjoy the company also of people from many other lands that were not British. We acknowledge that there are dark spots in our history, but, nevertheless, in many respects it is not a bad history. There is much for which to give thanks to God in our free and generally prosperous and peaceful life. Even so, if we take time to pray for our nation we will need to plead with God to put right many things that are wrong, where there is injustice and disobedience to the will of God.

Among the things for which we ought to pray, and which we should work to overcome, are the gap between rich and poor, the improving but still too high level of unemployment, the continuing breakdown of family life, sexual immorally and violence continues in many forms, there is damaging exploitation of the physical environment, and a much more selfish attitude to the rest of the world than was acceptable even a few years ago, although again there might be a sign of improvement in some forms of international aid and peace keeping. The materialism and the self-serving character of much that we see and do is appalling. Of course, there have been some improvements too, especially in the acceptance of people who are different in a "multi-cultural society": even if that comes under threat from time to time.

There has been a significant departure from what were commonly regarded as Christian values. It is a dangerous idea to imagine that any generation in our land was ever very Christian, but there is no doubt that as people have turned away from God and ceased to make the effort to live a Christian life, many evils have multiplied. I don't want to get into the business of turning back the clock. Things in the past were not necessarily better, but we ought to face the reality of living in a society that is increasingly corrupt as the standards of justice, truth and morality that were once supported by faith are abandoned in both public and private life . These things do happen from time to time in the life of any nation, and the reality should be acknowledged even if there were once other times and places where things were worse.

In such times in the past, when people have turned away from God, God has raised up prophets to call then to repentance. One such prophet long ago was Jonah, who is usually remembered for a story about what happened to him when he tried to run away from his calling which was to take God's message to great sinful city of Nineveh. No doubt your remember something about a big fish. It is as near to an accident as anything could be that the reading about Jonah should fall in the week of Australia Day. I am sure the wise biblical scholars and liturgists on the other side of the world who drew up the list of readings for the Christian year which we follow had no idea that this particular reading once in while would fall on the national day of this relatively insignificant nation. But I think it fits quite well, though I would not claim that the sins of Australia today are as horrible as those of Nineveh. Our message from the book of Jonah is relevant in several ways:-

1. Jonah was a reluctant prophet, yet God was able to use to him.

2. Nor did Jonah know God very well, but he proved God was still God wherever you went.

3. Jonah went back to his job as a prophet and learned that when the word of God is spoken even unlikely people like those in Ninevah can turn to God.

4. Much to Jonah's annoyance, God was not too proud to change his mind and forgive even people he had threatened to destroy.

5. As Jonah was forced to learn, so must we accept the fact that God loves even the worst of sinners and is gracious to them when they repent.

To get the main points of the story you need to receive it as a somewhat humorous tale, told long after the time when the historical figure Jonah actually lived. The prophet Jonah appears only once very briefly in the written history of Israel. In the reign of King Jeroboam II, about 793 - 753 BC he advised the King on the setting of the borders of Israel at a time when the Assyrians were relatively weak and the Israelites could reclaim some of their land [2 Kings 14:25]. Nineveh was at one time the great capital of the Assyrian empire, but the story teller writing much later apparently did not know that it was not the capital nor a great city at the time when Jonah and Jeroboam lived. The story in the book of Jonah probably comes to us in the form in which it was told around 450 BC, some 300 years after Jonah lived, when the story teller knew what eventually happened to the Assyrian Empire and its last great city. We can date the writing from the language, the style and the use of evidence from other writings in the book. At that time when the book of Jonah was written things were very different. The Jews were struggling to rebuild their nation after defeat and return from captivity. In those circumstances they were inclined to think only the worst of the conquering nations, Assyria which had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonians who had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judea. After all that had been imposed upon them, in captivity and forced migration, they were trying to exclude foreigners and keep their own race pure. The story teller was trying to say something to them about their rather precious view of their own nation and their tendency to limit God's love to themselves. The writer challenged this view by telling a satirical parable, using a figure only vaguely known from an earlier time. He achieved his effect by dramatic exaggeration, much we might have today in a cartoon, like Peanuts, or one by an Australian artist of similarly deep human and religious insight such as Michael Leunig or Bruce Petty.

God can use unlikely material

Jonah was a reluctant prophet, as many prophets are. He was not an especially good person and he was certainly not a courageous man speaking up for God in the face of disbelief. He ran away in the opposite direction, planning to go as far and as fast as he could Westward rather than going towards Ninevah in the East. When he was called to go to Nineveh he took a ship to the most distant place known to him:

Tarshish was at the other end of the Mediterranean, in southern Spain. He tried to get as far away as any ship would carry him. One lesson is that if God was able to use Jonah, God might be able to use someone as unfaithful and as frightened of doing his work as any of us might be, and another is that God could use even someone who was so ignorant of God as to imagine that God was active only in the prophet's own land and would not find him if went away.

God is God everywhere

Jonah did not know God very well. When he was challenged by the sailors on the ship about the God he worshipped, he was able to say, although he did have a belief in God as Creator:

Yet in a funny sort of way he thought he could get away from the presence of such a universal God. He knew more than they did about the God who made the whole world, but even the pagan sailors could see that it did not make sense to think that such a God would be present only at one place.

It is a bit of caricature, this story. If you don't hear it with a sense of humour you are not hearing as it was originally told and as it was intended to be understood. The hearers of it would have had a good chuckle at the idea of running away from the presence of God when it was first told, probably in Jerusalem, some centuries after the historical Jonah had lived. They were well and truly aware that you could not get away from God. They even sang songs about it, as in Psalm 139 which we read last Sunday:

Is there not a clear echo of this faith in the far fetched story told for the amusement of a knowledgeable group of Jews, in the prayer of Jonah from the belly of the fish:

Note how Sheol, the realm of the dead, gets another mention. (One which Jesus later used in reference to himself. [Matthew 12:39-40]). Whoever thought of getting beyond the reach of God, even in death! Can't you hear the clever Jews recognising it and having a laugh. And then finding even when you thought the Almighty had done you in, he would save you!

Even unlikely people can repent

So Jonah was hauled back and he agreed to go the Nineveh after all. The story teller might have exaggerated the size of Nineveh -- three days walk across -- but its reputation could hardly be understated. The Assyrian rulers were cruel and blood-thirty tyrants, devoting their time and resources almost entirely to warfare, building strength through conquest rather than the industry of their people. The wealth they gathered went into an extravagant lifestyle in huge palaces some of which have been excavated in the last century or so. This was not dramatic exaggeration but real history. For example, the shame of defeat to the Israelites is shown in an Assyrian monument now in the British Museum: the Black Obelisk on which Jehu, King of Israel is depicted kissing the feet of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser as he presents tribute of gold and silver vessels. (Jonah's king Jeroboam was of the house of Jehu.) The sins of Nineveh were truly horrifying to the people of God who wrote about them, as did the prophet Nahum at the time of its destruction in 612 BC.

The book of Nahum concludes:

These were the sentiments that any ordinary Jew or Israelite would have expected Jonah and his people to have had towards the Assyrians. The story teller is putting an enormous challenge to them in saying that the Assyrians repented when they heard Jonah's message, no doubt delivered without much hope of any result: 

The news reached the king of Assyria and he not only put on sack cloth and ashes himself and had his nobles do the same, but he even ordered all the animals, all herds and flocks, to the covered with sackcloth. There you have again the satirical exaggeration of the story teller. Whoever heard of cows in the clothes of repentance! He makes a point worth smile or two as he did with the great fish. But as with all good comedy, there is a sting in the tale, underneath the ridiculous there is a serious point: great sinners can be great repenters!

Do you like the idea that God can change his mind?

Jonah did not like it at all. How could the Almighty ever change his mind! Jonah was angry. Now you would think that a prophet would be pleased when people took notice of his message. Not a bit of it. Such was his hatred of the Assyrians that, like all his countrymen, that he did not think it right that they should turn to God and be accepted, let alone that God could chnge his mind after intending to destroy them.

It is understandable isn't it? But see how the character of God is revealled in the satire: 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. The story teller has got his point across in the complaining words of Jonah more effectively than he could have done in straight talk. [On the question of whether God can change his mind see also the sermon The general saviour of mankind regarding the change that Jesus was prepared to make for the Caananite woman.]

Acceptance by God - who is gracious to us and to all nations

Then the final point for us as for Jonah is obvious. If you think Australia, or any other country, needs a prophet like Jonah to call us to repentance and renewal may be are right; but be careful where you stand when you say it. We are on both sides -- as God is. We need to be in mission with the word of God and to speak plainly of God's will and perhaps of judgement; and even weak and frightened witnesses can be called to prophesy. At the same time we must see that God's love extends to all, to the worst of sinners, to those dishonest, brutal exploiters, the abuses of children and robbers of the weak; even they, and even we, when we repent, can receive God's love and forgiveness. Glory be to God, our just and merciful Lord!

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