So, did you notice it? In Jonah we seem to have the most mealy-mouthed, insincere, least-well-meant sermon in the whole Bible. It’s certainly one of the shortest at 8 words: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
8 words in English. 5 words in Hebrew! No words to say why. No words to say what they should do next. But it was stunningly effective. We’ll come back to that though.
The next to last thing that Jonah wanted was to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and give God’s message. Assyria had destroyed northern Israel and the south paid protection money. Assyrians were well known for torturing their enemies – so it wasn’t wise to default. Ironically Ninevah is modern day Mosul, in Iraq. Mosul was occupied by ISIS from 2014 to 2017 and where they’ve just found all those mass graves. Jonah going to Ninevah would be like asking you or me to go to Mosul during those years and telling ISIS to repent or else…
So, it’s not surprising that Jonah went off in the opposite direction. There was every chance he wouldn’t get out alive – and being killed quickly might well have been the best outcome that he could have hoped for.
Not quite so merciful
But the very last thing that Jonah wanted was to deliver the message and for Nineveh to take notice! He knew if he said it and they repented then God would forgive them and not destroy them. And Jonah wanted them to suffer. It wasn’t right or fair that it should be any other way because of the evil that they’d done. Jonah wanted them destroyed.
Jonah knew that God had let Israel off in the past for some of the terrible things they’d done. Indeed, they owed their very survival as a nation to it. And he had a pretty good idea that God would show the same mercy to Ninevah too. That’s the real reason that he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want his God to be quite so merciful to someone else.
So, arguably Jonah is the most successful prophet in the Bible. 8 words, which he didn’t mean, and which he probably mumbled hoping that they wouldn’t hear. Perhaps he still smelt of whale vomit? “We’ll agree to anything – just get out of here!” But you could imagine him head down, no eye contact, shuffling his feet… and yet the whole city repented, including, we’re told, the animals who must have been really sorry for the wrong that they’d done!
Very sorry animals
Indeed, mixed in with all the serious messages in Jonah you have all the comic stuff: the big fish with a large appetite and a great sense of direction; very sorry animals wearing sackcloth and ashes – and Jonah having an argument with a fast-growing-bush which came off second-best to a fast-eating worm!
But that tends to distract us from what really should pull us up short and shake us. Here are 4 quick points that particularly spoke to me.
Firstly, Jonah doesn’t spell out what they should do next. Yet they knew anyway. When people hear the truth then God gets to work on people’s hearts. God fills in any blanks. But someone needs to tell those people in the first place.
Secondly, God is a god of forgiveness. As one of the retired Clergy at my other church is fond of saying: “He cannot not forgive”. That God would show mercy to the least-deserving gives every single one of us hope.
But as reassuring as that should be for us, that’s not just true of us, just as it wasn’t only true of Israel. This passage shows it’s true of those people that we fear and despise too; those that we’d call enemies. And that it’s only by showing mercy that you ever break the cycle of violence.
Having a bad day?
Thirdly, even when we’re having a bad day God can use us. Jonah didn’t want to be there and there’s not much to admire about what we read about him. Yet an entire city repented. If that’s true of Jonah it can be true of us too. However imperfect, poorly equipped or out of place we may feel, God can do something with us to impact others. So, what’s your Ninevah? Is there anything that you’re running away from or reluctant to do that needs facing up to but you don’t feel like doing?
Fourthly, this book isn’t so much about the repentance of Ninevah. It’s more about Jonah’s reaction, and therefore our reaction, when that takes place. And the book is left open-ended. It doesn’t finish with Jonah saying “Yep, you were right God”. It ends with Jonah still in a huff, still full of resentment.
Does Jonah eventually get it? Or does he remain bitter that God shows someone else the same mercy. We don’t know. We are left to imagine; to write our own endings; finish our own story. So, how do we respond when faced with the opportunity of showing mercy or forgiveness to people that we don’t really like or get on with? Or does it fit our own narrative to keep the resentment going?
It’s no accident that in synagogues Jonah is read in its entirety at Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. It speaks not just of God’s willingness to forgive those who repent but challenges our willingness to forgive too.
Fishers of men
In our Gospel reading, Mark doesn’t mess about with the Nativity. He gets straight into the action. In chapter 1 you don’t have angels, shepherds and wise men, you have Jesus getting on with it and calling the disciples.
Like Jonah, Jesus is sparing with his words: “Come, follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men” as it has it in the King James.
And they heard and they did. They followed, there and then. There are no wasted words on why they should do it or what would happen next. The consequences of following weren’t spelt out. They were called, they followed.
We don’t know if they knew Jesus already, or if this was the first time they’d met, or what tone of voice that he used or if he was just so charismatic that they couldn’t say no. But unlike Jonah you can imagine him standing tall, smiling, plenty of eye contact, arms open to invite them. Whatever it was, they felt utterly compelled to immediately respond when given the invitation.
We are each called too, each to do something different. And the call can come unexpectedly when we’re about our daily business. We’re each given different skills and abilities. But, like the disciples, we don’t know how it will end up either, what will happen next. The future can be uncertain.
But if you and I don’t respond then the world won’t know about God’s love and God’s mercy. The love and mercy that he offers to us – and that he offers to those that we fear or that we just don’t particularly get on with.
On Remembrance Sunday this year, exactly 100 years since Armistice, I’m reminded of the call that was responded to by those who went before us and by those still serving today. The call to defend their country.
Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th August 1914. On the 5th August that famous Kitchener poster first appeared with the pointing finger. It changed over time but the early one said:
“Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You. Join Your Country’s Army! God save the King.”
It was short and it didn’t mess about. It didn’t give the background and it didn’t spell out the consequences. And men (since it was mostly men) of all ages voluntarily joined up. Kitchener wasn’t even there. He was just a poster. But his eyes followed you and the finger pointed. One million men volunteered in the first 4 months.
In January 1916, when volunteers were running short, conscription came in for single men between the ages of 18 and 40. By June 1916 that was extended to married men of the same age. Later it was extended to those up to the age of 51.
St John & St Mark’s, the other church that I attend, is just one building now. But there were 2 distinct churches at the time of the 1st World War. In total 123 men across the 2 churches lost their lives during the conflict. 123! 123 brothers, sons, uncles, husbands, fathers, lovers. That’s 123 gaps in the pews.
Men aged 18-51 called up for war. Sobering that it’s also that age group missing from our pews now – but now it’s through choice or inclination. Through not seeing sufficiently good reason to be here.
Fred and Robert
Over the years I’ve found details on 80 of those 123 men. The oldest was Fred Calderbank, aged 45. Fred was a machine fitter. He worked in the mills in Bolton and Bury. He lived with wife Lilly and their children on Raven Street in Bury. The youngest was Robert Austin and he was 18 years old. Robert lived with his auntie and uncle.
I’ve no photo of Robert but this is Fred in his civvies. Looks smart, doesn’t he?
Fred and Robert both served in the 1st/5th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. They were both Privates and they were both killed in action in Gallipoli in 1915. They weren’t conscripted, they both volunteered. One older, one younger. Both answering the call.
Because of people like Fred and Robert we’re here today. They answered a call, not knowing what would happen next, not knowing the consequences. And we should remember them – and all the names on your plaque too.
Will you follow your call?
Fred and Robert paid the ultimate price. Today we’re seldom asked to go that far. But we are asked to follow our own particular call, to make the most of what we’re given and not waste it. To show the love & mercy of God to anyone we come across – even when we don’t feel particularly able. Because if we don’t then who will?
And it may not take many words on our part or even particularly clever ones or perhaps even terribly sincere ones, because we too can be messed up and conflicted just like Jonah. Thank heaven that in our weakness is His strength.
We should all take heart in that – because we don’t have to have all the answers. God works on the hearts of those who hear the truth. It’s God’s truth and God fills in the blanks. But we have to make a start, take the first step, answer our call. Amen
‘Jonah, Jesus, Fred and you’ was preached by Ian Banks on 11th November 2018 based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20 at 4 Lane Ends Congregational Church. 4 Lane Ends is a small rural church which meets once a month. For Ian’s next talk, on Carlsberg…, please press here. For more sermons by Ian please follow this link.
A belated post-script: June 2019… for more on Jonah, Ian highly recommends… Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love by David Benjamin Blower.