Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 31st August 2014

31 August 2014 at 10:00 am

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

Last Sunday and today I have been speaking about the Book of Jonah, one of the best and most exciting and most relevant of the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, and at the same time one of the least understood, most misinterpreted and frequently ignored.

We all begin with a certain amount of Sunday School or childhood story baggage – the book of the Prophet Jonah is about a man who does not do what God wants him to do, flees across the sea and is swallowed up by the whale. So far, so good.

But in reality, Jonah is about something completely different, quite extraordinary and of more significance than an individual's obedience, or lack of it, to God. It is about the challenge of multiculturalism, about whether the God of the Israelites is the God of all, and about God's compassion being stronger than his wrath, and how badly religious people deal with this.

I focussed on the first half of this last Sunday and spoke about how the book of Jonah challenges head on the idea that there can be a narrow tribal or national view of God. This was the moment in the development of Judaism when the realization came that if God is God, then not only are there not lots of 'gods' but God must be the same God for all people – whether you are a Jerusalemite living in the city and worshipping in the temple, or shepherd in the Judean hills, or a colonist in Egypt, or a citizen of the multicultural metropolis of Nineveh on the opposite bank of the Tigris to modern-day Mosul.

But today, I want to move on to what the second half of the book of Jonah is really about: and it's about how religious people, like you and me, really hate it when people repent.

Perhaps I should just repeat that: the second half of Jonah is about how outwardly religious people, Orthodox baptised followers of Christ, Evangelical bible-believing faithful, Catholic mass-attenders – how we are all tempted to be resentful when people actually repent.

It's an unpleasant fact of human nature, but a fact nonetheless, that we are – or at least many of us are – hard-wired to be quietly pleased when others get their just desserts.

A member of Parliament gets caught fiddling their expenses claim; a Doctor has an affair with a patient; a Senator takes a back-hander from a special interests group; a Priest is found inebriated behind the wheel of a car; Mr Watters and Mrs Beard exit the Great British bake off under a cloud.

Our press is full of these stories: we love to see others getting their just desserts, their come-uppence. And I say 'others' advisedly because the truth is that the finger is always pointed at others – when a wise priest told me to remember that 3 other fingers are pointing back at yourself.

And this is exactly what is going on in the book of Jonah. Having taken a two-chapter detour, Jonah does indeed heed God's call and speaks to the people of Nineveh: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown".

And what happens? The worst possible outcome, it would appear. The king leads his people in an act of contrition, corporate repentance: "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes … Who knows? God may relent and change his mind: he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish".

This theological view of God is striking: not merely does God want people to amend their ways so as to nurture human goodness and flourishing. In this view, God is willing to bring down disaster on anyone who refuses to repent.

But then comes one of the most important texts of all scripture – rich in meaning and a lifetime to unpack: "God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it".

God – creator God, God of heaven and earth, who put the stars in their places, who gives life and breath to every being – this God has a change of heart. Even God will alter his fixed course.

But Jonah's reaction shows that he is stuck with a little image of a little god, a stunted version of the almighty, national and tribal. His reaction – and that of many of us who call ourselves religious - is shocking: "But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry".

His attitude is summed up in lines from a well-known English hymn, entitled 'There's a wideness in God's mercy' by the Brompton Oratory Priest, Fr Frederick William Faber.

Faber captures the compassion and mercy of God beautifully:

There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth's sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth's failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

But then he returns to the Jonah within each one of us:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

In other words, in fashioning for ourselves a god who is vindictive, terrifying and unbending, we stir up emotions akin to glee when disaster befalls others – when they get their come-uppence. This gloating is not only deeply unattractive, it reveals a smallness in our vision of God.

The final dialogue of chapter 4 rewards time spent reading it: in the heat of the day, God sends a bush to grow and provide cover for Jonah who has gone off in a sulk. The bush withers, and Jonah falls into a rage.

But this gives a sense of perspective on the compassion of God:

"You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and you did not grow … And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left?"

In truth, Jonah was right to run from his god – a small, narrow, vindictive deity. Where Jonah failed, was that when the compassion of God was revealed, and the ability of humanity to change its course, Jonah's heart and mind were not big enough to encompass it.

In our religiosity, may we never be found so lacking:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

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