Sermon for 24.09.17
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
It’s good to have an excuse to quote Byron in a sermon. This is from his poem describing how the Assyrian military superpower swooped on the city of Jerusalem in the year 701 before Christ. On this occasion the city was spared, whether by divine action or canny negotiation isn’t quite clear, but as a rule the Assyrian army destroyed everything in its path. They were the bad guys of the ancient world. When they attacked, they destroyed granaries, slaughtered animals, strung up people, nailed their skins to the walls of cities as decoration, and deported anyone who remained alive after all that. In the final three centuries of their ascendancy they drove between four and five million people into exile, including the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel.
You may have seen some of the monumental statues in the British Museum that were the work of their court artists – the winged bulls with human faces and the terrifying lions. At their peak they ruled an empire covering Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus and parts of Turkey. To the Jews of that day, they were the equivalent of the Nazi Reich of the 20th century, as the Old Testament scholar Trevor Dennis has pointed out.
It’s important to understand this, because that’s the backdrop to the story of Jonah, which is a satirical story with a powerful theological punch. So here we go:
Once upon a time there was a prophet named Jonah, whose name meant dove. A dove is something gentle and unthreatening. It’s also something that flees away. In one of the Portpool psalms that I recite daily, there’s a verse that says, O that I had wings like a dove: for then would I flee away, and be at rest.
Our protagonist Jonah would very much like to flee away when he gets a commission from God. Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, says God, and cry out against it. Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire in the east? The very heart of all that is evil and oppressive? What would you do?
Probably what Jonah did – flee in the other direction. He goes down to the port of Jaffa and books passage to Tarshish, otherwise known as Spain – the westernmost point of the known world, and the Israelite equivalent of Timbuktu.
But then his troubles really begin. You’ll remember that a great storm blows up, a sign that the Creator of heaven and earth is really cross. The pagan sailors cry out to every god they can think of and throw every bit of cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile Jonah is sleeping belowdecks. The sailors cast lots to find out who is responsible for their disastrous situation, and guess what – the lot falls on Jonah.
They quiz him about his origins, and he answers rather grandly that he is a worshipper of the one Lord who made heaven and earth. Now they are really terrified. It’s clear to them that Jonah is trying to run away from the God who has power over the deep. What shall we do? they ask him.
Jonah makes the surprising suggestion that they throw him overboard in order to calm the storm. This may sound like heroic self-sacrifice. But remember Jonah is trying as hard as he could to run away from God, and going to his death in the deep might just be a final escape. When this book was written, Jews didn’t yet have a belief that death would be followed by eternal life with God. By drowning, Jonah may hope to escape from God’s clutches altogether.
The sailors don’t throw him overboard at once. They row as hard as they can towards land, but to no avail. They cry out to Jonah’s God not to hold his death against them. At last they do as Jonah suggests and throw him overboard, and at once the sea becomes calm.
But Jonah doesn’t escape from God. A great fish swims up from the depths and swallows him, and Jonah sings a song from inside the belly of the fish, praising God for delivering him. But as he is still inside a fish, it may seem a little premature, and the effect is rather comic. At God’s word, Jonah is then spewed up onto dry land, back where he began. So much for his attempt to flee to Spain.
That’s the end of Act One. In Act Two, God speaks to Jonah in exactly the same words as he did at the beginning, saying, Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. This time Jonah reluctantly obeys. He arrives at the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a city described with ridiculous exaggeration as being so big that you need three days to walk across it. As soon as he arrives, Jonah begins his task, no doubt in fear and trembling, telling the citizens that they have forty days to repent or be destroyed.
And now comes another comic moment. The whole city, from the king downwards, instantly repents. Even the cattle are dressed in sackcloth, and men and beasts cry mightily to the Lord to forgive their sins. God hears their cry and has mercy. The city is not destroyed. That’s the end of Act Two.
In the final act of this drama, the one we heard this morning, Jonah is in a fine old temper. He doesn’t appreciate being made a fool of. This is what I was afraid of! He tells God. I knew all along that you are a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you’d never do the thing you threatened! I look like a complete idiot. Just let me die.
God asks, is it right for you to be angry? But Jonah sulks and refuses to answer. God makes a shady plant grow overnight to shelter him, and he cheers up. But the next day the plant withers, and he is furious again. Once again he says he just wants to die.
God puts the question a second time, Is it right for you to be angry? This time his question refers to the bush. And Jonah says yes, it is right. But God has caught him out. If Jonah feels pity for the withered bush, why should God not feel pity for the great city of Nineveh?
The question hangs in the air at the end of the book of Jonah. There is no mention this time of the repentance of the Ninevites, only of God’s compassion for them.
This story has often been paired with today’s gospel about the labourers in the vineyard, for obvious reasons. Both point to the ultimate mystery of God’s freedom and mercy, shown above all on the cross. There is no deserving; it’s all grace. Martin Luther, whose insight about this lit the touchpaper that started the Reformation 500 years ago next month, noted the connection between these two readings.
On the subject of the labourers in the vineyard, he said in a sermon, “It is indeed necessary to preach this Gospel in our times to those … like me, who imagine they can teach and govern the whole world, and therefore imagine they are the nearest to God and have devoured the Holy Spirit, bones and feathers.”
What a wonderful image, as comic as anything in Jonah. Those workers who have slaved away from dawn’s early light are convinced they have devoured the Holy Spirit, bones and feathers, and deserve some recognition for their closeness to God. But hey, it doesn’t work like that.
God is just as generous to the day labourers who don’t start until dusk. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? asks God. And we know from Jonah that what belongs to God is mercy, love, slowness to anger, compassion and forgiveness. However much we hate the idea of all of these divine gifts being poured out on the undeserving, it’s not our call.
These two stories, paired together, should make us uncomfortable. Deep down in all of us, because we’re human, is a little speck of self-righteousness. Haven’t I worked hard? Don’t I deserve a reward? Shouldn’t the person who offended me, or God, get their due comeuppance? It’s just not fair.
No, it isn’t. God came into our world as a human being, lived among us, taught and healed us, delighted in our company, and then was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends and put to death on a trumped-up charge. But instead of blaming us, God sets us free and rejoices to be in relationship with us. There’s no justice, only goodness and grace.
I’d like to leave you with a question. Has it ever happened to you that God has been outrageously and unjustly generous to you? Have you received a blessing that you in no way deserved? I know I have.