Jonah-Ash-Wed-2009

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					Jonah Ash Wed 2009

Say, ‘Jonah’ and most people think of an incident with a
whale…. Or a sea monster, as it said in the gospel.

The problem with Jonah and the whale is twofold – on
the one hand people simply start asking questions about
whether it can possibly be true. Could someone really be
swallowed by a whale? And survive to tell the tale?

Asking questions like that is missing the point of the
book. And that’s the second problem with Jonah and the
whale – people get so taken up with it, that they miss the
point of the book. Of course we can debate whether it
really happened – but does it help us? It’s a bit like
asking if there was a real good Samaritan in Jesus’
parable. It might have been based on a true story – but
being a parable, that’s not the point.

So what is the point of the story of Jonah? The prophet
Jonah, son of Amittai is mentioned in 2 Kings, as a
prophet from the time before the northern part of Israel
was conquered by the Assyrians. The book of Jonah is a
story about that time, but the book probably comes from
much later - long after the northern kingdom ceased to
exist, and after the southern kingdom had been taken into
exile in Babylon. 70 years later they’d returned to find
that other people had taken over their country, and they
had to live wherever they could find space among them.
And they no longer ruled the place.




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It was a big political issue – how to deal with all these
foreigners who’d taken over the country… There was
one strand of thought which stood for having nothing to
do with them – you can read about that in the book,
Nehemiah. And then there were others who suggested
that maybe a different attitude might be a good thing –
perhaps God wasn’t totally opposed to foreigners. There
was the book of Ruth, which proved that the King David
– the founder of the royal line – had a foreign great-
grandmother. (Shock!) And then there was this book,
Jonah.

It’s unlike any other prophetic book – it’s not full of
oracles and messages from God – there’s just the briefest
hint of one in chapter 3 – read the story to find it! Jonah
makes its point by using humour and irony – and it’s a
serious point, but funny. In a way it’s the Private Eye of
the Old Testament. And part of the irony is that Jonah is
the one who gets everything wrong – the other characters
are all ‘foreigners’ – at least the human characters are. I
don’t suppose the whale, or the plant, or the worm really
have a nationality.

The point of the book is that Jonah, the prophet who gets
everything wrong, is told to go and preach to Nineveh.
Now, Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians –
public enemy number 1 in the time the story is set. The
storm and the whale aren’t the point of the book – they’re
just displacement activity – anything but go and preach
judgement to Nineveh.




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If you think a man being swallowed by a large fish is
difficult, there’s more to come in the way of hard things
to believe. To start with, Jonah is spewed up on the
beach, not in the sea. Whales don’t go on beaches – not
unless they’re confused by sonar – and sonar hasn’t been
invented yet.

Then when Jonah finally does as he’s asked and goes and
preaches in Nineveh, they all listen to him – they repent
in sackcloth and ashes – every last one of them – even
the animals have to fast and wear sackcloth. I guess
most of us who preach want to see impressive results
from our preaching, but that response? Well, in your
dreams! It’s easier to believe in a man being swallowed
by a whale than that!

And of course, these people who respond are foreigners –
they’re supposed to have their own religion, not worship
the God of the Jews, even if he did create heaven and
earth. And he’s not supposed to love them enough to
change his mind about this great judgement. The final
chapter of the book is Jonah getting into a huff because
he’s announced judgement, and it doesn’t happen,
because they’ve all repented – the incident with the
castor-oil plant and the worm. Read the book to find out
all about it – it’s very short. Free copies available, or find
it in your bible.

So here we are at the beginning of Lent – and here at the
cathedral we’ve decided to follow Jonah through Lent.
What’s in it for us? Why should we do it?




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Well, one reason is that there’s something encouraging
about learning from someone so adept at getting things
wrong. Jonah is the anti-hero of the book….. think about
it:
the sailors are nice – they do their best to avoid throwing
him overboard, and pray earnestly when they do;
the whale is nice – it arrives on cue, does the will of God,
and spews up Jonah in a safe place.
The Ninevites, and their king are nice – when they hear
the word of judgement they repent in a big way.

And, to quote Rowan Williams on this: only Jonah is a
bastard.

But Jonah, is the one we’re thinking about. Just for once
we get the chance to read the bible, and work out how to
do better.

But there’s one important area where Jonah gets it
entirely right – he knows God. He knows what God is
saying to him when he’s called to go to Nineveh.

And he knows what God is like…. how he responds
when it comes to judgement:

4.2: I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready
to relent from punishing.

He doesn’t like what he knows – he wants a vengeful
God – as long as it’s not him getting his come-uppance.




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But he recognises the love of God, and that it’s for all his
creatures.

And God’s love includes Jonah – that’s why we have all
this rigmarole with whales and plants and worms – God
wants him to understand, and to share his outlook.

So the challenge is to walk through Lent with Jonah –
learning from his mistakes – but most of all, learning to
know and love his God, who is also our God.

And as we love God, we will have no choice but to love
our neighbours, just as God loves them. Even Nineveh –
or whoever that is for us.




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