Monthly Archives: February 2020

9 February – Jonah and the miracle of the repenting God

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Epiphany 5

Psalm 117
Matthew 5:13-20

In a sentence
God is no weapon in the hands of the people of God but the means by which they will be reconciled to their enemies

Conventional wisdom holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Something of this sentiment, and its violation, is at the heart of our reading from Jonah today.

We’ve just heard of a third striking miracle in the story of Jonah: after the miracle of the fish and the miracle of Nineveh, now the miracle of the vine or ‘gourd’.

This third miracle is perhaps the strangest of the three. Jonah has already settled under a shade he has made for himself, waiting to see what will happen to the city. Yet we’re told that the vine grows and gives him shade from the heat, even though he’s already sitting in the shade. If the fish has a purpose in keeping Jonah alive, the purpose of the vine does not seem quite to be to give shade.

The vine’s purpose seems more to be that it should die, that it should irritate Jonah and so that it should open the way to the final exchange about Jonah’s commitment to the vine: ‘You are concerned about the bush’, God says, ‘for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.’

But this doesn’t quite work, either: God’s account doesn’t seem to address the real situation. It is not that Jonah laboured which is the problem but that he is now again (despite the booth he built himself) exposed to the sun.

On the face of it, the story seems a little confused. More than that, it also seems overworked. Grumpy Jonah could have been as easily chastised for his angry response to God’s forgiving ways without the credibility of the story being further undermined with another whacky miracle.

To find sense in all this, we must see that we do not have here a mere miracle, something which pops up and simply must be taken on face value. The appearance of the vine is something beyond mere divine power and does something beyond merely provoking a response. The vine embodies a truth about God, Jonah and the Ninevehs of the world.

Let’s see how this might be so.

While Jonah gets angry about the vine, what he has really been angry about is God’s reconciliation with the Ninevites. We’ve noted before the extent of the hatred Israel held for Nineveh. It is, then, is ‘very displeasing to Jonah’ that God ‘repents of the evil’ (KJV) intended for Nineveh.

But this suggests that what was pleasing to Jonah was that Nineveh had it coming from God: my God is the enemy of my enemy. And, if we take the writings of a prophet like Nahum at face value, Jonah was right here: God had a controversy with Assyria.

So the vine fits neatly into the story when it is the both the great comfort and then the great distress of Jonah: when it is the wrath of God and then the mercy of God, for those whom Jonah hates.

‘You are concerned about the bush’, says God, ‘for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.’ My wrath has risen, and fallen away. But it is my wrath; what business is this of yours?

And there is the religious shock in the story of Jonah. God asks of Jonah, ‘What of my business is your concern, except you yourself?’ Or, in terms of the conventional wisdom with which we began: ‘What about my friendship with you makes me the enemy of your enemy’?

The gods of the nations – even the gods of those who imagine they have no gods – are always the enemy of my enemy. This is one of the principal purposes of a god: to defend me, to be the proof or the form of my righteousness in relation to others. My god is the enemy of my enemies simply because they are my enemies; God must be against them. I pray to my god in order that she might reduce you, or I invoke a power I believe in – perhaps some purportedly secular political correctness – in order to chastise you.

But in the story of Jonah, and as a recurring theme in the Scriptures, we see a different divinity in action. This One is not – because ours – thereby against those we are against. This God is never part of an arsenal.

The vine is God’s wrath for Jonah’s enemies. Jonah takes it to be a shield to protect him from the burning heat of God’s passion for those who do not even know their right hand from their left. The vine shields him from the blinding light which is forgiveness for those who ‘know not what they do’. And then God takes that shield away. The withered vine is the epiphany of God’s scorching grace – scorching, that is, for Jonah as he sees his enemies embraced by God.

The grace of God – that God ‘repents’ in this way – is the central problem which the book of Jonah addresses and is the meaning of this final miracle but there is another closely-related problem, what we might call the ‘political’ significance of such a repenting God.

What does life look like when our God is not the enemy of our enemies? What should we do if the righteousness in which we would hide will not shield us from our enemies but instead befriends them – makes them sisters, brothers?

We can, of course, trade such a God – such a righteousness – for another. And this where the book of Jonah ends. Though we’ll come back to it for another week or two, we’ve heard the end of the story today, and it is no ‘happily ever after’. The story concludes with an open question. Indeed, it is a request for judgement – our judgement on God: ‘Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who know not what they do?’

We know what the answer should be: Yes, Lord. The ‘friend we have in Jesus’ must also be the friend of my enemies. To be able to answer in this way would be to become the fourth – untold – miracle of the book of Jonah: the conversion of Jonah himself.

Do we want such a miracle performed, for all the humility and grace it might cost us?

Let us look to grow into the kingdom of heaven through a righteousness which exceeds that of Jonah.

And, in this way, may we become a miracle: a friend to our enemies, our Friend’s friends.

MtE Update – 7 February 2020

  1. Our series on the prophet Jonah continues this Sunday, moving to chapter 4. See here for more information on the series.
  2. Details of our Lenten Studies for this year are now posted here; there are presently three groups in place for these studies in Nth Melbourne, the city and Hawthorn. It will help if you indicate which of the groups you’d like to attend via the registration page. Another great little Lenten devotional resource which might interest you is Walter Brueggemann’s, A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent.
  3. We are pleased to welcome Br Peter Bray back to Melbourne to speak more on the work of Bethlehem University; this time his public address in Melbourne will be jointly sponsored by Wesley Uniting Church (and the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network), and hosted at Wesley at 630pm on Monday February 23. See the flyer here.
  4. Most recent eNews from the Yarra Yarra Presbytery (Feb 3)
  5. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster.

2 February – Jonah and the miracle of Nineveh

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Epiphany 4

Jonah 3:1-10
Psalm 15
Matthew 5:1-12

In a sentence
God’s grace is realised in us as we become a means of grace for others

I remarked in passing last week that the book of Jonah is more effective as biblical proclamation if, in fact, the story of the big fish were not ‘literally’ true. That is, the message of Jonah is stronger if the story is ‘just’ a story.

Today we’ll begin by considering a little more closely how that might be the case.

When reading Jonah, of course, we cannot but notice the fish. It is the most attention-grabbing element of the story, not least because it seems to be the most problematic for certain understandings of the text. It is the fish which precipitates questions about ‘did it really happen?’, and which becomes a test of belief about the text and about what God can and can’t do.

And yet in the passage we have heard today there is an even greater miracle: ‘And the people of Nineveh believed God.’ This is not miraculous in the terms we usually associate with miracles, but the Scriptures cannot be held accountable for our not knowing when something miraculous is in our midst. In fact, most of the time, not noticing the miracle is the very sin of God’s people.

Of course, we might hold that anyone could be converted under the right circumstances and that this is scarcely miraculous. Yet we don’t normally behave as if this were the case. What are the chances that the wall will come down in Israel, or that the architects of Brexit could ever find the courage to sorry should it all go belly-up? What are the chances our governments – or, more to the point, the self-interested voting public – will have a change of heart on asylum seekers? These are ‘conversions’ for which we might hope but it is really only hope – in the weak and strong sense – we hold for them. It would simply be miraculous if such things were to come about.

So it was also for the Israelites represented by Jonah. To read the book of the prophet Nahum is to feel the vitriol Israel held for Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. This brutal people destroyed forever the ten tribes of northern kingdom of Israel, leaving only Judah and Benjamin in the south. Full as they were of their own power and achievement, and that of their gods, it is simply ludicrous that Nineveh would have a change of heart at the mere word of a quivering prophet from one its victim-states. It would be easier to believe, say, that a chap was thrown from a boat, swallowed by a fish and then burped up on the shore three days later.

It might be argued, of course, that the repentance of Nineveh also never happened. Most likely it didn’t. In this sense, the book is no more historically true here than in relation to the fish.

This doesn’t matter, however, because the book presents not so much what happened to Jonah and Nineveh (as if something else might have happened) but, more deeply, it tells what can happen when the word of God is spoken.

What ‘can’ happen are those things we noted when considering the fish last week: the chosen one is preserved, outsiders become insiders, God’s creative word does not return empty. This all happens again in Nineveh: Jonah survives three fearful days in the belly of the enemy, Gentile Nineveh is converted and God’s word finds its mark in both Jonah and Nineveh.

Such miracles are difficult to believe but not in the way in which the great fish story or the resurrection of Jesus are difficult to believe. On their own, those attention-grabbing flashes are quickly absorbed again by the dark. Yet, in the Scriptures, they are not things in themselves which happened to happen but rather serve to illuminate deeper realities which can be very uncomfortable. Of such deeper realities it is not so much that we can’t believe them as that we don’t want to.

As we will see in more detail next week (chapter 4), just such a reality is revealed by the conversion of Nineveh and the extraordinary conclusion to the chapter, ‘and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them’ (KJV, a more literal translation of the Hebrew here).

The book of Jonah places us in a relationship to each other which will sit no more comfortably with us than it did with Jonah. It is part of the affliction of self-righteousness that we imagine that we stand between God and those we do not like. They, then, must join us – must become like us – to get closer to God. In a negative way, this is the basis of Jonah’s response to the initial call: if I don’t go, the Ninevites won’t have the opportunity to repent; they can’t get God but through me.

We noted last week that there is some truth to that: Jonah is crucial to the mission. Yet, Jonah’s position ‘between’ God and Nineveh is not as obstruction or filter but as conduit, and as conduit to all which is distant from God, even finally Jonah himself. Twice in the story Jonah is just such a means for others, despite himself. Who Jonah is, before God, makes Jonah important for others’ standing before God, whether he likes it or not. There is more work involved with grace than we usually imagine.

Since the Reformation we have grown familiar with the notion that it is by grace that we are saved, through faith. We see something of this in the conversion of Nineveh and God’s ‘repentance’. But perhaps what has been weakest about our repetition of the Reformation slogan is that it has caused us to distinguish too sharply between the grace which saves and the works which are then hard to fit coherently into the schema.

This can lead us to say that we are saved ‘for’ good works – in order now to do what God requires – but Jonah’s story presses us to something deeper. Jonah becomes what he is when he does what God commands. It is a ‘given’ that Jonah belongs to God – that he is chosen or ‘saved’. Yet Jonah is also still becoming God’s chosen, and becomes the chosen when he becomes God’s own means for the salvation of others. In the call of God Jonah hears what he is in eternity; in his action Jonah becomes in time what he has been called: God’s body in the world.

That ought to sound familiar. It is the being-becoming dynamic of Jesus’ own baptism and temptation. It is the gift and call of all who gather around the Lord’s Table: receive what you are, become what you receive.

To be saved by faith is not, then, to be insulated from the world of works, from responsibility. It is not to be in any way isolated from those others whom God would also save. We believe that God makes us whole by faith only when we act. Specifically, such faith is only held in acting to make others whole. Our action is the sacrament of God’s grace toward us, and the grace is not there without the sacrament.

For Jonah and Israel; for the church; for Nineveh, Babylon and Rome; for America, China, Russia and Australia; for each person sitting here today or in a café down the street: salvation is becoming in time what we are in eternity – part of the whole and healing life of God.

The challenge in the book of Jonah is not whether such a miraculous thing can happen – is not whether God’s word can turn the sinner’s heart. The challenge is whether we want God to bless those who do not bless us, and are willing to be the means by which this comes about.

When such a willingness is found, truly we are in the presence of a miracle. In this Jesus is preeminent – the blessing for those who curse – of whom Jonah is a shadow.

Let us, then, say yes to God in such a way that the miracle of life-with-God-in each-other might be our very own.

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