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Sunday Worship 21 April | Jonah 1: Jonah Runs

Jonah 1 (NIV)
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 
Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.


I was asked recently how I choose what to preach on, so before we start on Jonah, I thought I would say a little about how we got here. Clearly some services sort themselves out - Christmas is Christmas and Easter is Easter, and you’d probably be quite surprised to hear a sermon on anything else. But aside from the big festivals, there are probably five main ways I arrive at a theme for a sermon or sermon series. First, topical events may lend themselves to a one off service - preaching on hospitality for Refugee Week or feminine images of God for Mothering Sunday, for example. Second, I might work through a book of the Bible - so far in the time I have been here, we have read John and Ephesians and Colossians and the Five Scrolls together. Third, we might take either a closer or broader look at scripture - we have explored the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer a few verses at a time, and we have also attempted to sketch the entire narrative of the Bible in six weeks. Fourth, I might start with something I have read or seen and found interesting, then move to see how scripture relates to it - we have looked at social justice and sacred spaces and spiritual practices and theology in popular culture in this way. And finally, we might rely for a time on the lectionary - this is the cycle of readings which is used across many church traditions, and which gives us chunks of scripture to ruminate on.


But how do I decide which of these to go with, and why did we land on Jonah now? I wish I could tell you that it is always a very spiritual process, that God whispers the next preaching series into my ear or reveals it to me in a dream, but the truth is often much more pragmatic. I had a Sunday off after Easter, then last week I felt that it would be good to spend time in prayer, so when I looked at the preaching schedule last Monday, I realised that left four weeks until Pentecost. There was no immediate flash of inspiration, so I googled ‘four week sermon series’ and two of the suggestions that popped up were Jonah and Elijah. I think they caught my eye out of all of the possible ideas because both of these prophets had come up in conversation quite recently, as they are two of my husband's favourite Bible characters. I messaged Mike asking him ‘Jonah or Elijah’ and he answered ‘Elijah’, so I ignored him and went with Jonah. I’m joking, he answered ‘Jonah’ and so here we are.


I say it was a practical process, but I do believe the Spirit works through practicalities too. For a couple of weeks now, Mike has been playing David Benjamin Blower’s album The Book of Jonah in the car, so Jonah has been getting into my head for a little while. And alongside that album, David Benjamin Blower also wrote a little book called Sympathy for Jonah, which focuses on Jonah as a story of radical enemy-love. As the world has become so fractured and polarised, it seems a timely message and one which I suspect the Spirit has gently led us into. I will be drawing on some of David Benjamin Blower’s insights as we go, and the album is on Spotify, so I do encourage you to listen to it for yourself.


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The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”  Nineveh was the centre of the Assyrian empire, known far and wide for its extreme cruelty. In speaking of Nineveh, the prophet Nahum declared “woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses...who has not felt your endless cruelty?” I won't upset you with the details, but this was a city that took pleasure in elaborate forms of torture and execution, revelling in a kind of fetishised brutality. And as the Assyrian empire was on Israel's doorstep, it was a very real and present danger. No wonder the prophet Zephaniah looked forward to the day when God would “destroy Assyria, and will make Nineveh a desolation and dry like a wilderness.”


That background is important, because it helps us understand the mindset of our fugitive prophet. It is easy to criticise Jonah for running away, but as the title of David Benjamin Blower's book suggests, he surely deserves some sympathy, because it wasn't laziness or apathy that sent him fleeing in the wrong direction. Prophesying downfall at the heart of the Assyrian empire was like Sophie Scholl distributing anti-war leaflets in Nazi Germany, was like the solitary man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, was like Malala Yousafzai campaigning for girls’ education in Taliban-run Afghanistan, was like Alexei Navalny accusing Putin's government of being a party of crooks and thieves. Scholl was executed by guillotine for high treason, the fate of Tank Man is as uncertain as his true name, Malala was shot in the head and lucky to survive, Navalny died in a Russian prison amid a swirl of conspiracy theories. Of course these are relatively contemporary examples of prophetic resistance in the face of brutal power, but Jonah didn't need to see the future to know how stories like these so often go, and he must have been absolutely terrified, so overcome with fear and panic that I'm sure if he could have found a ship to take him further than Tarshish, he'd have jumped on that one. Could we say with any degree of certainty that we would have been any braver?


And perhaps there was another emotion at play here, a kind of anger or disgust at God's plan, because as we come to realise as the story goes on, Jonah fears God will save Nineveh and he does not want that. It's important that we don't exaggerate this into a general hatred of all Gentiles, as others have done in reading this story. The sailors who took Jonah aboard their boat are clearly not Jewish, as they cry out to their own gods, but still Jonah offers himself to be thrown overboard in order to save them, expecting not a great fish but a watery death. So this isn't an indiscriminate rejection of the other, but a particular response to the Ninevites. They are as wicked in Jonah's eyes as they are in God's, and he wants to see revenge not repentance. As David Benjamin Blower puts it, “the grace of God is awful to us because the proper response to evil is to fear it and desire its destruction not to love it and desire its redemption”. We might criticise this desire for destruction in Jonah, but it is a strong impulse, and if we are honest with ourselves, haven't we felt it too?


I have spoken before of the myth of redemptive violence, the idea that that war brings peace and that might makes right. It is utterly pervasive in popular culture, where almost invariably good triumphs by defeating evil with violence. Think of all the films and television programmes you have watched. How often has the villain been reformed? Is it not more usually the case that they are destroyed? There are some notable exceptions - I have preached before on the importance of redemption in Doctor Who, and the beautiful film Kubo and the Two Strings - but they are exceptions. And these stories feed our understanding of how the world works. We think evil can only ever be answered with destruction and so we work to that end. In sending Jonah to Nineveh with a warning, God raises the possibility of a different end, one marked by repentance and redemption. It is surely a better ending, and yet it is one we may still find deeply unsatisfactory, at least on an emotional level. We can know that it is better for a murderer or a paedophile or a rapist to repent and reform, and yet still want them to be punished, still feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of them living an ordinary life, or even an eternal life. Perhaps that is because of the stories we have surrounded ourselves with. Perhaps we need to tell ourselves better stories. Perhaps we might begin with the story of Jonah.


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