Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 24th August 2014
24 August 2014 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Jonah and the Whale must rank as one of the all-time favourite Bible stories for children. It's one that many of us recognise easily from our earliest days. It has all the drama: a prophet on the run, the turbulence of the storm at sea, the bewildered sailors who wonder what the source of their trouble is, the great fish which swallows him whole, Jonah feeling sorrow for himself three days in the whale's belly. And then that classic line:
Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
What isn't there to love in a story like that? So simple and straightforward, the message is crystal clear: you can't run away from God! God is Lord of creation and even the monsters of the deep obey him.
>Well, if you thought that was what the book of Jonah is about, you would be sadly mistaken in one of those tricks which only childhood can pay, but later reflection can repair. And don't worry: while the Sunday School version is important, the adults' edition is far more impressive and relevant.
And here's why: the book of Jonah 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.
Today I will just be addressing the first of these, and next week will be turning to the compassion of God. That sermon, like this one, will be available on the Abbey's website.
By tradition the port city of Joppa derived its name from Japheth, one of the sons of Noah, of the Great Flood fame. Standing on a prominentary, jutting out into the Mediterranean sea, it's not difficult to see why Joppa—or Jaffa, as it's now known—became so important. For millennia, this has been a fishing port and a merchant harbour. The sweet, seedless shamouti orange which Arab farmers cultivated became closely associated with the port after 1948 War of Independence or Nakbah catastrophe: hence Jaffa oranges.
It was there that Jonah embarked on a ship to get as far away from God as he could. But what our Sunday School version of the story never really stops to contemplate is what he was running from: certainly running from God; certainly disobedient to his vocation.
But perhaps, more significantly, Jonah is running from Nineveh, the great Assyrian capital in northern Iraq, very close to the city of Mosul, so much in our news at the moment.
This was by any standards an impressive city, as Jonah put it: three days' walk across, home to the likes of monarchs Shalmaneser and Tiglath-Pileser, but best known in the bible because of neo-Assyrian Sennacherib, who built an immense palace, some of which can be seen in the British Museum. From our bibles, Sennacherib is the leader who laid waste to forty-six Judean cities, before besieging King Hezekiah 'like a caged bird'.
But this great city, Nineveh, was not merely a vast cosmopolitan region—drawing in people from all over the known world, the centre of an empire stretching from the Mediterranean in the west to Iran in the east, Turkey in the north to Egypt in the south—but was also regarded as corrupt, wayward, its doom foretold by the prophets Nahum and Zephaniah. And God says to Jonah:
'Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.'
You see, here's the nub of the matter. The book Jonah is included among the 'lesser prophets' of the Old Testament, the Tanakh. This is unusual to say the least. Look at the rest of them: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
Have you spotted the difference? All of the others are contemporary prophets, speaking as oracles of God, often against the enemies of Israel—Nineveh, Babylon, the Egyptians—and just as frequently speaking against the waywardness of the Israelites themselves.
But Jonah is different: the book of Jonah is a story, the story of a prophet, yes but a narrative nonetheless. And it's a narrative not about megaphone diplomacy, not denouncing from afar, but going and doing something about it. It is about a God who wants to save other people, people who live far away, people who do not believe in the Hebrew God.
>In the technical jargon, this is the move from polytheism (there are lots of gods) to henotheism (there are lots of gods but we only have one each) to monotheism (there is only one God). This is an incredibly important moment, and one which is hidden in a story book in much the same way as the Book of Ruth does.
You see, there is no mention of Israel, no mention of Judah, no mention of Jerusalem. We only know that Jonah is a Hebrew because he is the son of Amittai and mentioned in 2 Kings 14.
But this God, the one who chases Jonah across the sea is not just concerned with his own people, is not content simply to see the salvation of the Israelites, but has compassion on a city and a people far away, and what's more, an enemy people in an enemy city.
This is not the God of the Israelites looking after the people of Israel: this is the Lord of heaven and earth caring for all those on whom the sun shines and the rain falls. This is a big and generous and compassionate vision of God, which breaks the mould of a narrow and nationalistic deity.
And in that, Jonah truly is a prophet for our day.
And how Jonah responds—enraged and sulking when the people repent—is a message for everyone who dares to call themselves religious. But that's for next week!