Last week, Oliver reminded that it is God who comes to us – who offers his grace and power for transformation to all.
The readings today in some senses restate this, but I would like to explore just one aspect of it with you this morning – and I am going to use the story of Jonah to unpack this.
Those of us who had the benefit of Sunday School when we were children will surely know the story of Jonah. If we didn’t we probably have difficulty finding which few pages of the Bible it is told on.
So let me do a little story-telling to set the scene.
The Lord appeared to Jonah and gave him a mission – “Go to Nineveh and tell the people there to turn their lives around towards God.”
It is obvious to anyone that Jonah was not pleased with this. Either he thought the Ninevites were a lost cause (a bit like the Samaritans of later times) or he knew exactly how much trouble this mission would get him in.
So, what does he do? Nineveh is a city in Mesopotamia and is probably in the eastern most areas of the known world. Jonah, however, goes to the coastal city of Joppa and catches a boat to Spain, to the western most limits of the known world.
He was running away from it, not doing it.
While he is at sea, God deals with him in an extraordinary way. He is swallowed up by a big sea-creature and spent three days and three nights thinking about things. In Australian language we would say he was “having a good hard look at himself.”
The treatment worked. Jonah decided he would do as God asked and the sea creature released him.
So God restates the mission, as we read today, and Jonah sets out to tell the people they have 40 days to repent.
Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people do repent. Even the King issues a national edict to repent. And God relented from the threatened punishment.
This made Jonah mad – I really like his explanation to God about this. “I told you this would happen,” he said. “This was why I was running away to Spain. I knew you are a loving and merciful God, always patent, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish.”
This is really a rather amazing thing to say.
The last part of the story is a little bit of an object less from God for Jonah, saying that Jonah should care as much about the 120,000 lives that would have been lost in Nineveh if he had not done as God asked him to do.
So, what do you make of this story?
Is it a lesson to us all that we have to do what God tells us to do – or else!!!? I don’t think so.
You remember when we embarked on this season of Epiphany I reminded you that this season was about celebrating that the grace and revelation of God in Jesus was for all humanity, not just the Jews?
At times, we Christians can get the idea that this is the great new dimension that Christianity brought to eh Family of God. Certainly, if you read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3 in particular, you get the idea that this offering of God’s grace to the Gentiles was the final revelation of what had been a great mystery.
Yet here, in this ancient story of Jonah, there is a very obvious hint to the Israelites, that God’s grace and mercy is for all people – not just the Jews.
The Wise men saw and recognised God’s grace and mercy in the child Jesus, whom they had searched for. The people of Nineveh, when they heard the call of Jonah to repent or be destroyed, recognised the gracious offer of God to save them if they repented – turned their lives around. So this is an Old Testament Epiphany Story.
This story is a reminder to us that there is no-one who can be regarded as unworthy of God’s grace and mercy. Being part of this church is not about how good you are or can be. Being part of this church is simply about recognising how unworthy each one of us is – we do not deserve this. It is enough to make the self-righteous Jonah’s of this world really mad. And it is this unworthiness that is the great leveller in the church. We are all in the same boat. That is what we mean when we speak of the Church being INCLUSIVE.
Everyone is welcome in this Kingdom, because it is by God’s grace that we are saved, through faith.