Sunday 20th September 2020
Rev Dr John McCulloch
Jonah 3: 10-4: 11
Psalm: 145: 1-8
Philippians 1: 21-30
St Matthew 20: 1-16
Grace mercy and peace are yours in Jesus Christ.
I’m John McCulloch, the minister of St Andrew’s Jerusalem & Tiberias Church of Scotland, and its great to be with you today on this 16th Sunday after Pentecost.
Let us pray
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer, Amen.
Over the last few Sundays, the lectionary readings have invited us to think about forgiveness. Forgiveness is of course central to character of the God we serve, and just as we have received forgiveness and grace, we in turn are called to extend the same to those around us. Not just to those who we normally love and are close to, but even to our enemies. Remember Christ’s final words as his hung on the cross? ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do’.
Forgiveness is never easy, and we can only do so by God’s grace.
Our OT reading from Jonah 3:10 – 4:11,
is also a story about forgiveness. It shows how God’s forgiveness goes beyond what we as human beings are sometimes comfortable with.
You know the story well: Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is called by God to travel to Nineveh and warn them of God’s coming judgement. Jonah does not want to go, and so he flees on a ship to Tarshish.
When caught in a storm he convinces the sailors to throw him overboard. He is swallowed by a large fish where he spends three days and three nights, and after the fish spews him out onto the dry land, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and convinces them to repent. The whole city clothes themselves in sackcloth and ashes, and God relents from punishing them, and forgives them.
But deep down Jonah is not pleased with God. He is angry with God for forgiving his enemies. Nineveh is after all an Assyrian city, in Babylon, in modern day Iraq.
Think about the geography relating to here in Jerusalem: God tells Jonah to go east to Nineveh, to Iraq, but he flees in the opposite direction. He goes west, down to the coast, to Jaffa and gets on a ship heading the other way.
Before we become too critical of Jonah, we need to be honest with ourselves, for are there not times when we run in the opposite direction of where God is calling us to go? Are there not times when we would rather follow our own counsel, than listen and obey the voice of God?
God calls Jonah outside of his comfort zone. He calls him to go to Nineveh. Interestingly, although it is not certain what the original meaning of the name of the city means, in ancient Aramaic, ‘Nuna’ from where we get the word‘Nineveh’ means ‘the place of the fish’, thought to refer to a goddess associated with fish.
It is therefore perhaps no coincidence, that Jonah ends up in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. It is, as it were, as if God wants him to immerse Jonah in enemy territory, beyond the boundaries of where he would normally go, to bring a message of repentance and hope. The book of Jonah is set at the height of the Assyrian empire, an enemy empire of the children of Israel.
But despite all Jonah has experienced in those dark 3 days and 3 nights, Jonah is angry with God. Deep down he does not want God to forgive his enemies. So God works on Jonah once more, and as we read in verse 6-10, he provides Jonah with a plant to give him shade from the heat of the day. The next day God sends a worm which attacks the plant so that it withers. When the sun rises, God sends a hot easterly wind, and Jonah is faint and in verse 8 cries out ‘is it better for me to die than to live?’.
God challenges Jonah for caring more about the plant than the people of Nineveh as we read in verses 10 & 11:
10 But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which [c]came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?
Where are the Nineveh’s of this world where God is calling you to go?
Who are the people God is calling you to forgive?
How does this message of going into enemy territory with a word of both warning and hope, speak into our hearts and our world today?
How does it speak to us living here in Israel Palestine and the wider Middle East?
We we follow God’s command?
Will we walk in the footsteps of our saviour, who went to the place of darkness, suffering and rejection in love and healing forgiveness?
And just like Jonah who spent three days and nights in the belly of a fish, when Jesus was crucified he went down into the depths of hell itself to liberate all who were held captive, and three days later rose from the grave, for love is stronger than death.
Our gospel passage from Matthew 20: 1-16 which we don’t have time to go into now, reminds us that in God’s counter cultural kingdom, all are treated as equal. It is all by grace. Some labourers who have worked all day get the same pay as those who arrived at the end of the day.
We do not come to God in our strength or by our own works. His generosity and forgiveness is not dependent on what we bring to the equation, but on his grace. It is a kingdom as we read in verse 16, ‘where the last will be first and the first will be last’.
In our epistle reading from Philippians 1, which the apostle Paul is writing from prison, we read in verse 21:
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell
The message of Jonah, the message of our epistle and gospel readings, is that if we live for ourselves and our desires, it brings death. But if we walk in the ways of God, if we follow in the footsteps of Christ our Saviour, we will go to the Nineveh’s of this world, the places we would rather not go, into enemy territory, maybe to the empires of our world, with a message that a different world is possible; that there is grace, forgiveness and hope, that we, and our world can be changed.
Let us pray
2 Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.
Go into this new week, to the places where God is calling you. Go in grace, go in forgiveness, go in reconciliation, go in love.
And the blessing of God who is Love; be with you, and remain with you, now and forever more. Amen