This sermon was originally preached in the Anglican Parish of Kalamunda-Lesmurdie, on the Third Sunday after Epiphany 2024.

Texts: Jonah 3

My guess is that when most of us hear the word “Jonah”, the word whale comes into our minds. We remember that God sent Jonah to Nineveh, but instead, Jonah ran away. Jonah ran away, and a series of escalating events led to him being swallowed by a huge fish, in whose belly he spent three days.

Three days in the belly of the fish… it’s a great image, a great story, it sticks in the mind. Jesus himself used the story of Jonah to hint at what was to come – his death, burial, and resurrection. And yet, if we focus only on the events of Jonah’s flight, we miss some profound aspects of his story.

So let’s walk with Jonah for a moment, and consider a question. How do we, each of us, think Jonah feels at the end of today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible?

Jonah has gone to Nineveh, to a massive, outsized city, three days walk across. A great place, a foreign place… a place with a terrible reputation. He, a lone, foreign prophet, has marched through the streets, loudly declaring God’s judgement; God’s judgement against the violence of its inhabitants, against their evil ways. It was a brave thing to do. At best, you’d think he’d be ignored as a madman, at worst attacked or killed – after all, the people of this city are known for their violence.

And yet, amazingly, the Ninevites respond. They fast, they abstain from food and water. Their king sits in ashes. Humans and animals alike put on sackcloth, and cry out to God for mercy, making a mighty noise … and God spares the city.

These events are amazing. Over the top. Impossible.

And so, how does Jonah feel after all this?

It seems like a triumph, doesn’t it? We might expect Jonah to feel proud… elated… even triumphant. The Ninevites had other Gods – other Gods than the God of Israel, the distant foreign God for whom Jonah spoke. And so they had little reason to listen to the strange man marching around, declaring their doom. And yet they did listen. They committed to repentance, to changing their ways. And God forgave them.

Jonah had succeeded – succeeded as a prophet, succeeded as an ambassador of God, succeeded as someone who holds the violent, the evil, to account. And yet: if we turn the page and more of Jonah’s story, we find that Jonah is not happy with his success. He doesn’t consider it to be a success at all.

Instead, he is furious. Furious with God. Outraged that God would forgive the Ninevites, people who he saw as monsters, barely even human. God had forgiven the people that Jonah hated, and Jonah was filled with rage.

And he said to God:

“That is why I fled at the beginning; for I knew that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4.2b abridged)

This is the crucial moment of Jonah’s story. The story isn’t just about Jonah’s running away, or even the futility of his running away: it’s about why Jonah ran away. Jonah ran because he knew God, and he didn’t like what God was going to do.

That sounds baffling… but it makes a sort of sense… a very human sort of sense. Jonah has great faith in God… truly astonishing faith in God. And so when God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and cry out against them, he knows what will happen. He knows that God will forgive… and he knows that, through his ministry, through his witness, God will restore the Ninevites. They will realise the error of their ways; they will set aside evil.

From the perspective of an Israelite, the Ninevites were the worst of the worst. Murders, conquerors, enslavers. They were to be feared and despised. And yet Jonah knows that God will forgive them, and God will restore them – that God can and will restore the worst of the worst.

What faith! And yet, Jonah doesn’t want a bar of God’s plan. He doesn’t want God to forgive, he doesn’t want God to restore. He wants God to leave the Ninevites to their doom. And so, he runs away… he tries to thwart God.

There’s something quite incredible in all of this. Jonah hates the Ninevites so much, that he’s willing to end his relationship with God. And in doing so, he, in a strange sort of way, he becomes alike to them. To quote from the start of the story, he “[flees] … from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1.3)

… he flees from the presence of the Lord.

In a way, I think Jonah is embracing a sort of death: a profound, spiritual death. He’s willing to sacrifice himself, to end his relationship with the Divine, as long as he takes his enemies with him.

It’s such a human impulse. Too often we want to make God finite: small, comprehensible, rational. We want God to follow rules we can understand. We see this time and time again in the development of our own Christian tradition. There have been countless attempts by theologians, by the tradition of the Church, to come up with theories, with rules, that govern God’s salvific work. And so we end up acting like Jonah, constraining God, taking God’s infinitely abundant love and forgiveness and rationing it out.

It’s thinking that runs… I want to be reconciled, but not if you reconcile the Ninevites. Not if you tend to the people that I hate, the people that I detest, the people that disgust me; the people that I refuse to be in relationship with. The people that I can never forgive, that I can never love.

And yet… God didn’t give up on the Ninevites. God didn’t give up on Jonah.

The story of Jonah’s ministry tells us that when we are prejudiced, when we refuse to be in relationship with a group of people, when we shrink down the complexity of the world and label a group of people simply bad, even when we think we have good reason for it… then we actually end up putting ourselves out of relationship with God.

We put ourselves out of relationship with God because we refuse to see God for who God is: we insist on God being small, controllable, limited. And the only way to make God that small is to turn and run away, so that God dwindles in the distance. And so, like Jonah, we find ourselves running away from our Creator. And yet even then, even when we turn away, even when we run, God remains faithful to us. God seek us out. God gently calls our name.

And if we return to God, even in the smallest way, if we just glance back over our shoulders for a moment, then God is there, looking upon us with joy.

Peace on earth will come when all of us, all of humanity, comes into relationship with the Divine, and so into relationship with one another. There’s a beautiful symmetry in the story of Jonah. Jonah knows that the Ninevites are out of relationship with God, and seeks to thwart reconciliation. But he himself is out of relationship with God. He himself runs from God’s purpose. And God somehow uses those two things, those two great sins, to reconcile both Jonah and the Ninevites. It’s amazing, isn’t it. It’s cosmic, it’s improbable: only God could think that up.

And so Jonah became an ambassador of God’s peace. We too can make that peace known in the world. We can love our neighbours as ourselves. It won’t be easy. We may not want to do it. But we can, we should, we must.