Choral Evensong 14.2.2016
Readings: Jonah 3
I am pleased that one of the passages set for this evening is from Jonah, one of the OT books that I really enjoy – it is brief but everything is finely focussed in a highly artistic literary structure. I can remind you of the story: God commands Jonah to prophesy judgement to Nineveh but he runs away to sea, is swallowed by a sea creature and after repenting his ways, is spewed up and finds himself again on dry land: that forms the first two chapters.
The second two Chapters, show Jonah again called to judge Nineveh; this time he does as ordered and awaits Nineveh’s doom – except Nineveh repents and God relents; this angers Jonah who sulks outside the city while God appoints a plant to give him shade and then appoints a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah complains and God questions Jonah’s case.
The last chapter of Jonah is critical: in Jonah’s displeasure we recognise something of the wilfulness of human nature and we catch echoes of a view of God that we will recognise in the New Testament. So God relents and does not punish Nineveh … and as for Jonah … well he indulges in a monstrous sulk ...
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
Jonah is a delight to read. Literary labels such as satire, parody and irony are used to describe it. However one reads Jonah, the book clearly presents us something about God – we encounter a God whose compassion is boundless, who surprises us and who responds to the slightest sign of a move in the right direction.
To read this story is also to be reminded of the limits of theology. Theology is first of all a story and to grasp that fact is also to understand that God is beyond all our theories, constructions and illusions. At our best, we tell our stories – but these are gestures, often inspired gestures, made as it were in the dark – pointing us beyond where words can take us.