Sermon delivered at the Station Mass in St Columba’s, Lossiemouth on the Readings for Wednesday of the 1st week of Lent.
The story of the prophet Jonah that we’ve heard this morning doesn’t seem to resemble anything that we ourselves have experienced. Jonah goes to a vast sinful city and proclaims its imminent destruction as the punishment for the citizens’ sins. All the inhabitants – including the authorities – repent and change their lifestyle. God spares them and their city as a result of their actions, and in today’s gospel the Ninevites have become a positive example – a sign – that Jesus uses. If we could repeat this even on a much smaller scale, say within Lossiemouth; or on an even smaller scale, say in our own families… But we know it’s not that easy, and sometimes the only way to stay on friendly terms with family and friends is to shut up and not to talk religion at all.
The whole story of the prophet Jonah is not that simple – in fact anything but. Called by God for the first time, he fled, seeking safe haven abroad. He only revealed his true identity when the ship in which he was a passenger had been stricken by a violent storm, and the crew had dragged Jonah up from the lower deck. Somehow the desperation of the crew, fighting for their lives against the tempest, changes Jonah’s mind. Following his advice, they chuck him overboard, the weather calms down, and Jonah continues his journey inside a whale (which is an improbability in factual terms). But those three days inside the leviathan are Jonah’s time of repentance and conversion. When he is eventually ejected onto dry land and is called again by God to carry his message to Nineveh, Jonah’s response this time is positive.
We can fast-forward the passage heard in today’s reading, and recall what happens to Jonah. Strangely enough, he gets neither credit nor official recognition for his actions. There’s no standing ovation for him from the Ninevites, no medal of honour or official decoration pinned on him by the king of Nineveh. The prophet is sitting alone on the hill overlooking the city, waiting for the fulfilment of his prophecy. But nothing he expected is happening; no earthquake, no hailstones, nor any other means of destroying the city at a stroke. All is peace and quiet. So he feels that he made a fool of himself by proclaiming the inevitable destruction: he’s bitter and twisted that God hasn’t followed up on Jonah’s pronouncement, has changed His mind and has saved the people of Nineveh.
I think we can learn a lot from the whole story of the prophet Jonah. Firstly, it’s not always easy to be a faithful believer. Sometimes God’s will can be challenging, even scary. Sometimes we can feel that too much is being expected of us. Secondly, in order to be able to proclaim the Good News, each one of us has to converse with himself first. We have to experience God’s mercy and forgiveness ourselves in order to be able to pass that on to others. Without such experiences we remain more judgmental than merciful. Thirdly, God can deliver an outcome different from that expected from our activities. With God we can expect the unexpected. We can, however, always be confident and absolutely certain that whatever God does is the best way of doing it.
(Photo by Jimmy Cameron)