Tuesday, 4 August 2015

'The Book of Jonah / Mormon'

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2 August 2015 11.00am

Jonah 1.1-17  Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying,  2 "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me."  3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.  4 
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.  5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.  6 The captain came and said to him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish."  7 
The sailors said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.  8 Then they said to him, "Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?"  9 "I am a Hebrew," he replied. "I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."  10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.  11 
Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous.  12 He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you."  13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.  14 Then they cried out to the LORD, "Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you."  15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.  16 Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.  17 But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Psalm 139.7-12  Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,  10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"  12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Matthew 12.38-41  Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you."  39 But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.  41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
Sometimes you just have to laugh, because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
            Or shout. Or punch things. Or people.

On balance, laughter is probably the better option.

The best comedians and satirists help us laugh at things
            that we might otherwise be too afraid to face,
and in so doing can open our eyes and minds to perspectives on the world
            that would otherwise remain closed to us.

There is an interesting debate to be had as to whether there is any subject
            that is too serious, or too offensive, to ever be used in humour,
            and I can see the arguments on both sides.
Sometimes, something matters so much,
            that to laugh at it would seem like trivialising the profound.
But sometimes, something matters so much,
            that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry; or shout; or punch things; or people…
In which case, laughter rather than violent retaliation
            may well be the most appropriate response.

For those of us who enjoy shows like Have I Got News For You, Mock The Week,
            The Now Show, or The News Quiz,
the experience of being invited to laugh at something serious is nothing new.

And this is exactly what’s going on in the book of Jonah.
            It’s a funny book about a serious subject.
It invites its readers to laugh at the sacred in the face of the profane.
            It is, to coin a phrase, deeply funny,
            in that it is both funny, and deep.

I don’t know if you’ve been down the road, to the other end of Shaftesbury Avenue,
            to see the hit West-End show The Book of Mormon?

It’s a show which lies somewhere between the hilarious, the offensive, and the profound.
            Certainly, if you don’t like rude language, don’t go.
But in the midst of the humour, the singing, the dancing, (and the swearing),
            it also offers a fascinating exploration of cross-cultural mission,
            with some great insights into the complexities of reading scripture.

From an authentic interrogation of God in the face of appalling suffering,
            to an affirmation of the power of religious narratives
                        to effect positive transformation,
The Book of Mormon is, I would suggest,
            something of a modern day Book of Jonah.

For those of you who haven’t seen it,
            it’s the story of two young Mormon missionaries,
                        who are, extremely reluctantly, sent to serve their time
                        in a particularly lawless part of northern Uganda.
Whilst they’re there, they become embroiled in conflict with the local law-lord,
            who is something of a cross between Mugabe and Idi Amin,
            and is hell-bent on imposing his own violent view and misogynistic of the world
                        on the inhabitants of the local villages.

The Elder missionaries who are already out there have discovered
            that the locals are particularly resistant
                        to their attempts to preach the Mormon gospel,
            and so far none have repented of their pagan ways.

And so the young missionaries start to preach their own creative version
            of the Mormon message of repentance and transformation…

And I’ll stop now, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you…

After all, we’re only looking at Chapter 1 of The Book of Jonah today,
            and we can’t skip to the ending too soon.

So, Jonah reluctantly hears the call, to go to the city of Nineveh,
            possibly the most lawless, violent and sinful city in the world at that time.

Then, as now, that particular area of what we would call Iraq,
            was at the eye of the storm for an oppressive regime
            hell-bent on propagating its vile, violent, and misogynistic view of the world.

These days, we know Nineveh, once the largest city in the world,
            by the name of Mosul, a city of a million inhabitants.
It stands beside the River Tigris,
            and is the largest place currently under the rule
            of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

A decade ago, 35,000 Christians lived there,
            today, the best guess is 3,000.
The horrors enacted on the local population are beyond imagining,
            and surely the city can lay claim to being one of the closest places to Hell on Earth
                        that we know of.

And here’s the question.
            If you were called to go to visit ISIS in Mosul,
                        what message would you want to take with you?
            What proclamation do you think ISIS needs to hear in Mosul-Nineveh?

I think many of us would conclude that they only understand one language,
            and that’s the language of violence.
They speak it fluently, and maybe the only way to stop them
            is to meet violence with violence.

The calls to engage ISIS with overwhelming force,
            to wipe them off the face of the earth,
                        so they cannot continue to spread their ideology
                        of hatred, oppression, and radical fundamentalism,
            is a call which echoes with ever more compelling power
                        not just through the Western Christian world,
                        but also through the vast majority of the Islamic countries
                        who wish to pursue a moderate, peaceful, and collaborative path.

This is a call that the prophet Jonah would have related to.

The reason he’s so reluctant to go to Nineveh,
            is because he’s called to go there with a message of repentance,
            not a message of destruction.

He wants Nineveh wiped off the face of the earth for its horrific, idolatrous ideology.
            He wants God to rain down fire from heaven on the evils of the evil city,
                        and to see the regime of terror learn what it is to suffer.
            He wants, at the very least, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

What he doesn’t want, is a message of love and forgiveness.
            He doesn’t want the bad guys to get off.

And so, when the word of God came to Jonah, [1]
            telling him to go and preach against the great city of Nineveh,
                        for its wickedness had been noticed by God,
            Jonah immediately went in the opposite direction

Rather than heading across the fertile crescent to Nineveh,
            he rushed down to Jaffa and booked passage on a ship to Tarshish
            to flee “from the presence of the LORD” (1.3)

Jonah’s not just running from an unwelcome task,
            he’s trying to run from the one who’s called him to the task.

Sure, Nineveh is a terrifying city,
            and going there with any kind of message would most likely be a suicide mission,
            but as we all know, some people relish the suicide mission,
                        if they think the cause they’re dying for justifies the sacrifice.

You kind of get the feeling that if God had called Jonah to go to Nineveh
            to proclaim a message of divine retribution,
                        from which the wicked would have no escape,
            he’d have willingly taken the risk.

What scares Jonah isn’t Nineveh,
            it’s the idea that God might be merciful to Nineveh.

He’s not running from the city,
            he’s running from God.

Jonah is introduced to us as “ the son of Amittai”,
            and as always with the Bible, it’s worth paying attention to names.
Amittai means "My Truth”, and Jonah is his son.
            Jonah wants to live his life, and proclaim his prophecies,
            out of his own certainty that his truth is the true truth.

The whole story is set up from the very beginning
            as one in which someone who is wedded to their own truth
                        comes to learn God's truth the hard way.

Jonah knows what is wrong with the world,
            and he knows how it ought to be fixed.
He’s like an engineer who can see the solution to the problem.
            You resist one force with another.
The answer to the problem of Nineveh is unrelenting retribution,
            and Jonah knows this to be true.

And so the self-righteous and self-assured Jonah got on a boat and fled,
            rather than face the possibility that he might be wrong.
After all, what if he went to Nineveh, preached his message of judgment,
            and everyone repented and turned from their wicked ways?
Then, God would have to forgive them,
            and they’d escape the violent vengeance that they deserved.

This is not the world that Jonah wants to live in, and so he’s off.
            Away from Tarshish, away from Nineveh, away from God.

And, at one level, thank heaven for Jonah's flight!
            Think how much damage is caused by those who really do manage to fool themselves
                        that their righteousness and God's are cut from the same cloth.
            Think how much hurt and pain is caused in our world
                        by those who persevere with their ideologies of vengeance,
                        convincing themselves that they are doing God’s will.

Something in Jonah's being was vulnerable
            to the suspicion that the word of the living God
            would wreak havoc with his own carefully covered hatred and fear.

Somewhere, deep inside the reluctant prophet,
            was a dawning self-awareness that his hatred of others and his fear of himself
                        were aspects of the same, as yet unredeemed, dimension of his own life.

It was that hidden, deep-seated vulnerability that triggered his flight,
            as he ran from both God, and himself.

As we all know, someone who is on the run from themselves is not easy company.
            They project their pain and disconnectedness outward onto those around them,
                        always condemning in others what they cannot face within themselves.

People who are not at ease with themselves
            are never truly at ease with others either.

If we are in violence towards ourselves,
            that violence is magnified and projected onto, and picked up by, others.

If someone is hurting you, it can be enlightening to ask
            what it is in them that they are unconsciously seeking to hurt.

Jonah in full flight is in the centre of a storm,
            and yet he’s asleep in the bowels of the ship.
It’s like he doesn't even appreciate that there’s a storm going on,
            even less that it has something to do with him.

Like so many who are in flight,
            he has managed to cut himself off from the pain and violence which are his,
            and so the violence rages around a superficially imperturbable and serene centre.

Jonah's shipmates, however, are not fooled.
            They react as so many of us do,
                        when threatened with a violence beyond our understanding.
They cast lots, and hope that if they sacrifice the troublemaker, then peace will ensue.

Quite rightly the lot falls on Jonah.
            Of course: he is the outsider, he’s not one of them.
                        It’s always easiest to sacrifice the outsider:
                        ‘last in, first out’, as the saying goes.
Furthermore, Jonah has the alienating sense of superiority
            that you sometimes meet in religious people
            who find themselves in pagan company.
He is, in short, the obvious recipient of the short straw.

When the worried sailors form an unanimous circle, their fingers pointing at him,
            Jonah finally understands what's going on.

Imagine Jonah, waking from his sleep,
            but wakened still at only at one level of his being.
The shouts of the panicking sailors summon up in him
            the knowledge of his faith and his privilege in having been addressed by God.

He’s a good Jewish prophet, and as such he knows how to react
            to violent interactions with pagans:
you stand up for your uniqueness and get yourself lynched. Of course.

Isn't that what it's all about?
            Fight them all the way, going out in a blaze of self-righteous glory?

You see, Jonah hasn't yet allowed the word of God to get to the deeper part of him;
            his shame is still locked away deep inside.
At this point in his story, he is allowing the loving God no access at all
            to that part of him where he most needs to be loved.
            And so the chaos around him continues.
Jonah continues running.
            He’s not yet aware of the real source of the turbulence that surrounds him,
            and so he can't act out of the calm of one who is loved.

So Jonah himself suggests to them that they if they cast him overboard,
            all will be at peace.

In flight from bearing the word of the living God to its appointed destination,
            he knows what must happen to a good faithful prophet:
                        he gets lynched, and that's how he gets to be canonized as the good guy.

His hosts, however, are savvy enough even in their paganism
            to appreciate that one really shouldn't sacrifice someone so easily
It probably occurred to them that the self-importance of their guest
            was at least a contributing factor
            to his being so obviously a candidate for victimhood.

In other words, that he was asking for it,
            and one shouldn't yield too easily to playing the part of the lynch-mob
            for the benefit of stoking someone's prophet-martyr complex.

So, with a decency not to be despised,
            they do their best to pay no attention to Jonah's confession,
            and carry on trying to get to calmer waters under their own power.

However, their efforts are to no avail, and the crisis
            which Jonah's flight from himself and the presence of God
                        has brought upon them
            is far stronger than one with which they can cope.

Jonah flails about, trying to avoid the love of God,
            causing chaos in the world around him.

He can’t bear it that God might love Nineveh,
            because he can’t bear it that God might love him.

Finally, the sailors give up.
            They recognize that the whole situation is beyond them,
            and they agree to sing to Jonah's score.

With an appropriate covering prayer,
            whose entire purpose is to transform what they suspect to be
                        a Jonah-inspired murder
            into a divinely inspired sacrifice which will bring all the trouble to an end,
they consent to cast Jonah overboard, and do so.

Immediately, of course, peace and calm are re-established,
            and they recognize, as good pagans after a lynch sacrifice,
                        that they have been visited by a god of extraordinary power:
            one who brings chaos, and then brings order out of a violent sacrifice.

So the sailors quickly do what good pagans should:
            they reproduce the violent lynch in a liturgical sacrifice,
            and show their fearful loyalty to this new order by making vows:
Jonah 1:16   
“Then the men feared the LORD even more,
and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.”

Well, so far so serious.
            So far, so psychoanalytical.
                        So far, so violently sacrificial.

It’s probably time for a joke.

I’ll let James Allison crack it. He observes, wryly:
            “At this point these delightful stage extras sail off into the sunset,
                        presumably to a barbarian island north of France and east of Ireland,
                        where to this day their religion is alive and well,
                        and mistakenly thought to have something to do with the living God.”

Meanwhile, God is also intent on having the last laugh,
            and Jonah gets swallowed by a giant fish.

Remember, this book is a satire:
            there’s nothing literal here.

We are simply stepping into the overstated world of the Book of Jonah,
            to laugh and cry in equal measure
as the reluctant prophet keeps trying to run from himself and from God,
            and we’re asked to recognise ourselves in him,
            so that maybe we can laugh and cry at ourselves as well.

So, Jonah is pitched over the side of the ship, to certain death in a watery grave.
            It’s not exactly going out in a blaze of glory,
                        but it’s one way of bringing the pain to an end
                        without having to face the demons inside.

He’s taken his stand, he’s held onto his truth,
            and he’s paying for it with his life.

To be killed as a martyr is, after all, a jolly convenient way
            of sorting out the conflict of pride and shame.

The pride tells you that this is what should happen to a good man and a prophet,
            and the shame inside offers its dishonest consent.

You can imagine the inner, unconscious voice, deep in Jonah’s soul,
            offering him the compelling logic of martyrdom:

            I hate myself. I can’t live with myself.
                        But on the other hand, I know that it is wrong to kill myself.
            What if I manage to set it up so that I get killed "in the course of duty"?
                        Then of course, the only story that people will read
                                    will be the unambiguous one, the story of the prophet and martyr."

It’s so tragic it’s hilarious.
            It’s the little child in adult’s clothing.
            It’s the logic of the teenager running away from home,
                        saying ‘nobody loves me; but they’ll miss me when I’m gone’

And Jonah, of course, doesn’t have the advantage of having read the Book of Jonah.

Jonah must have thought he was plunging into death.
            And I would bet that there must have been something of relief in his descent.
At last it was all over. But it wasn’t.

Unknown to him, while he thought he had engineered his death,
            setting it up so as to avoid finding himself in the presence of the Lord,
God had a different idea.

God’s plan was to tag along while Jonah would not allow himself to be reached,
            and then, when he had plunged into the deep,
            to hold him while he was devoured
                        by all that tumultuous fear, hatred, and darkness
                        which had glowered beneath the surface of his faith.

The great fish is nothing other than God holding Jonah
            in the midst of the darkness and fear.

It is as if, in the midst of a suicidal depression,
            there where even a person of faith can find no foothold,
                        where there is no remedy,
                        where the person's very being is disintegrating and there is no light,
                        not even a tunnel at the end of which a light might be,
                                    just a downward sucking whirlpool which drags you out of existence,
            even there you are held in being by a force which is not your own.

This is the moment of crucifixion,
            it is the moment of death, the moment of abandonment.

And yet it is also the moment of truthful encounter with God,
            when all else is stripped away.

And when we come face to face with the living, loving God,
            in the midst of our deepest fear and hatred of ourselves,
we find ourselves held, irrevocably, by a love that will never let us go.

The God who goes to the cross,
            is the God who seeks, in Christ, to bring an end to violence.
The sign of Jonah, three days in the belly of a fish,
            is a sign of the God who dies with us,
            that we might be raised with him to new life.

But that’s a story for another week.

Today, we sit with Jonah in his watery cocoon.

And so we sit with all those who wait, and wait, and wait,
            for new life to come to their living death.

We sit and wait with those in Mosul,
            waiting for an end to the murderous regime.
We sit and wait with those whose inner pain is so great
            that they project chaos and pain all around them.
We sit and wait with God,
            and we hope for the certainty of new life.

[1] What follows draws on http://girardianlectionary.net/res/fbr_ch-4.htm

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