Bible Readings: Jonah 1:17-2:10 & Mark 9:42-48

Jonah and the Fish – Getting Rid of the Rubbish

This is the second in a series exploring the book of Jonah, focussing especially on what it might have to say to us about conversion. Firstly a reminder of why we’re having this series. Our vision is for there to be a new congregation in Priorslee. This will mostly be made up of local people who will have come to faith in Jesus and will have decided to follow him. This vision will only come into reality if people become Christians, if they convert to Christianity. In fact, the only way that the church anywhere grows, whether it is starting from scratch or is building on foundations hundreds of years old is by people becoming Christians, if people convert to Christianity. Given this it seems to me that it is important for us to have a good understanding of conversion.

Last week, we thought about the Sailors in the story and they helped us to see how a true change in belief leads to a change in what we do. Conversion is seen in actions. We thought about the implications of this for our witness to those who are not yet Christians. One of these was the importance of our own lives being different because of our decision to follow Jesus. As Peter writes, we should live such good lives that they may see our good deeds and glorify God. Next week we will look at the story of the Ninevites, and the particular place of penitence in conversion, but before we get there we are going to consider the fish. I would like to suggest that something that the fish does might be an example to us as we seek to live such good lives that others may see our good deeds and glorify God. It seems to me that the Fish illustrates the place of radical renunciation of sinful habits and opportunities for temptation.

Perhaps it might sound a bit odd to consider the fish as experiencing conversion, but there is no disputing the fact that at one point in its life it decided that swallowing Jonah would be good, and at another point that it decided to reverse that decision, to vomit Jonah out. This might be pushing it, after all, it is clear that the whole process is under God’s direction. Nevertheless, we will discuss God’s conversion in the last sermon of the series, and so it is possible that the agent of God’s action can also be described as undergoing a change of mind, experiencing conversion. Further more, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on vomiting and conversion.

Before we go any further, I just want to let you know that I am going to spend the rest of the time talking about vomiting, in one way or another. For some us, including me, this is going to be a quite uncomfortable. We don’t often talk about vomiting in polite society, and even more rarely in church. I was at a church a couple of weeks ago when the speaker was preaching on the part in Revelation which talks about Jesus warning that he was going to vomit out a church because it was luke warm. As the Powerpoint slide of a cartoon of someone bent over a toilet, throwing up, went up there was a definite sound of people shuffling in their seats. Now, I have spared us the projected images, but I think that we do need to talk about this. I know that it’s messy, and horrible, and makes us feel uneasy. But so is dealing with sin and temptation, and we need to learn to talk about that in church as well.

In general we vomit physically because there is something in our stomach that the body doesn’t want there. This might be poison, bad food, or a bacterial infection. It might just be that our body can’t cope with the work of digestion and needs to shut down the system. Vomiting is usually involuntary, but we can stimulate it if we need to, for instance if we believe that we’ve swallowed something dangerous. Although it is unpleasant, our ability to vomit is a really important one, and can save our lives. We know this because, in contrast, horses have a real problem with this. Because of the strength of their stomach valve and angle of their food pipe, horses are unable to vomit, and because of this colic – stomach problems – can be fatal for them, they can die. If physical vomiting is usually good for us, even life saving, despite its unpleasantness, then I wonder whether spiritual vomiting might also be important our spiritual health.

The first way in which I would suggest that spiritual vomiting is good for us is when we purge out sin. When come to faith we come with a life time of sin that, if it is not dealt with, can continue to cause havoc in our lives. We know that Jesus’ death and resurrection rescues us from the eternal consequences of sin, and we know that we are secure in him from the moment of our conversion. However, it is usually the case that there is ongoing work to be done in clearing out unhelpful habits, damaging ways of thinking, and emotional or spiritual scarring.

There are churches that believe that one of the most significant steps that a young Christian can take is to make a fearless moral inventory and confess those sins explicitly to another person. The rationale of these communities, based on experience, is that this process allows a person to be honest about who they are and the baggage that they come with. It also gives a strong ethos within those church communities of mutual accountability and togetherness in the ongoing battle with sin in each others’ lives. It is acknowledged that it is likely that as Christians mature they will become more aware of their previous sinfulness, and therefore realise that they have further things to repent of. It is felt that this is more likely to happen if the habit of self examination and confession is introduced early in a Christian’s life than if it is left until later. The longer it is left, in fact, the less likely it is to develop.

The second way that spiritual vomiting is good for us is in the getting rid of bad habits, resisting temptation, and combating besetting sins, those things that we do, and we wish we didn’t do, but which trip us up again and again. This is the ongoing work of sanctification: becoming more like Jesus under the guidance and shaping of the Holy Spirit. If we have a bad habit, something that we do repetitively that damages either ourselves or others, then it has to be broken. Part of breaking that habit is vomiting out, getting rid of, the things that are are entwined with it. If it is an addiction such as pornography, smoking, or alcohol then this may involve throwing out the physical things associated with it. The books, the magazines, the internet connection, the cigarettes, the bottles. If it is a habit of heart or mind then there may be wrong attitudes to be confessed and let go of. We might have to change the pattern of our lives.

Adrian Plass tells the story of a woman who realised that the nodding acquaintance with a man who caught the same train to work as her had progressed into a friendship and was now starting to develop into a tender affection. She did not want to succumb to the temptation to unfaithfulness to her husband by allowing the relationship to develop further. She started catching a later train. She vomited away the circumstances that provided the opportunity for temptation. Or, as Jesus put it, “she plucked out her eye”.

The third way in which spiritual vomiting, particularly associated with conversion, is good for us is in us getting rid of stuff. At one stage in his travels Paul stayed for a few years in the city of Ephesus, teaching and preaching about Jesus. Whilst he was there a group of people who had various occult practices came to believe in Jesus. One of the first things that they did was to burn all their books and equipment, the original bonfire of the vanities. A moment ago we thought about the necessity of throwing away things associated with addictions and bad habits, but this is wider than that. It is to do with destroying any physical things that might provide a foothold for our enemy in our lives.

For different people this will include different things. In his letter to the church in Rome Paul makes it clear that people find different things a barrier to living faithfully in Jesus’ way. Writing this has reminded me that there are books in my house that I need to get rid of. I haven’t decided whether I need to bin them, or just give them to a charity shop. For some people, they would probably not be harmful to read, but I know that their combination of sex and violence is not good for my thought life. The trouble is, if I keep them in the house, a few months down the road, when I’m hunting round for something to read I might decide that they weren’t that bad and start reading again, be drawn in by the plot, and before I know it my imagination is being polluted again.

This process isn’t one that is only for individuals. The community has a part to play as well. In an atmosphere of trust we can help each other identify what might need to go. We might also, as a community, decide to get rid of something from our life together in order to support those who find that thing a temptation. I used to take communion into a warden supported accommodation for the elderly. One week one of the ladies took me aside and told me that another of the residents wanted to receive communion but couldn’t because she was a recovering alcoholic. We had a conversation about the various possibilities, and the group decided that they would rather have an alcohol free alternative to wine so that they could all take part in the meal in unity.

Most of what I have said this evening has been based on the observation that vomiting is normally good for us, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes it becomes part of an uncontrollable, life destroying condition. This condition often has at its root a distorted self image, low self esteem, and mental health issues. This can be as true for spiritual vomiting as for physical vomiting. Once we have vomited once, confessed our sin, and cleared our lives we are forgiven. In seeking to enable people to be free of past sin, by encouraging them to engage with the reality of it, we must be careful that we do not encourage them to be bound by the memory of it. When people come to faith they are adopted as children into the family of God. They are princes and princesses of God’s kingdom.

That is the reality of their identity. Living in that reality requires them to confess their sin and vomit away some things. It also means that they are forgiven, are free from that sin, and can walk free with head held high.

In a few moments we will be coming to the Lord’s table to share in the meal that reminds us that Jesus brings forgiveness and freedom from sin, and all its consequences. It may be that tonight you have been prompted by the Holy Spirit about something that you need to get rid of in your life. If that’s so, then I’d encourage you to bring it in prayer and give it to Jesus as you receive the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ. I would also encourage you to share this with somebody else, so that they can pray with you and support you, for that is also the gift of the body of Christ.

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