Bible Readings: Jonah 1:1-16 & Luke 6:46-49

Jonah and the Sailors – Conversion in Action

Our vision in Priorslee 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.

So, in this sermon series we will be looking at the Biblical idea of conversion. Each week we will consider different characters from the book of Jonah and, reflecting on their experiences, will think about different aspects of conversion. The Sailors will help us to see how a true change in belief leads to a change in what we do. The Fish illustrates the place of radical renunciation of sinful habits and opportunities for temptation. The Ninevites display penitence in conversion. Jonah shows us the need for ongoing conversion, and the dangers of hard heartedness. Finally we will explore the ways in which we might talk about God’s conversion.

I wonder when you last converted. Last year about a quarter of a million people stopped smoking with the help of the NHS Stop Smoking Service. They converted from smokers to non-smokers. Between 2005 and 2010 at least 2 million people converted from people who didn’t vote for a Conservative candidate at the General Election to people who did vote for a Conservative candidate. Since 2005 1.5 million people have taken up a sporting activity which they do at least once a week. They have converted from couch potatoes to sports people.

In all of these examples we know that the person has converted because we can see a change in their behaviour, in their pattern of live, in what they do or don’t do. Surveys of people who smoke usually report that about 70% of them want to stop but that desire doesn’t make them non-smokers. To be converted to a non-smoker something has to change in what they do. Similarly, there are those who disagree with things that our government does but who don’t engage with their MP and may not even vote. People might believe that exercise is good for them, but unless they actually do the exercise, they will not experience the benefits of it. In all these examples conversion is incomplete, and ineffective, unless it includes action.

With that in mind, lets have a think about the conversion of the sailors in the story of Jonah, starting by looking at what they were converted from.

It is most likely that the sailors would have had a world view containing many gods. A god for the home, and another for the market place. A god for the sea and another for the land. A god for each nation, and a family god for each hearth. This world view would have left them open to the suggestion that there is another god, that they hadn’t heard of before, who was acting to cause the storm, and who might demand something of them. It probably would have left them resistant to the idea that this god is the only God, the Lord of all, of home and of market place, of sea and of land, of nation and of home. A God that has a universal claim on creation would have been a novelty to them.

The existence of a God-shaped hole in every heart may be a cliché, but that is what we are being shown here. God has gone before us in creation, and has created people to know God. Christians do not have a monopoly on spirituality, on religious experience or on belief in god, and it seems to me that this fact points to the universal claim of God on creation and the reality that God is part of peoples’ lives before we arrive.

This reality is not just seen in peoples’ religious beliefs but also in their moral sense. In the Jewish tradition it is suggested that the sailors were so resistant to the idea of throwing Jonah into the sea that they tried something else first. They lowered him into the sea as far as his knees, and the storm abated, so they pulled him back into the boat. They storm got worse again, so they dipped him back in, up to his belly. The wind dropped and they hauled him in. The waves rose again so in he went, up to his neck. Eventually the sailors do what Jonah had told them to do in the first place, and threw him in completely.
This is entirely speculative, but it does illustrate something that is in the Biblical account: the human decency of the sailors. They do not want to save their own skins at the expense of Jonah’s life. They know that life is precious, and do all that they can to preserve it. The existence of this moral sense in the world is referred to by Paul in his letter to the church in Rome. He writes about Gentiles, those who are not seen as part of the people of God, who behave in line with God’s laws, “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts.”

So, we see from the story that the sailors had a strong religious and moral sense. However, it is also clear from the story that neither their spirituality nor their innate moral sense was going to save them. In order to be rescued from the storm, they had to change their minds and their behaviour. That is, they had to be converted.

As we’ve seen, the sailors started off believing that there was someone greater than them. Jonah told them who that someone was and what needed to be done. Their initial response was not one of belief. Instead of believing, they started to row for land. This proved to be pointless, so instead they changed their minds, changed their actions, and their faith saved them. They were rescued from the storm, and worshipped God. They were converted.

The idea that it is our active response to what we know of God that is important, rather than what we say we believe, is found all the way though the Bible. In the Old Testament we hear the prophets lamenting that God’s people say that they believe in God, and even come to worship, but do not do what God has commanded. What they do does not match with what they claim to believe.

We have heard this evening Luke’s account of a story that Jesus told of two builders. One of the builders dug deep foundations on to rock. The other didn’t dig foundations but built his house on the bare ground. When the storms rose the house on the rock stood firm, the house with no foundations crumbled. The first builder is the one who hears Jesus’ words and puts them into practice. The second builder is the one who hears Jesus’ words and does not put them into practice. Conversion is shown by action.

Sometimes I think about my friends and neighbours who lead basically moral lives, are kind and welcoming, honest and caring. Who have good marriages and raise their children with love. Who work hard and play with laughter. I think about them, and I ask myself why they might need God, and my courage for witnessing to them of the good news of Jesus drains away. But as I have thought about the sailors, I have started to see it in a different way. It has struck me that their very goodness is actually evidence of God’s work in their lives. God created and loves our friends, work colleagues and neighbours. God has written what the law requires on their hearts, why should we be surprised when we see evidence of this? It focuses us on the reality that God is part of peoples’ lives before we arrive.

But, just as this wasn’t enough to save the sailors from the rocks, so it is not enough to rescue our friends from the rocks.

We might say that everybody is on a boat, a boat called, “Life”. Our boats float along on the stream of time. At times the ride is smooth and steady, floating along in the company of other boats, other lives. We may even lash a couple of boats together. Some boats seem to encounter many storms and rapids, others drift on serenely. Whether we meet many storms or none, one thing is certain: eventually this boat will sink. At that point we will all need to be rescued from death. No amount of hard rowing on our part will ever pull us away from those rocks.

The promise of God is that we can be rescued from those rocks. That promise is available to everybody. Jesus came to earth, navigated the stream, hit the rocks, and came up waving not drowning. It is this promise of rescue that we have to offer to those who have not heard it. It is a promise that calls for a response of changed minds and of changed actions, that calls for conversion.

Earlier on I was talking about the way in which a conversion is associated with a change in behaviour. Smokers become non-smokers and coach potatoes become runners. Similarly we saw that what saved the sailors, that what showed their conversion to God’s way of doing things was a change in what they were doing. They stopped rowing and threw Jonah into the sea.

With this in mind, what are the implications for this of people who decide to follow Jesus, who convert to Christianity. Jesus’ story of the builders makes it clear that he expects his followers to put what he teaches into practice. To love neighbours. To love God. To forgive others. To serve the poor. To heal the sick. To be faithful. To be holy. To be generous with time and money.

It seems to me that this has implications for how we reach out to people with the good news of Jesus. The first is that we have to be clear with people that the invitation of Jesus is not just to agreeing with our heads that we believe something, but that it will challenge us to change the way that we live. These changes are unlikely to be comfortable and may very well lead us into conflict with people that we love, and who love us. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will help us to realise what those changes are, when we are to make them, and give us strength to see it through. Converting to Christianity means changing the way that we live, and we need to be up front and clear about this with people who are exploring what it means to follow Jesus.
We can only do this with any authenticity if our lives show this. As Peter writes, we should live such good lives that they may see our good deeds and glorify God. I am painfully aware that I am not perfect, and there are many aspects of my life that don’t match what I say that I believe, but I do believe that the Holy Spirit is working in me so that these become less and less, and as I follow Jesus more closely so I am made able to be a better witness to his life changing love.

One of the ways that our lives are different is that we are obedient to Jesus, we put what he teaches into practice.

One of the final commands that Jesus gave to his disciples was that they should go and make disciples. If Jesus’ disciples were to make disciples like them, then it follows that their disciples should also make disciples, and so on down the generations. Those of us who are Christians now, disciples of Jesus today, have been given this command, to make disciples. We are Christians because of the obedience of generation upon generation of disciples before us following this command. Now it is our turn to put what we believe into action.

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