Welcome to the fifth week of our 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. In the previous weeks we have been looking at the experiences of some of the characters in the book of Jonah, and what they might have to say to us about conversion because we believe that the vision for Priorslee will only become a 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.
In the first 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. Then we considered the Fish and how its example might inspire us to get rid of things in our lives that are in the way of us following Jesus faithfully. Then we reached Nineveh, and talked about the seriousness of sin and how important penitence is in conversion. Last week we thought about Jonah himself, and how engaging in mission can be us much about converting areas of our lives as it is about converting other people.
This week is different. This week we are thinking about God. Whenever we start thinking and talking about what God is like, we pretty quickly reach the edges of what our language can cope with. There is also the danger that as we focus on one aspect of God’s character, so we can seem to lose sight of other aspects that might be in tension with it. Bearing that in mind, if there are aspects of what I say tonight that you want to discuss further with me then please do chat to me after the service, or go home and follow the link to my sermon blog from the All Saints Facebook page, and then email me or add comments or questions on the blog.
Now, last week we were talking about God’s pursuit of Jonah’s heart. God was relentless and unwavering in that pursuit. We have also talked about a Christian’s assurance of being in Christ, and how our rescue from sin and death is secure in God, as the Holy Spirit bears witness to us.
In tonight’s readings we have a seeming contrast with this language of constancy and dependability in that we have God’s mind being changed, God relenting and not doing what had been said. However, there is a clue to the resolution of this contrast just around the corner. Jonah, in his anger at God, says this, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Jonah, for all his faults, understands something about the unchangeable nature of God. He knows that God is open to a change of action and declared decision, because of a consistency of nature. God’s change of mind is entirely consistent with, and in fact demonstrates, God’s consistent nature. God is consistently full of grace, willing to show mercy, and loving. Because this nature is reliable and sure, unchanging and dependable, God is free to change decisions and actions. If this were not the case, if God were bound by what had been said to people, despite changes in circumstances and people’s attitudes to God, then the character of God would have to be different.
Perhaps I can illustrate this by describing to you one of my failings. One of the things that I find most difficult is changing my mind. This is the case in a whole collection of different contexts. For instance, when my children have asked if they can do something and I’ve said no. They may be able to explain why it’s a good idea, my wife might have a quiet word about why she thinks it would be fine, they might even tidy their rooms. Still, I find it difficult to change my mind.
The things that make it difficult for me to change my mind are things like: pride; desire for control; standing on authority. None of these are Godly or good characteristics. This difficulty I have reveals something about my nature, it is something that is immovable and persistent, but not in a good way. One might even call it obstinacy. If we had a God that always acted in accordance with announced decisions, rather in accordance with constant love, then there would have been no forgiveness for Nineveh, in fact there would be no grace, no cross, and no redemption because the curse that God declared over Adam and Eve at the gate of Eden would still be in effect.
One of the best explanations of how this works is given by God to the prophet, Jeremiah. God sends Jeremiah to see the local potter. Whilst he’s there, he sees that the potter is making a pot on a wheel. As Jeremiah watches, the potter decides that the pot that he is making has gone wrong, it is spoilt. So, the potter changes his mind about what he’s making and makes something else, a different shaped pot, from the same piece of clay. Jeremiah then hears God speaking to him again, and God says this:
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.”
God explains clearly to Jeremiah exactly what we have seen work out in Nineveh. God may declare what seems to be an absolute judgement, but there is always an implicit contingency. It may not be spoken aloud, but it is taken as read. If the person or people under judgement repent, then God will relent. It doesn’t have to be said every time, it is understood. Jonah understood. The people of Nineveh hoped that it might be. By the grace of God, it was. This is the kind of Godly change of mind that we are comfortable with, that reassures us, that is relatively easy to understand and accept.
What is more difficult to accept, that is distinctly less comforting, is what God says to Jeremiah next,
“And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.”
It may be less comfortable, but it has its roots in the same soil. God’s decisions and intentions are subject to change because God’s character is constant. God is holy and just, righteous and pure. If people begin to take God’s blessing and favour for granted, and begin to do wrong then God is at liberty to withdraw that blessing and favour. This is because God is love. God loves completely. God loves us too much to continue blessing us indefinitely whilst we walk away from God. God loves us too much to continue blessing indefinitely those who have become a curse to others.
I think that it is also possible to see this second sense of God’s change of mind being illustrated in Jonah. Jonah, as an individual, is shaken up by the whole process. His prejudices and hatreds are challenged by God. As such, he is a representative of his people, of the people of God. His failure to love and be compassionate is widespread amongst the people of God at the time. God is warning the people: I have chosen you and announced that you are to be built up and planted. However, you are lacking in love and compassion. This is disobedience. Remember that I am a God who repents. I will remind you of this by forgiving Nineveh, despite the fact that I said that I would destroy the city. Remember that I can also change my mind about the future I have promised you, if you do not obey me.
When I first began thinking about looking for jobs after my curacy, I went to Glasshampton Monastry with my wife. We spent the day praying and listening to God. We took some notes of some of the things that we believed that God was saying to us. Some of them seemed to be applicable to the work in Priorslee, and those matches made up part of the decision to apply for this role. Since then we have continued to pray and to listen, with others, for Priorslee. We have kept a record of the words and pictures that have been shared with us. We have reflected on them, sifted them, and weighed them. At different times we have discerned different emphasises in what God is calling us to. What has been constant, however, is the sense that despite the hardness of the ground and the challenges that exist, there will be fruit here. That there are green shoots, that there is a blossoming possible, that harvest time is coming. This has been, and continues to be, an encouragement to us to keep going when things are tough.
What Jonah and Jeremiah seem to be teaching us is that these words and encouragements from God are contingent. They are not absolute, but their fulfilment depends on obedience to God. In some senses this is obvious and incontrovertible. If I were to start drinking myself into a stupor every night at the local pub, beat my children, or have a string of affairs then it is not controversial to say that God’s stated purposes for me and for Priorslee may be frustrated. In cases of catastrophic and flagrant moral failure, then it is easy to see how ministries and communities can be damaged and scarred in ways that take generations to heal.
What might be more worrying, however, is not the immediately disastrous but the things that wear us away over time, not the obvious but the subtle. We may feel able to avoid rebellious disobedience, but be unsure that we are always ready to surrender in radical obedience. We may not hate, but we struggle to embrace love in all its depth and glory. We know that we’re meant to build up and encourage but keep slipping into gossip and low level discontented murmuring. These wickednesses also lead to damage to our ministries and communities.
So, we need to watch ourselves and remain obedient if we want to see God’s promises for ourselves and our church communities come to fulfilment.
The problem is that our concern about this might reduce the encouragement that is found in the promises of God, because we believe they are contingent, that they depend on our actions and faithfulness. Knowing ourselves, even a little, this feels like unsure ground. And, of course, this is the point. If we are depending on ourselves then we are on unsure ground and we need to know this. It is when we know ourselves to be unsure that we learn to lean even more heavily on God, whose character and nature is sure. God is surely loving, thoroughly good, and wholly dependable.
The danger comes when we believe ourselves to be firm and become sure of ourselves. It is at this point that all is really at risk because we are tempted to stop looking to God, and start working with our own strength. As Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth, “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” However, by the sure grace of God we can avoid falling, and so see the fruit promised by God in our mission fields, and in the growth of the church, by taking to heart what Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”