Welcome to the fourth 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. 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 and we’ve been using the story of Jonah to help us to develop that understanding.
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. Last week we reached Nineveh, and talked about the seriousness of sin and how important penitence is in conversion. Now, we are in the fourth week, and it is, at last, time to think about Jonah. However, this is a bit of a challenge. It’s a challenge because through this series we have been exploring conversion by talking about features of the conversion of the characters we have met. Jonah, however, is different, because he stands out, as the one character in the story who remains unconverted.
Hold on a minute, you might say. When we read chapter 2 a couple of weeks ago, we heard Jonah’s song of praise from the belly of the fish. Jonah had a change of mind about going to Nineveh. Didn’t that show that he was converted to God’s way of thinking?
Well possibly, but I would like to suggest that the last part of the story, which we heard read today, and the strength of his negative feelings towards God and the people of Nineveh show that Jonah’s heart had not changed. Indeed, it seems to me that his thanksgiving for his own deliverance from destruction, expressed in that central psalm, throws into contrast his anger over the deliverance from destruction experienced by the people of Nineveh. Jonah ends the story, as he began, estranged in his heart from God’s heart.
One of the counter-intuitive aspects of this observation is that this doesn’t seem to have reduced Jonah’s missional effectiveness. We hnow that through his ministry both the sailors and the people of Nineveh were converted. Based on a count of the number of people turning towards God, Jonah was a successful missionary. A very real temptation in the arena of mission is to draw too close a connection between our own standing before God and the apparent success of the work we are doing. For the sake of our own spiritual health it is worth us remembering that just because we are seeing people come to faith through our ministries does not mean that our hearts are beating in time with God’s heart. On the other hand, it is also true to say that we should not always assume that the apparent failure of a mission initiative is down to our sinfulness, lack of faithfulness, or inability to hear God rightly. There is a connection between our faithfulness and our fruitfulness, but it is less clear cut than we might think and the fruit might only be visible from the perspective of eternity.
Another thing that might puzzle us is what it means to say that one of God’s people still needs to be converted. Jonah was one of God’s people. More than that, he was a prophet to God’s people, entrusted by God with speaking God’s word with authority and power. He worshipped God, he heard God speaking, he prayed and conversed with God. How could such a person need to be converted?
When we start to think about how this might apply to our own lives and mission, this puzzlement might only increase. We live in a different age. We have seen Jesus live among us, die for us, and be raised to heaven. As a result of that the way has been opened for us to become children of God, a new creation, with the past put behind us and forgiven. We have been changed, converted, and there is no going back. Of course, we know that we are not yet perfect. The daily evidence of our lives shows that we still sin and fall short of God’s perfection. We are aware that as we follow Jesus’ way the Holy Spirit is at work in us, making us more and more able to walk that way without stumbling. We have different ways to describe this process. We talk about sanctification, becoming holy, purification, being refined as silver is refined. But what about conversion? Is it helpful or accurate to use this word to describe something that people of God still need to experience?
Jesus told a story about a man who found a buried treasure in a field. The man reburied the treasure, went and sold all that he had and then returned to buy the field containing the treasure. This parable provides a framework to Gerard Hughes’ exploration of how we understand ourselves in his book “God of Surprises” He suggests that as we dig in the field that is ourselves, searching for the treasure of the Kingdom, we find that, “There are layers upon layers of consciousness within us and on our journey towards God we are constantly discovering areas of atheism within us, provided we dare look.” This describes very clearly how I have felt at times when circumstances or particular events have broken through a door or a floor in my life and revealed to me a whole area of my life that is, effectively, Godless. I could use the language of sanctification to describe what needs to happen in these areas of my life, but the language of conversion feels more realistic.
I would suggest that being honest about this, and not fearing this possibility, frees us to reflect on our lives, explore them, dig deeper, not being afraid of what we might find but not knowing that whatever we uncover can be brought under God’s rule and Christ’s lordship by the work of the Holy Spirit.
One of the things that can break through those floors and doors, revealing areas of our lives that need converting, is the experience of reaching out to others. It may be that part of God’s purpose in sending Jonah to Nineveh was to reveal to Jonah a part of his life that needed to be converted. As Chris Pickering put it when we were discussing Jonah in house group, the book of Jonah is the story of God’s pursuit of Jonah’s heart.
At one stage in his wanderings around the Palestinian countryside Jesus decided to take a break and escape from the public demands of ministry in seaside town of Tyre. While he’s there a woman comes to see him and asks him to free her daughter from an unclean spirit. But there’s a problem. The women isn’t Jewish, she’s a foreigner and a gentile. So Jesus tells her that it would be wrong to give the children’s food to the dogs before the children have had their fill. The woman is graceful in humility, answering that even the dogs under the table get the food falling from the children’s plates. At this Jesus changes his mind and tells the woman that her daughter is freed from the unclean spirit. Jesus then goes on to continue ministering in gentile areas of the country, healing the sick and feeding the hungry.
It seems to me that Jesus was open to the possibility that his understanding of his own mission could be shaped and changed by someone who was outside his own faith community. Whilst I do hesitate to suggest that Jesus was converted from a hardness of heart that might indicate him having sinned, I think that it is reasonable to say, at least, that Jesus’ appreciation of the breadth and extent of his Father’s love and purpose was widened in this encounter. Given that this was the case for Jesus, how much more should we be open to the possibility that the mission God has called us to engage in might be as much about more deeply converting us as it is about converting others?
It may very well be that as we try to love our neighbours we discover how dry our own hearts are. That as we seek to be peace makers we find our own anger getting in the way. That as we invite people to share our lives we are shown how selfish we are and discover that generosity doesn’t come easily. Jonah found out some pretty uncomfortable things about himself when he went to Nineveh.
This openness does not just apply to us as individuals, but also corporately, as local churches and as a national institution. At the moment Mark is at General Synod. One of the things that is being discussed at this Synod is how the Church of England can move towards having women bishops. I followed the debate that occurred in November quite closely and there were many threads to it, but there was one that struck me as particularly relevant to this reflection. This thread was one that concerned the place that the opinion of those outside of the Church should have on the Church’s decision. Some argued that the Church should be distinctive from the world, and if she feels she is right about something then she should stick to it, however much the world disapproves or fails to understand. Others argued that in this case the surrounding culture is more Christlike than the Church and is showing the Church a better way. Failing to walk in that way would create such an offence that we would less likely to be heard when we suggest that following Jesus might be good news.
In his letter to the people of God in Rome, Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.” This is a verse that I have returned to repeatedly, or has returned to me, throughout my life. I believe that it can help us to resolve this tension. We are called to be distinctive to the world, to the surrounding culture and its normal patterns of life where they are unhealthy and life destroying. However, we have to remain open to the possibility that the world might be one of God’s agencies in the work of renewing our minds. If we, as individuals and as a community of faith, are closed to this possibility then our mission to others might be successful but we run the risk of ending up sat next to Jonah, with our hearts estranged from God’s heart, longing for death. On the other hand, we might choose to join in a prayer written by the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggeman
“Enter the deep places of our life and claim us for your purposes.
We would be more free than we are,
more bold than we dare,
more obedient than we choose.”