The Fifth Sunday of Lent - Reflection

‘Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?’ - Jonah 4:10-11.

Brothers and sisters, there is a phrase which you will all know which says ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. That is, that children often not only look like their parents, but resemble them in other ways, in their character and what they like. People tell me that Amelie looks like me, and if her love of books is anything to go by she is like me in other ways too. But though this rule is generally true, there are some clear cut examples of apples falling quite a long way from the tree. No doubt as you think about your family and friends you’ll be able to think of someone who has fallen far from the tree and causes great upset for their parents. This Lent we have been studying our way through the book of Jonah, and reflecting on what this ancient book has to teach us about ourselves, the world, and our God. And that is what Lent is all about as well. Taking the time to look at ourselves honestly, realising how far from God’s tree we have fallen and then looking to our God the One who gives us hope.

Now we arrive to chapter four, and perhaps we hope for a happy ending, and we have good reason to expect it. When we last looked at Jonah the last verse of that study is this weeks first verse. See the wonderful news, v10: ‘When God saw what [the Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.’ What a wonderful way to enter the final chapter! Surely now Jonah - surely now God’s people - will throw a party and ask for forgiveness for their reluctance to obey God in the first place? Well, nota bit of it, v1: ‘this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful […] And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’  Jonah, the representative of God’s people throws a huge tantrum! ‘I told you so’ shouts Jonah, ‘I knew it, I knew this would happen’ cries out the prophet. I know what you’re like God, and I just knew that if I came here and preached, the Ninevites would repent, and you’d forgive them’ Here Jonah tells us why he wouldn’t go to Nineveh. It wasn’t that Jonah feared for his life, it’s that he feared that the Ninevites would be saved. Jonah has been saved by God but Jonah doesn’t want God to save anyone outside the Jewish family. The representative of God’s people represents God’s people well for too often - as we have seen all the way though - Christians are just the same. We make out that church is the place where the good people gather while the sinners stay outside. But the Book of Jonah has reminded us  again and again the lie to this line of thinking. By God's grace we are not what we were, and by God's grace we are not what we will be, but we are not perfect yet, and truth be told we’re a long way off. However,  though Jonah may have finished with God, God hadn’t finished with Him! And it is in that truth, that we have hope. God says I love Nineveh, and I love you, Jonah, enough that I weep, I suffer, when you all do not live as you should.

What does this love look like in practice? Well come with me to our Gospel reading (Luke 19:41-48) and see the remarkable account of Jesus approaching the city of Jerusalem, the week before He is killed. Verse 41 says: ‘As [Jesus] came near and saw the city [of Jerusalem], he wept over it’. Jonah did not weep over the city,  but Jesus the true prophet did! One week later Jesus would be again outside the city - just as Jonah was outside a city - but there the similarities end. For Jesus, unlike Jonah is not angry; Jesus is not hoping for the cities destruction, rather Jesus, the true prophet, is crying out from the cross: ’Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. We can only look in wonder on such a God. Jesus is the prophet Jonah should have been, and He is infinitely more. Jesus did not merely weep for us; He died for us. Jesus is the prophet which Jonah should have been, for Jesus is the God which Jonah should have followed. And as our God died on the cross, it is there that we find our hope. Hope for those of us who recognise that we are not the people we should be. It is on the cross, and through the cross that we find hope. And it is that hope - that cross shaped hope - that the Church need as much as those out there. that is why we have Lent. That is why - like Nineveh did when they repented - we cover ourselves in ash  and fast for forty days. However, even as we walk the forty days of Lent, we look forward in hope to Easter. We look forward in hope to Good Friday and to the resurrection, when the God who weeps died and rose again, so that people, both inside and outside the church, might find forgiveness redemption, and salvation. As John Newton, the slave trader who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, once said:

‘Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: 

I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.’

Let that be the summary of our reading of Jonah and let us turn once more to the God who weeps and in Him  find hope. Amen.(from Rev. Mike).