Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 February 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
If we took our lead from Jonah chapter 3, we might think this evening’s theme was a classic evangelical proclamation of repentance and salvation. Jonah tells the people of Nineveh to repent; they do as they’re told and God changes his mind about nuking them; at this time of year we’d naturally compare
Mark 1: 15 where Jesus, after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, initiates his ministry saying
‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’.
Some read that as a simple proposition: repent and believe and, implicitly, you will be saved. Saved from what? From eternal suffering in hell. It is a coherent and neat, if reductive, understanding of the Christian faith.
It is not surprising that a simple propositional approach like this commended itself to many at the reformation given the dizzying complexity and corruption of the medieval church. It still has many supporters within protestant churches. The shorthand version of this sort of Christianity is ‘all you need is faith’ (the implication, that love is emphatically not all you need, should not be missed). In its classical formulation, this requires of us a ‘moral’ life, but not an outward-looking life (we might question how moral a life focussed entirely on saving the ‘self’ can be, even in biblical terms). But, more importantly, that narrow propositional view of the Good News sells both Jonah, and Jesus, grotesquely short.
Jonah is, I think, the only Old Testament prophet who was sent specifically to a foreign (i.e. non-Jewish) nation. We really need to read the whole of this short book (an exercise which I commend to you) but what follows from this is even more significant. God is always sending prophets to ‘his’ people – Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and their rulers – and they take no notice. Here, the non-Israelite Ninevites repent immediately (to Jonah’s disgust, we must add). And there is intentional irony in the fact that a large city responds to the preaching of a prophet from a tiny nation that was no match for the might of Assyria.
The story of Jonah shows, among other things, that God is concerned for nations other than Israel and that he finds ways to make his word heard in unexpected places. Further, there may be a more ready response to his word from those outside the household of faith than from those within. Since Christians as well as Jews have been, and are, guilty of claiming a privileged relationship with God, that part of the OT back-story must be remembered.
Our second lesson, a short piece of teaching from the incarnate Word of God himself, leads us on to understand how a living relationship with God is to be formed. We all recognise the Pharisee as an example of self-satisfied and ‘respectable’ religion. No doubt we all remember the Sunday-school sermon about the number of times he says ‘I’ and that his so-called prayer is really addressed not to God but to himself. And then the story tells us that the tax collector is the one who goes home ‘justified’.
‘Justified’ is a most important choice of vocabulary which we must not miss: it is precisely the word we hear in St Paul’s lexicon of what we call salvation. For Paul ‘being saved’ is being ‘justified’, ‘put right’ with God by faith. But that is all head-stuff. Here is what it actually means. This gospel story is a perfect example of why narrative, in the hands of the incarnate Word of God, is so powerful and immediate, much more so than the rhetoric of Paul. Because here we have, in the humility and faith of the sinner, the despised tax-collector, our way to heaven – ‘I tell you this man went down to his home justified‘. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters have picked up on the significance of this story and placed the tax-collector’s words at the heart of their devotional life in the ‘Jesus prayer’:
‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.
The Gospel, the Good News, which we proclaim and to which we are recalled with, I hope, fresh enthusiasm, by this holy season, is about the nearness of God’s Kingdom – the rule of God in our lives; it is about how acknowledging this priority of God leads us to renewed life which has the quality of eternity. It is a call to obedience. But obedience to God is not, as the Pharisees think, about keeping rules; it is about a loving and respectful relationship: St John would describe it as learning to love and learning love. That involves self-knowledge, humility and preparedness to keep on coming back to God in the confidence of love: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.