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I was having a conversation with a friend of a friend a few weeks ago about faith and life and he asked me where I stood on a certain moral issue – sexuality to be exact.  For me at this time the issue is not black or white but shrouded in shades of grey – biblically there is no guideline for this except, in my opinion, to be led by the Spirit.

And so I said I believe that human beings have defined this issue according to principles of duality and that it is up to us to be discerning when it comes to understanding the boundaries. This man looked at me, raised his eyebrows in exasperation and said – ‘you Christians, you just make up the rules as you go along – you twist the truth to suit your purposes …’

It’s as though faith and its expression are a one size fits all approach, as though our responses to God should all be the same, as though we should be carbon cut outs of each other, little mini replicas of one person. In a world as unique and diverse as ours a one size fits all response to faith is going to fail dismally and satisfy us not at all…

Unity is not the same as uniformity; uniformity does not equal unity… Being together is not about being the same as one another or thinking the exact same thing…

Now, as a first year seminarian student I can attest to this first hand.

We do not all look the same, we do not agree on all things, we do not express our faith in the same way … Boutimelo (my flat mate) and I have already had very interesting discussions around the way we ‘do church’ in our communities. And it’s different – very different. But at the heart of our expression of faith is this one common thing:  Love God and love each other, encourage each other in faith and encourage each other to be who we were truly created to be – agents of love, creatures created to create alongside God.

When I picked up the scripture for this week, the Psalm (62), the passage from Jonah and the calling of the first disciples that we read in Mark 1, the word which stood out was this one: repent.

“The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)  The good news of God with us, calling us out of ourselves and our dreary lives and into communion with Him and His magnificent ways…

Turn from your ways the scriptures say, repent and turn back to God and when you do, He will be

  1. Merciful (Jonah 3)
  2. We will find rest  (Psalm 62) and
  3. People will be drawn to us and to our communities in a way in which transforms them also (Mark 1:14 – 20)

But I wonder about that word ‘repent’. Turning away from and towards God’s ways surely is not going to be the same for everyone? Further than that repentance often times is for ‘other people’. Just as people believe Christians should all behave in the same way, with our various issues and challenges, Christians believe that other people must change and repent in the same way that they do. (Ok I must just admit to an overgeneralization here of course!) But I think there’s a tendency to think we should all repent / behave in the same way. If only this person would change or be more like me – if only THEY would repent and turn away from their evil ways the world would be a better place … My life would be SO much easier, if everyone would just be more like me.

O dear God forgive us that arrogance. (Mind you, as I seek to adjust in my new environment a little sameness would be comforting, albeit slightly dull – one must be honest! Wink and nudge) 

At our Sunday service this morning, we focused on the wonderful little gem of a story that is Jonah. Jonah the man who kinda falls into that trap I have just spoken about… with his preconceived ideas about them ‘other people’.

As a ‘first word’ I want to quote William Scarletts opening exposition of this text:

It is a vast pity that in the past and even today the value and beauty of this book has been obscured by the fish story which was swallowed whole by so many people. It has given rise to much controversy: how was it possible for a fish to swallow a man? … It is quite apparent that the book is not history, and obviously it was never intended to be read as history; the author of this magnificent document would turn over in his grave at the thought of such literalism…

He goes on to say that at the heart of this book is this truth: ‘The love of God is broader than the measure of mans mind.’  

And so the story for me at this time seemed to be more about Jonahs transformation and God’s mercy than anything else.

Just as a reminder here’s the story, Blissphil style:

It opens with God calling Jonah to a mission to help some people in a far away land. Jonah runs away, as you do – as far as his little legs would carry him. So far in fact that he hops on board a ship bound for Tarshish (try saying that word a few times without losing your dignity). Tarshish is believed to be a city in the South of Spain, the furthest point at that time that ships could travel, so he literally tries to flee to the ends of his earth… But God is a persistent God and He calls us all to holiness or whole-i-ness and so rather than let Jonah go he sends a great wind which threatens the safety of the ship and its sailors. While the storm rages, Jonah goes to sleep, blissphilly unaware of what’s happening around him.

Ahem!  Yes, rather than deal with my problem consciously, with alertness and awareness, I will go to sleep – that way I can ignore what’s going on around me and not have to face up to life in all its messiness. (I can relate!)

Of course the sailors can’t ignore the danger and they cast lots to see who is causing the trouble – damn! The truth always comes out – no matter how hard we try and ignore it – so they figure out that Jonah is the cause of their demise and they go and try find out what he’s done to make the Gods so mad at him!  To his credit Jonah wakes up and faces the music and admits that it’s his fault that the storm is raging and tells them to throw him overboard …

And bless them, rather than incur the wrath of this man’s God, they try to row him to shore amidst the raging storm, that doesn’t work so they cry out for forgiveness and eventually toss him overboard.

AH! But God saves him, yes he does, he saves him by sending a whale … as is customary!

Jonah spends 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of that fish and in that time he cries out to God, he laments his cowardly ways repents and allows God in his mercy to forgive him and give him another chance. ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good’ Jonah 2:8 (this week it’s those words which the Holy Spirit bolded for me – just btw)

Hallelujah, the fish vomits him up onto dry land – lucky Jonah. And the Lord comes to Jonah a second time and reminds him of the mission to Nineveh. Jonah obeys this time, sets off and when he gets to Nineveh, the people hear the message and repent immediately – all of them right up to the King who puts on sackcloth and commands all people to call on the name of God. And God forgives them – yes he does, he does, no questions asked – forgiveness asked, forgiveness given. Now Jonah is vies! Totally put out and in his lamenting we get to see the real reason why he was so reluctant to do what the Lord commanded. He didn’t want to go, because he didn’t like those people! Nah – uh!

Please don’t make us go there Lord – anywhere but there, with THOSE people …

And he speaks the words which have become synonymous for me with this book:

‘O lord, this is why I was so quick to flee … I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now O Lord take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live… 

Heavens to Betsy that’s what I call a moan – if I can’t have my way, than I would rather just die… how old is this guy again?

The story concludes with God still trying to get his point across, he gives Jonah a tree to shade him and then he takes the tree away and again Jonah says, o woe is me –let me die, my life is so miserable. And God asks him – what makes you MORE important than those 120 000 people of Nineveh? They who did not know what they were doing but who are on the right path now? What makes you think you deserve to be saved more than them? Oops! Ego-crushing-truth-moment!

And so they all lived happily ever after … thanks be to God!

Now reading this story this week made me blush a little, when I think of the number of times I have thought that my pain is worse than someone else’s, when I have thought that other peoples sin is worse than mine, when I think of the number of times God has asked me to be gracious to someone and I have thought – no Lord, I am not going to be gracious to that person – they don’t deserve it, they’re wrong, I am right! … Mmm Jonah gets up my nose with his whining, well of course he does, I have been known to do that too and so it hurts to see it laid out before me in someone else…

I love the richness of this story – I could read it many times and come up with different ways for it to speak to me, but at this moment, in this place, these are the questions that it asked of me:

  • In what ways am I running from Gods call? (In order to answer that question the best place to start with is the place where I feel the most resistance, for if I feel resistance then God may just be asking me to turn around, to turn away, to turn towards something or somebody? Find the resistance and pray into it.
  • The other question is this one, do I really believe in a gracious and compassionate God? If I do, and I am created in his image, then where can I imitate grace and show compassion?

Reading Jonah it’s tempting to focus on the ‘badly behaved’ Ninevites, (them people who ACTUALLY need to repent according to our one sided dualistic view of faith and life), when in actual fact the change that’s important to God is within Jonah himself – he runs away from God – runs away from that which God calls him to: holiness, whole-i-ness,  through the place and the people whom Jonah despises – Jonah’s mission was about Jonah’s transformation, about his own faith journey, through a people of Gods choosing, not Jonah’s…

Is the Kingdom of God in our midst when we recognize our selfish, sinful, arrogant ways? 

‘Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men’, says Jesus, leave your little lives behind you (repent) and I will show you a life so glorious that others will want to come along for the ride… be prepared though, to go where you don’t want to go, to spend time with people who may not look like you, or express their faith in the same way as you do. Remembering that the love of God is bigger than we could ever imagine and that his grace is sufficient for everyone – rather than that being something to lament or claim for a select few, that fact needs to be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops – our God is a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … and we cannot out run our God or our truth, the truth that make us want to run, hide or sleep …

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.’