Sunday, 5 February 2012

Jonah and Jesus think the unthinkable


Thinking the unthinkable.

Changing the unchangeable.

An impossible dream!

Or is it?

At Hy-Way on Wednesday I found myself sharing my recollections of teachers who had made a difference in my life.  I think back and know how much I owe to inspirational teachers.  I have many vivid memories of school days.

Some are quite vivid.

And still disturbing.

The kind of memories that send a shiver down your spine.

I would be ten.  I can picture myself in the playground at Mayflower Junior School in Leicester when the conversation was of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I would have been 9 at the time.   We seemed to be standing on the brink of a third world war and this time it would be nuclear.  A moment’s memory.

Eight years later I found myself in the sixth form – I can picture it now walking home along the London Road, past Duke’s Drive, late in the evening after a showing of a film banned from broadcast on the BBC – the War Game.  We lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb.

To end the cold was thinking the unthinkable, it would involve changing the unchangeable.

Then the Berlin Wall came down.  And the unthinkable happened, the unchangeable changed.

The death of Basil D’Olivera recently brought back to me memories of the Anti-apartheid campaign, stop the seventies tour in the wake of the D’olivera affair when the apartheid regime in South Africa insisted D’olivera be dropped from the  England side.

The end of apartheid was thinking the unthinkable, changing the unchangeable.

Then that moment when Nelson Mandela walked free.  And the day of the first elections in South Africa.  The unthinkable was happening before our very eyes, the unchangeable was changing before our very eyes.

Jesus was in the business of raising our horizons, of getting us to think the unthinkable and change the unchangeable.

And the world he lived in was just as troublesome.  The massive thing for Jesus and his people was the massive might of the Roman Empire – the power that ground down the Jewish people and so many peoples the world over.

How the people longed for the Kingdom of God to break in.  For the kingdom of heaven to come.  For God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.  But that was to think the unthinkable it would involve changing the unchangeable and that was not happen.

Yet, that was the message of Jesus.

The kingdom of God has come near – repent and believe the Good News.

Tough.  Because it was not very evident.

That’s the message that runs through the Gospel accounts of Jesus.

By Luke 11 Jesus is very much on the road to Jerusalem.  As he travels sharing that good news in word and deed he prays.  He teaches his disciples about prayer.

Your kingdom come – that’s the prayer – your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Not possible.  Unthinkable.  Keep on prayer he says – a story of the friend at midnight who keeps on asking, and then the wonderful rhythms

Ask and it will be given you
Seek and you will find.
Knock and the door will be opened for you.
Ask seek knock.

Keep at it.

And it is a struggle.

Jesus recognises the problem.  It seems as if people are in thrall to powers that are beyond their control.  There is a very real sense of evil around. And that gets a hold of people.

Jesus in the business of breaking the power of the demons that get a hold of people.

When you read about demons, Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.  Don’t think personal devils, don’t think people who now we would think of as ill.

Instead think people who are trapped by powers beyond their control that are so destructive it seems unthinkable that their power could ever be broken.

And Jesus confronts those powers, jesus overcomes those powers.  And the message of Jesus breaks even those unbreakable bonds.

There’s talk here of breaking the bonds of the strong man.  Setting people free.

Does Jesus have in mind here the powers that hold people down.  There’s no other way of describing them – they are demonic.  But he breaks those bonds.

Olga was telling me how lovely it was to receive that long service certificate last week because it was the eleventh anniversary of her mother’s death.

In some ways that seems like yesterday.

In some ways it seems another age.

As we approached the millennium we had such high hopes with the ending of the cold war, the ending of apartheid, even the down-sizing of GCHQ.

Then came 9/11.  The Afghan war now in its eleventh year, and showing little signs of resolution, the Iraq war.  The rise in terrorism.  All that’s happening to Christians and many others  in Iraq, Egypt, the middle East.  The hope of new-found freedoms or the opening of Pandora’s box.

The financial crisis.

It feels as we are in the grip of forces beyond our control.

At the heart of our Christian faith is that not even the most unthinkable, unchangeable of forces for ill can defeat the goodness of God.  That’s to hold on to.  That’s the conviction.

Jesus drives his point home with two illustrations to a restless crowd.

It’s not possible to change the situation the people are in with the Roman powers that be.  It’s unthinkable.

Just as he had done in that sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth, so here Jesus turns to two stories from the prophets that tell of Gentiles who so it would seem could never be changed … yet who are changed.

The first story comes from the former prophets and is told in I Kings 10 and it is about the Queen of Sheba coming to Solomon and being changed.  The unthinkable happens.

The second story is much more difficult to date.

How sad that we trivialise the story of Jonah to debates about a whale.

AS far as Jesus was concerned the story of the whale is in many ways incidental to the story of Jonah.

Unique among the prophets in containing a single story, complete with prayer.  Jonah has a timelessness about it that speaks into any situation when people are in the grip of monstrous, unshakeable powers.

The monstrous unshakeable power is Nineveh.  The story is a larger than life story.  Nineveh is the massive power that is massively destructive.  It destroys anything to do with God and God’s people.  And it’s quite understandable that Jonah flees in the opposite direction.

There are indications that this is a larger than life story, the like of which Jesus revelled in.  Three days in the belly of the biggest fish the world has ever seen.

Then when Jonah eventually gets to Nineveh it is the biggest city the world has ever seen.  It takes three days to walk from one side of the city to the other.  Think of it. Say four miles an hour, ten hours of walking each day, that’s 120 miles across from side to side.  You are talking a city three times the size of London.  This is a monstrous, larger than life utterly impossible to destroy city.

And Jonah warns the people of the wrath of God.

And the story is told wonderfully.  The people listen.  And they change their ways.  And God changes his mind.

And that makes Jonah incensed.  He had wanted God to destroy the city – instead God has mercy on the city of Nineveh.

This is a truly shocking story.

And it is the shocking nature of the story that Jesus picks up on.

Never mind Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – in Jesus there was someone far greater than Solomon  who could make the unthinkable happen, and change the unchangeable.

Never mind Jonah and the way the people of Ninveh changed, in Jesus was one far greater who could change the unchangeable and make things happen that even to think about was simply unthinkable.

There are powers that be around at all sorts of level that seem to be unvanquiahable.

We look to the victory of Christ.

Let’s hold on to that.

With that big picture in mind – then we can do the little things.  And each little thing that is in accord with that big picture will make a difference.

It’s great to see Maurice back in church after being in hospital.  Maurice had spent the day in hospital watching TV.  The news.  And there were pretty grim things happening.  That day it had been the deaths at a football match in Egypt – horrific in their own right but somehow symptomatic of the powers that can be unleashed in our dark world.

We sat reflecting on the world and the fact that we cannot make a difference.  But wait a moment we can make a difference.

Think where you are in that hospital bed.  The hospital system is stretched, some say almost to breaking point.  Nurses we were hearing this week are worked off their feet.  Your attitude with the nurses can make a difference – it you are awkward that absorbs time from the nurses.  If you share a smile with them, help them, what a difference that makes.

Interesting thoughts to share.  The difference each of us can make, no matter how small the thing we do.

We do it because we are not going to be defeated by the powers that be for we look to one who wins the victory.

Let’s see that bigger picture and echo the words of Paul …

in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

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