Sermon preached by Hilary Day in Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, Sunday 6 September 1998 at the opening service of the Third International Tyndale Conference.

The story of Jonah is familiar to most people, even those who would in no way consider themselves religious. The tale has inspired some of the greatest works of art through the centuries by painters such as Rubens and Poussin, Michelangelo features Jonah just above the Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel. You will all have seen the etching by Holbein reproduced in an earlier issue of the Tyndale Journal. It shows an anxious Jonah sitting under a tree outside the city of Nineveh. Here in Oxford in Christ Church Cathedral is a wonderful stained glass window created in 1631, again depicting Jonah looking at the city of Nineveh, the sun beating down on the tree which is giving him shade. Jonah has inspired oratorios, plays and poems. He features frequently in the works of 1st century writers such as Josephus, in Jewish writings by such as Rabbi Eliezer and he seems to be the only prophet mentioned in the Koran. indeed Mohammed calls him 'the man of the fish A 'Jonah' is a colloquialism all understand.

Jonah's three day sojourn in the belly of the fish was used as the paradigm for Jesus' stay in Hell by Matthew and Luke. Jonah and the whale, (though a whale is never mentioned in the Old Testament narrative - merely a great fish) are as familiar as Cinderella or Aladdin.

It is safe for me to assume, therefore, that all of us here know the story, so to speak, but is it equally safe to assume that we all know what it means? Tyndale chose it to translate from all the books of the Old Testament outside the Pentateuch and the Historical Books, and wrote a long and detailed Prologue to it; indeed the Prologue is four times longer than this short book. It is testament to the power of this short tale that it has spawned (forgive the pun) much discussion and controversy, many thousand times more words than the book of Jonah itself contains.

The book is ranked among the twelve minor prophets. but it differs from the others in significant ways. Firstly it is the only book which is primarily a story about a prophet. The others contain mainly the words of God through the prophet, or the words of the prophet to God. But one of the most remarkable features of this book is that it is the only one in which the prophet is sent to proclaim the word of God to a foreign land (Indeed Jonah is the only Israelite to feature in the story); only in this book is the prophet portrayed as walking down the streets of a non-Israelite city of the ancient world to issue God's warning; and only Jonah needs to be given God's directive twice.

Jonah is identified in the first verse as the 'son of Amittai', who is mentioned in what Tyndale called the fourth book of the Kings but in the King James version and subsequently is known as 2 Kings chapter 14, verse 25. He lived during the reign of Jeroboam who 'restored the coasts of Israel from the entering of Hemath unto the sea, in the wild fields, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel which he spake through his servant Jonas the son of Amithai the prophet, which was of Geth Opher.' Jonah, then, would have been familiar to the first hearers and readers of the book. Jeroboam reigned in the eighth century BC and Jonah's home, Gath-hepher was located approximately fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee.

With wonderful immediacy we are plunged into the story. 'The word of the Lord came unto the prophet Jonas the son of Amithai saying: arise and get thee to Nineve that great city to preach unto them, how that their wickedness is come up before me. And Jonas made him ready (we naturally expect to hear that he arose and went to Nineveh, but no - he) made him ready to flee into Tharsis from the presence of the Lord. This then is no exemplary prophet, but one that goes to Joppa, finds a ship bound for Tarshish (going in the very opposite direction from Nineveh) and -- the words are repeated 'from the presence of the Lord.' He tries to run away from God. Throughout this first section of the story Jonah is described as going down down to Joppa, down to the ship, down to the hatches where he lies down to sleep, and of course finally down into the sea and the belly of the fish. Commentators have noted that Jonah is trying to separate himself from the presence of the Lord both horizontally (towards Tarshish) and vertically (downwards). So Jonah is not depicted in a good light. And what of the others mentioned in the story? When the storm threatens the ship what do the pagan mariners do? [They] were afraid and cried every man unto his god: (in other words they were men of piety), they took the very practical measure of throwing goods into the sea in order to lighten the ship, and the captain censured Jonah for sleeping and abjured him to call on his God for mercy so that they would not die. They cast lots to find out who was the cause of the trouble and the lot fell on Jonah. When Jonah finally tells them to cast him overboard they are reluctant to do so and it is only when they have failed to row to dry land do they call on the Lord and say: '0 Lord let us not perish for this man's death, neither lay innocent blood to our charge: for thou Lord even as thy pleasure was, so thou hast done.' Only then do they throw Jonah overboard. Nowhere here are we told that Jonah prayed, but the sailors do. The last thing we hear about these pagan sailors is that they 'feared the Lord exceedingly: and sacrificed sacrifice unto the Lord, and vowed vows.'

The hymn of praise and thanksgiving we have heard read tonight has caused much discussion over the centuries. Many theologians have suggested that this is not part of the original book after all it is written in poetry whilst the rest of the book is in prose. Many have thought that Jonah would have uttered a prayer of repentance, a plea for forgiveness and mercy, not a song of thanksgiving, whilst in the belly of the fish. Whatever one decides about this, it seems natural to expect a complete change of heart on Jonah's part after his ordeal, but it takes a second order from God to persuade him to go to Nineveh.

Nineveh is described here as 'that great city' whose wickedness had attracted God's attention. We know that Nineveh was the last capital of the Assyrian empire. It reached its heyday during the 7th century BC, and fell to the Medes and Babylonians in 612 BC and was left a heap of ruins never to be rebuilt. Elsewhere in the Bible it is referred to as a place of great wickedness. The prophet Zephaniah says: 'This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to he down in! every one that passeth by her shall hiss and wag his hand.' And the entire book of Nahum is about 'The burden of Nineveh'. Chapter 3 begins 'Woe to the bloody city! it is full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not.' It is against this picture of Nineveh that the Lord's command to Jonah should be heard.

So Jonah goes to Nineveh which is described as a great city unto God, containing three days journey. 'And Jonas went to and entered into the city even a day's journey, and cried saying: There shall not pass forty days but Nineve shall be overthrown.' And how do these wicked unbelievers react? They believed God and proclaimed a fasting. We are told that all the inhabitants from the king down to the meanest beast repented and turned from their wicked ways. So God forgives them.

And only now is it made clear to us why Jonah was so reluctant to obey God in the first place it was because he thought God might forgive these people all along.. '0 Lord, was not this my saying when I was yet in my country'? And therefore I hasted rather to flee to Tharsis: for I knew well enough that thou wast a merciful God. full of compassion, long ere thou be angry and, of great mercy and repentest when thou are come to take punishment. Now therefore take my life from me, for I had lever die than live.' To which the Lord mildly replies 'art thou so angry?'

This final section of the story is told with the same breathless rapidity as the rest of the book, with Jonah's petulance in full relief, for even now he goes out of the city and sits waiting, presumably still hoping to see the fail of this great city. When God ordains in quick succession, the plant to shade him; the worm to cause it to wither, the sun and the wind so that Jonah faints, again Jonah wishes to die, and again God asks 'art thou so angry for thy wild vine?' In Tyndale's inimitable translation Jonah replies, 'I am angry a-good, even unto the death.' God has used the example of the wild vine to illustrate his compassion; his compassion, not only on an ignorant foreign people 'that know not their right hand from their left', who until now have not worshipped him, but a compassion that extends to the cattle.

So what have we come to see about the God of the book of Jonah? This is a God who has created the world. When questioned about his identity on the ship. Jonah tells them, 'I am a Hebrew: and the Lord God of heaven which made both sea and dry land, I fear.' He is a God which cares not only for his chosen people, but for those of Nineveh as well as their cattle. He is a God who rescues those who call on him, not only his chosen prophet who calls to him from the belly of a fish in the depths of the sea, but the pagan mariners of all nations, and the repentant foreigners from the corrupt city of Nineveh. He is the compassionate God, then, of all creation, not the exclusivist God of a chosen few.

Modern scholarship has placed the date of the writing of the book of Jonah in the postexilic period. There are many reasons for this, not least because there are several details in the book which indicate that the writer was out of touch with the reality of the 8th century BC. The author speaks of a king of Nineveh, but in the days of Jonah ben Amittai, there would have been a king of Assyria not of Nineveh, as Nineveh was never a city state. The size of the city which contained three days journey, has been shown by excavation to be grossly exaggerated. Jonah is said to have set off from Joppa a which probably did not belong to Israel in the 8th century and certainly was not the nearest port to Gate-hepher in Galilee but after the return from exile had become a port of considerable importance.

If we accept that this book was written after the return from exile, then the message is even more significant. This was a time when the Jews were reasserting their ethnic purity, their exclusivity as the chosen people of God. Under Ezra and Nehemiah, laws were passed which made it a crime to live in Judah unless your Jewish bloodline was pure to the tenth generation. It was an era, to use modern terminology, of ethnic cleansing. Families were split. and half-breeds banished. It was against this background of racial hatred and fear that the book of Jonah was written. Here is a prophet who represents the current attitudes that would not wish God to spare a foreign nation sinful, warlike, above all, gentiles, outside the bounds of God's love. In this story God uses the example of Jonah's anger over the death of a mere plant to illustrate His compassion for all the people and creatures of His created world. God's word is for all people. For the past 1700 years the afternoon reading on the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur has been the story of Jonah where the non-Israelite people of Nineveh are held up as true examples of repentance. Luther commented on the book of Jonah as 'a mighty and wonderful sign of God's goodness to all the world' and 'a comforting illustration of God's mercy.' He describes Jonah as 'a queer and odd saint who is angry because of God's mercy for sinners, begrudging them all benefits and wishing them all evil' ... And yet he is God's dear child. He chats so uninhibitedly with God as though he were not in the least afraid of Him - as indeed he is not. For Luther the message is that 'we must learn to know God's mercy well and not depend on our works, whether good or bad, but know that sin does not condemn us nor good works save us, but that only God's grace preserves us.'

How relevant this is for us on the eve of the third International Tyndale Conference. In his Prologue to the book Tyndale inveighs against the hypocrisy of the Jews 'for the Jews had leavened the spiritual law of God and with their glosses had made it altogether earthly and fleshly, and so had set a veil or covering on Moses' face, to shadow and darken the glorious brightness of his countenance. It was sin to steal: but to rob widows' houses under colour of long praying, and to poll in the name of offerings, and to snare the people with intolerable constitutions against all love, to catch their money out of their purses was no sin at all.' This reflects his view not just of the hypocrisy of the Jews but of the spiritual leaders of his own time. In The Obedience he says: 'covetousness and ambition, that is to say, lucre and desire of honour is the final end of all false prophets and of all false teachers.

'Wherefore serveth purgatory but to purge thy purse and to poll thee, and rob both thee and thy heirs of house and lands, and of all thou hast, that they may be in honour.'

Just as the writer of the book of Jonah questioned the assumptions of the religious leaders of post-exilic Israel; just as the message that rings out of the book of Jonah is that of the saving love of God for all men, not just the Israelites, God's chosen people, so the word of God in the sixteenth century was not just to be mediated through the religious leaders who perceived it to be their exclusive preserve, but was to be made available to all. As Tyndale writes at the end of his Prologue: Forasmuch as we can do no works unto God, but receive only of his mercy with our repenting faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord and only saviour. unto whom and unto God our Father through him, and unto his holy spirit, that only purgeth, sanctifieth and washeth us in the innocent biood of our redemption, be praise for ever. Amen.

Hilary Day

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