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13th March 2022

Living in a bad world

Passage: Luke 13;33-35


So, there I was, having grieved with the Howells and Leonard families over the loss of their special occasion and what would have been a great celebration for this church. I had removed all their input from the service and saved it for another day. Then I looked to see what I had left: basically, the reading of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem. Do we really need that right now? Well actually, yes we do because lamenting is what we are all doing as huge crises hit our world one after another. And the trouble with huge crises is that we do not know where to start in tackling them. We are concerned but, the issues just look far too vast for us to sort out.

Then I remembered the story of Jonah. (Yes, he was the one who got swallowed by the whale and I am not getting into arguments as to whether this could possibly have happened. The book of Jonah contains some of the most profound theological truths in the Bible and they have nothing to do with the whale). And- I am on a roll with alliteration. Once again, I have four key words for you: Status Quo; Storm; Second chance; Salvation.

Status Quo. Like many of us, Jonah preferred a quiet life. He lived at a time when the kingdom of Israel was quite stable. Having seen off their Assyrian enemy, the people were feeling pretty good about themselves; confident that they were God’s chosen people and would always be OK. Jonah saw no reason for anything to change, so, when he heard the voice of God telling him to go and preach in the capital city of Assyria, he did not like it.

There is nothing wrong about feeling secure in your life, but status quo carries a health warning: beware complacency. Jonah did not want to know what was going on in the rest of the world because he and his people were OK. Back in the eighties, we never wanted to hear the people we called “eco-freaks” banging on about the destruction of our planet but now we are scared of rising water and random fires. A lot of people in the seventies sneered at the women on Greenham Common, protesting against nuclear weapons but now we are terrified of what Russia and North Korea might unleash. We thought Mary Whitehouse- the morality campaigner in the sixties was a bit “over the top” with her preaching away at the damage done to children by over-sexualisation but only last week I read an article highlighting the fears we have for children now exposed to all kinds of pornography on the internet and the damage it might cause.

Jesus said how the people of Jerusalem had never wanted to listen to the warnings of their prophets of trouble looming because they felt safe enough as they were. They threw the prophets out, had them arrested for spreading sedition, belittled them in public. Now the city was occupied by Rome, with a lot worse to come.

We talk a lot, don’t we, about wanting to “get back to normal,” forgetting that “normal” was what gave us Covid, floods, wildfires, nuclear weapons, dying churches in the first place. Our Elders met with Andy Twilley, Synod Training Officer this week, to discuss a vision for our church and one of the memorable things he said-and demonstrated on a research graph- was that churches needed to start thinking seriously about what the next steps should be whilst everything appeared to be going well and not wait until a crisis threatens. Beware the status quo…..

The next thing to happen is the storm. Jonah tries to run away, gets caught in a storm at sea, and ends up in the belly of a great fish. Jonah is in a very dark place. His prayer-supposedly made from inside the fish- sounds more like a prayer from the depths of the sea. “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me, seaweed was wrapped around my head, to the roots of the mountains I sank down.” Powerful language but I guess we all know what he means. We get trapped in dark places and can see no possible way out.

Right now, it may well feel as though our whole world is drowning: being destroyed by war, disease, natural disaster, economic collapse and how shall we ever recover?
Churches are closing all over the UK and will the Christian faith ever recover?
Jesus himself, was caught up in hatred, violence, injustice, and the pain of centuries; he was nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb. He spoke once of “the sign of Jonah.” Maybe this was what he meant – that he would end up in a place of deep darkness. “To the very roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in for ever.”

The next bit of the story was the part the Toddler Group always liked best when I told it because the whale gets indigestion and spits Jonah out. ….. they loved that.
It is the Second Chance. Despite being convinced that he will perish in the depths of the sea, Jonah finds himself on dry land and in daylight again. Repeatedly, in the Bible we hear of people being given second chances, and third, and seventy-seventh. God does not abandon his people. His very nature prevents it. “I cannot do it,” he says through the prophet Hosea. “I cannot abandon the people to whom I gave life. I am God, not human.”

God speaks to Jonah again. This time it is worth mentioning that God does not tell Jonah to change the whole world. There were plenty of terrible things going on right then, just as there are now, but it is not Jonah’s task to sort them all out. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent of all they are doing wrong before a huge catastrophe falls upon them. It still sounds like a daunting challenge and Jonah is still terrified-as would we all be- but it is only this one task that God asks Jonah to do.
Maybe this is the message we need to be hearing right now. We are in danger of feeling totally overwhelmed by the crises hitting our whole world, but God never asks just one person or even one church to change the whole world. But to each person who asks him in prayer, “what can I do, Lord,” he will give a work to do. Sometimes one voice or gesture will have a huge impact: think of Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. Other voices and actions never hit the headlines but still combine to make peace, create justice, and heal the world.

Jesus, when lamenting over Jerusalem, still offered hope that there would yet be another chance for the people who recognised him as Saviour of the world. And it was in Jerusalem that the power of the Holy Spirit was experienced in his followers on the day of Pentecost; it was in Jerusalem that the first Christian communities began, grew and thrived. It was from Jerusalem that the Christian Gospel was taken out and did, indeed change the world.
Let’s try not to panic in the face of the crises happening right now but to take time in prayer to ask, “Lord, what can I do?” For there will be a second chance.

And this will lead to Salvation. But “salvation” is much bigger than just our personal peace with God. It is global. It is about the saving of the world. At the end of his prayer from the dark place Jonah declares, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”
Jonah goes to Nineveh, proclaims his message and the outcome surprises him. Far from slaughtering him, the people respect his message, commit to changing their ways and worship God. This is a radical step in the Old Testament. Jonah’s people believed that God was only there for them; they were God’s chosen people and God wanted nothing to do with the rest of the world. Now, here is a universal God who cares even about Assyria. What……..?

But, just as we are being forced to face the facts that no-one will be safe from Covid until all are safe from Covid; that there will be no world peace until we create whole world justice; that there will be no saving of the planet until all commit to saving the planet, that the war in Ukraine will reach us if we do not work to bring it to an end; so those who seek God must accept that God is about what is going on in the whole world and not just about what is going on in our own hearts. We cannot set limits around God. Jonah was right: only God can save because only God can see the whole picture. Only God can know what must be done to bring the world through a crisis. Therefore, the world needs people who will pray to Him humbly and sincerely asking, “Lord, what can I do?”

Yes, we need a deep conviction of our own personal salvation. We need to know that we are at peace with God. This was what Jesus was all about- bringing God to us; reconciling us to God. And by coming back himself from the very darkest of all places, he proved that nothing could keep God from us. Only when we are convinced of the loving, accepting presence of God in our own lives, can we pray with confidence for the salvation of the world.

Beware the status quo. Pray through the storm. Accept the second chance. Believe in the salvation of God. And may God be with us all. Amen.

PAUSE FOR REFLECTION: PP SLIDE. If you were starting a new church, what would it look like?