Sermon: Sunday 8 November 2015 – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
The new Bond film has James heading off to Mexico for the festival of the Day of the Dead. All this is on the instruction of M, not the new Ralph Fiennes model but the former Judi Dench model. She died in ‘Skyfall’ but she had left James a film in which she gives instruction for him to find Sciarra, a contract killer. The MI6 building still sits on the Thames but somewhat in ruins. Meanwhile across the way we see a new shiny building for modern spies with a new shiny Whitehall Mandarin called C; abandoning all the so called ‘old fashioned ways’, ‘double 0 ways’ of espionage to welcome in the new technological world of cyber reality. Not surprisingly we discover this virtual vision to be as corrupt as the previous one. M may have died but 007’s call to do good in the world goes on because the pain and injustice and lack of mercy go on.
Bond films have a capacity to resolve all this in a way which sadly isn’t so easily replicated in the real world. A century on from World War I, Europe faces an epic refugee crisis of a magnitude we thought we had consigned to history but instead it meets us through the daily news of more terrified people and more brutal acts of war.
The book of Jonah has him dreaming of going to Tarshish. We don’t know exactly where that it is. Perhaps it comes from the word for an oar in an ancient ship (tarsos). The point is that it is a place which is far away and a place where he thinks he can escape to. But instead God commands him to go to Nineveh and so he tries to run away on a ship and it is then he gets swallowed by a big fish. Three days later he is spewed up on dry land and the first thing he hears is God saying for a second time ‘Get up go to Nineveh’ (3:2).
Nineveh was the most significant Assyrian city. Our reading suggests that it was ‘exceedingly large’, taking ‘three days to walk across’. It was near the river Tigris in modern day Iraq. We read about it from the stories of King Hezekiah and in the book of Isaiah. Both the biblical descriptions and those from other sources describe a highly organised city and a highly religious city. Unlike Tarshish which was a faraway utopian dream, this is a real place full of every joy and every contortion that have come to characterise the city whether ancient or modern. But listen carefully to what Jonah says: ‘Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown’ (v4). Jonah did not condemn the people; denounce their wicked and wayward ways. Instead he introduced a dimension into their life about which they had forgotten. They were obsessed with their present reality, we might say a security obsessed reality and into that Jonah spoke about a future. Theologically speaking, he introduced eschatology.
Forty is a standard bible number which has hope at its core. It is a period of examination and testing – is this real life, are these genuine, lasting and loving values or is this just some sleight of hand or cheap imitation of reality? So think of Noah’s forty days to wash away generations of unreflected gratification. Forty years in the wilderness to live into the promises of God towards the land of blessing. Elijah was on the run for forty days as he came to his senses out of the illusions that littered the community around Jezebel. Forty days of temptations for Jesus in which religious and practical idolatry were exposed. And forty days then of resurrection appearances showing what was now to mark the new life of God’s kingdom.
Forty days announce hope. For Nineveh the people did not hear this as a prediction of destruction but instead as a proclamation of hope. Sure stuck, now, religiously contorted Nineveh was done but another way of life was possible.
God’s gift of hope not only speaks to our hearts, to the pain of the world but to the hearts of all people. So Remembrance is not simply about our dead, or our nation or our peace. Remembrance Sunday is an engagement with reality, a pull away from the fantasy of war and into the genuine territory of hope. I sat with someone on Friday who has recently been an active soldier and who was finding the prospect of this weekend very difficult to bear as his memories of the past and the horrendous things he had witnessed flooded back.
Figures from the First World War are particularly in mind this year including those like George Emery Mills from this parish, named in the War Memorial in the Chapel of Christ the King. He was a lad who sang in the choir, whose parents were sides people. They lived just down the road beyond Bow Bridge. He was one of so many yet our remembering of the masses only really ignites hope when we hear the individual story. Tarshish sends our heads towards fantasy and despair. Nineveh takes us to reality but also to hope. Like the lad in uniform pictured in the East window, who is sheltered by the figure of Mary, we see the community of faith learning to sing the strange song of the kingdom – of magnificat and hope.
In these weeks we have also remembered more public figures such as when we marked the centenary of the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell. The Chaplain who spent the last evening with her went on to be the vicar of Thrussington in this diocese. I used to look out at her statue from my kitchen window on the edge of Trafalgar Square. This is her national memorial. We were often struck that each year, after the TV cameras were switched off and people had gathered in Whitehall, a Salvation Army band would march up with some uniformed nurses to remember the woman who saved many. Yet in the aftermath of her death, her story was used by our government as propaganda against Germans; encouraging many volunteers to sign up.
Revd Dick Shepherd, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, himself a chaplain in the trenches who struggled to see and keep hold of hope stood out against the government’s propaganda machine. Working with others they managed to persuade Edith’s last recorded words to be added to her memorial. In a travesty of faith she had been hailed a Christian martyr because her dying revealed the callousness of Britain’s enemies. In fact she was a Christian martyr because she held fast to genuine hope and a vision as coherent as any forty day strategy we find in Jonah. She said ‘patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone’.
We remember the fallen. We remember Jesus the fallen one. We like Jonah turn from our own version of a journey to Tarshish and with him instead go to Nineveh. We move from fantasy to reality, from coercive religion to instead be renewed in a vision of Godly hope.
© The Very Revd David Monteith