Jonah 3:1-5,10 & Mark 1:14-20

Listening is harder than it sounds

a reflection by Dan Spragg

So, I imagine you know the story of Jonah. Perhaps though you are a bit like me and haven’t read it in a while, or perhaps you haven’t read the whole story through. It’s actually a very short book. Just four chapters, but it is a good story, one that we could pay more attention to! I encourage you to go home today and read it through. An organisation called ‘The Bible Project’ has made a really good summary of Jonah. Here’s the introduction to it which gives us a really good starting point today. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLIabZc0O4c)

Two things really stand out to me in the story of Jonah. The first is his outright refusal to engage in the work that God has called him to do. He is ‘asleep’ to God’s activity and to what ensues because of his prejudice towards the Assyrian people. A prejudice that he seemed to hold deeply and that he was conscious of. The Assyrians, of course, hadn’t been good to Israel, they were enemies. I wonder what Jonah would have made of Jesus summary – love your enemies?  Secondly, I am struck by how both the pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh are more responsive to God than this Hebrew prophet, perhaps even more responsive to God that the Hebrew people and the nation of Israel as we see in some parts of their stories. This comes as a surprise to many people, that God is active in the world outside of the church! Imagine that… The church is not the Kingdom of God. No, the life and way of God in the world is much more comprehensive than that.

I have put an article in the notices today which is a letter written by an American woman to her church explaining why she is leaving their congregation. It’s a good read. It is sad, but it seems good that she has come to that decision. The killing of George Floyd earlier last year and her church’s apparent silence on the matter was the beginning of a wake-up call for her, that who she believed Jesus to be, and who she believed the church to be was not in actual fact what she was seeing happen in her own congregation. A congregation who seemed to align itself with Trump and the struggle to retain power. The violent events on January 6 in the US capital were the final straw for her. She cannot stay a member of that kind of church. The author writes:

“We dragged Jesus—the one who died for us—into our tryst with Trump, while the church sat by with a nod and a shrug… Perhaps we have grown accustomed to allowing the desecration of sacred spaces—women, expected to submit in abusive marriages just because their husbands did not technically commit adultery; children, unprotected from youth leaders, lured into church by fancy programs so that we could count how many we saved; asylum seekers detained like lost puppies in a pound; immigrants, denied the opportunities we breath like air—all while we enjoy the comforts of our home.

Jesus’ body lies at our door. What is the gospel we are preaching? We say that we want people to be saved. But, saved from what? For what? I am afraid we are saving people into a gospel of niceness and comfort, a social club with its special language of worship and faith. We’re offering a nice Jesus—a Jesus who matches with the furniture.”[1]

I encourage you to read the article. She has had and responded to a wake-up call in which she sees the activity of God, the life Christians are called to, to be present not at all inside her church community. Indeed, as in the book of Jonah, sometimes those outside of the church are more responsive to the Spirit of God than those who are meant to be.

The situation in the US is extreme. But we can see all across our world increasing polarisation in reaction to our collective human consciousness evolving to see beyond categories of race or status. We see it in the UK, in Australia, and unfortunately there are pockets of it in New Zealand. Can the events in the US serve also as a wake-up call to us? Where and what and who do we see the activity of God pointing to? Who do we see responding to this activity? Can we respond?

Jesus said, as recorded in Mark 1, ‘The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news.’ I have talked about this before. The original greek of the word ‘time’ here is ‘kairos’. We might be more familiar with ‘chronos’ as in, chronological, linear time, one second, one minute, one hour, one day, one week, one month, one year… all following on in a straight line from one another. But Jesus uses the word ‘kairos’ here. Kairos means a ‘moment’, a significant moment in which time becomes irrelevant because of what the moment carries with it – a meaning of some sort, a message, a teaching point. These moments can be big or small. You have had one or two in your life. A moment where time seems to stand still, or an event has happened that for some reason moves you more than ever before, a conversation that sticks in your head… it could be anything, it could be positive or it could be negative. The point, Jesus would say is that in these moments, God is drawing near and the truth of God’s way is knocking on your heart. So, Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of God is near, repent, and believe.’ or in other words, ‘take notice, have a change of heart, and live then not as you were before.’

It seems perhaps as if the events in the US capital have served as a kairos moment for some with a significant mood shift and more people joining the chant of ‘this is not right’… Perhaps we are seeing a few larger scale events that are serving as kairos moments around our world. Covid, what is God saying in the midst of pandemic? Large scale forest fires, what is God’s voice in the midst of these? What are we hearing? Of course, if we don’t know what God might be saying, or if we think that God is not saying anything then we need to ask, why? Listening is harder than it sounds. We can see and hear many things, but can we truly listen to the truth that is being whispered?

I would suggest the story of Jonah is a story of running from a kairos moment.  Jonah knew what God was asking him to do and he chose to run away, not because he was afraid but because he didn’t like the outcome that God was angling for. He knew God was good, compassionate, merciful and forgiving, for that is God’s nature. The threat to destroy Nineveh serves for Jonah as a trigger to awaken in him what he actually thought. It reveals completely his lack of love for his neighbours. And this is what Jonah is confronted with. The call to Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh is, in my opinion, partly the call to share the good news of God’s love to them, and mostly a wake-up call to Jonah to grow beyond his prejudice into the inclusion of all into God’s love.

At the end of The Bible Project’s video overview of Jonah it suggests that the story of Jonah can serve as a sort of mirror we can hold up to ourselves. Where is the Jonah in me? Can I recognise Jonah’s story in any of my stuff? What stops me from listening and following the nudging of God? Eventually Jonah, albeit begrudgingly and not without complaint and further learning to be had, participates in what God is asking him to do. He actually does a terrible job – a one sentence proclamation barely a third of the way into the city. But God is good and faithful and so as God is merciful and full of grace with Jonah and also with the city of Nineveh God shows Jonah that the inclusion and care and love of all people is what God is up to, and it is within God’s divine rights to do so. This is the big lesson.

Listening is harder than it sounds for there is much chaos and noise to be seen and heard. Are we asleep? Or can we be awake to what God might be whispering to us in the midst of it? Are we asleep or are we awake to the activity of God wherever that might be seen? And are we asleep or are we awake to what might cause us to run, not towards the call of God but away from it? Jonah eventually participated with God and we can hopefully assume that he learnt and grew from there. Oh, and God’s love was shared with a whole new group of people at the same time. God is good and God will persevere, it’s not worth the fight, so why fight! Let us be open to responding to God’s goodness wherever, whenever and through whoever it may come.


[1] From https://www.redletterchristians.org/why-i-cannot-stay-a-letter-to-my-church/