Recently, for her bedtime stories, Rebekah has asked me to read some episodes from a children’s Bible that was written by the well-known Christian author Jennifer Rees Larcombe. We have been going through some Old Testament stories, and in particular she couldn’t wait to hear how Queen Jezebel came to a grisly end. For Rebekah, there was a real sense of justice in seeing a wicked person get her comeuppance.
However, when we got to Jonah and the part of the story where the Ninevites repented and God withdrew his threat of judgment, my beloved daughter was outraged. It just wasn’t right that God loved wicked people, in her estimation.
Just like Jonah himself in chapter 4.
So we come to this chapter today at the end of this short series, and we do so on Harvest Festival weekend. That is quite deliberate, because the Book of Jonah is about God’s desire for a spiritual harvest – for many more people to know his love and follow Jesus. That is, of course, often the theme of the Gospels where Jesus uses a harvest story in his parables.
This chapter could be conceived as being about the barriers to the spiritual harvest, and our first barrier is at hand here, in the way Rebekah echoed Jonah’s self-righteous anger.
I ended last Sunday morning’s sermon on Jonah 3 with these words:
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.
I could tell from many people’s body language that they agreed. It would be absurd to resent other people finding the love of God. But I ended that sermon that way deliberately, so that we could build up to the shock of finding that Jonah actually is a resentful, angry, self-righteous man. (Apart from that, he’s quite nice!) In the first three verses of chapter 4, he complains to God about his mercy towards the heathen sinners of Nineveh.
But self-righteousness is dangerously common among religious people, and Jonah is a warning to us. It’s amazing and heartbreaking to see the way the concern for a righteous life loses its bearings and becomes judgmental. Jonah forgot that he was a sinner who had been rescued by the grace of God through the merciful sending of the big fish who saved him from drowning. He forgets he is a rescued sinner. He reverts to type. He says to himself, “I am one of the chosen ones. I am righteous. These Ninevites are wicked sinners. I enjoy the love of God. They should not.”
I’ve seen it time and again in Christian circles. You will know if you read my life story in the church magazine that when my life went awry due to a neck problem at 18, I took a job in the Civil Service. I worked in Social Security. (No, please come back! Please talk to me!) I recall being on holiday one year where a Christian woman asked me what my work was. On replying that I worked in Social Security, she said: “At least you’re the right side of the counter.” Clearly to her, every benefit claimant in the country was a despicable scrounger. Hardly the attitude of heart needed for reaching out with the Gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Or I think of a church coffee morning Debbie and I attended once. The doors were open in the hope that passers-by would drop in and meet the church members, in the hope that eventually they would come to church. But as we listened to the ordinary conversation, with its routine criticism of anything young people liked, or – and this was the deal-breaker for me – their disdain for gadgets (!), we knew that church would need a lot of prayer for it to connect meaningfully with the world.
Contrast that with the man I met once when he and I were both in-patients on a hospital ward together for several days. Before we were discharged, he gave me his business card so that we could stay in touch. After his name were the initials ‘SSBG’. I couldn’t fathom what academic or professional qualification that might be, so I asked him. SSBG, he told me, stood for ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’.
That is where we all have to begin if we desire a spiritual harvest. Unlike Jonah, we need to remember that we have been rescued by God. That needs to engender humility in our lives. The great Sri Lankan Christian D T Niles once said that evangelism was ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. In the economy of God, it is the spiritual beggars who see the harvest. He calls us to humility.
We can notice the second barrier to a spiritual harvest in Jonah when we come to verse 5. After God asks him in verse 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?” we read,
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
In other words, Jonah left the city. The harvest had come when he had been in the city. Now he was outside, whingeing. Often the religious believer stays outside the places that need the Gospel and fires darts of criticism from a safe distance. Isn’t it better to be cocooned warmly with other Christians, enjoying fellowship?
Well, OK, there’s not much fellowship in Jonah chapter 4, but I hope you take my point. We do all our relating to people who do not share our faith, whether positive or negative in tone, from the outside. We even see that in the typical language we use about wanting more people in our congregations. We say things like, ‘How can we attract more people to come to us?’ Yet note those words ‘attract’ and ‘come’: our assumption is that we are here, and people need to move in order to be part of us.
In one previous circuit, I knew a group of Christians who left the United Reformed Church in the town, because they said they believed God was calling them to reach out with the Gospel to a needy housing estate in what was otherwise a generally prosperous town. They hired the St John Ambulance hall, and began weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. They also ran the Alpha Course. There was only one problem. None of them ever moved onto the estate.
We cannot expect a spiritual harvest if we ‘leave the city’, if we don’t get involved in the middle of people’s lives rather than staying at arm’s length and expecting them to come running gratefully to us. Those of you who were at the welcome service three weeks ago may recall I made reference in my short speech to John’s Gospel. In John 20, the risen Jesus says to the disciples, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore, I said, to know how Jesus sends us, we have to know how the Father sent him. And for that we go back to John 1, where we read, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus’ approach to mission was very largely ‘go’. It was to live among the people he wanted to reach.
So if we desire to see a spiritual harvest of people finding faith in Christ and following him, we need to abandon the ideas that a church needs to put together an attractive programme so that we can invite people to enticing events. It is less important to build programmes than to build people.
You will hear more from me on this particular theme as we get to know each other. Do not ‘leave the city’. Be part of the city. Bless the people who do not yet know the love of Christ. Make your lives the kind that provoke questions. And then be ready to answer them.
The third barrier to a spiritual harvest that Jonah demonstrates comes in his attitude to the mysterious Jack and the Beanstalk-type plant (maybe a gourd, maybe a castor-oil plant) that God causes to grow and then wither (verses 6-8). Jonah enjoys the shade it provides, but starts moaning again when it has gone. God brings him up short in the final three verses of the story:
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
In other words, the barrier here is that Jonah has a consumer’s attitude to God. Jonah is happy when God does something for him. But when God doesn’t, or when he requires him to do something unappealing, he wants out.
It’s the same attitude we see in Christians who frequently move church, because no church ever satisfies them. Their assumption is that they are consumers, and they should be satisfied by what is provided. So you hear Christians saying, “We left that church because we weren’t being fed.” Well, what happened to feeding yourselves? Mature Christians should have cultivated ways in which they take on board spiritual nurture for themselves! Any idea that it should all be spoon-fed to them is quite outrageous! The job of the pastor – the shepherd – is not to feed the sheep, but to show them where they can feed themselves.
Faith is not simply about what we can get out of God. If you remember the famous words of John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” could be translated into spiritual terms. “Ask not what your God can do for you – ask what you can do for your God.”
Now don’t misunderstand me. Of course we should rejoice and seek the many things God does for us and wants to do for us. But when we simply turn the spiritual life into ‘what I can get out of it’, we have missed the demands of discipleship, and especially the call for discipleship to be practised in a missional way in the world. Those who think that Jesus and the church are here simply to provide for their spiritual preferences are the very people who are usually a barrier to church growth. They so absorb the time of others and distract good Christians from better purposes that they wring the life out of Christ’s church.
All of which rolls us round quite neatly to the theme of harvest. Today, we celebrate what – by the grace of God – we can give, so that others may flourish. Commonly, we think of that in physical and material terms. We give food, money or other items so that the needy may receive what they need.
But there is a spiritual parallel. As we seek not be spiritual consumers but spiritual givers, people who are keen to see what we can do in the service of God’s mission, then other people will receive their spiritual needs. They will find the love of God in Christ for the first time and commit their lives to being disciples of Jesus. They will ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God’. They too will become missional disciples.
And if too we have been people who have chosen the path of humility, not self-righteous anger; and if we have been people who have not ‘left the city’ for the Christian ghetto but dwelt in the midst of humankind in all its needs; then might we not indeed begin to see a spiritual harvest, and – unlike Jonah – rejoice in it?
There is only one time in my life when I have eaten at a Hilton Hotel. It was after my ordination service. Well, why not do things in style on an occasion like that?
Actually, the truth was more prosaic. We had pizzas in a lounge area. Two couples from my church had booked a cheap deal at the Leeds Hilton for the weekend of my ordination at the Methodist Conference, and they invited my parents and me back as a way of fixing something that had gone wrong. My sister and brother-in-law had booked into another hotel, but never turned up at the ordination service. Only later did we discover that my sister had been in A & E the previous day, having got a fish bone stuck in her throat. In those days, few people had mobile phones, so we weren’t able to discover what had happened until after the service, when we found a payphone.
So that is my abiding memory of my ordination – pizzas at the Leeds Hilton. Well, apart from a sense of relief that all the years of testing and suspicion from the church authorities were finally over.
You might expect a group of ministers to trade ordination stories, but why raise that subject in an ordinary sermon when the Church only ordains a few of her members?
Because we are all in some sense ‘ordained’ by God to minister in his name. We call it baptism. The baptism of Jesus, which we read about today, was effectively his ordination, his commissioning. And although we seem so far removed from Jesus’ unique status as the Son of God, there are sufficient similarities between the themes of his baptismal ordination and ours. In particular, let’s think about how Jesus’ baptism equips himself for the work of the kingdom, and therefore how God equips us.
The first theme is less obvious in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism than the other Gospels. It’s the theme of identification with sinners. Here in Luke, John lays out clearly that his baptism is a sign of repentance, and that it must be accompanied by a lifestyle that demonstrates such a turning away from sin. It’s therefore surprising that Jesus, who is universally presented in the New Testament as sinless, desires John’s baptism. The other Gospels record a conversation where John says to him, ‘It should be the other way round: you should baptise me.’ Jesus replies, ‘Let it be so to fulfil all righteousness.’ Luke omits that conversation, but still has Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance, despite his sinlessness.
What are we to make of this? The classic Christian explanation down the centuries has been that Jesus received John’s baptism as a sign of identifying with sinful humanity. His baptism foreshadows the Cross, when he would die, representing sinful humankind as its substitute.
Jesus’ death for sinners was, of course, unique and unrepeatable. Unique, because only he as the sinless God-man could offer it, and unrepeatable because he accomplished everything at Calvary. So how could this be a model for us, when we can’t do that?
In a lesser way, is the answer. We too are called to identify with sinners. It shouldn’t be too difficult, because we are sinners ourselves! The temptation we have as forgiven sinners who are called to pursue a holy life is to lapse into a self-righteous attitude that looks down on others, disdains them and leads to us separating ourselves from them. It leads to situations where people think they shouldn’t attend a church, because they’re not good enough.
This has application for us, inside and outside the church. Inside the church, it affects the way we care and pray. There is more than one example in Scripture of people praying for the people of God, and not saying, ‘They have sinned,’ but ‘We have sinned.’ Daniel prays for God’s people that way, while in exile in Babylon, even though he was not responsible for the exile. He identifies with sinners in the family of God, rather than staying loftily above them. His prayer makes a difference.
Outside the church, identification with sinners is critical, too. It’s no wonder that the great Sri Lankan church leader, D T Niles, defined evangelism as ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. The Gospel is of course urgent and essential, but as fellow sinners we need to remember that we are beggars, too. It’s just that we’ve found bread.
In every aspect of ministry, then, as Christians, both within and without the church, identification with sinners is an important principle enshrined here in Jesus’ baptism.
The second aspect of Jesus’ baptism that equips him for ministry is that he receives the Holy Spirit. So often we emphasise the fact that Jesus did what he did and said what he said because of who he was – the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. If that is all we do, then we create an understanding of Jesus that says, he had an unique status which enabled him to do certain things, but we don’t have that standing and therefore we can’t begin to approach doing any of the things he did.
But look what happens here. While he is praying, heaven is opened (verse 21) and the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove (verse 22). Only after this does his ministry proper begin. Sure, there have been signs of what is to come with the incident in the Temple when he was twelve (2:41-52), because Jesus knows who he is, but the actual ministry of good news to the poor and broken only starts after this incident. Next, the Holy Spirit will eject him into the wilderness to fast and face temptation. Then he will announce his work in the Nazareth synagogue by reading Isaiah 61, beginning with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me’. Following that, he will conduct his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
So whatever the difference between Jesus and us because he is the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father, there is a strong connection between his ministry and ours. Jesus, for all his divine status, could not and did not begin his ministry until he had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Son of God, conducted his ministry as a man in the power of the Spirit.
Exactly our call, in other words.
I find it significant that Jesus receives the Spirit while he ‘was praying’ (verse 21). As one American United Methodist minister puts it, ‘being on your knees can help you walk on air.’ He goes on to say:
The life and health of a church are directly proportional to the prayer life of the congregation. The praying church is the healthiest church. When parishioners spend time in prayer, they are a more compassionate and happier people. Their spirit permeates the congregation. When people spend time in communion with God, the sweetness of the Holy Spirit radiates throughout the church.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the early Pentecostals sought what they called ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’ at ‘tarrying meetings’ – that is, meetings where they waited prayerfully upon God. While the gift of the Spirit is a gift of grace, and I also do not want to suggest that the Spirit is absent from us, I think it is also true that the Spirit is more manifest among those who show the greatest seriousness and passion to receive and depend upon him. Too often we operate on auto-pilot, earning the old barb that ‘if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, ninety five per cent of activities would continue just the same as before.’ Jesus didn’t operate that way. He challenges us to be prayerfully dependent upon the Spirit.
The third and final aspect of Jesus’ baptism that equips him for ministry is an affirmation of who he is. Listen to what the voice from heaven says to him:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Verse 22)
Both the theological colleges I attended had weekly communion services. Often we had well-known guest preachers. Yet I only remember one sermon from each college. From my time in Manchester I remember Trevor Huddleston preaching on words from Romans 12, ‘Hate what is evil.’ From my time in Bristol I remember Tom Smail preaching on … the baptism of Christ.
He came to us at around May one year, just before the end of year exams, when many of the student body were fraught over revision or leaving college and beginning ministry. He was one of the few who did not treat the congregation in the chapel as a bunch of soon-to-be-clergy; rather, he majored on this verse: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And what he said about it was so healing I remember it to this day. He talked about being loved unconditionally by the Father as a child of God. There was no better message for a stressed group of people. You are loved. Period. It is the grace of God. You have been adopted into his family out of sheer grace. Jesus had not even begun his ministry here, but already the Father was ‘well pleased’ with him. The costliest acts of Jesus’ obedience were still to come, but here the Father is already ‘well pleased’ with him. He embarks onto his public ministry affirmed in his identity as the Son of God, who is loved by his Father and pleasing to him.
Now translate that into our lives. Could it be that God says something similar to us, and that it is the foundation of healthy ministry. If you know you are a child of God, you have an identity that will sustain you when people attack you or manipulate you, as surely they will. If you know you are loved unconditionally by the God of boundless grace, you will not measure your acceptability to that God on the basis of your performance. So if something goes well, all the glory goes to him. If you are judged a failure, by yourself or others, that makes no change to the love the Father lavishes on you.
Our security as Christians is not in our achievements or our popularity: both will wax and wane and are not to be trusted as accurate measures of our discipleship. No: our security as we launch out to serve God in Christ is in the fact that we have been adopted by the Father into his family as his beloved children, and his grace means he is pleased with us before we ever do anything for him. The call to identify with sinners is a challenging one; so is the call to depend prayerfully upon the Holy Spirit. But the security to walk this way is in the unconditional love of the Father.
 Royal Speidel, Evangelism in the Small Membership Church; title of chapter 7.
 Ibid., p 57.