Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
St Paul says to the Philippians in our second reading that they should live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. I’m going to use our other two readings to delve a little into what that might mean.
To start us off I think we can assume that a life worthy of the gospel reflects in some essential way the love that God has for us all. So far, so straightforward.
Many years ago, when I lived at home with my parents, we used to get the Daily Mail. I’m not sure if it was every day but regularly they had a little cartoon that said ‘Love is … saying sorry when you know you’re right or love is … taking her breakfast in bed on her birthday.
Things like that. Little reflections on the nature of love in a romantic/domestic context.
Not, as I recall, anything very profound, but I suspect I may have been influenced by these cartoons because I’ve often asked myself the question: what is love? What is it to be loving in the human context? What is it to be loving as a Christian?
My response to that question used to go something like this: love is wanting the best for someone and doing what you can to bring it about.
Well, I was quite pleased with this definition. I ventured to mention it to someone one day but she rather dismissively replied that she thought it was a bit dry and lacking in warmth. I was a bit miffed at first but on reflection I began to think she was right. Any attempt to say what love is must embrace those feelings of tenderness, compassion, warmth, empathy that most of us, I would guess, instinctively feel are an integral part of what love is.
Strength of will and purpose are certainly important, no doubt about that, but so also are the movements of the heart.
Now, Jonah in our first reading doesn’t feel much tenderness, compassion, warmth or empathy for the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t want them to repent. He wants them to be punished.
What we mustn’t forget is that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire was a ruthless, militaristic machine that trampled for centuries on all the peoples in its vicinity, including the people of Israel. The Assyrians in fact destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC.
I didn’t know this before I started preparing for this sermon – though I should have – but Jonah was a real person mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament. He was a relatively minor prophet who is mentioned in just one verse in the Second Book of Kings. He was alive in the 8th century – before the destruction of Israel but when the Assyrians were active and very much to be feared.
Jonah like everyone else had every reason to detest the Assyrians. He didn’t want the best for them. He wanted them, not unnaturally perhaps, to get their comeuppance.
But the way human beings think is not the way that God thinks. Remember that verse from Isaiah when God says, to us all really:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
In a way the whole religious enterprise aims to provide a means whereby our ways and thoughts may rise to the level of God’s ways and thoughts.
And in the book of Jonah it is clearly implied that God loves Israel’s enemies, that God loves his own enemies. It’s a clear pre-echo, as it were, of Jesus’ own teaching: love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.
I just love that last verse when God says: ‘And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
And many animals. God’s compassion embraces the whole created order.
In a way we can’t help empathising with Jonah. His story is very warmly and compassionately told. And you can’t help empathising with anyone who spends three days and nights in the belly of a whale. But the fact is, Jonah has got it completely wrong.
And so we come to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, in which workers who’ve toiled only for an hour are paid as much as workers who’ve been hard at it all day.
Well, you might say, that’s not fair, is it? And you’d be absolutely right, it’s completely and utterly unfair. This parable certainly should not be used as a blueprint for serene industrial relations. If a firm acted like the owner of this vineyard, it would not be a firm for long.
But, needless to say, that isn’t the point. We human beings want to dole out goodies on the basis of merit. We absolutely do not want to dole out goodies to people we don’t think deserve them. We tend to operate on the basis of exclusion – including some, excluding others, that’s the way we like it.
What God is about is full and abundant life for all people. The phrase the New Testament normally uses is eternal life. That’s life more abundant than we can even imagine.
God loves his creation infinitely and eternally, tenderly and compassionately. He wants the best for us and is prepared to do whatever it takes to bring it about – primarily, we Christians believe, in the person of Jesus – but in any number of other ways as testified by the Bible and in our own lives.
So, to sum up, what do we learn from these passages about the nature of love? For me two things stand out.
Firstly, love is universal. God’s love extends beyond Christians, beyond religious people, beyond human beings, beyond animals, beyond any one individual element in his creation. God’s love extends to everyone and everything.
And secondly, love is generous. God longs to give us all a full day’s wage, by which is meant eternal life, life in all its fullness. It’s there for the taking and it’s only we ourselves who can hold us back.