St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Lent 2, 2016

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 On Ash Wednesday I referred to a short passage from the Book of Job which indicates the link between penitence and ashes. It was Job 42:5 and 6: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” That reference to an Old Testament book led me to think about other parts of the Old Testament. The reading at Mass on Wednesday took me to another book which mentions repenting in sackcloth and ashes. It is the story of Nineveh, which we probably all know so well. The story is found in the short book of Jonah, which is only 4 chapters long.
 
Jonah is one of the most vivid short stories in the Old Testament, with many colourful and even humorous touches to it. I think this book is useful for us to reflect on in Lent because Jonah is truly a model for us of God’s grace triumphing over human weakness and sin.
 
Jonah shows us many typical weaknesses: running away from God’s calling; refusing God’s demands; sleeping instead of staying vigilant; moaning in self-pity; feeling angry with God’s will; having a mean spirit about God’s generosity and mercy towards others. Jonah basically demonstrates all the most petty reactions we can have in the face of God. Despite all this God does not give up on him, but keeps pursuing him, keeps giving him the grace to get up again after a fall — the grace of continual, albeit painful, conversion. 
 
Jonah’s conversion, moreover, does not go in a straight line from victory to victory, but in a crooked, wavering line, from failure to success to failure again. He is a man who breaks down more than once and seems to be, so to speak, discontented with the role God has assigned him, or the results he gets in his work.
Jonah is, in this way, utterly typical of ourselves. We often do not like the role we are assigned in the drama of history. We often feel like we’ve been given the scrappy, trivial parts in this drama we call life. We so often think that we should be given the glorious roles in which we flatter ourselves we could really shine and highlight all our talents.
 
Notice, too, how slow Jonah is to get the point. God has not treated him gently. God seizes him, throws him into the ocean, abandons him to a whale’s belly, and then rescues him from the same beast. And yet, after all this, Jonah is still not submissive to God’s will, he still kicks against the goads (cf. Acts 26:14), complaining that the Ninevites will be spared on account of their repentance, complaining that his cherished gourd plant has been wasted by a worm. It reminds us of those who saw the raising of Lazarus and yet still could not put their faith in Jesus, but plotted his death.
 
I mentioned Jonah’s cherished gourd plant. At one point the text of the book tells us “Jonah was very happy over the plant” (4:6). Isn’t this just like us, too?
 
Here is Jonah, whose rather dull preaching (at least from the scraps of it that we have recorded) has, by God’s grace, resulted in the repentance and rescue of thousands of souls in the city of Nineveh. How does he react? He feels very happy about a plant, instead of feeling very happy about Ninevah.
 
Don’t we find ourselves growing attached to little things, and growing upset when they are not available — maybe a certain kind of tea or coffee, a particular schedule for the day, the friendly words of a certain person we like. We so easily  forget about the immense blessings that Almighty God is pouring out on us and on our neighbours every day? 
 
God relentlessly pursues Jonah because he loves him and knows that he can actually change, or better, be changed. God will not let Jonah’s limited personality, his flaws, his disobedience, get the better of him or be the final word on his tombstone. No, in some sense Jonah is going to be a saint in spite of himself, because God is the one who accomplishes that work in him, just as God does in us. Note what we read in Psalm 99:3, “It is he who made us, not we ourselves”. People do not make themselves saints, it is God who makes people saints. This we must remember because there is much manifest and subtle Pelagianism in our times. Palagius you will remember was the English monk who taught that very English heresy: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. That is the heresy; it is God who made us, not we ourselves.
 
Yet there is something required of us — the willingness to be seized by God and shaped by him; if you like it is the willingness to be clay in the potter’s hands. Whatever might be said against Jonah, he finally surrendered to God. Though he grumbled about it, he let the Almighty shape him. The book of Jonah ends with a question; it does not tell us how Jonah answered it. We can presume that God is successful in making his point, and that Jonah, too, is mastered by the divine patience. He learns who God is, and what, therefore, he himself has to be. God has not abandoned him up to this point, and God will not abandon him now. Jonah will become a saint because he is not going to keep himself fixed in a position of resistance and rebellion, like Lucifer, but is willing to learn and to change.
 
That is why we are all fortunate to be humans and not angels. If we were angels, we might have been Lucifers. As we are humans, we can be Jonahs. Even Judas, as we know, could have repented after his great betrayal of Jesus. His tragedy consists precisely in the choice he made. S Peter, who did something no less evil than Judas, repented and went on to become a martyr, a perfect witness, one who followed Christ perfectly. 
 
As angels, one act of rebellion would lead to our everlasting death. As humans, a daily act of repentance will lead to our everlasting life. This Lent let us not lose this chance to gain life. We know the Lord is a cheerful giver who readily gives life. So today, chose life. 
 
 

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