Sermon preached at Mattins on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (2 September 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached at Mattins on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (2 September 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Precentor considers the readings for Mattins, reflecting that the both show "the safety net of God’s love: one hand confidently beckoning us towards him on our journey through life; the other gently touching our shoulder when we pause uncertainly by the edge of the road".


The proclamation of the King of Nineveh that not only human beings but animals too are to don sackcloth and cry mightily to God in repentance for their sins is perhaps a gloriously comical image that sits well with the gentle humour that pervades the Book of Jonah. 

Perhaps I can encourage you to go home and read the whole book: it’s only four chapters long and it’s a good read.

I don’t want to press the point too much for fear of you getting the wrong impression about the sanctity of scripture but this passage from the Book of Jonah is really quite funny – or, if you’re offended at the thought of scripture being funny, then think ‘satirical’.

This implausibly large city is converted in its entirety – man and beast – by a rather hapless figure called Jonah who wanders through its streets crying out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’. As a result of this mass conversion – and presumably encouraged by the sight of camels and donkeys dressed in sackcloth and bemoaning their sins in loud voices in the streets, God changes his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon Nineveh and, as the author of the book succinctly puts it, ‘he did not do it’.

The exaggerated nature of the account does of course, nevertheless, emphasise the importance of repentance (Nineveh was a very wicked place by all accounts) but the stretching of the imagination that arises out of the story also gives pause for thought and reminds us that nothing is really as simple as this and that a cut and dried approach to faith is unlikely to produce good results.

Which takes us to the much more serious and, indeed, challenging teaching of the passage from the Revelation which was our second lesson this morning.

What is difficult for us, it seems to me, is the suggestion – implicit in this passage – that we, as human beings, have an easy choice between believing in God and not believing in God: between salvation and condemnation. And I have a feeling, based on instinct and experience, that most of us gathered here this morning don’t believe that it’s really as simple as that.

Of course, the teaching of this passage is tough and why not? Life’s tough. Perhaps, like the author of the Book of Jonah, the author of the Revelation has cut out the nuances in order to make people sit up and take notice – instead of being lukewarm.

I remember a journalist from The Guardian door-stepping me once and asking me why people were giving up on religion and what could I say to convince them otherwise. He was very dismissive of my rather convoluted reply, saying that it was all very well but too nuanced for the readers of a newspaper article – so I told him to read the Book of Jonah, a suggestion which I don’t think he appreciated very much...!

The mild humour of the passage from the Book of Jonah – which speaks to me of humanity – complements the hard call to repentance of the passage from the Revelation – which speaks to me of judgement – and, together, in these very different accounts, we see the safety net of God’s love: one hand confidently beckoning us towards him on our journey through life; the other gently touching our shoulder when we pause uncertainly by the edge of the road.

Nuances may not be good for newspaper articles but they do at least remind us that things are seldom simple and life’s choices seldom cut and dried.

Let us pray:

A poem of Emily Dickinson

Tie the strings to my life, my Lord,
Then I am ready to go!
Just a look at the horses –
Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on firmest side,
So I shall never fall;
For we must ride to the Judgment,
And it’s partly down hill.

But never I mind the bridges
And never I mind the sea;
Held fast in everlasting race
By my own choice and thee.

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.