Jon 3:1-5;10. Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”Obviously, that version of Jonah was in our reality. Jonah hasn't done much really to get his message a hearing. After all the refusal to go and preach, after all the being eaten by a giant fish, he's just walked a day into the great city and shouted out "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown."
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Maybe the people of Nineveh were in a very edgy mood for some reason. Maybe the beat groups playing rock and roll that had made God, when he heard it, say "Bless my soul" - maybe they'd stopped the cheery rock and started down a more bluesy theme. And the Ninevites were just ready for Jonah's message.
We know that the decisions we make can be very borderline. I mean, I remember when we did the "Jonah man Jazz" at St Mitholmroyd's School for the Children of Distressed Gentlefolk. I really wanted to be Jonah, but my friend Sue got the part. Apparently the reason she did so well at audition was that she wore tennis pumps, whereas the rest of us were in standard strappy sandals. These are the narrow lines that divide major decisions. I was relegated by a pair of plimsolls to singing alto and plotting revenge.
So maybe there was another dimension where another Jonah turned up to another Nineveh. But in this Nineveh, the beat groups were still playing a rock and roll and the good times were still rolling, and when Jonah turned up he got different responses.
"Overthrown? By what agency? The Babylonians have been in a right mess, ever since the plague struck. We've thoroughly discounted the risks of global warming on account of our lack of cars, coal-fired power stations and airplanes. We're nowhere near any volcanoes. There was an earthquake three years ago, but our best seismologists have slaughtered a chicken, and according to its entrails there's no danger of another for thirty years.
"Also - we've had a whole series of prophets over the last few years. That Hammurabi Camping - he threatened a disaster of " Biblical proportions. " Well, we pointed out to him that any disaster is gonna be of Biblical proportions. We are, after all, in the Bible. Then someone threatened another flood, and we explained to him that Noah's Flood is a creation myth shared by many Ancient Middle Eastern cultures - or, as we call them, Modern Middle Eastern cultures. And so we see it more as a metaphor for an angry, irrational deity than as a real climatological threat. Somebody said we are in danger of being invaded by Luxembourg. So, anyway, we've taken to just locking them all up in the rooftop cell of Nineveh police station. "
By a coincidence or maybe not - it was as Jonah passed his fortieth day on the rooftop - arguing with Hammurabi Camping as to whether the world would end with a bang, or a whimper - that Nineveh was overthrown by the attack of a large flock of blood-crazed owls.
It's so fine, the balance of our decisions. The Church of England has apparently published research saying that the last thing you should do, if you want people to know about Jesus, is tell them anything about him. Unsure if they have any further advice on how we should fulfil the Great Commission in that case. Maybe print the Sermon on the Mount on a set of coasters or buy one of those toasters that burns an image of Jesus's face onto the bread? But the point is - it's not an easy thing these days, telling people about your faith. I mean, with 40 days to go, Jonah could hardly have started a Church of England school and hoped that, after 5 or 6 years of singing Lord of the Dance in assembly, the word of the Lord might have seeped into the population by a process of osmosis.
No, it's a hard thing to do, sharing God's message - whether a nasty one, like the one for Nineveh or good news about Jesus.
But it seems to me that it's about our own closeness to God in the first instance. You can only share what someone is like if you know yourself. You can only be sure of God's love and Jesus's being alive, if you're letting the Spirit rest in you. You'll know better when to share and better when to be quiet. And if you're spending time in proper prayer - prayer where you accept that God can change you to be as God wants, not necessarily just change the world to be as you think it should be - then maybe some of God's love will flow out in a natural way, without you putting on the beaming smile and shiny eyes and silly voice to tell that simple truth that Jesus loves you.
And sometimes we share a message that can simply be rejected. There's no shame or harm on that for us. We have stood on a watchtower, done our job, been faithful messengers and we can move on. Other people have a right to make their own minds up - to welcome the action of the Spirit in their own spirits, or not. In our dimension, Jonah sat under a marrow plant and fumed that Nineveh had repented. In that other dimension, he laughed as the sinful city was torn apart by the Owls of Destruction. Although, as the few survivors fled the city, he panicked as he remembered he was locked on the roof.
It doesn't matter. Unless you are locked on a roof while homicidal owls swoop around, thirsty for blood. Then you've other things to worry about. But you've done your job. As St Francis definitely didn't say, preach the Gospel. If necessary, use lemon drizzle cake. As Our Lord said, if the message isn't received, shake the dust from your feet and move on.
And look out for owls.