Christ Church Norris Green, Morning Communion, 11/1/2010
Jonah 1 , Luke 15:11-21
Two stories about people running away:
Jonah: running away from responsibilities that had been given him, work that he'd been commissioned to do;
The father's son: running away from home with his premature inheritance in his pocket, chasing his dreams in a country far away.
Picture Jonah, the prophet: having received a commission from God to go to the city of Ninevah and prophesy against the wickedness which God saw there, deciding instead to head in precisely the opposite direction, 'away from the presence of the Lord', he thought, as if God was bound by geography or territory.
And picture the father's younger son: having received from his gracious father the half-share of his inheritance, deciding to head a long way away from the family home, to a distant country to live his dream, the dream of most young men, to live it up with wine, women and song. Luke is hard on the young man, saying that 'he squandered [all his inheritance] in dissolute living'. And for centuries interpreters of the bible have given this story the title of 'The Prodigal Son'. A prodigal: according to the dictionary, is 'a spendthrift, or person who spends money recklessly and wastefully.
Now picture yourself - at a time in your life, a moment perhaps, when you went running away from something or someone: someone calling for help who you ignored, an opportunity or a commission which - for fear or pride or anxiety - you avoided, a time when you heard God speaking very clearly to you about something and you decided to do nothing about it, or did the opposite.
Or picture yourself - at a time when you went running toward something: when you chased your dream. A dream which maybe didn't turn out quite how you'd intended, a dream overtaken by circumstances.
The stories of Jonah and the father's younger son might be our stories. Because we all go running away from time to time. It goes with being human.
Running away from responsibility. Running away to chase our dream. We run away from other things too. Sometimes it is healthy to run away. When we're in danger, for instance. It doesn't do to hang about when you're being threatened or attacked. Sometimes the best form of self-defence is to turn on your heels and run.
And it can be healthy to run away from other sorts of bad situations: a relationship which has soured and become deadly for both parties, or threatening for one. A job which no longer satisfies or rewards us. There is nothing cowardly in turning and running away from situations like those. It takes plenty of nerve - plenty of faith - to do that, especially when you're not sure where you are running to, or what the future holds.
We've all done our share of running away. So we are with Jonah and the father's younger son; their stories are like our stories.
So what happens to a person who God speaks to directly but decides to go in the opposite direction?
And what happens to one who runs away to chase their dream but does so by squandering all that his father had worked hard to give him?
What we had in our two readings today was the first part of the stories of Jonah and the father's younger son. I'm sad about that because it means you have to wait till next week for the resolution of them. Today's talk is like the first half of a two-part soap, and I'm sorry I shan't be around to share in your enjoyment of the conclusion, the part where we realise that God is full of grace and the father is full of forgiveness, the part where the errant men are welcomed back and embraced, having learned and grown from their difficult journeys.
All we have to consider today is those journeys themselves. What happens when someone runs away.
And I could frame this negatively. I could conclude this sermon by saying - look at Jonah's journey. It proves that you can't flee the presence of the Lord, that he will catch up with you and make your life get very stormy. I could say - look at the journey of the young man. His dreams soon looked very misplaced as the wine, women and song all disappeared when the money dried up and the famine struck. Let their stories be a lesson to anyone thinking they can get away from God, escape the influence of the father.
But I would prefer to frame this positively. I would prefer to conclude this sermon by asking you to notice something about Jonah and the father's younger son. Both of them came to see the hand of God - the hand of the father - in the circumstances they found themselves in. And the God - the father - they saw they recognised as gracious, loving, forgiving. One who would help them start over again.
Picture Jonah all at sea, in a storm which all those aboard the ship felt was caused by an angry god: of all the gods represented in that multi-faith crew Jonah recognised that it was his God who was responsible, and his God who could save them: 'the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land'. The runaway Jonah realised that it was after all impossible to get away from the presence of the Lord, that his God was not bound by geography or territory, but boundless in his power, boundless in his grace and boundless in his ability to save.
And the father's younger son penniless among the pigs, realising that the hired hands who worked for his father were better fed than he was, seeing his father as a generous provider - not just of the inheritance which the son had just spent, but of good food and shelter to those who worked for him.
Jonah running away from God, the younger son running away from his father: driven by the change in their circumstances to look deeper inside themselves and to look again at those they had run away from, and what they meant to them, Jonah and the father's younger son turned again. In turning again they each took brave and bold decisions - Jonah to allow the crew to throw him off the ship, the youngest son facing the shame of going back home on bended knee. Even if we stop their stories here we find hope - in their stopping, thinking, turning.
No longer running but deciding to place themselves again into the hands of God (in Jonah's case) and the father (in the son's case), their stories speak to all of us who are perhaps running away right now. Think: are you running away from something right now? Or runninmg towards something - chasing a dream? If your running has got you into stormy weather, if your running has broken your dreams and turned into a nightmare, then hear this: that God is with you in your running; the father who we thought youe'd left behind is there ahead of you waiting to welcome you home.
Jonah's story teaches us this; we cannot run away from God, entirely. Because God is Lord of heaven and earth, he surrounds us, we are if anything running in him rather than from him.
And the younger son's story tells us this: that even if we consciously leave the father behind, to chase our dreams elsewhere, we find that the father goes ahead of us, longs for and anticipates our return.
Next week, I shan't be here, and these stories will end in celebration and liberation. I'm sure that you will find encouragement in them.
But this week, let us go home considering what we are running from and where we are running towards, and where God might be in those journeys we are on. We can be assured that God is with us in them, full of grace, full of compassion. Wanting us and waiting for us to turn to him again.