CHRIST APPEARS ON OUR BEHALF

Sermon delivered on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the 8th November 2015 (Remembrance Sunday) by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England (Cayman Islands).

Scriptures: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10     Hebrews 9:24-28     S. Mark 1: 14-20

Jonah 3:10 “When God saw that they turned from their evil way, He did not do what He had said He would do to them.”

One of the good things about the Church School courses that we engage in before the main service is that it allows in some degree at least, for people to bring up what is in their own minds. Some of these things they may see as obstacles to a full Christian belief. One such concern is the eternal state of people who lived before Jesus came, and I mention it now because the Word of God to us today relates to this concern, and shows us how we can rightly think about it.

The Old Testament Lesson today was from the book of Jonah, portraying the preaching of Jonah the Jewish prophet to the inhabitants of a Gentile city and their positive reaction to his message. The narration depicts them proclaiming a fast and putting on sackcloth. There is a fine ironical strand in this story, that depicts the unwillingness of the Jewish prophet to go to Nineveh in the first place, and then his dismay that because of their repentance God decides not to have their city overthrown the way the prophet warned. Apparently Jonah believes that in the interest of establishing the veracity of Jonah's own Jewish prophetic ministry God ought not to have pity on the people of pagan Nineveh after they were warned the city would be overthrown, but knows nevertheless that this kind of thing, having mercy and pity, is what God will actually do. The story tells us not only about the fast and the sackcloth, but that “the people of Nineveh believed God”. For all their pagan-ness, they “believed God” and acted on their belief. The story tells us also that their believing action involved everyone turning from his evil way and from the violence that was in their hands. That positive response averted the impending catastrophe because God in His graciousness and pity could not ignore it. No doubt the main lesson from this is drawn from the self-directed attitude of God’s own prophet contrasted with the responsive attitude of the pagan city that “believed God” through the prophet’s message. We can also draw the lesson that as St. Peter says in Acts 10:34, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him”. The Ninevites in the story of Jonah “feared” God because they believed the prophet’s words as God’s Word, and they “did what was right” because they changed their wicked behaviour accordingly, and became acceptable to God. In itself this gives us a good clue to how we can rightly think about the concern for the eternal state of people who lived before Jesus came, but there is more to be gleaned from the other lessons today.

The point can also be made that Jesus Himself spoke sometimes of the “sign of the prophet Jonah” and applied it to Himself.. He likened the stay of the prophet in the belly of the sea-monster to His own forthcoming descent into the realm of the dead before His Resurrection, and then says that those Ninevites will stand up at the judgment with Jesus’ own generation and condemn it, because, while they repented at the preaching of Jonah, His own generation were not responding to Him, something greater than Jonah. The same could be said of those who after His Resurrection did not respond to the preaching of the apostles and others who were filled with the Holy Spirit, and indeed do not respond to this day. Those who responded to the Word of God before Jesus’ time will stand up at the judgment with the men and women of our own generation who do not believe God and respond to Him today, and will condemn them. The Christ whose Spirit upholds the Church and purifies her teachings today is greater than the pre-Christian prophets and wise men, and deserves more than they to be heard, believed and responded to.

Chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second lesson is drawn, compares the sacrificial duties of the pre-Christian High-Priest, who enters the Holy Place once a year taking the blood of goats and calves offering it repeatedly for himself and the ritual and legal errors of the people, with the once-for-all unblemished sacrifice that Christ has offered “at the end of the age” to purify our consciences, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Both Priest and Victim, as God He offered the sacrifice of His human life to the Father; and as Man He was without a blemish. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes the point that while people benefited in certain ways from the ministrations of the pre-Christian High Priests, how much more is the benefit now to be drawn from the High-Priestly Sacrifice and the Intercession before God of Christ Himself? If those who may have been ministered to by some form of pre-Christian sacrificial system made a showing of faith, like Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, Samuel and the prophets, and indeed some from Gentile nations, the writer of Hebrews declares that God, who foresaw and has provided a better thing for us, would perfect them too by the same benefit in our company. “God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be perfected.” Christ’s death redeemed also the Old Testament saints from transgressions under the old covenant, and inaugurated the new covenant. And as we have seen, will not they, who explicitly or implicitly expected Him and the better thing provided for us, condemn those of our post-Christian generation who spurn it and resist recognising it?

Jesus Himself, in our Gospel reading today, recognises that “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” It seems that the signal was the arrest of His forerunner, John the Baptist. It could be said that John was the last of the prophets of the old covenant, the last of the Jonahs. Jesus Himself referred to him as fulfilling the prophecy that Elijah was to come again as the messenger and forerunner of the Christ. John preached repentance like Jonah, and Jesus commended those who like the Ninevites with Jonah believed God through the preaching of John. But now John’s time was brought to an end, and it would soon be the time for the Christ to come under condemnation from His own and be swallowed up in death, and thus provide the sign of Jonah to His generation through His divine offering of His unblemished human life to God, His Resurrection and the proclaiming of the truth to all the nations.

This is the Gospel that we proclaim to this very day, so that men and women of our own time may turn from their ways and be signed with Jesus’ sign of Jonah, that the gracious God of mercy and pity may look upon the perfect sacrifice of His unblemished Son, the Son of Man, and receiving His intercession for us, avert from us and others the disasters that are the inevitable consequences of the rebellion and wickedness of the world of our time and finally the judgment of God upon His wayward world.