The English Pig

26 06 2011

Glancing at a restaurant menu, typically the first thing I do is decide the kind of mood I’m in, and how that manifests in my choice of meat. Imagine the struggle, then, of being faced with an entire menu comprised of only one meat… pork in abundance.

The English Pig is a restaurant in the City, near Barbican, and they specialise (as the name suggests) in pork. Of course, we knew that before we went, and are all fans of the humble pig. During a discussion over dinner the majority of our table said pork was their favourite meat, and I was the sole dissenting voice who dared to suggest a preference for lamb. I did so in hushed tones, for fear I might be ejected from the restaurant.

Everything on the menu includes some aspect of pigginess, except the desserts… but even there was a hint of swine. The menu opens with a warning to vegetarians that they may well be in the wrong place, though I did smell something resembling sea bass from the table next to us, so it would appear that the chefs show a little grace here and there.

The obsession with pig is slightly disconcerting insofar as it also extends to the artwork on the wall; pictures of happy smiling pigs. It reminded me of Leo McGarry’s line in The West Wing: “I take my daughter to a seafood place the first thing she does is name all the lobsters in the tank so I can’t eat ’em.” Thankfully the pictures bore no names.

Pork pate and bacon jam

The menu offered five options for each course, and it was insanely difficult to decide between them. We had gone with a couple of friends, and so were able to order different dishes each and try them all. I went for the crispy pig’s head, which had a beautiful deep flavour, served with a light apple puree. Other options included braised pig’s cheeks and pork scratching salad, both of which were gorgeous. But the highlight for me was the pork pate with bacon jam. It was a fun ‘building site’ of a dish, which tasted fantastic. Each element on its own was great, but together worked brilliantly; the light pate being complemented perfectly by the bacon jam to give a beautiful sweet flavour.

Then onto the mains. One glance at the menu and we were all quickly decided. The signature dish is a 21 hour slow roast belly with mustard mash and savoy cabbage. I considered being the martyr of the group and trying one of the other options just so we could try something different… but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, knowing I would be sick with jealousy seeing everyone else enjoy their pork belly. So four pork bellies it was. (Incidentally, if I had gone for something else, the smoked hock with roasted garlic, broccoli and radish sounded divine.)

21 hour pork belly

The pork belly delivered perfectly: tender and flavoursome, with a beautiful sticky jus, creamy mustard mash and wafer-thin shredded savoy cabbage, topped with a golden strip of crackling. Every element was perfectly balanced and together tasted amazing. I was satisfied that I made the right choice.

Desserts were fun: chocolate fondant with white chocolate sauce served in a bucket, kahlua panna cotta. Helen had ‘strawberries and cream’ which was the most fun and fresh-tasting option. Strawberries with balsamic jelly cubes, cream, a tuile (with, I think, a hint of black pepper in), cream, an earl gray foam and, to bring out the childish side, popping candy. I think you could pretty much put popping candy on any dish and it would bring out a smile… except maybe my pork belly – that would have just annoyed me!

Strawberries and cream

My dessert choice was… well… peculiar! I’m more of a savoury guy than sweet, and would happily do away with dessert in favour of something salty. So I went for the rather odd chocolate and bacon crème brûlée. The waiter said it’s a ‘love it or hate it’ dish, and I think I loved it. It was confusing; a taste combination you don’t expect at all, and the bacon was unmistakable, as was the chocolate. I did enjoy it, especially not having the sweetest of teeth. It’s hard to put it into words really, you’ve got the try it. (Just maybe encourage someone else on the table to order it, and then you can try it without having to commit to that being your major dessert experience!!)

The whole evening was great fun. The restaurant was unpretentious and not at all stuffy. We had gone on a Groupon voucher which we’d bought months ago, and sometimes you can feel a little looked down on when you brandish your printed bit of paper, but not here. The waiters were just as attentive as I imagine they would have been for any other customers. The food was fantastic, we had two bottles of wine; a light pinot grigio and a merlot, and we finished it off with coffee (illy) on the sofas by the window. A great experience.

Strangely enough, they are doing another Groupon offer today. It’s a slightly different deal to the one we got (we got two courses and a bottle of wine per couple, no cocktail) but well worth checking out. I’m sure you won’t regret it! Just don’t watch ‘Babe’ at any point in the preceding week…





To mock or not to mock

21 05 2011

So today is judgment day, and I have mixed feelings. Not about whether the Rapture might happen or not, but about how I should conduct myself in the run up to 6pm, and what I should do and say at 6.01.

To Mock

I truly think that the guys who think they’ve calculated the rapture, and the thousands who have given up their homes, jobs, and wasted thousands of dollars on this are a few sandwiches short of a picnic. And I very much want myself, my church, my faith and my Lord to be disassociated from their fruitloop theology!

So on the one hand, I think mild mockery is probably the best way. I’ve enjoyed reading some of the #rapture tweets, particularly by some Christian friends. I’ve laughed at a bit of satire and have joked about it a little. I’ll be at a wedding this evening, and think it might be kind of amusing to leave little piles of clothes and shoes out in the corridors for people to stumble across… or play a trumpet fanfare from my iPhone in the middle of the speeches. (Of course, I won’t do either…)

And I hope that my friends who aren’t Christians will look at those things and realise that Mr Camping does not speak for all Christians. I hope that they will appreciate that many Christians think this is as silly as they do, and I hope that as a result they will be able to differentiate between oddball fanatics and the real deal.

However…

Not to Mock

… I do wonder if mockery may do more harm than good. In passing Camping and his theories off as a laughable fiction, we may well give people the impression we don’t take the second coming seriously. And that could be a serious hindrance for the gospel.

Already I’ve noticed that early comments on the Camping phenomenon labelled May 21st ‘Judgment Day’ whereas more recent ones tend to say ‘Rapture Day.’ In creating a mockery of it, have we removed the fear of judgment? By mocking and joking, I do hope that we can strip away some of the nonsense, but in so doing, I hope we don’t cause people to take judgment less seriously.

Paul’s words to the Athenians are still as true and urgent as ever:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
(Acts 17:30-31)

I do slightly fear that in telling people it’s not going to happen at 6pm we may end up making them think it’s not going to happen at all. In so caricaturing Camping’s vision of judgment day so as to seem unthinkably foolish, do we run the risk of making judgment itself seem unbelievable?

Tomorrow I shall, God willing (!), be preaching on Ephesians 2:1-10. It’s a bold and striking passage with some hard truths to hear. I shall make no mention of the rapture, Harold, or the end of the world, but I hope to preach a message that is faithful to the difficult truths, and yet still full of hope, inviting and urging people to make a decision…

Judgment is coming. Probably not at 6pm this evening. It could happen sooner… Either way, are you ready?





The Royal Wedding: A nude, 3D dance-fest?

10 03 2011

One of the top trends on Twitter today notes the fact that the date of the Royal Wedding is the 66th anniversary of Hilter and Eva Braun’s wedding. Incidentally, people point out, they went on to kill themselves the next day… Spooky huh?

I find it peculiar the way people latch onto stats like this. They spot omens and tell-tale signs in the most trivial of coincidences. Football commentators are the worst. How many times have you heard some ridiculous stat like…

‘The last six times x team have played in red against a team in blue, having scored in the first 7 minutes, with their goalkeeper using black gloves, and only one English player in their squad, they have always gone on to lose the game and the league!’

…as if that means anything?!

Can’t we let a coincidence be a coincidence without attaching meanings, symbolism, suppositions, superstitions (and typology?!) to it? It’s not spooky, it’s not mysterious. They just have a limited number of dates to choose from!

Well, just to add fuel to the fire, here are a few more thoughts about the royal wedding. In case you weren’t aware, April 29th is:

  • The 65th anniversary of Father Divine, a religious leader who claimed to be god, marrying Edna Rose Ritchings
  • The 58th anniversary of the first 3D-TV broadcast in the USA
  • The 43rd anniversary of the Broadway opening of the musical ‘Hair’ in which the cast stripped entirely naked
  • The 29th anniversary of International Dance Day
  • The 25th anniversary of a fire in the Los Angeles Public Library, which destroyed over 400,000 books

By my reckoning, we can expect that the Royal Wedding will be quite an occasion: The entire thing will be conducted in dance, fully in the nude, broadcast on TV in 3D, culminating in a colossal fire, and William declaring himself to be divine!

Just imagine what other amazing insights we could discover if we applied the principles of the Bible Code to the wedding invites!!





‘Who died and made you the king of the zombies?’

14 02 2011

Whenever I teach on the resurrection, someone always asks about Matthew 27. No matter how much I try to ignore it, move on, call a coffee break, or fake an severe coughing fit to get out of it, someone always asks. Last week, I got away with it! I survived seven or so hours of teaching without anyone raising this troublesome passage… And now I feel guilty for short-changing people.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one better answers than mine, and also a million and one weird, quasi-gnostic ones too! It’s a peculiar passage, but here you go. A few thoughts:

‘Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ (Matthew 27:50-53)

The first thing to note is that there appears to be some kind of allusion to Ezekiel 37:12-14:

‘Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.’ (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Ezekiel 37 is probably the most famous ‘resurrection’ passage in the Old Testament, but arguably when he wrote it, the author would not have been thinking about a literal, physical resurrection. For Ezekiel, this opening of the graves is a metaphor for return from exile, as can be seen by the promise of being returned to the land of Israel (v12). The major concern for Ezekiel is one of national purity. One of the most unclean things a Jew could come across is a corpse. And yet, here you have Ezekiel prophesying to carcasses, which represent the house of Israel (v11) saying that God was going to cleanse them and return them to their land. For Ezekiel, resurrection was a metaphor for national restoration.

Matthew seems to be alluding to this in Matthew 27. This is the moment when the New Covenant was signed, sealed and delivered. The exile was over, and a new exodus awaited all who trusted in Jesus. But since Ezekiel had written his passage, as theology had developed and God had given people greater revelation, many had begun to read Ezekiel’s words as a literal prediction that one day graves would be opened and dead people would be raised again to life (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5; 1 Thess 4 etc). Matthew 27 appears to allude to Ezekiel’s words, not in order to say that the great eschatological resurrection had taken place, but that something which prefigures it, and speaks of national restoration had occurred at the death of this claimant to the title of Messiah.

It really is a very bizarre story, thrown into the text with no explanation, and commentators tend to treat it in one of the following two ways:

1) It was a story made up by Matthew, either as apocalyptic imagery which he never intended to be taken literally, or as a story designed to encapsulate and ‘fulfil’ a number of prophetic texts, such as Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26, Daniel 12 and so on.

2) Matthew is aware of accounts of strange occurrences and so he retells them, without dwelling on them too much, in such a way as to give the perceptive reader a hint that this is the real return from exile and the dawning of the new age.

I personally side for option 2 for the following reasons:

– Given that few pre-Christian Jews would have expected that their Messiah would need to die in order to bring about the final resurrection, nobody would have made up a story like this.

– Furthermore, Matthew gives us no hint that this is a fictitious account. We have followed him through 26 chapters of accurate (although biblically embroidered) retellings of genuine events, and so to throw in a fictitious story at this point would seriously undermine the credibility of his entire account.

– Presumably we are intended to take the tearing of the temple curtain as a literal occurrence (v51). So why would we then expect to change our method of interpretation to treat these verses (52-53) as if they were fiction?

I think Matthew told the story because it happened, plain and simple. This raises (at least) four questions for me

1) Who were the bodies that were raised?

Matthew doesn’t specify. R.T. France speculates that ‘The saints are presumably the people of God in the Old Testament, those who according to Hebrews 11 all died ‘in faith’ looking forward to a resurrection to a better life (Heb. 11:13-16, 35, 39-40); through Jesus that hope now comes to fruition.’ (France, Matthew, p401)

Mmm… maybe. But really we have no way of knowing.

I would suggest we can assume that only a small number of saints were raised. Had it been every saint who had ever lived and died, then presumably there would be far more reports of its occurrence. A mob of ten thousand zombies trawling the streets of Jerusalem is bound to have got a mention at some point in historical records! A dozen or so could go largely unnoticed; just enough to make a subtle theological point.

2) Does their raising mean that the general resurrection has happened?

No. If this were the intended application, other Biblical writers would have made more of it, in particular Paul when dealing with heretical views of the resurrection. Paul still argues strongly that the resurrection has not yet happened, but will at some point in the future (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5; 1 Thess 4; Phil 3; Rom 8).

Seeing as this miniature resurrection was not accompanied by any of the other prophesied occurrences such as the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth, and the permanent removal of death, sickness and suffering, then we can assume it was no more than a ‘blip’; a signpost anticipating the general resurrection.

3) Are the corpses still alive today?

A few non-canonical texts in the centuries after the resurrection speculate about the corpses. For example, in Asc. Isa. 9.17f. they ascend with Jesus; in Ac. Pil. 17.1 they return to earthly life and die again subsequently; in Theophylact, writing a thousand years later, some of them are reported to be still alive. But if they had remained alive, there would surely be more speculation about them in early literature. The most logical explanation is that they died again very soon after.

Although, there’s an interesting premise for a trashy conspiracy novel in there somewhere… Perhaps they became guardians of the grail?

4) How therefore should we interpret it?

This is a literal, but confusing, occurrence, where a small number of saints are raised again from the dead for a very brief period, and then die again.

It should not be interpreted as the general resurrection, but merely an anticipation of it, in the same sort of way as the raising of Lazarus was. It was proof not only that one day there would be a great resurrection, but that ‘the resurrection and the life’ was here now in embodied form (John 11:25).

The death and resurrection of Jesus sent shockwaves throughout all of creation, Matthew even speaks of there being an earthquake. This miniature anticipatory resurrection was merely a ripple, pointing to the greater resurrection that is yet to come.

Matthew refuses to dwell on it and let it overshadow the truly significant event – the resurrection of Jesus. And we should too.





“Bring me Mary Bale’s head on a plate!”

28 08 2010

If I receive one more Facebook message about giving money to the RSPCA to support Lola the cat, or putting Mary Bale in a box and chucking her into the ocean, I think I will give up on this world and throw myself in a wheelie bin!

I imagine you’ve heard about this ‘vile grey-haired cat hater’ from Coventry. If not, go ahead and watch the video. The lady has become an overnight international hate figure, and I have received countless links on Facebook asking me to petition for her arrest and donate money to the RSPCA.

A couple of thoughts:

First: When someone sends me a link to a video of a slightly deranged pensioner hurling a cat into a bin, and I see that 43,000 people like it, I don’t know what to make of that!

  • Is that 43,000 people who like and support the (presumably tongue in cheek?!) calls for her death?
  • 43,000 people who like what she did and support her cause?
  • 43,000 people who like the RSPCA and have donated to them on the back of this news item?
  • 43,000 people who just found it funny and couldn’t care an iota about the moral issue?

There’s just something infuriating about seeing so many people expressing their inflammatory, hyperbole-laden opinions with no sense of accountability or follow up. It winds me up. If Facebook has become the ‘agora’ of our day; where people gather to debate the intricacies of serious ethical issues, God help us all!

Second: Let’s keep this in perspective. Mary Bale is not worse than Hitler. And don’t let any of my Jewish friends see that ridiculously insensitive name for a Facebook group. I can just about stomach calling her the Purrminator. That made me smirk a little (before feeling guilty at being amused by such a ridiculous pun).

Consider this:

  • On that same day, approximately 548 human foetuses were discarded in the UK. They didn’t get have the good fortune of being rescued when a passer by heard a faint whimpering.
  • On that same day, approximately 464 people slept on the streets in England. How many more have to eat out of bins on any given day because they can’t afford to feed themselves?
  • The RSPCA gets roughly £115million of donations each year and is one of the richest charities in the UK
  • Shelter receives £24.5m of voluntary donations a year
  • In the same week in Vancouver a homeless man fell asleep in a bin, which was then picked up by a rubbish truck. The man was about to be crushed in the compacter when a bystander heard his screams and alerted the driver. He survived, but with broken bones, and still no home to return to.

I’m not anti-pets. I’m not anti the RSPCA. If this serves to up the awareness of animal cruelty, fine. If people want to give their money to animal-related charities rather than human ones, well I prefer that to a complete lack of charity! I don’t agree with causing animals pain. But please… some perspective.

(And if you dare to click that you ‘like’ this post, you’d jolly well better qualify that!)





Muggers with Morals

9 08 2010

A number of people have blogged about the video and article about Nayara Goncalves, a 20 year old girl in Florida who dissuaded a would be robber, by preaching about Jesus. Seeing it reminded me again of an experience I had a few years ago. So I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper article and post it here for all to see, just in case you’ve never heard me tell it one of the countless times it’s appeared as a sermon illustration!

In 2005, I was walking through a park on the way home from a church evening service. It was dark and late, as I’d stuck around to help pack up, and then walked my (now) wife home… Two guys came up alongside me, pulled a knife on me, and demanded that I give them my wallet, phone, keys etc – which I duly did! When they asked what else I had, I said the only other thing I had with me was a Bible.

One of them asked me if I believed in God. I said yes. They asked if I believed God could protect me from people like them. What on Earth do you say to that? The answer was a definite “yes“, and if you’d sat me down in a nice casual environment and prefaced the question with a gentle “purely hypothetically…” I wouldn’t have thought twice about answering in the affirmative. But with a knife pressed against my gut, in a dark and empty park, I wasn’t all that keen on them testing the limits of my faith!

But timidly I said yes.

There was no blinding flash of lights. No trumpet calls and cherubim with flaming swords… alas. But suddenly one of the guys panicked, and told his mate to give me back my stuff – which he duly did! They apologised, told me they were Christians too (though not practicing – no kidding!), shook my hand and sent me on my way.

I called the police immediately, and the two guys were picked up a little later, having mugged someone else straight after they’d left me.

Aside from the rather bizarre nature of the experience, a couple of facts particularly stick in my mind:

  • The sermon that evening had been on the faithfulness of God. To be honest I’d not thought a lot of it. Others were raving about it, but somehow it hadn’t really connected with me. This incident rammed home the truth in a way the sermon hadn’t. Application: be careful about which sermons you criticise!
  • I remember the confused look on the face of the officer who took my statement. There was a distinct moment at the end when he looked at me and said ‘are you sure this is what you want to say? You don’t want to change anything?‘ Probably a routine question… but I remember at the time noting a hint of scepticism in his voice and thinking that this really did sound like quite a tall story! I almost felt a little foolish describing what had happened; like it was so weird I almost had to apologise for it!
  • It’s funny – when you have an encounter like that, you can sort of end up wondering if you’ve made it up. Not totally, but the finer details. You wonder if you’ve embellished it by accident. You rationalise it. You explain it away. I was therefore thrilled to walk past a billboard a few weeks later to see the title ‘Bible Saves Rob Victim.’ I bought the paper and read the article (below). It was encouraging to have it in printed form, with comments from the court case. It reassured me I wasn’t crazy! Though I still maintain the headline made it sound like my name was Rob. And surely they could have come up with something a little more ‘tabloid’ and glamorous!
  • I remember meeting the other guy who was mugged, when we went to do an identity lineup. I remember how bitter he was; understandable, of course. But the way he referred to the muggers was full of anger, and in total contrast to the sense of peace I found myself with. It was a peace that came from outside of me. I’m not usually that calm. But somehow it didn’t affect me as it might have done. It ‘passeth-ed’ all understanding…
  • I remember being told a while later that the church I attended had previously had input into the life of one of the muggers. I believe he had attended a Sunday School the church had run for a while. Incredible how things like that pay off in unexpected ways.
  • Before this, I’d previously led worship at a couple of Alpha courses in young offenders prisons. I was told I wasn’t allowed to for a while, as I couldn’t be told where my attackers had been sent. That was fine… but I did often wonder where they were and what they were up to. Who knows what’s become of them?

So… here’s the article from the Kentish Gazette. It makes me chuckle to read it again – the way they struggle to comprehend and articulate the oddity of this ‘Christian’ mugger with a strong ‘ethical code.’ It’s a pretty prosaic article, but just so you know I’m not making it all up:

Christian robber hands back wallet
14/04/05

A religious youth carried out a knife-point robbery but then repented and handed everything back.

Mugger Sean Lismore, 18, a Roman Catholic, realised his victim was carrying a Bible and returned the stolen wallet and mobile, believing it was wrong to rob someone of the same faith.

The teenager had pounced on Liam Thatcher in February this year as he walked through St Stephen’s Park in Canterbury.

He asked “what have you got for us?”

But after taking the money and phone, Lismore and a 16-year old accomplice found Mr Thatcher clutching a Bible.

Lismore asked Mr Thatcher “Do you believe that God can protect you?”

After a brief conversation, Lismore then handed back the victim’s belongings, Canterbury Crown Court was told.

Prosecutor Alistair Keith said of Lismore, of Watling Street Canterbury, then apologised to Mr Thatcher, telling him he had only robbed him because he needed money to get home.

However, two hours later, the two teenagers attacked a second victim, Graeme Lawrenson, and stole £60 and a lighter as he walked through St Dunstan’s Street.

“It was an identical attack and again the lock knife was used,” said Mr Keith.

The court heard after taking Mr Lawrenson to a cash machine and withdrawing £100, Lismore handed back £40, informing his victim that £60 was all the money he needed for his train fare.

Mr Thatcher later told “detectives he has found the incident “very disturbing.”

Mr Larenson, the second victim, said he felt “in fear of violence” and found the attack “unreasonable and petty”.

The court was also told Lismore’s criminal record included 19 previous offences since June 2002 and he had a number of aliases.

But when he was arrested by police, Lismore had “admitted the offences, giving details of the circumstances”, Mr Keith told the court.

Katie Fox, defending, described Lismore as a “mixed-up kid”, adding “there were some bizarre features to the robberies because he has a moral code which he stands by.”

She said “as a Roman Catholic, he felt it was wrong to rob someone of the same faith as him, that was why he handed back all the items to his first victim.”

She added Lismore had also returned £40 to his second victim, together with a mobile phone sim card “because that was personal”.

Lismore, who admitted charges of robbery and attempted robbery, was sent to a young offenders institution for four years,

Judge Nigel van der Bijl told Lismore: “you think it is wrong to rob a fellow Christian… but then you go on to rob someone else the same night. I don’t know how you came to that conclusion.”

Sentencing on Lismore’s teenage accomplice, who admitted the same charges but cannot be identified for legal reasons, was adjourned until May 13 for probation reports.





Repent, believe and starve your guinea pig…

16 07 2010

Imagine the scene; after much thought and many questions your friend has made the decision. They ask that crucial question:

“Ok. I want to become a Christian. How do I do it?”

I don’t know how you would answer that. Some people might take her to a passage in Acts, or tell a story, or lead her through a particular prayer, or a step-by-step process built around some pithy but memorable acrostic. What you are unlikely to say at that critical moment is the following:

“You need to repent, believe, be baptised… and starve your pets!”

Yes. You heard me right. Starve your pets. Subject them to a rigorous eating regime – then you’ll be saved. What’s more, you should clothe them in peculiar garments. I’m not thinking of the ‘chien-chique’ of crufts and the dog-boutiques; I’m talking sackcloth. Wrap your budgie in sandpaper! Then and only then can you become a Christian.

None of us – I hope, I trust, I beg – would require such a thing of a prospective believer. But turn with me to Jonah 3:

Milk? by gilles chiroleu

‘Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”’ (Jonah 3:4-9 ESV)

What we see in Jonah 3 is the actions of a desperate man. He has heard the word of God – his city is about to be destroyed. Fair play to the king… he takes the threat seriously. He has seen the fear and faith of the people, and decided to call the nation to action. But his solution to the problem is quite absurd.

He proposes to avert the wrath of God by coating both humans and animals in sackcloth and calling them to fast. It’s right there in verses 7 and 8:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.”

Man and beast. How is a beast even supposed to call out mightily?! At first I found it funny. Then a little puzzling. Then downright perplexing. And finally deeply convicting, as I realised:

I probably would have done the same.

Maybe not exactly the same. But similar. And so would you. Because in each of us is an inbuilt lie; a belief that we can do something to earn salvation. No matter how stupid or superstitious. Many people try to earn their way to God by giving money to charity, or planting forests, leaving legacies to churches they never attended, or saying a nightly formulaic prayer to a God with whom they have no relationship. We grasp at straws. We think we need to do something -anything – and that God will be impressed by our petty efforts. We mistake superstition for faith, and think it’s going to get us into heaven.

Look closely at the words of the king: ‘Who knows? God may turn and relent?’ (v9) There’s no certainty – just a vague hope. If we do enough, mourn enough, grovel enough, who knows? Something might work? Try as many weird and wonderful acts of contrition as possible; who knows, one of them might get us through!

The truth is that nothing we do will ever be good enough. We are saved by the grace of God alone. Not by starving our pets, or reciting our mantras. To think we can atone for our sin by simplistic rituals or rote-learned prayers is to grossly underestimate the depravity of our hearts and the abomination of our sin. Only one thing can secure forgiveness for us – a substitutionary death and a glorious resurrection.

When we lead people into faith, let us teach them spiritual disciplines, encourage them to fast and pray and read and repent. But let us not foster superstition in them. Let us never allow them to think they earn God’s grace by their strivings.

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

The truth is, God did relent, on the basis of the people of Nineveh turning from their evil ways (v10). You can bet your life He wasn’t won over by seeing the mournful faces of their hungry cattle! It was the penitent hearts He was after; people aware of their sinfulness, and reliant on His mercy. The same is true today.

Be overawed by the mercy of God. Be amazed at His free gift of grace. Depend on His generosity alone, and not on your greatest deeds, or your vain superstitions.

And treat your pets well…