And God Changed God’s Mind – Lectionary 01/24/2021

 

Jonah 3

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

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.

Sermon Text

           Jonah is a goldmine of strange and fascinating instances of God’s mercy and human selfishness. Nineveh, the city which Jonah is called to preach to, was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Within a handful of generations that empire would rise up and destroy Jonah’s kingdom of Israel and reduce its sister kingdom of Judah to a vassal-state. The Assyrians, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, were not interested in maintaining any semblance of normalcy in their conquered kingdoms. Once a nation fell to Assyria a large chunk of the native population was transplanted elsewhere in the empire and replaced with another group from another conquered territory. While Babylonians exiled dignitaries to help with administration, the Assyrians exiled thousands to stamp out resistance and cultural identity from their conquered territories.

            Assyria was ruthless, and yet somehow it became a place that, we are told, God was willing to work salvation. As we have discussed previously when looking at the book of Jonah, the book itself is a historical fable. While Jonah was a real prophet active in Israel, the exact events of this book are a narrative which provides a clear example of the sort of work he engaged in. The comparison between the book of Jonah and George Washington’s cherry tree remains apt – the story is not itself a 1:1 history of an event but is meant to tell us something about the characters in the story. In this case, those characters are God and Jonah.

            Jonah, the stand in for humanity is an unwilling prophet. Jonah is not unwilling because of fear, but out of hatred. God is sending Jonah to preach repentance to the people who Jonah knows will bring destruction to his people, that the audience of the story knows will succeed in wiping them out. Jonah wants God to destroy the Assyrians, and Jonah believes that if he can get out of preaching repentance to them, then God will be trapped in God’s own desire to see justice done. Jonah, like so many did before him, and like we do today, was trying to trick God into doing what he wanted.

            Yet, the whole arc of the story shows Jonah being pushed to Nineveh even despite his opposition. When Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life by ship, storms prevent him. When the storm blocks one path, Jonah seeks to drown to avoid his call, but a great fish comes and prevents his escape once again. Somewhere in the despair of the ocean, Jonah comes to terms with what God has given him, but not for the reasons we would want him to. He takes up his call, he goes and preaches to the city, and camps out on a hill nearby, because Jonah is sure that the city will carry on being evil and the city will be destroyed in short order.

            Jonah, the prophet who heard the voice of God, had failed to listen to the city he was preaching to. We are told that Jonah made it at least a day’s journey into the city, a city that was three days across. Though the story does not tell us whether he carried on through the city or not, it seems likely that Jonah stopped traversing the city at this point. The halfhearted, spiteful prophet was not willing to give any more time to these people he actively wished to see destroyed. Even as he walked back out of the city, he began planning how he would watch it burn. Even as he left the gates, he failed to hear the decree of the king calling the people to repentance.

            You see, Jonah, like we do, was sure that God would only speak against the people of Nineveh if they were truly beyond repair. We see in something we dislike or that we know to be bad, an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation and recovery. God, thankfully, is more creative than we are. God, in relenting, in changing God’s mind, is ready to take something like Nineveh and give it a new lease on life, because God knows there is power in grace and in forgiveness, power that is greater even than the most wrathful anger of the divine.

            Throughout scripture God is described as, “repenting,” and “relenting,” of wrath. When judgment comes to a people, God can and does remove the penalty of that judgment. These are treated the same way that a person may forgive another person, albeit often on a grander scale. The language of, “relent,” as is used to describe God in this passage can be translated as, “consoling oneself,” or, “being sorry.” It is the same language used for when God regretted making humanity before the flood. The king of Nineveh, in his prayer is essentially saying, “If we repent of our evil, perhaps God’s heart will soften, and God too will repent – not of evil, but of anger.” Repentance, turning around, changing direction, would here suggest God is not only ceasing to do harm but even blessing the people who have repented of their sin.

            The people who were once completely against God, now they had a chance to go even beyond simply avoiding what is bad but stepping into the goodness of God. The people of Nineveh were not just being spared; they were being saved from themselves. Fasting, covering themselves in sackcloth, these were all outward signs of an inward change. God set out to destroy Nineveh, Nineveh saw the coming wrath and turned around, God likewise transformed punishment into opportunity – the people had a chance for real change, for a relationship with the God of the universe.

            The paradox of Jonah is that God sets out to destroy Nineveh, but God also sends Jonah to save the city through his preaching. The prophet sees the intent of God’s actions immediately – God is loading the deck against the destruction of the city; God is actively working to make sure that the availability for mercy overcomes the need for judgment. God wants to be convinced the city is worth sparing, more than anything God wants to change God’s own mind about the necessity of violence against creation. God desires that not even a single soul should perish, but that all people might be saved.

            When we begin considering God’s righteousness in judgment and God’s righteousness in offering mercy, we inevitably get a headache. It seems on one hand that for God to be absolutely merciful, God must give a blanket pardon to all people on Earth, thus showing the absolute power of mercy. Likewise, our mind looks at all the evil of the world and we say to ourselves that God would be equally justified in destroying much of if not all humanity. Life is rough, and oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed both by the need for forgiveness to manifest and for justice to burn.

            I, personally, do not envy God in looking at the world. To see in every person the best and worst parts of humanity and then to have to balance in tension wrath and mercy and in all things show your incredible love for all things. There are times I do not know how I feel about the people in my own life, unable to discern them as mostly good or bad in how they interact with the world, I could not do this with seemingly infinite numbers of people throughout history. Yet, God looks at humanity and loves it eternally, yet God chose the ultimate expression of mercy in giving the Son – a member of the eternal triune divine – to live a life we may model and die a death that sets all of us free.

            Ultimately, the paradox of God in Jonah, in all of history, in all matters of mercy and justice, is that God is not the binary switch we imagine God to be. God is not at one moment a burning cloud of anger and then the next a gentle breath of peace. God is simply God, the eternal being who manifests in our life as blessing, as goodness, as love. There reaches a point in trying to understand how God acts in history where no words are sufficient. No wonder then that the Hebrew Scripture often stops short of trying to explain God’s inner thoughts. We know God seems angry in one moment but may offer peace instead of judgment when the time comes. God, for love of us all, seems to be able to change God’s mind. That is sufficient to know.

            If we know that God is ultimately oriented toward mercy, and if God is even willing to see the worst humanity has to offer enter into the Kingdom of God, then we too must define ourselves by mercy. We are too quick to write people off, too ready to wish ill on our enemies, too poised to see God wipe out those we have imagined are not part of the world we inhabit. For Jonah this meant first running away from his call to save hundreds of thousands of people, then giving up part way through doing his work. That the book concludes with God chastising him for his hardness of heart should not surprise us.

            Let us be enthusiastic in our quest to be merciful. When the opportunity to get to know those we have written off comes up, let us take it up with a smile and with hope about what that chance might bring. When we find ourselves wishing evil on other people, let us remember God sparing Nineveh and let go of that anger. When we want to give up part way through the difficult walk toward reconciliation, let us out do Jonah and make it to the end of our work before we decide whether or not the trip was worthwhile.

            Love is the greatest mystery we are shown in life. Mercy is love which we show one another when times get hard. That God’s mercy is baffling to us should not be surprising. Yet, it offers us the example of how conflicted we can feel. Anger, disappointment, regret, all these valid feelings can come out of conflict we have with one another. However, they should not overcome our faculties for mercy, peace, and love. Repentance is hard, working with people who just don’t get it yet is hard, the whole business of living a good life can be overwhelming. Thanks be to God that in his works at Nineveh, on the Cross, and in our own lives, we are continually shown it is all possible. Changing hearts and minds, that is the business of God, and sometimes it seems that business can be turned inward. Let us work to change our own minds and to seek peace with all those around us. – Amen.

            Jonah is a goldmine of strange and fascinating instances of God’s mercy and human selfishness. Nineveh, the city which Jonah is called to preach to, was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Within a handful of generations that empire would rise up and destroy Jonah’s kingdom of Israel and reduce its sister kingdom of Judah to a vassal-state. The Assyrians, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, were not interested in maintaining any semblance of normalcy in their conquered kingdoms. Once a nation fell to Assyria a large chunk of the native population was transplanted elsewhere in the empire and replaced with another group from another conquered territory. While Babylonians exiled dignitaries to help with administration, the Assyrians exiled thousands to stamp out resistance and cultural identity from their conquered territories.

            Assyria was ruthless, and yet somehow it became a place that, we are told, God was willing to work salvation. As we have discussed previously when looking at the book of Jonah, the book itself is a historical fable. While Jonah was a real prophet active in Israel, the exact events of this book are a narrative which provides a clear example of the sort of work he engaged in. The comparison between the book of Jonah and George Washington’s cherry tree remains apt – the story is not itself a 1:1 history of an event but is meant to tell us something about the characters in the story. In this case, those characters are God and Jonah.

            Jonah, the stand in for humanity is an unwilling prophet. Jonah is not unwilling because of fear, but out of hatred. God is sending Jonah to preach repentance to the people who Jonah knows will bring destruction to his people, that the audience of the story knows will succeed in wiping them out. Jonah wants God to destroy the Assyrians, and Jonah believes that if he can get out of preaching repentance to them, then God will be trapped in God’s own desire to see justice done. Jonah, like so many did before him, and like we do today, was trying to trick God into doing what he wanted.

            Yet, the whole arc of the story shows Jonah being pushed to Nineveh even despite his opposition. When Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life by ship, storms prevent him. When the storm blocks one path, Jonah seeks to drown to avoid his call, but a great fish comes and prevents his escape once again. Somewhere in the despair of the ocean, Jonah comes to terms with what God has given him, but not for the reasons we would want him to. He takes up his call, he goes and preaches to the city, and camps out on a hill nearby, because Jonah is sure that the city will carry on being evil and the city will be destroyed in short order.

            Jonah, the prophet who heard the voice of God, had failed to listen to the city he was preaching to. We are told that Jonah made it at least a day’s journey into the city, a city that was three days across. Though the story does not tell us whether he carried on through the city or not, it seems likely that Jonah stopped traversing the city at this point. The halfhearted, spiteful prophet was not willing to give any more time to these people he actively wished to see destroyed. Even as he walked back out of the city, he began planning how he would watch it burn. Even as he left the gates, he failed to hear the decree of the king calling the people to repentance.

            You see, Jonah, like we do, was sure that God would only speak against the people of Nineveh if they were truly beyond repair. We see in something we dislike or that we know to be bad, an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation and recovery. God, thankfully, is more creative than we are. God, in relenting, in changing God’s mind, is ready to take something like Nineveh and give it a new lease on life, because God knows there is power in grace and in forgiveness, power that is greater even than the most wrathful anger of the divine.

            Throughout scripture God is described as, “repenting,” and “relenting,” of wrath. When judgment comes to a people, God can and does remove the penalty of that judgment. These are treated the same way that a person may forgive another person, albeit often on a grander scale. The language of, “relent,” as is used to describe God in this passage can be translated as, “consoling oneself,” or, “being sorry.” It is the same language used for when God regretted making humanity before the flood. The king of Nineveh, in his prayer is essentially saying, “If we repent of our evil, perhaps God’s heart will soften, and God too will repent – not of evil, but of anger.” Repentance, turning around, changing direction, would here suggest God is not only ceasing to do harm but even blessing the people who have repented of their sin.

            The people who were once completely against God, now they had a chance to go even beyond simply avoiding what is bad but stepping into the goodness of God. The people of Nineveh were not just being spared; they were being saved from themselves. Fasting, covering themselves in sackcloth, these were all outward signs of an inward change. God set out to destroy Nineveh, Nineveh saw the coming wrath and turned around, God likewise transformed punishment into opportunity – the people had a chance for real change, for a relationship with the God of the universe.

            The paradox of Jonah is that God sets out to destroy Nineveh, but God also sends Jonah to save the city through his preaching. The prophet sees the intent of God’s actions immediately – God is loading the deck against the destruction of the city; God is actively working to make sure that the availability for mercy overcomes the need for judgment. God wants to be convinced the city is worth sparing, more than anything God wants to change God’s own mind about the necessity of violence against creation. God desires that not even a single soul should perish, but that all people might be saved.

            When we begin considering God’s righteousness in judgment and God’s righteousness in offering mercy, we inevitably get a headache. It seems on one hand that for God to be absolutely merciful, God must give a blanket pardon to all people on Earth, thus showing the absolute power of mercy. Likewise, our mind looks at all the evil of the world and we say to ourselves that God would be equally justified in destroying much of if not all humanity. Life is rough, and oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed both by the need for forgiveness to manifest and for justice to burn.

            I, personally, do not envy God in looking at the world. To see in every person the best and worst parts of humanity and then to have to balance in tension wrath and mercy and in all things show your incredible love for all things. There are times I do not know how I feel about the people in my own life, unable to discern them as mostly good or bad in how they interact with the world, I could not do this with seemingly infinite numbers of people throughout history. Yet, God looks at humanity and loves it eternally, yet God chose the ultimate expression of mercy in giving the Son – a member of the eternal triune divine – to live a life we may model and die a death that sets all of us free.

            Ultimately, the paradox of God in Jonah, in all of history, in all matters of mercy and justice, is that God is not the binary switch we imagine God to be. God is not at one moment a burning cloud of anger and then the next a gentle breath of peace. God is simply God, the eternal being who manifests in our life as blessing, as goodness, as love. There reaches a point in trying to understand how God acts in history where no words are sufficient. No wonder then that the Hebrew Scripture often stops short of trying to explain God’s inner thoughts. We know God seems angry in one moment but may offer peace instead of judgment when the time comes. God, for love of us all, seems to be able to change God’s mind. That is sufficient to know.

            If we know that God is ultimately oriented toward mercy, and if God is even willing to see the worst humanity has to offer enter into the Kingdom of God, then we too must define ourselves by mercy. We are too quick to write people off, too ready to wish ill on our enemies, too poised to see God wipe out those we have imagined are not part of the world we inhabit. For Jonah this meant first running away from his call to save hundreds of thousands of people, then giving up part way through doing his work. That the book concludes with God chastising him for his hardness of heart should not surprise us.

            Let us be enthusiastic in our quest to be merciful. When the opportunity to get to know those we have written off comes up, let us take it up with a smile and with hope about what that chance might bring. When we find ourselves wishing evil on other people, let us remember God sparing Nineveh and let go of that anger. When we want to give up part way through the difficult walk toward reconciliation, let us out do Jonah and make it to the end of our work before we decide whether or not the trip was worthwhile.

            Love is the greatest mystery we are shown in life. Mercy is love which we show one another when times get hard. That God’s mercy is baffling to us should not be surprising. Yet, it offers us the example of how conflicted we can feel. Anger, disappointment, regret, all these valid feelings can come out of conflict we have with one another. However, they should not overcome our faculties for mercy, peace, and love. Repentance is hard, working with people who just don’t get it yet is hard, the whole business of living a good life can be overwhelming. Thanks be to God that in his works at Nineveh, on the Cross, and in our own lives, we are continually shown it is all possible. Changing hearts and minds, that is the business of God, and sometimes it seems that business can be turned inward. Let us work to change our own minds and to seek peace with all those around us. – Amen.

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