Today we are back looking at our friend, Jonah. In Chapter 1 of the book of Jonah, we meet up with this unlikely prophet as he receives instructions from God. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it.” (1:1-2) Which Jonah flat out does not do. Occasionally God’s prophets will come up with excuses…Such as Jeremiah who said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The more persistent Moses states, “Who am I to go to the great Pharaoh in Egypt in order to rescue the Israelites?” Jonah, however, doesn’t bother with excuses. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction toward the far-off city of Tarshish. The prospect of bringing God’s words to the very large, very wicked, very non-Jewish city of Nineveh is too much for Jonah. So he heads to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish hoping to get as far away from both Nineveh and God as he can. Don’t you think that Jonah knows deep down that he really cannot run from God?
In the familiar story, the ship that Jonah is on encounters a mighty storm. The other mariners quickly figure out that Jonah is the cause and he is hoisted overboard. The storm stops as Jonah descends into the deep. Willing to die, if necessary to escape the presence of the Lord. Yet God, as so often happens, has other plans. He sends a gigantic fish to swallow up Jonah and Jonah is inside the fish for three days and nights. During our second week with Jonah we explored the depth of misery within which Jonah found himself and in which we sometimes find ourselves. What a dismal place, a place of hopelessness and despair. Yet we also remembered that even in that place of despair – there is God and there is hope. That was the week we watched the clip from Veggie Tales where the asparagus angels sang, “God is a God of second chances.” They sang – “if you believe God’s word is true then you should know what you should do.” We affirmed that when we are ready to repent, to give up our self-centeredness, when we are ready to place Christ at the center we find ourselves rescued from despair and immersed in the deep love of Jesus Christ. The final verse of chapter two says, “then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”
That’s where we begin today, in chapter 3. So far, the focus has been on Jonah. This week we pan out to include the Ninevites. The people of the world that Jonah does not want to involve himself in. The inhabitants of the city that Jonah was willing to die to avoid. Perhaps this chapter is very appropriate on this World Communion Sunday, as we consider our brothers and sisters around the world and as we see many instances of exclusion and a spirit of unwillingness to be involved in situations where others are hurting, a spirit of divisiveness. Perhaps we will find something in this chapter that gives us a deeper understanding of God’s vast love and care for all people and all creation.
Our very first week with Jonah we learned that the book of Jonah is not really about a fish, or about Jonah, it is about the nature of God. Jonah is a story of the power of repentance, and even more importantly, it is a story about the boundless compassion and mercy of God. In this chapter 3, the key thing we learn is that divine forgiveness is given to those who repent. Repent really means to change your mind. You change your mind from thinking you have all the answers, you change your mind from thinking you know what is best, from thinking that you are in charge and you believe that what God says is true. You believe and you trust. You trust and obey. Chapter 3 is about the power of repentance and about God’s desire to give everyone, not just Jonah a second chance. It is about the miraculous things that can happen when we change our mind and turn toward God.
So, Chapter 3 opens with God speaking again to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah responds and goes. Once he finally arrives in Nineveh, Jonah follows God’s orders and begins his walk through the great city shouting, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Now, there is something important to note here about prophets. A prophet is only deemed a success if what they say comes true. So Jonah is proclaiming what he fully expects to have happen – the destruction of the evil city of Nineveh. He fully expects and anticipates this to happen. He wants it to happen. He speaks not as a prophet who hopes for change, but with righteous indignation toward the people of Nineveh. But there is a big surprise in store. Jonah makes it only partway into the city – one day’s walk – and the wicked Ninevites both “great and small” take Jonah seriously and put on sackcloth (which is for mourning or humiliation) and begin to repent. Next we witness something notable, we witness the power of the people to bring about change, the power of the people to come together and to influence the powerful. For, once news of all of this reaches the king of Nineveh – he does not scoff, he does not belittle the people, he does not call them names, he doesn’t make fun of or humiliate them. No! He rises from his throne and covers himself with sackcloth, too. What happens next might be a little overkill because he declares that everyone, even the animals are to wear sackcloth and fast. The king himself becomes a sort of prophet declaring, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind.” (3:8b-9a)
So the people of Nineveh believe and repent, and “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (3:10)
Those singing asparagus angels from week two were right, our God is a God of second chances. God desires to give everyone, even the undeserving, a second chance. He longs for us to change our mind and turn toward him so that we can receive divine forgiveness. It is a powerful thing, rooted in love. The power of repentance, of a changed mind, wasn’t just meant for the Ninevites or for the ancient days – it is meant for today, now, here. Meant not just for us but for all, for anyone.
I wish I could say that Jonah was happy with the outcome of his proclamation. But he was bitter – his success as a prophet, remember, depends upon Nineveh’s destruction. Search your heart this morning, is there anyone that you are embittered against; whom you do not believe deserves the forgiveness that God offers to those who come to him seeking mercy? Anyone you hold bitterness toward? Who you resent? This is where we will find Jonah next week in our concluding chapter of Jonah. But I encourage you today to bring that name before God, bring it to the communion table and place it, place yourself in God’s capable and merciful hands. For our God is the God of forgiveness, the God who hears those who earnestly call, the God of mercy and compassion.
Let’s pray: O God, we bring to you our hurts, our longings, our sins, our faults and we give them to you. We long to turn from our old ways, old habits, old thoughts, old hurts and to embrace your forgiveness. How sweet it is. How amazing is your grace. How deep is your love for us. Thank you Lord!