Jonah: Concise Prophet
© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Jonah 3:1-10, 4:1
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2012
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk.
And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
This is certainly not the portion of Jonah that we think about most often. Where is the boat trip that Jonah took to get away from the call of God? Where is the big fish that swallowed him up when the sailors tossed him overboard? Is something fishy going on here? Well, no, those parts of the story occured in the first two chapters of Jonah. If you missed them, well, there are printed sermons available in the office! Today’s lesson gives us a start on the rest of the story.
This portion of the story gives us the entire prophecy that Jonah delivered to the Ninevites in just eight words. Eight words – This has to be the shortest prophecy in all of scripture. He didn’t even bother to start with “Thus saith the Lord...” His prophecy probably marks him as the most concise prophet in the history of prophecy. And they were words totally lacking any hint of hope or help:
Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!
The reason there is no hint of help or hope is that Jonah did not want to offer them either one, help or hope. So he gave them only the bad news side of God’s declaration of judgment. It’s likely that he hoped and prayed for all he was worth that God’s judgment would simply come to pass, that Nineveh would be destroyed, along with everyone in it. That’s just how the p[eople of Israel felt about Nineveh.
But then came the shocking response! Based on no more than eight words from a reluctant, angry prophet, the entire city – described several times as great and big – everyone from the king down to the livestock is pictured as filled with sincere repentance for all their evil. It was the very possibility that Jonah dreaded, knowing, as he did, that God is merciful. It was this result he knew to be possible but hoped would never come to pass:
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.
God changed his mind? What does it mean for the creator of all the worlds there are to “change his mind”? This can be a disquieting thought for us. What does it mean to confess belief in a God who would do that? There are two things about this divine change of mind that intrigue me. One is that God’s mind changed at all. How is it that this happens? The other is Jonah’s response to the change that comes over God.
First, to the issue of God’s changing mind. Does God’s mind change? Do you believe this to be true? Does the very idea sound comforting or threatening? Apart from the question whether the idea that God has a mind which is any way similar to our minds might be just too anthropomorphic, what would it mean to us that God’s mind could change? One thing we know, this idea of the changing mind of God is not unique to the story of Jonah. In Exodus, God peered down from the mountain where he and Moses were huddled around the tablets of the law, and noticed the newly freed Israelites dancing around the golden idol they had made. His anger burned against them, and he declared that they would be destroyed on the spot. But Moses pleaded with God, saying,
“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people...” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Jeremiah, that Old Testament prophet who was so close to the spirit of the New Testament, was the authority who spoke most frequently to a disbelieving people about the hope that still resided even in their damaged relationship with God:
“But if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it ... but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.”
The Psalms also are laden with laments that suggest petitions may be addressed to God without regard to the way things appear. The Psalms are filled with examples of prayers for relief from a God who the psalmist obviously hopes will change his mind.
How do we account for the fact that so many Bible passages suggest that yes, God’s mind does change? Is this idea a comfort to us or not? The only way I know to account for it – and this does suggest that the changeability of God could be a comforting thought – is by reflecting on God’s constant desire to be in relationship with people. If we know anything about relationships, we know that healthy ones are those in which both parties to the relationship take each other’s participation in the relationship seriously. It appears that Jonah and the psalmist and Jeremiah all believe that is what God does. God takes us seriously, even when we don’t appear to deserve it. If we refuse God, God is refused, if we acquiesce, God is obeyed, and God apparently allows for that. But apparently God is willing to make some adjustments for our reluctance.
God changed his mind? This might be a frightening thought if we take it out of context. So, as one preacher said, “Don’t take it out of context. Here it simply means that God can be moved.” As the Ninevites turned to God, God turned to them. God desires relationship, and will move toward it, taking our part in it seriously.
This makes Jonah’s part in the whole little drama all the more amazing. While we may always have thought that God never changes, that God wasand is immutable, immovable, and – like preachers on our off days – incomprehensible, we probably also thought that people are likely to change with every alteration in wind direction. Not so Jonah. In this story, the human protagonist demands the right to keep his opinion intact no matter what. Clearly, knowing God’s steadfast love as he obviously did, Jonah knew God was likely to be merciful with the Ninevites, and he wanted no part in it. Never mind that God desired their rescue, their transformation, the very idea that God could love these people judged Jonah’s firm opinion that they were not worth saving. So he demanded the right not to change his mind, no matter what the desires of God might have been in the matter.
And it strikes me that oftentimes we are Jonah. Most of us carry around inside our heads whole lists of people whom we believe in our secret moments to be quite beyond the rescuing love of God. It frustrates us to learn that God loves these others as unequivocally, as fully as God loves us. And that is because if we really believe in this all-encompassing love of God, we might find it necessary to change our own minds about others we may have judged unfit for fellowship in the kingdom. Better to go off to sea, better to be swallowed by a big fish and die than to have to be in community with those whom God cherishes but whom we despise.
The unchanging mind in this story, as we’ll reflect on it more next week, is not God’s as we might have thought, but Jonah’s. And, if we are often honest with ourselves, the unchanging mind can also be ours. In the end, God will have spent more time working to redeem Jonah from the prison of his own rigid hatred than he did rescuing the Ninevites. How ironic, that the prophet of the very people chosen to be a light to the nations should spend so much time trying to extinguish that light!
Jonah wanted nothing to do with relationship, not with those people!
Now might be the point in this sermon when the preacher is expected to bash the congregation with a list of folks that we often overlook, that we judge, and do not welcome. But why do this? We all know who they are. And chances are good that they are a bit different for each of us. One of the underlying currents in many church quarrels has to do with differing ideas about who is and is not an appropriate candidate for membership in the kingdom. Years ago, I remember phoning a person about another church member whom he had once seemed to like but later abandoned as a friend. The former friend was crushed. I called the man to encourage him to go to his old acquaintance and rekindle friendship. The response was, “Forget it! He is such a pain. Who needs him?”
That sounds to me a lot like Jonah’s angry response to God’s mercy for the Ninevites. The fear that lay at the base of his reluctance wasn’t in announcing the words God had given him, but in the knowledge that those words would inevitably be just the prelude to relationship. And Jonah wasn’t about to engage in relationship with those people. I recall that someone once declared that when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it made all the sense in the world. What sense would it make to say, “Love your friends”? It would be like saying, “Breathe the air” – How could you not do it?
God changes toward us because he so desperately desires to work a transformation in us. It can happen. We ought to be glad that it can happen. That way, some day when we find we must don sackcloth and ashes, perhaps we will be able to say with the king of Ninevah, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” It is hope worth nurturing anyway.