“God Changed Their Minds”

“God Changed Their Minds”
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 ; Mark 1:14-20
Rev. Katy Bedford
January 21, 2024

I started teaching Confirmation classes two weeks ago. Stephanie and I wanted to make sure we had a Confirmation class this year because we have so many students eager to learn. So far, we’ve had two lessons together. Our curriculum “Big God, Big Questions” asks certain questions to help the students prepare for being confirmed in the church. The first question on night one was “What is Confirmation?” Ya okay that makes sense. The second question was “How do we know and trust God?” Huge question. A follow up question: “Do you believe God cares about you and is involved in your life?” This question encourages us to think about examples from our lives where we have seen/felt God’s presence. Most of the students had ready examples and seemed somewhat confident until…a new question from a fellow student: “Does God really listen?” In the world today, it is hard to know. We lift up our voices and they do not seem to go beyond our own walls.

The story of Jonah gives us a narrative to help us understand these questions…or at least gives us enough to stew on it. “How do we know and trust God? Does God really listen? Is God really involved in our lives?”

As a prophet, Jonah’s role was to proclaim the words God gave to him. He was a mouthpiece for the Lord. We do not know much about Jonah except that he was called Jonah son of Amittai in 2 Kings 14 and, of course, he has a whole book of the Bible named after him. Jonah was from the northern kingdom of Israel and prophesied in the mid-eighth century BCE. The city of Nineveh and God’s wrath for them is described vividly in the book of Nahum. Nineveh was described as a wicked city. According to Nahum, God speaks judgment against the city for all its evil ways and was written shortly before Nineveh was conquered by the Babylonians. Jonah is the counterpart to Nahum which contains hope rather than destruction and was written much later.

The book of Jonah is unique among the prophets. It is a narrative that tells the story of a prophet’s experience instead of telling us what the prophet was given to say. In fact, Jonah says exactly five words in Hebrew which translate to this, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Another interesting thing about this book is most of the other prophets, excepting only Elijah, prophesied strictly to the Israelites. But God sent Jonah to speak to a city full of Assyrians (who were Israel’s enemies).

The book of Jonah leaves most scholars clueless when it comes to origin. It is diverse in genre and theology and difficult to date. Most scholars have agreed at the very least it was written after the city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, had fallen, which was in 612 BCE. The best part about all this is that because scholars have essentially decided that Jonah cannot be “figured out” they have begun appreciating it for what it is: a portion of scripture that can offer us great insight into the character of God and God’s role in our lives. The passage of scripture I read today from chapter 3 is the part of the book of Jonah which is meant to give hope to us, the readers.

We may have all heard the story of Jonah but I want to make sure we put this message in the right context. For a long time, I thought the story ended with Nineveh being saved. Yay! Happy Ending! Surprisingly, Veggie Tales is where I learned otherwise. In 2002, Veggie Tales made their first movie. Up until then, they had just made episodes about various stories from the Bible. Here is a synopsis for you (of the Bible story, not the movie).

God came to the prophet Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh to speak against it because their wickedness had become too much. Jonah tried to escape from this task. Perhaps Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid of the Ninevites. Who were these Ninevites? They were Assyrians and Nineveh was the capital and main city of the Assyrian empire under the King Sennacherib.[1] They were gentiles and did not worship the Hebrew God. They were known for their violence toward humans and animals and it is fair to assume that Jonah would be scared of them.

Or, perhaps, Jonah was running from God. The funny thing about Jonah running from God is that Jonah knew who he was running from: “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (Jonah 1:9).” The Psalmist puts it this way: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence (Psalm 139:7)?” The answer is inevitably nowhere. There is not one place on earth or in the heavens or in the depths that God is not. So why on earth did Jonah think he could flee? I can just picture God watching Jonah flee and thinking, “Really Jonah? Now I am going to have to come after you.” During his escape attempt, Jonah was taking a ship in the opposite direction of Nineveh to Tarshish. A violent storm comes upon Jonah while traveling and he gets thrown overboard. The words of Jonah in this chapter make it clear that Jonah is aware God is in charge of this storm. After being thrown overboard, the storm resolves and the ship’s gentile crew begin worshiping God. Jonah is rescued from the depths by a big fish that the Lord sent. He survived in the belly of the fish for three days which he used to repent and thank God and then the fish spit him out.

This is where our scripture picks up. God told Jonah again, using the exact same words as in the beginning of the book, to go to Nineveh and proclaim what God told him. We don’t even know what God had told him until verse 4 but Jonah listened this time. When Jonah arrives at the city, we are told that the city is three days’ walk across. Wow! Jonah better get going because that would be a long way to go. An emphasis on the size of the city is certainly meant to catch our attention. The book mentions several times how “great” the city is. Why would the author emphasize the size of this city? Was it to clue us in on the vastness of the consequence of destroying or saving this many people? Was it to let us know how far Jonah was expected to walk? I believe it is a mixture of these. Saying that the “great city” of Nineveh was a three days’ walk across meant there was a lot at stake.

Jonah, however, decides to forgo this long journey and gives the message on the first day. The normal ritual for ambassadors or visitors with a message during this time was supposed to take three days. The first day was for visiting with the king, the second day was for the announcement, and the third day would include finishing business and an escort out. Jonah was supposed to head straight to the king and tell him the message. But Jonah did not wait.

The message was nothing spectacular but the Ninevites responded extremely quickly: 8 words in English, 5 words in Hebrew and the people were going through full rituals of repentance. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” To us overthrown does not pack the punch that a word like “destroyed” would. However, to these Ninevites, the word used in the Hebrew is the same word used to describe what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. If I were a Ninevite that knew about Sodom and Gomorrah, which was probably a tale many of them had heard, I would take this announcement seriously. I would not want to let that kind of destruction come upon my city. That is all it took. Fortunately for Jonah, the city heeded his half-hearted decree. In fact, the king immediately began to perform the proper ritual of repentance, donning sackcloth and sitting in ashes, as the entire city was called to do the same in addition to a mandatory fast. God saw their response to these words and they changed God’s mind. God was moved to mercy.

After seeing God relent and turn from destroying Nineveh, Jonah must have been overjoyed right? Wrong. Jonah was mad. Jonah became angry that he had come all that way for nothing. I am not sure what God had in mind for Jonah after this Nineveh business but it appears Jonah did not care and did not even want to go on living. Here we have an Israelite prophet pouting because the lives of thousands were spared. Jonah could not see this big picture. All he could see was his little pity party that he had come all this way for God to change his mind.

Disregarding the fact (for a moment) that Jonah is disappointed because a vast amount of people were allowed to live, let’s put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes. Jonah felt like the past weeks/months of his life were wasted time. His job did not bring about the result he wanted. I think I can speak for most people when I say that we have all felt failure at one point or another in our lives. Failure can cause us to feel anger, resentment, sadness, dejection. Poor Jonah. God takes mercy on him and causes a plant to grow to shade Jonah while he is sitting on a hill overlooking the city, feeling like a failure. But God does not allow Jonah to sulk for long, God takes away the shade and attempts to get him back on his feet. We do not know if Jonah gets back on his feet.

Our response to God’s mercy and love matters. The Ninevites responded in haste. They had a sense of urgency. Jonah dragged his feet every step of the way. God gave Jonah chance after chance to come out of himself and see the love that God gives. Jonah says to God, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. That is why I did not want to go in the first place.”

We can use both the Ninevites and Jonah to look at God’s presence in our lives and our own responses to God. I am sure we have all reacted in a multitude of ways to God’s call. We may get frustrated, we may run away, we may be disappointed at a miracle, or we may take the chance we are given and change. God used Jonah to deliver a message to a whole city full of the most unlikely individuals. Yet, the whole city repented. Just think how much of a better place it was to live and visit. Just think what a better world it would be if we would all be willing to respond to God’s mercy when it presents itself.

God does not need us to completely fulfill everything asked of us but asks us to try. No message would have been given in Nineveh had Jonah not eventually agreed to go. God made Jonah a part of his plan for a city of thousands of people. God took Jonah’s miniscule and rebellious participation and turned it into a salvation act.

The ending of our passage tells of God’s changing of mind. God changes from making Nineveh a second Sodom and Gomorrah and gives them another chance to treat one another right. The fact that God showed so much concern and mercy towards gentiles is probably shocking to those who first heard this story. But we have a vantage point in history that allows us to see that God involved “foreigners” in many of his plans and eventually sent a Savior for all of us, not just the Jews. Because of our vantage point we can see Jonah in an even clearer light than those who were around at the time of the story. We know that Nineveh does eventually get destroyed by the Babylonians and that Jerusalem does as well. No one is saved from their destruction. However, the destruction of these two great cities does not end the story. It begins a new one. One that begins much later with a small child. One that begins with a strange man shouting to a couple of fishermen saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

If we look at how involved God was in the life of Jonah, we can take heart and know much about God’s faithfulness. We are called by one that is merciful and wild, one that is loving and fierce, and one that controls the entire universe and knows every choice we make before we do. Jonah reminds us that God’s call is both not easy to follow and the easiest thing in the world.

It matters how we respond to God. When we are summoned, let us participate in the continuous creation and transformation of God’s kingdom. God changes minds and hearts. We only need to respond. Whether we are Jonahs or Ninevites, God meets us where we are; even pursues us.

About Rev. Katy Bedford