We’ve heard our First Reading from Jonah and we probably know something about him and a fish so to give you the big picture here are a few verses from each chapter that tell the whole story.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord … 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 … When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 1:1-3,17-2:2;3:3a, 4b,5,10;4:1,2 ESV)
“Say what you mean.” “Do what you say.” These are phrases that refer to people’s desire for life to be clear, ordered, consistent, understandable. That way we know where we are in the scheme of things. All organisations whether they be tribe, factory, church, family, society, sporting club have certain words that need saying and certain behaviours that need to be met for the good of the group. If you don’t do the right thing, then expect the consequences. That’s the way life is in the world.
Students quickly disregard the teacher who says for the umpteenth time, “I’m not going to repeat myself. I repeat, I’m not going to repeat myself”, citizens disregard politicians whose words are governed by the political wind that blows, and even friends and family will disregard loved ones whose words are consistently unreliable. We can imagine shops in chaos if shopkeepers charged people according to their whims rather than according to the price and society in a mess if police and judges acted on the basis of whether they had a good night’s sleep. Words and actions need to have some sort of consistency and reference points so that we can live with some sort of clarity and order and purpose.
And we get particularly disillusioned or upset when people say or do things which are not consistent or according to some accepted order of things and get away with it. We don’t like people getting away with it (unless it’s ourselves!).
So what do we do with this text in Jonah where it seems that God doesn’t mean what he says nor does he do what he says? What does it mean when we find that God changes his mind?
In chapter 3 Jonah has got the message a second time. The first time he got the Word of the Lord to go to Nineveh – to speak against the city – Jonah took off in the opposite direction – not a happy prophet at all. He wasn’t going to give this message (the Assyrians were renowned for their barbarity) and he disobeyed God. God however had other plans and courtesy of a rather big fish experience Jonah learnt that God will work even with disobedient prophets in getting his job done.
So off he goes – to speak against this vast city – and after walking in it for a day – getting its sights and sounds and smells into his system – Jonah starts talking – crying out – “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown”. Now I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a broken record and the only thing he said but notice the direction of his words – an end is coming (which could be both the terminus of life and the goal of life) – we have no account that he listed item by item wickedness and evil – what Jonah pointed to is the question that sits in most hearts that our end is coming and then what? Jonah proclaimed that the time for answering this question was close – no dodging it now. What is the goal of living? Why do we get up in the morning?
What happens next is not Jonah’s doing – in fact when you read chapter 4 you discover that Jonah is angry over this very fact – God’s words are powerful – things happen when God speaks. This time – from peasant to king and they even included all their animals – the city acknowledges this God and wears sackcloth and ashes and turns from their violence and says to one another that perhaps God will change his mind about his fierce anger. I find it interesting that it is the king who says that their actions deserve God’s fierce anger – he is the one who makes it clear that he and his people don’t deserve any reprieve or second chances (a sentiment with which Jonah would agree – “God, they don’t deserve any favours here – they’re Ninevites – just do what you said you’d do to them”).
But then it happens. God sees how they turned from their evil ways and he changes his mind – repents, relents, regrets, μετανοέω (metano-eo) in the LXX – the outcome of which is that just as God didn’t destroy everything with a flood or the people when Moses’ interceded so now he doesn’t bring about the calamity he said he would.
Maybe like Jonah some of us just shake our heads and wonder just what is going on. If God is to be taken seriously then at least he should mean what he says and do what he says he will do. If time’s up, then time’s up. If you’re going to get what you deserve, then get it over and done with. If God is going to have any credibility then there has to be consistency and standards.
To cope with this tension people have come up with various explanations to help God out of looking weak or inconsistent. 1. God knew that they would repent and so he knew that he would change his mind (which ultimately means that God is the puppeteer and totally controls everything which then raises how there can be sin and evil in God’s world which if God is the cosmic puppeteer means that God brought sin and evil into the world so he could be the world’s rescuer). This means that God simply chooses some to save and others he says ‘no’ to. He changes his mind according to his whim and good luck to you if he spots you on a good day.
2. God looks for repentance and when he sees that it is genuine then he acts. Repentance becomes some sort of magical switch – do the right thing and the switch is flipped and you are with God. This effectively puts one’s destiny firmly in one’s own hands and God is just another hoop to jump through – if you want some sort of eternal life – repentance gets God to work. So God changes his mind only if people do the right thing by him first.
Both explanations are logical but these answers offer no comfort or hope. If you’re not chosen by God then he’s not going to change his mind over you then you’re stuck well and truly. And how will you know until the end? And if you think you can get God to change his mind by pushing certain buttons, how do you really know that you’ve done whatever it takes to make God change his mind towards you – can your repentance be ever that sincere and genuine that you never sin again?
Jonah sulked because, as he said in chapter 4, he knew God was gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing (v.2b) and these Ninevites were wicked and according to him didn’t deserve God. What Jonah seems to have missed was that he didn’t deserve God either. It’s easy to talk about others and God but what happens when it becomes me and God – what then?
Maybe we think of good excuses or we hope that God has chosen us or we try and show God that we’re an asset in his heaven or his church (or at least better than 100 other people we can name!). At some point what breaks in on us is that God is sovereign and he can do what he likes with us and that we’re not in his league and we can’t really claim any favours – in reality we’re stuck.
Stuck. Like a man in a garden who spoke to his father and said that there must be another way to accomplish the plan but the father wouldn’t change his mind! And the man accepted the father’s will. He was stuck – on a cross – nailed firm – hanging as a sign that you can’t cross God and get away with it. That’s what people discover at some point – if there’s a God then one day we are going to meet.
And this is when that man comes again to us – they put him in a grave but he broke out of it three days later – and declares that God freely chooses to act graciously towards you – he won’t turn your brain off and make you a robot – people mysteriously can still resist and reject him – but he continues to come to people and forgives them and gives them new life which is lived in faith and experienced in repentance and service – not as ways of appeasing God – but as a lifestyle that daily relies on this grace of God. Jonah was right – you and I don’t deserve God.
And that is something that we need reminding because it is easy for us to think otherwise – and so God continually comes to us through bread and wine – the body and blood of this crucified stuck man – and teaches us repentance and new ways of living for others. He helps us change – attitudes, behaviours, minds, lifestyles – so that we might live.
For Christians all the mysteries of God – the book of Jonah included – his words and his actions find the clearest focus when viewed through the lens in the shape of a cross which declares with piercing clarity both the nature of God and the nature of us. With and in Jesus we best see God – not as mercurial, a changeling nor is his Word to be interpreted by changing fads – but instead everything must come to the cross for clarity. Jonah could never have envisioned what God would do – not just for the people of Nineveh but for all of humanity. God’s grace perplexes and worries people until it hits them and they realise that when it’s for everyone else it especially is for you.
- Jonah 1:1 - 4:2