Have you ever thought about what God is like? Chances are we envision a God that looks and speaks like us. Our image of God is undoubtedly a God that likes what and whom we like and dislikes what and whom we dislike. Today we encounter the story of a man who was challenged by God to go to a people he disliked and that he believed were not worth saving.
We have a challenging meeting today about something that God is asking us to consider. Some don’t understand, some are excited, some are suspicious. We are being asked to imagine how God might be working in ways we cannot envision ourselves. Like Jonah, we are being challenged to go in a new direction. If we can stay curious to discover how God might shape that vision, maybe we can learn something about ourselves and one another and most importantly about God who calls us to imagine the impossible.
Our lectionary reading today begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” It seems we are starting in the middle of the story. What have we missed? Who is Jonah and what was he asked to do in the first place?
The first chapter of Jonah begins, “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; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Nivevah had a reputation as a vile and evil city. We might miss the complexity of what Jonah was asked to do. In chapter 4, Jonah reveals what he already knew about 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.” Jonah believed these people deserved God’s punishment.
Jonah is not told what the message is that he will deliver in Nineveh He knew God was a God of mercy but he didn’t want the Ninevites to have the opportunity to repent and have God forgive them. If Jonah had looked in the mirror, he might have seen in his own heart, his own lack of forgiveness.
Jonah’s actions beg the question, how much did Jonah trust God? Instead of responding to God’s call in the first place, Jonah boards a ship to Tarshish and heads in the opposite direction. Jonah is not going to Nineveh and makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the Ninevites.
Once Jonah is headed away from a mission he wanted to avoid at all cost, a violent storm arises. Even the mariners are afraid and begin to plead for their lives. Jonah is asleep and not willing to admit his own failures. The ship’s crew drew lots to see who was responsible and the lot revealed that Jonah was at the center of this storm. In response to their questioning, Jonah admits he was fleeing from God.
Today’s scripture in chapter 3, begins with God giving Jonah a second chance “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, proclaim to it the message that I will tell you.”
Without hesitation Jonah goes to Nineveh. His message is simply, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah offers no sense of hope or compassion, only judgment. Jonah delivers God’s message and they listen. The Ninevites all repent, beginning with their King.
When God saw how they repented, God changed his mind and his promise to destroy them. We must see God’s change of mind in the context of this story. “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 can be moved, and nothing moves God like a people who are reshaped by grace.
Jonah was angry with God for that very reason. Jonah thought he was right, the people of Nineveh deserved punishment. Jonah did not understand grace. Maybe there is something more to this than that. Maybe when revival broke out in Nineveh something cherished in Jonah died.
Like all of us, Jonah’s behaviour had been built around core convictions and Jonah’s core convictions had been built around the belief that God rewards the righteous and that God punishes evil. Jonah wanted to believe that God favoured him. And none of Jonah’s convictions could stand up under the weightiness of God’s grace and that is when something in him died.
Dr. Craig Barnes, former president of Princeton Seminary, offers that maybe that is the point of Jonah’s story.The old prophet Jonah was so certain that he was right, so careful to follow the rules, so worried about the injustice of God’s grace, and that is what had to die in him. And maybe it has to die in all of us. Maybe it wasn’t just the Ninevites that needed to be converted. Wherever it is that God calls us to go, whatever it is that God calls us to do, be clear that the calling is for our conversion as well.
God was able to redeem these people as they encountered his love and his grace in spite of Jonah. Is that not all of our story? Somehow God’s message of love and grace prevails. Will we become carriers of that love and grace even when it challenges us to our very core?