Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10When 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.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts on the scripture today be acceptable to you O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Jonah had a show-down with God. He received his first calling and immediately ran away to sea. There was no way on earth he would go to the capital of the Assyrian Empire (when it all but destroyed Israel in the first place) and preach God’s word to THEM. So he ran away.
All the elements of Creation partner with God; event after event happens as the entire Creation pursues Jonah on God’s behalf; including a very large fish that eventually swallows Jonah up for a time before he relents, prays, and the fish vomits him back up onto dry land in order to go to Nineveh and proclaim the Word of the Lord to them as he has been asked.
All this for one sentence of proclamation: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he preaches. That’s it? That’s all God wanted him to do? That is the shortest sermon in all of Hebrew scripture! And he still ran away?
I can imagine, maybe, that being singled out like that by God might just be a little overwhelming. Frightening, even. Why would God, the Creator of the Universe, take notice of lil’ ole’ me and want me to do much of anything? I’m just a nobody, a regular Joe Schmoe. Why me, God? Have any of you ever asked that question?
We will never know for sure what was going through Jonah’s mind when he ran away, but we do know when he finally did what he was supposed to do, the effort he expended on behalf of the city of Nineveh bore healthy fruit, fruit with an amazing consequence that rocks the world of academic theology to the core. The Ninevites heed their warning, and in so doing God’s mind is changed.
Jonah proclaims the city’s destruction, walking from one end to the other of that ancient seat of knowledge, commerce, and power, to tell of the Lord’s message. Then something extra-ordinary happens: the people of Nineveh believed God! Scripture doesn’t say they believed Jonah, it says they believed GOD! Like they were already primed for the message. It wasn’t just a weird foreign prophet standing on a street-corner. It was more of a Paul Revere ride – a quick, one-line warning as he rode through town as fast as he could go to get his job over with. But the people believed God, and “they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. … When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind….”
Jonah, of course, goes off and sulks because God spares them. Jonah would just have preferred that Nineveh be destroyed.
Lutheran Commentator Katheryn Schiffendecker writes, “Here’s the thing…all of us have found out about following the call of God in and through the waters: God is God and does not act as we think the Almighty should act. In good faith, we follow where we hear God’s call, we go to the city, or the suburb, or to small town and rural America, and we are prepared to bring God’s word to that place, and what we find is that God is already there before us. We find that no people, and no place, not even Nineveh, can properly be called God-forsaken.”
I would submit to you that it is the same even when it is not a physical place at all that we find we are called to go. It can be our own experiences of life, our own places of deep despair, or our own wounded minds and hearts. No matter how far we feel we are from sanity or joy, God is already there before us!
That is the lesson we learn from the other half of our Scriptures. In Jesus Christ we have a sure friend who walks with us through the valleys and leads us again to the mountaintops for a time before again bringing us into the valleys where we are entrusted once again to bring God’s word. If the valley gets to dark and we begin to sink, even unto the depths of the sea, even if we are swallowed up by the great fish that lives in the deep, even there when we call out to God in prayer, God hears us and will respond. God may not grant us the answer we want, but believing God will lead us through it, knowing that God walks with us still even unto our own cities of Nineveh, in faith may we boldly go forth into the unknown.
Let us pray: Lord, we don’t always know the answers we seek, nor do we know your mind, which is so far different from our own. We don’t always heed the inner prompting of your spirit, and sometimes we even run away. Bring us back into your embrace and hold us in the palm of your hand; find the faith we need to let you guide us once more. Remind us that you know the plans you have for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future. Help us to listen closely and respond. Amen.