Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Commentary

Sometimes actions have surprisingly pleasant results.  A soccer players weakly strikes a ball that ricochets off a defender and into the goal.  Or a chef blends guacamole, tuna fish and lima beans into a recipe that somehow turns out to be delicious.

Other actions, however, have surprisingly unpleasant results.  With perfect form a basketball player launches a three-point shot that a defender swats into the bleachers.  Or a chef buys an expensive piece of meat that turns out to taste like a car’s balding tires.

Yet the results of actions may never have been more surprising than those of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh.  After all, among other things, each person in Jonah 3 at least starts as good as dead, spiritually if not physically.

Jonah certainly had been as good as dead.  In fact, it really doesn’t matter if some big fish actually swallowed him or not.  A person’s heart and brain may be going a hundred miles an hour.  But he’s basically spiritually dead if he’s deliberately rebelling against God’s good and loving purposes.

Yet do you ever wonder if Jonah 3’s preacher suspects he’s inhaled too many whale fumes?  After all, no sooner does the great fish vomit him out than he starts hearing a familiar voice and message again.  God, using the same language Jesus later uses to call dead people from the tomb, tells Jonah, “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim …” Just where has Jonah heard that before?  At the beginning of his story (1:1).

Yet while Jonah is no more in love with Nineveh than he ever was, he at least seems to have learned his lesson.  Instead of again running away from God and Nineveh, the very reluctant prophet walks straight toward God’s will.

Jonah 3 invites those who proclaim it to explore with hearers just what their own “Nineveh” looks like.  Craig Barnes, to whom I’m indebted for some of this Commentary’s ideas, suggests it’s that place you and I would rather avoid.  Our Nineveh is not, as Barnes points out, the place we dreamed of landing in.  It may even be a place that hope seems to have abandoned.  But it’s the place to which God sends God’s adopted sons and daughters.

After all, even if our Nineveh doesn’t realize it, it belongs to God as surely as we do.  It may be a bad or even evil place.  But God longs to save our Nineveh’s as surely as God longed to save each one of God’s children.

God assignment for Jonah is quite simple: “Preach what I tell you to preach in Nineveh.”  Though the narrator doesn’t tell us what God tells him, he at least hints that it’s good news.  Yet we can hardly imagine Jonah tells Nineveh what God wanted him to say.  There’s little grace in his blunt message that’s just five words long in the Hebrew.

Of course, God hates the brutality that characterized Nineveh.  So we imagine both the prophet and the book’s original audience hoped Nineveh would simply ignore Jonah so that God could finally just destroy it with the back of God’s hand.

God, however, refuses to quickly give up on Nineveh.  While God relentlessly promotes justice, God doesn’t enjoy the destruction of even the most wicked person.  So God rejoices when Nineveh hears God’s word, believes it’s true and acts as though it will be destroyed unless it changes its ways.

If God’s adopted sons and daughters ever needed a reminder that it’s not about our teaching, witnessing, or even us, we get it in our text.  After all, Jonah’s less-than-inspiring sermon takes hold, off and wing all the way to Nineveh’s palace.

God isn’t, after all, just gracious and patient.  The God who created all that is created by the power of God’s Word and raised Jesus from the dead is also powerful.

The Nineveh’s of those to whom we proclaim Jonah 3 may also seem spiritually or emotionally dead.  But God sends God’s people to our family, home, workplace, neighborhood or gym anyway.  “Proclaim to it the message I give you,” God still tells you and me.

Of course, God’s “preachers” sometimes feel like we have a mouthful of marbles.  We stumble over our words.  We know our lives are less than a walking advertisement for the God whom we proclaim.  We don’t have all the answers for Nineveh’s hard questions.  Or you and I may not be so sure we want our Nineveh to experience God’s mercy.

Those who proclaim Jonah 3 can take heart.  Our witness can’t be any more boring or half-hearted than Jonah’s.  Yet God uses it anyway.  After all, God, as a colleague notes, can and often does hit straight shots with crooked sticks.

But look at whom God’s grace hits.  Not just Nineveh’s ordinary citizens, but also Nineveh’s king who engineered much of the brutality that devastated Jonah’s world.  That king stops issuing decrees of violence and starts issuing a decree of repentance.  He also challenges his subjects to join him in turning away from evil ways and towards a life lived according to God’s good purposes.

“Who knows?” the king poignantly adds in verse 9.  “Maybe God will respond to our turnaround by changing God’s mind about us.  Maybe God will quit being angry with us and let us live.”  Yet while Nineveh’s king can only hope God will change God’s mind, God does change God’s mind about Nineveh.  What God said God would do to Nineveh God doesn’t do.  God graciously spares her.

God’s changing of God’s mind may be a frightening concept for people who take it out of context.  It may make God’s adopted sons and daughters wonder if God will arbitrarily change God’s mind about us.  Those who proclaim Jonah 3 need to help our hearers see God’s changed mind about Nineveh for what it is: a gracious if mysterious display of how God can be moved.

As the Ninevites turn to God, God graciously turns to them.  In fact, God turns toward Nineveh long before she turns to God.  God withholds God’s punishment until after Nineveh has a chance to hear God’s call to repent.  In our eagerness to have God know everything, we sometimes leave little room in our imaginations for such divine 180’s.  Yet by doing so we limit what we imagine God can do.

However, both those who proclaim and those who hear Jonah 3 might also consider this: when God changes God’s mind, it’s always in the direction of life.  So God’s people don’t have to worry about God arbitrarily changing God’s mind about us.  After all, God’s love is secure because it depends not on people’s goodness, but on God’s unfailing mercy.

Yet this raises questions about God’s children’s readiness to welcome the people into the life of the church about whom God changes God’s mind.  Jonah wasn’t ready to welcome Nineveh into God’s family.

God’s adopted sons and daughters still claim we want to reach all people.  We even claim we want the world’s Ninevites to turn to God and come and join us.  But what if they do?  What if, for example, people with lots of body piercings and tattoos chose decide to join us?  What about those whose sexual or political orientation doesn’t match ours?  If we preach repentance that one day takes hold and they show up in our local churches, then what?

Who wants that “Ninevite” neighbor who abuses his wife and children to experience God’s grace?  Maybe not God’s people, but God does.  Who can turn that “Ninevite” co-worker who is serially unfaithful to her spouse from her evil ways?  God’s people can’t, but God can.

Who wants “Ninevites” who grew up in the Church but now openly defy God to rise from their spiritual death?  Since God does, God invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to do the same.

Illustration Idea

In his October 3, 2015 blog, “Review of ‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’,” Bruce Charlton notes, “The playwright and poet Charles Williams was one of the four main Christians of the mid-twentieth century Anglican revival, which was the most recent significant Christian revival in England (the others were CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers, who were all friends and very strong admirers of Williams).

“So I have the highest regard for some of the novels and his theology… [Yet] Williams was in love with Phyllis Jones, and … had a warped kind of interaction with Lois Lang-Sims, and … there were other rather vague rumours about ritual magical-sadism with others – the sheer extent of Williams’s activities along these lines was never before clear … CW [also] had intense love relationships with both his main biographers Anne Ridler and Alice Mary Hadfield …

“The fact is that Williams did not repent these activities – indeed he specifically states at one point that he did not repent the extra-marital affair with Phyllis – that he indeed regarded repentance of this sin as a temptation; one that he had been strong enough to resist …

“Williams’s theology is one which really has little or no role for repentance, because he is always trying to discern the unity of all experience; and the ways in which apparent evil is actually good …

“I tend to think that repentance is almost the essence of Christianity, and this means that there really are things that need to be repented – in other words, sins. For any traditional Christian there was a great deal about Williams’s sexual life that was very obviously sinful and needed to be repented – and his refusal to repent it amounts to a denial of its sinfulness, and an implicit assertion of its virtuousness – which amounts to a far worse sin than the original transgression.”


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