If you pay attention to the liturgical year, you know that we are still in the season of Epiphany. At first reading, I wondered what the story of Jonah has to do with Epiphany. Upon further meditation, I saw that it is a revelation of the grace of God in the most unexpected places– at the ends of the known world, from Tarshish to Nineveh. To put it bluntly, God shows up in his mercy in the most distant, damnable places. Jonah in his flight from God and Nineveh in its depravity discovered the answer to the question at the heart of Psalm 139, “Where can I flee from your presence?” Nowhere! That’s the Epiphany message of Jonah 3.
That Epiphany didn’t make Jonah happy. Indeed, what happened in Jonah 3 made Jonah furious, as we read in Jonah 4. Of course, Jonah 4 is outside our reading for today, but if we want to hear Jonah 3 in all its challenging power, we must pay attention to its context.
It strikes me that Jonah’s rage at Nineveh’s repentance and God’s relenting matches the mood in the US right now. The prevailing emotion of our painful time is not fear or sadness; it is anger, wrath, rage at the other side. In this climate, the other side of the aisle is not just a worthy opponent, but a mortal enemy, a demonic force that deserves to go to hell. That’s how Jonah and his countrymen felt about Nineveh. And that’s why he was furious when God relented in his dealings with those damnable people.
Indeed, that’s why Jonah ran away from God in the first place; as Jonah 4:2 says, he knew God might forgive those monsters in Nineveh. When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah fled as far as he could from God. But you can’t run from the God who controls storms and big fish. From one end of the Mediterranean to the other, God pursued Jonah, and Jonah ended up right back where he started, with the call of God, in Israel.
That’s where the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” This time Jonah obeyed, sort of. He went to Nineveh, but I wonder if he carried the message God gave him. I’ll say more about that in a moment, but I understand why Jonah might have edited God’s message a little. Nineveh was a terrible place, the capital city of Assyria, a nation that symbolized overwhelming and ruthless power of empire. Israel had been a victim of Assyria’s brutality when they were conquered and deported out of the Promised Land, stripped, shaven, with fishhooks in their buttocks. Nineveh had made life hell for God’s chosen people.
Now here is Jonah marching into the cursed capital city of cruelty with a message from God: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That’s just 5 words in Hebrew. Nineveh responds with complete and universal repentance and belief in God. How could that have happened? Which God did they believe? Jonah never even mentions God in his message. And he never calls them to repentance. I wonder if the writer of Jonah left out part of the message or if Jonah himself edited out everything except the threat of judgment because he didn’t want them to repent and turn to God. He just wanted them to go to hell.
Or perhaps, as some scholars speculate, the surprising response of the Ninevites can be traced to Jonah’s expulsion from the belly of the great fish. These scholars point out that the main god of the Assyrians was Dagon, a fish god. Perhaps word of Jonah’s fish taxi had reached Assyria, and they saw Jonah as an emissary from their own god. Or perhaps they could quickly discern that he was an Israeli, whose God the conquering and deporting Assyrians knew very well.
Or perhaps the God of Israel simply over-rode Jonah’s blunt message of doom and moved the Ninevites to repent and believe. The God who sent the storm and the fish could also send his Spirit to move even these damnable pagans to change their hearts and their ways.
I’m speculating all over the place here to explain the unexpected response of the Ninevites, because they did what the Israelites never did in response to all the words of the other prophets. Contrast the stubborn response of Israel to its prophets, as summarized in Jeremiah 18:11, 12, with the submissive response of wicked Nineveh: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, and put on sackcloth.” Their pagan king joins the repentance with an amazing speech: “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” With that, he casts himself and his people on the mercy and compassion of a God he doesn’t even know.
A famous preacher once told me that there is one prayer God always hears, no matter who prays it: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Sure enough, God hears the plea of the Ninevites and does just that. Well, he didn’t just hear their plea; he also saw their repentance exhibited in changed lives. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
Several important points jump out of those words. First, merely using that famous plea for mercy does not guarantee salvation. It is all too possible to mouth the words without a corresponding change of heart and life. Repentance must be sincere (cf. II Cor. 7:10,11).
Second, the king’s question reminds us that God is free to respond in judgment or in mercy; “Who knows?” God is not compelled by our prayers; his grace is sovereign. So, we may not presume on his mercy.
But, third, we must not assume that a threat once issued will automatically come to pass. God is free to change his mind, to relent, to “repent” in response to our repentance. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “relent” is shub, the classic word for repentance in the Old Testament. Yes, this challenges the classic doctrine of God’s immutability, but it does fit so many texts in the Old Testament that we can’t ignore it. Perhaps immutability has to do with God’s unchangeable will to save the world, including those whom God has threatened to punish terribly.
And fourth, this text demonstrates just how wrong Marcion was. That ancient heretic claimed that the God of the Old Testament was radically different than the God of the New, so we could ignore the Old Testament. That God was angry and punitive and nasty, with no redeeming graces. Not so in Jonah. Or in many other places.
That’s what made Jonah so angry. He assumed that because “those people aren’t my people, they can’t be God’s people.” And he was wrong. He should have known better, given how he had ended his prayer from the belly of the fish. “Salvation comes from the Lord.” That’s the message of the Old Testament and the New. It’s the message we see coming to fulfillment in Christ who came because of God’s love for the world.
What’s more, Jonah should have known how extensive God’s mercy was, given how God had dealt with Jonah’s resistance to God’s call and his flight from God’s presence. That response should have landed him, not just at the far edge of the world, but in a place of God’s eternal absence. Instead, God pursued him, provided for his rescue, reinstated his calling, dealt with his unholy anger in deep patience, and stayed with the prophet even he wallowed in God-criticizing depression. Even though we never hear a word about Jonah’s repentance, God stuck with him in mercy and compassion.
The story of Jonah was a corrective to Israel’s understandable, but ultimately damnable nationalism and racism. Yes, God loved Israel in a special way, but God always intended to bless the world through their special relationship with God. Even when they were despitefully used by their enemies, God had a bigger plan to save the world. The story of Jonah reminds Israel of that wider plan.
This story is also a corrective to our contemporary divisions. Callie Plunket-Brewton summarizes that corrective eloquently. “Jonah challenges the perspective of the righteously indignant to put aside moral superiority and take on the character of God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Cycles of violence and blame can only be broken where mercy is extended. The only way forward for any of us is to demonstrate the same mercy that has been offered to us.”
Thomas Carlisle wrote a little book of poems that convey the message of Jonah better than any giant commentary. For example, this poem entitled “Tantrum” captures Jonah’s response to God’s mercy.
The generosity of God
Displeased Jonah greatly
And he slashed with angry prayer
At the graciousness of the Almighty.
“I told you so,” he screamed,
“I knew what you would do,
You dirty Forgiver.
You bless your enemies
And show kindness to those
Who despitefully use you.
I would rather die
Than live in a world
With a God like you.
And don’t try to forgive me either.’
Another poem, “Coming Around,” is a heartbreaking summary of the story.
And Jonah stalked
To his shaded seat
And waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
For a host of Jonah’s
In their comfortable houses
To come around
To his way of loving.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Commentary