Jonah 3:1-5, 10
To recap: The basic story of Jonah is that God calls him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh. But he attempts to escape from God’s call by getting on a ship headed for Tarshish, which is in Spain. But God sends a terrific storm from which Jonah saves the ship’s crew by volunteering to be thrown overboard. As soon as he is in the water the storm stops. Then he is swallowed by a big fish and lives in the fish’s belly for three days until the fish vomits him out onto the beach, back in Israel. That’s where we pick up the story this morning. Jonah is laid out on the beach, covered in whatever extremely aromatic slime was in the guts of that fish.
Then God, in effect says, “Alrighty then, let’s try this again.” And we read that, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” This time, Jonah picks his sorry butt off the sand and starts on his way to Nineveh. (Presumably he takes a bath at some point.)
Now, Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh. The Ninevites were not nice people. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that attacked, conquered, and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, dispersing 10 of the 12 Israelite tribes, which are basically never heard from again (unless you’re a Mormon). The Assyrian army was infamous for its excessive brutality. They practically set the standard for barbaric atrocity that was imitated by subsequent empires. Violence like that perpetrated by the Assyrians had really never been seen before. They all but invented genocide and gratuitous mass slaughter.
Jonah probably hated them, with justification. Later he says that the reason he does not want to go to Nineveh is that he is afraid God would be merciful and not punish them. But at this point he has learned through bitter experience that he cannot escape from God’s call. Either you will do what God wants, or God will make your life miserable until you do.
We too board “ships to Tarshish,” as it were. We too try to escape from the demands of God in our life. And if we’re blessed we find ourselves puked onto a beach with another chance.
One of those ways we run away from God is addiction. In Twelve-Step groups for people recovering from addiction, many do not realize their need for healing until they “hit bottom,” as they say. Until you regain consciousness on a deserted beach, or literally in the gutter, having spent the last three days in the belly of a giant fish, or you might say, in the depths of depravity, debasement, destitution, and debilitation, can you really affirm the words of those first three steps: “We admitted we were powerless… [and] - that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”
Jonah, had to admit something like this. He was powerless. His life had become unmanageable. He has no choice but to turn his life over to God in obedience.
Jonah hikes to Nineveh, which is in present day Iraq. It is such a large city that it takes three days to walk from one side to the other. He gets a third of the way inside this metropolis and announces a very simple and direct message: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
The message is one of destruction, retribution, punishment, disaster, and defeat. Nineveh is in for it, says Jonah. He communicates no hope, no way out, no opportunity for repentance, no possibility of reprieve. He just flatly states that Nineveh will be destroyed, or perhaps conquered by come other power, in 40 days. He probably feels pretty good about it, too.
He doesn’t say why this is going to happen. He doesn’t list their many grievous sins, war crimes, economic injustices. He doesn’t list all the people they have killed, raped, or stolen from, or the whole nations they have destroyed forever. He just goes into the city and announces, “God says you’re all toast! Deal with it.”
Then comes the miracle. The people repent. We expect something to happen between verse four and verse five. But, with classic biblical understatement, the story gives us nothing. We are simply told, “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” Word apparently spread like wildfire through the city. We are about to be destroyed! Quick, proclaim a fast!
Fasting, that is, not eating anything, and wearing the very coarse, itchy, ugly cloth that sacks were made of, basically burlap, was a way of visibly and tactilely demonstrating remorse, sorrow, grief, and repentance. The Ninevites express abject sadness and guilt for what they have done. They believe God. They realize that what Jonah said is true, that the city will be overthrown – either by natural disaster or invading enemy – and they understand that they deserve it.
In the verses we didn’t read (6-9), we hear about the reaction of the King of Nineveh. He also proclaims a comprehensive, even ridiculously thorough fast that includes animals! And he proclaims, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.” He identifies the issue as violence. Then he adds sitting in dry dusty ashes to the regime of fasting and wearing sackcloth.
Violence was Nineveh’s addiction. They were masters at extreme violence. This is precisely what the King has the people renounce. And it was like renouncing their very identity, giving up the very approach that created and preserved their empire. Assyria was synonymous with violence and mayhem.
“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 changes his mind. God has mercy on the Ninevites, and forgives them. Or at least God withholds the promised catastrophe and spares their city.
In the book of Ezekiel, God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone.” We do not have a God who is always looking to expose our sin and punish it. God is not about vindictiveness or retribution. God loves us and will jump at any excuse to forgive and spare us. If God can withhold punishment from the Ninevites, one of the most violent and murderous nations that ever lived, surely God is ready to forgive anyone.
What God is looking for is humility, sorrow, remorse, grief, and penitence. God is looking for people to set aside their hubris, self-righteousness, pride, violence, vindictiveness, hatred, superiority, and drive to dominate others. God doesn’t want to hear our self-serving explanations and justifications for our bad behavior. God doesn’t want to hear our lame, smug excuses. These responses only indicate that we are blind and enslaved to our own sinfulness. We are still addicts and continue to draw down upon ourselves and others the destructive consequences of our own actions.
The Ninevites have some sense and presence of mind to realize their situation and respond with some integrity and authenticity to the news that the day of reckoning is coming. They change their ways even though they have no hope of avoiding the punishment which God eventually does not administer.
They do not dismiss Jonah’s message as crazy; they do not fall into denial about what was coming; they do not froth themselves up into a patriotic frenzy – Nin-e-veh! Nin-e-veh! – drowning out the criticism of this unknown prophet from a small, conquered country. They don’t tell him he is just envious of their success and he should go get a job.
Would we be so convicted and penitent, were someone to proclaim the imminent end of our systems and regimes? If our great city faced being overthrown, would we look inward and change our ways, hoping that “God may relent and change his mind; … and turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish”? Or would we claim to be the best and the strongest, and that nothing like that could ever happen to us? Would we proclaim ourselves exceptions to God’s laws?
I am a big fan of disaster movies. Sometimes I think the role of the prophet today is sometimes taken up by disaster movies. A lot of disaster movies have someone like Jonah, who announces that catastrophic destruction is imminent. Usually it’s some kind of scientist. The disaster could be anything: and asteroid hit, floods, volcanoes, super-storms, monsters, a shift in the Earth’s magnetic or gravitational field, earthquakes, disease, or alien invasion. In the formula for these movies, the prophet is invariably ignored, dismissed, or persecuted. I can’t think of a single disaster movie in which the people respond like the Ninevites, with immediate repentance and humility.
Disaster movies are effective because, deep down, we know they are a faithful representation of our attitudes and likely responses. We rarely listen to those who point out the coming disasters that we and our violence have brought upon ourselves. We do not admit our injustices and atrocities. We are much more concerned with sustaining and increasing economic growth – our main cultural addiction – than we are with hearing about its costs and consequences.
What the Ninevites did in repenting in humility, sorrow, and remorse, is almost unimaginable for us.
And yet it is the only way to avoid the coming catastrophe. It is the only way to get out of suffering the consequences of our own violence and injustice. It is the only way to show to God that we really have turned away from all that and chosen instead to live in peace and reconciliation.
Is this not the life that Jesus the Messiah comes to exemplify and give to us? Does he not live in simplicity, walk lightly upon the Earth, reject violence, and practice forgiveness, welcoming inclusion, healing, and generosity? Is this not the life he was calling his disciples to in today’s gospel reading? The people that live like Jesus cannot commit heinous acts of mass murder, or pump poisons into the environment, or be content to see neighbors in abject poverty, or reduce everything to commodities to be bought and sold, or foreclose on people’s homes, or leave people without health care.
The Ninevites would not have fasted or worn sackcloth or sat in ashes forever. Eventually they would have had to resume something like daily life. One hopes that this daily life for them would have been newly informed by their preservation and forgiveness, that they would have gone forward deeply conscious of their responsibility to live very differently from the way they lived before, in violence and injustice. One hopes they would have learned to live more like Jesus.
And I have that hope for us as well. That all may “turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
That is the urgency of evangelism today. Not so much that people might go to hell, but that we have to stop making the world a hell for so many people. We must turn away from violence and live more like Jesus. If we do not we will perish. But if we do, we will have realized Jesus’ inaugural proclamation: “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe the good news.”