Four and half hours ago I rolled in from Blacksburg, VA where I’d spent an evening with a friend—one of the very few get-togethers we’ve had since our seminary days. I arrived in Hokie-town early—not unusual for me since I like to get the lay of the land and feel that I have some sense of my surroundings. With time to spare I popped off my clergy collar at a restaurant door, entered the restaurant, ordered a “shrimp hoag’ boy,” a glass of water, and a St. George Pilsner. My brain slipped into a haze as I was pulled into a re-run of Bones. That soon changed.

One saw me take off my collar at the door. And just like that…here come the people. Here they come with their stories.

One thing about wearing black with a white clergy collar—–one never wants for company. As the evening unfolded I was visited by three spirits—-all so very Dickinson-like. One met me by my stool, another at the restaurant’s door, and later another mistook me for a “promise-keeper” at the entrance to section 8 of the Hokies’ basketball arena. Here come the people—–all with their stories, and most of them “shame stories.”

A common thread ran through the tales of all three spirits—“If they keep doin’ what they’ve always been doin’, they’ll keep getting what they’ve always gotten.”  I doubt their time with me will draw them into a church, but maybe they’ll turn.

To one of the spirits I listened intently, framed and posed to them the sentence “about gettin’ what you’ve gotten” as a question, then fell quiet—-for I went to VA to watch a basketball game. Speaking of which——the “Hokie Nation” knows how to make Western VA reverberate when they proclaim the shout—“GO HOKIES!” There’s no missing of the message. Their shout cuts right through the surface chatter.

And that really gets to the point of Jonah 3:1-5, 10 which goes like this:

The 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. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 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.   

(text from the NRSV)

I am a die-hard Bama fan so I am not sayin’ that God pulls for the Hokies, but I am sayin’ that God, through Jonah, proclaimed a Hokie-like message that cut through the surface chatter. God’s proclamation brought Nineveh to a halt. The people stopped “business as usual,” and took God at God’s word. And if we fast -forward through this text to land in the last chapter, we’ll  see who is the subject of the text, particularly in the verse that says, ” I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Gracious…merciful…slow to anger…abounding in steadfast love…ready to relent from punishing….the Book of Jonah is about….God not people. The entire short narrative is about God and God’s activity. And we get lesson after lesson in repentance & forgiveness, one sobering tender lesson right after the other. And it all hinges on the activity of God in v. 10, “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 repented. God saw repentance and God repented.

Don’t think God repented? Look a little closer, starting first with the King James Version, then with comparing it to the Hebrew text:

And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.   (KJV Jonah 3:10)
    וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת-מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם, כִּי-שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה; וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת-לָהֶם–וְלֹא עָשָׂה.
Two words in the Hebrew used in v. 10 are forms of “shuv.” This word, “shuv” means “turn.” It is an active word for making an “about face.” To repent is to turn, which is to make an about face..Nineveh makes an about face. God makes an about face. No one kept doin’ what they’d always been doin’,” except for maybe God, who’d intended to all along be, “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Nineveh does not run out to the Judaica Mall and buy a menorah, challah, and make steps to go to Temple. Nineveh simply turns.
God does not echo in thunderous tones toward Nineveh, “Convert,” or, “Come to Jesus!” God simply turns.
Maybe a message that humans might take from Jonah is this—–“God turns, so should we.” (and maybe no hysterics or wild altar calls are required on our part)
We might also take Nineveh as an example to mean, that no one is beyond God’s mercy—so all can simply turn.
This repentance (“turning”) business is simple. Just turn.
The message that cuts through the surface chatter seems clear—-“God is, ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.'”
“Make no bones about it,” if we claim the title, “people of God,” then we are called to be gracious and merciful just like our God. ‘Tis true. Seems worth considering.
Happy Preaching!
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