(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
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.”So 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.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then 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. Human 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. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 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.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
I was talking this week with Alina, our wonderful office manager here at the church, about this morning’s sermon. Alina, as you may know, has a Master of Divinity degree from the great Candler School of Theology, and like many young graduates of seminary, she shared with me that Jonah was her favorite book of the Bible. It’s been some time since I’ve read all of Jonah, which isn’t hard, really. It’s only four chapters. But I had that the book of Jonah is really hilarious. It’s a farce. It’s a ridiculous story.
I mean, here, in a nutshell, is the story of Jonah. Are you ready? Here we go.
God calls Jonah one day and says, go to the city of Ninevah, which has turned evil, and put them on notice. And Jonah, having heard the voice of God, promptly gets up and buys a boat ticket to Tarshish, which is the opposite direction, as if he can outsmart and outrun God. And the storms come and knock the boat about, and all the people on the boat look at Jonah and say, “this is your fault, because you are trying to outsmart God and that doesn’t really work,” and they figure they’d be better off with him off the boat, which makes pretty good sense to me, and they throw him off, and immediately—immediately!—the seas calm and everything goes back to normal and everybody is happy again.
Except Jonah isn’t so happy because not only does he have God after him, but he’s been thrown off a boat in the middle of the sea, and if that’s not enough he gets swallowed by a fish, inside of which he spends three days and three nights, and he literally prays to God about the seaweed he has wrapped around his head. I told you: this is a farce. After three days, the fish spits him out, and Jonah decides not to press his luck, so he goes on to Ninevah and spends three days telling everybody he sees that they’re all going to be destroyed by God. … But when the Ninevites change their tune and repent from their evil ways, the Bible says, God changes God’s mind and decides not to destroy them.
And it is at this point that Jonah decides that the most embarrassing part of this whole story isn’t the part where he prays with seaweed wrapped around his head, but the part where it turns out that he was wrong, or to be more technical, God sort of sold him out. God said, I made up my mind to destroy the city, but I changed my mind, and now Jonah looks like a total loon, like one of those guys on tv who shows up every now and again declaring the end of the world is going to come on such and such a date, only to have dozens of interviews to decline the morning after it doesn’t happen.
And so, because he looks like a crazy person, instead of rejoicing that this city of 120,000 people won’t be destroyed, Jonah goes and pouts. He goes outside the city gates and makes himself a little hut and sits underneath it and pouts, and this all feels very familiar to me because I have a two year old child. And that’s actually the end of the story. The story of Jonah doesn’t really resolve beyond God calling Jonah out for pouting, because of course what Jonah is doing is saying that it is much more important that I not feel like a fool than it is for God to spare a hundred and twenty thousand people. As I said, it’s ridiculous. It is a farce!
But if it is a farce, it is also much closer to modern life than we’d like to admit. We like people to get what we think they deserve, and when they don’t, we pout. We pout. I mean, how much have you heard about Tom Brady’s footballs this week? It’s silly. I’m not saying it is right. I am just saying it doesn’t matter. Here we are pouting about something silly and ignoring the real needs under our noses. I think it is telling that while the culture obsesses about underinflated footballs, we’ll be going outside after church huddle up and pray that human traffickers are intercepted.
As a culture, we really do get so caught up in the idea that people should get what they deserve, we pout so much, that we miss God at work! But there is another dynamic in this passage that we need to pay attention to, for the story Anna read this morning carries within it this strange verse, one of the strangest in all the Bible: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
God changed God’s mind. If ever there were four words that could shake up the foundation of the church, those would be them. God changed God’s mind. It almost doesn’t make any sense, like it’s a typo or something, but here it is, in the Holy Bible. God changed God’s mind. I’ve heard it was a woman’s prerogative, of course, but I guess it’s God’s prerogative, too. And of course God can do whatever God wants. That’s what makes God God. If you were to come up to me on the street and ask me, what is the definition of God, I’d probably say something like, “the ultimate being, the one who is not bound in any way.” So of course God can do what God wants.
And this makes intellectual sense, of course, but it doesn’t jibe with so much of how we understand God! “Great is thy faithfulness, O God our Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
It’s a common thread throughout all our hymns, this idea that God doesn’t ever change. We have built so much of our theology on this idea that God doesn’t change, and I get it, I really do get it! My life is so full of change, all the time, faster and faster and faster these days that I need my God to stand still! I need to be able to look back and see God still there, in the same place as always, so that I have a landmark from which to understand my location. I need God to be like the North Star, my point of reference for navigation.
And yet here it is, God changes God’s mind, and you don’t even really need the last two words for it to be revolutionary. The important part is the first two words. God changes. What a revolutionary idea. God changes.
You know what this all reminds me of? It reminds me of being in love. I hope you have had the opportunity to be in love in some point in your life, but it changes you, that kind of love. In fact, unless you are vulnerable, unless you are open to change, it isn’t love at all. You have to be vulnerable to love, to offer up part of yourself, to open yourself to new things, new revelations, new intimacy. This is what it means to love: to share part of yourself with another and open yourself to being shared with. To be open. To be vulnerable.
And this is what God did with the Ninevites. God saw their ways were evil, but they turned around, they repented, they changed their ways, and God was moved. God was moved. What a revolutionary idea, but what a wonderful one, what an incredible thought, that God so loves us that God could be moved by us. Moved.
It makes me wonder why we don’t take our relationships with God more seriously, why we so focus on rules and regulations that we miss out on the richness of God’s love for us. And it makes me wonder, too, about what it means about the nature of God that God changes God’s mind. If God changes God’s mind, if God changes, what does that mean for us? How can we know? How can we know navigate life?
It would be easier, in some ways, if God were static, if this whole thing were just about rules, because at least then we wouldn’t have to worry about this kind of stuff. But I have been thinking a lot about this dynamic this week, as I have tried to make some sense of this particular story in scripture, and I have to tell you, I am giving thanks that God changes. I am grateful. Let me sort of back up for a minute and share why.
It should come as no surprise that the world is changing awfully quickly these days. The internet means we can communicate with people all over the world in an instant. If you aren’t here today, you may be listening to this sermon on our church podcast. The most recent generation is the most diverse in American history. The church, my God, the church, looks much different than it has looked in the past and if it is going to continue to thrive, to be faithful to God’s call, it is going to have to keep changing.
And here’s the thing. You have heard, I think, the quote that the only constant in life is change? It is a quote that certainly rings true these days but one thing to note is that it was said by Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BC. This has always been the case. The world has always changed, and perhaps it changes more quickly nowadays, but change is not new. It is not even necessarily bad; not at all! Change means possibility, and possibility is the midwife of the Holy Spirit. Change is the way in which God continues to work in the world, and maybe the work of God looks different than you expected, different than you have experienced before, but this is how God works! God changes, always keeps up with the world, so that we are not worshiping some dusty relic from thousands of years ago. We worship a God who is rooted in history but who is with us now! Who loves us now! Who understands that there are in fact two constants in life: change, and God’s love, and that those two things are not distinct, incompatible features of life but in fact, in many ways, the same feature, for you cannot love without changing. Love requires vulnerability, giving of yourself. And besides, we see throughout scripture that while it is the case that God sometimes changes God’s mind, it is always in the direction of mercy. Always in the direction of grace. Always in the direction of love. And just like God was moved by the repentance of the Ninevites so long ago, so too do we pray God is moved by us, by our repentance, by the ways in which we show love.
Now, it may sound strange to consider the idea that in love, God changes, but I don’t even think that’s as hard as we sometimes pretend it is. Yes, God is sovereign, yes, God is ultimate, but I don’t think we have a problem with thinking about the ways God loves us. We know that God loves us. That’s not really much of a problem. The problem comes in how we respond to God’s love. The problem is that if we were to try to find ourselves in this story, we probably wish we were like the Ninevites who repent and experience God’s grace, but it is more likely that we are like Jonah, who sees firsthand that God’s grace and love is much more powerful than even a decision God has made to destroy the city, and yet all Jonah can do is pout. And I don’t think we’d necessarily say it quite this way, but the implication is clear: how could God do that? How could God show grace to that group of people who I am so certain don’t deserve it? Here I am, Jonah thinks, having done the right things and followed the rules and spent so much time in church that I have worn an indention into the pew the exact size and shape of my rear end, and yet God makes me look like a fool by acting in brand new ways that don’t look like anything I’ve seen before! I mean, this comes straight out of scripture! When God decides to be more merciful than Jonah thinks he should be—and in Jonah’s defense, it is more merciful than God originally says God is going to be—Jonah goes to the desert to sulk and says to God, “at this point, you have made me look like such a fool that it would be better for me to die than to live.”
It is so silly, this idea that Jonah would sulk over the breadth of God’s love, but it is also so real because we aren’t beyond it ourselves! When God shows favor to somebody we don’t like, or when we show up after having lived by the same rules for years and years only to find that God has changed the game, when God changes God’s mind, we’re prone to sulk, to whine, to pout. I’ll just speak for myself; I am, myself, not above this kind of response.
And yet for all of this, for all of this wrestling and confusion and frustration at trying to understand a God who, in the final analysis, operates in a way that is beyond comprehension, for all of this, it is a lie that the only constant in life is change, for there is another constant. The other constant is God’s love. And when we feel like the rug has been ripped out from underneath us, when things change, when what we thought we knew blows away like dust off an old book, that is when God is with us! For we worship a God who understands change, who—we read in scripture—even experiences change.
Look, I’m not saying this is easy stuff. I’m not saying it is easy to live in a world of constant change. I’m just saying that God knows what it is like. God knows and loves. On days when it feels like the old handrails are gone, hold onto that. Hold onto that. In the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.