Toorak Uniting Church

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Jonah 3
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
8 am, 1 May 2005

For those of you who have missed some or all of what has gone before:

The word of the Lord has come to Jonah, his prophet. Jonah is to go to Nineveh, a city full of wickedness that is in bad need of some prophesying against it.
Jonah does not want to go because, as becomes clear in chapter 4, he suspects God will refrain from giving the city the punishment it deserves and forgive them.

To get away from his commission Jonah heads in the exact opposite direction as to where God has called him to go and boards a ship going to Tarsish. He descends into the hold of the ship and goes to sleep. While he sleeps a storm rises and the ship gets into difficulty. Woken by the captain Jonah confesses his sin, and urges the mariners to throw him over board. After much hesitation they do. Jonah is then gobbled up by a big fish from the deep, and spends three days in the belly of the fish, praying for deliverance.
After three days the fish spits him out on a beach and that is where we start our reading today: With Jonah fresh from the fish, with the seaweed still wound around his head, his clothes dripping……..

I would like to remind you that it is a story we are reading here, most probably not based on any historical fact, but given to us by God to teach us. It is there for us to recognise ourselves and the situations we get into and help us to find ways to live our lives more according to God will.
So here is Jonah, on the beach, with the memory of his salvation still fresh in his mind.

His refusal to do as God asked has first landed a whole ship load of people into trouble and then brought Jonah himself close to the gates of hell (which were supposed to be under the sea somewhere). And now he gets a second chance.

Have you ever been offered a second chance like that? And how did you go? Did you do any better the second time?

Well, Jonah decides to set out for Nineveh and do as he has been told.

Well, nearly……

That Jonah’s obedience still comes from a very reluctant heart is made clear when he reaches Nineveh. One day’s walk and 5 Hebrew words is all he can manage before he heads back for the hills outside the city to await what will happen.

Jonah does the job, but only in a very minimalist sort of way. He walks in, he says a few words and walks out again. There is no passion, no real effort, no dedication to get the job done right, there is not much of a drive discernable.

Are you familiar with the feeling? Is God, and what he asks, is God and what he calls us to live, is God and his church, is being part of the body of Christ, sharing the good news of God’s love and grace at the top on your agenda? Or are you also trying to get away with only half, or even a third, of 100% effort, like Jonah was?
There are so many other, more important things to do, aren’t there! And God, and his calling out to us to do justice, bring peace and live love is just so very inconvenient at times!

Anyway. 1/3 of the city receives some preaching at least……
The effect is amazing!
As soon as he cries out his "40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" the people of Nineveh believe God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, puts on sackcloth. Instant conversion!

Any evangelist would envy Jonah the impact of his message. Minimal input, maximum result! Isn’t it all a bit too easy?

The King, one of the last to hear goes completely over the top: No human beings, or animal, herd or flock shall taste anything, they shall not feed nor drink water and human beings and animals shall be covered with sack cloth and cry out mightily to the Lord is his command. Even the animals are to be part of it: Every pet dog in Nineveh is to howl to the Lord, every cow to low as loud as they can and turn from their violent and evil ways.

Because who knows? God may relent and change his mind.

The King exaggerates, of course, but it is to give expression to his desire to turn everybody and everything around in his city and for everybody and everything to focus on changing God’s mind before the 40 days are up. He calls on all of creation to help him in his effort to change Gods plans for destruction.

I think most of us would get a bit suspicious at this point. Wait and see if these miraculous and instantaneous conversions will take root. Let them sweat a bit and see if they keep their repenting up….

Not so God. As soon as they turn around God turns around also. As soon as they repent, God repents too.

And he does not bring upon them what he said he would bring upon them……

Gods love is that strong, his trust in our ability to change and do better that big. At the first sign of improvement he wholeheartedly turns to receive his people with open arms.

Jonah does not like it one bit. He is incredibly angry. He can’t live with a God that does not punish the wicked. He cannot live without the comforting certainty that in the end justice will be done and God will see that things are put to rights.

And it is, when you think about it, a tall order. Not to crave justice, not to desire punishment for those who have done evil, even when they repent and make a big show of their repentance at that. Torturers, abusers, child molesters, war criminals, exploiters, or even that one person who did something to you that hurt and damaged you deeply.
Wouldn’t you want them come to justice?

It’s not only Jonah who has trouble accepting God’s generous grace, it is us too. It’s hard to deal with when it is readily given to people you feel do not deserve it in anyway and whose repentance to you looks suspiciously fast and easy.
It may sometimes be hard to accept that God loves the world so much that he’d rather be disappointed a second or even a third time than to refuse grace to someone who may be sincere. That second and even third chance is there for all of us. Even for the people we find it hard to forgive. God’s love and forgiveness take priority over justice is what the book of Jonah teaches, for us, but also for others.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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