Jonah 3:1-5, 10
How Do You Spell Nineveh?
Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m thinking about canceling the “Theologian in Residence” program. I mean, David Preus was fantastic in his three months with us. I am sure that Gracia Grindal will do an equally excellent job when she joins us during the Season of Lent. And last week Jack Fortin shared a wonderful sermon in his first day with us. He told me he was going to pick a gospel text rather than using the one on the weekly insert, and last Sunday, he brought his colorful description of Jesus calling those first disciples, showing them how to catch a big batch of fish, and then inviting them to follow him; it was a great sermon, it was Jack being Jack.
And then on Tuesday morning I sat down and began preparation for this week’s sermon, and it is essentially the same gospel lesson that Jack used! You think Jack didn’t know that he was scooping me? Of course he knew that! And where is Jack Fortin today? In sunny Phoenix Arizona, probably scooping some other poor, unsuspecting pastor. And I’m stuck here…left with the choice of re-doing the text that Jack did last week, or preaching on the story of Jonah. I think I’m going to go with Jonah, and if you don’t like it, you have no one to blame but Jack Fortin.
The story of Jonah begins innocently enough in the Old Testament, with these few words: “One day the Lord spoke to Jonah, son of Amittai. He said ‘Go to Nineveh.'” To us, that sounds like an easy instruction; sort of like God saying “Go to Omaha,” or “Go to Denver.” But to Jonah, God’s command was a curse. Nineveh was a wicked city, filled with 120,000 of the most notorious sinners on the face of the earth. Jonah hated the Ninevites; they were enemies to him, and now God was sending him there to call them to Repent. Jonah does not argue with God; Jonah doesn’t plead his case. He just goes in the opposite direction. Instead of going north to Nineveh, he goes south to Tarshish, gets on tour boat and thinks God is in his rear-view mirror. How foolish.
In a matter of hours, a violent storm develops, and that tour boat is being tossed about like a toy. Grown men are crying, praying to various gods to save them, and then Jonah confesses. “Uh, I think this is my fault. You see, God told me to go to Nineveh, and I said ‘no.'” The sailors have no choice but to throw Jonah overboard, where he is swallowed up by a big fish, and three days later, barfed up on shore. And this is where our First Lesson picks up the story today.
God gives Jonah a second chance; that’s what the verses tell us. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying ‘Get up and go to Nineveh and proclaim the message that I give to you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh.”
Now every parent in this place today is processing this story through the experiences of their own children.
“Hey, Jonah, wouldn’t it have been easier to have just gone to Nineveh the first time God called you?”
“He, Sarah, wouldn’t it been a lot less painful if you would have cleaned your room on Wednesday, instead of being grounded for three days and then doing the job?”
“Hey, Billy, wouldn’t it have been easier to have studied harder before you got all those ‘D’s” and ‘F’s” so you wouldn’t be in such a hole now?”
But God gives Jonah no such lecture; he gives Jonah a second chance, and Jonah makes the most of it. He walks well into the crowded city and proclaims the message that God gave to him. “People of Nineveh, you’ve got 40 days and then God is going to destroy your city.” And amazingly, the people listened, and they believed Jonah, and all the people, from the greatest to the least, repented from their sin, even the King of Nineveh. And God saw what they did, and he changed his mind about them. They too were given a second chance.
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The underlying message of the story of Jonah is multiple choice. For some people, they only know the part about Jonah being swallowed by the fish, and they think it’s a miracle that Jonah survived that wild experience. Others understand that the story is about God’s grace and his desire to give sinful people second, third and tenth chances in this life. Still others believe that the point of Jonah’s story is that we are each called to be prophets; that each is called proclaim God’s loving purpose to everyone we meet so that they can know him.
I think all of these are viable choices as to the point of Jonah’s story; the miracle, the forgiveness, the evangelism. But there is a fourth possibility that I want to ask you to consider today, and it is this; I wonder if the message of Jonah’s story is that every one of us is called by God to go to some sort of Nineveh, and we are fighting it.
Our Nineveh might be a place; a job change to a distant city and you don’t want to go. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds here, but I remember the struggle Royanna Stratmoen had when Todd was offered the position that would require them to move to South Dakota. “Brookings!” Royanna said. “Can you believe that; Brookings?” Nineveh? Nineveh? I’m not going to Nineveh! But to their credit, the Stratmoen’s went, and I think one day they will look back and say “God called us to be here.”
Our Nineveh might not be a place; it might be a people. Perhaps there are neighbors who moved in, or workmates that just joined the company, and they don’t seem like the type of people you want to associate with. Maybe they are people of color, or people of a different faith, or people who have obviously different lifestyles than your own. You’re simply not going to go over there with a plate of cookies and be the Welcome Wagon to those Ninevites. But what if the whale swallows you? What if your life takes a terribly bumpy turn, and you are desperate, and the Ninevites come to you?
Or our Nineveh might not be a place or a people; our Nineveh might be an idea, or a way of thinking. God might be calling you to open up your mind to change your position on something controversial. You think of yourself as “principled” but maybe you’re just stubborn! Like Jonah. Even when you think that God might be nudging you in a new direction, you can’t give up the old; you can’t abandon your very righteous ship. To do so would be to align with the enemy; those Ninevites! It might be your position on the war, or on homosexuality, or on immigration, or on divorce, and you simply cannot change. You think you hold a position on these issues, but maybe the position is holding you.
Or maybe Nineveh is some personal habit, some secret sin that has crept into your life and while you sense God is calling you from it, you don’t want to change. There is a variation of an old bible camp song that says it this way:
Yield not to temptation
Although yielding is fun!
You have yielded and it has felt good. Every time God calls you to Nineveh, you get on a boat and head toward Tarshish. What would it cost you to change your lifestyle? But perhaps a more pertinent question is, what will it cost you to remain the same? Sitting in the belly of a fish, that was the crossroads question for Jonah, and he chose to follow God’s call to Nineveh. Therapists say that there are only two things that can make us change our ways; one is love, the other is pain. And if your choices today are causing you pain or keeping you from love, then perhaps it is time to go to Nineveh.
When Keith and I began this focus on last fall, we assumed that God was calling us into deeper and deeper and deeper water. I had no idea that one of these weeks, God would call us – like Jonah – out of the deep water and on to dry land. That’s what this feels like today. Come to dry land; to the safety and security of a God who loves you and wants you to love and obey him.
Well, you’ve been very kind in listening this morning. You always are. And I feel that our normal pattern is to respectfully listen to the sermon, sing the hymn, and move toward the end of the service. Today, I would ask you to meditate for a time, meditate on where you are and where God is calling you to be. And then decide to go there. This is a holy moment; God is calling each of us to Nineveh. Will we go, or will we stay?
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
©2006 Steven Molin. Used by permission.