A Change of Mind
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, January 24th, 2021
Do you ever finish a book or watch a movie and scratch your head when it is over, and ask: “How can the story end like that?” Or, maybe your reaction is a bit more visceral, as you toss the book or remote and shout, “No, you can’t end the story like that.” Well, one reason I almost never preach on Jonah is that I hate the ending.
Jonah is a short story with a lot of action. Early on, Jonah is called by God to preach to the evil Ninevites. The story does not equivocate about the Ninevites. They are not a poor, misguided, lot; they are evil, hateful, and they do hateful things. And, unlike the Prophet Isaiah who says, “Here I am, God. Send me,” Jonah wants no part in God’s great Nineveh Forgiveness Project. Jonah hates Nineveh and Ninevites, so instead of saying “yes” to God, he books passage on a ship heading as far from Nineveh as he can get, and presumably, as far from God as he can get.
We soon learn that Jonah is embarking on a fascinating, but a fool’s, mission. The story follows Jonah from the ship to the belly of one large fish, with God tracking him all the way. In Jonah, God is a “blessed intruder” (words from John Buchanan), a God who does not let us go, including Jonah, who wishes God would.
Psalm 139 puts it this way:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in [hell], you are there.
This ancient Hebrew fish story has lots of charm and captivating visual images and, so, we often tell this story to our children, at least the charming, captivating parts, like Jonah pitching camp in the belly of a great big fish. As we grow older, though, enthusiasm for the story tends to wane, especially when God takes Jonah by the scruff of the neck and says, “Okay, Jonah, time to head to Nineveh. And, be sure to pack your portable pulpit, because I have a sermon for you to preach.”
Jonah does not pause to thank God for rescuing him from his treacherous travels. At no point is Jonah like ole Scrooge on Christmas morning, recognizing that God has given him a new lease on life. No, even when he has no place left to run, Jonah has absolutely no desire to head to Nineveh. He goes to Nineveh much like I went to church as a teen with my dad saying, “Get dressed. We’re going to church. End of conversation.” So, Jonah heads to a place he has sworn never to go and he preaches to people he has hated all his life. The only sincere part of his sermon is when he promises the Ninevites that God is going to bring them down unless they change course. Then he whispers, “By the way, if you do change course, maybe God will not destroy you.”
What happens next in the story is every preacher’s wildest dream come true and it is Jonah’s worst nightmare happening right in front of him. He preaches and the Ninevites listen. They not only listen; they have a change of mind, a change of heart; they take responsibility for their hateful speech and their hateful behavior. In good, ole, church language, they repent of their evil words and deeds. And, as soon as they do, God does exactly what Jonah feared the most; God has a change of mind, a change of heart.
In this short Hebrew fish tale, the only person who does not have a change of mind, a change of heart, is Jonah. He knows that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”; he knows that God will find some way to forgive this unforgiveable, hateful group of people and God does. When Nineveh and then God have a change of mind, a change of heart, Jonah’s mind and heart are unchanged. He sits under a small shrub and pouts.
In my youth, writing teachers taught me never to end an essay with a question. My preaching professor in Seminary taught me never to end a sermon with a question. The writer of this ancient Hebrew fable probably had similar instruction, but, nonetheless, this story ends with God posing a question to the pouting Jonah. God asks: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
I will not weigh in on whether this or any story or sermon should end with a question, but I wish that the book of Jonah ended with Jonah’s reply to God. Maybe, though, the author realized that he did not need to. Jonah’s answer is obvious. I can see Jonah waving his hand at God in disgust, like Levee does in August Wilson’s powerful play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I can hear Jonah letting God have it: “No, God, you should not be concerned about Nineveh, no matter how many people and animals live there. Not only do they not know their right hands from their left; they also do not know right from wrong nor the Lord God Almighty from a hole in the ground. Wipe them out, God! That is what you told me you would do, and I told them. Now do it!” [thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for the insight and words to Jonah’s response.]
I would love to make Jonah the fall guy in this story, but actually this story is like walking into a hall of mirrors, wherever I turn I see me. I want God to forgive those I judge worthy of forgiveness and I fear that God can be far too lax when it comes to forgiveness. And, I do not want to worship a God who has changes of mind, changes of heart. I grew up singing about a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, a God only wise, “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.” The God of my youth knew all, controlled all, was fixed in the heavens like the north star, unchanging. And yet, this story pivots on the fact that God can and does have a change of mind, a change of heart.
The story of Jonah actually comes from the time when the Jews had left their captivity in Babylon and had come home to Jerusalem. Upon their return to a devastated homeland, they blamed their exile and their severe economic struggles on foreigners, on others. There arose a fierce nationalistic movement to keep the land pure from immigrants, unclean Gentiles. Jonah is not so much a book about a recalcitrant prophet but about a redeeming God who will not respect our walls no matter how high we build them, whether they be physical walls or walls constructed deep within our souls. According to Jonah, our God has no use for and no patience with our hatefulness. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely preached: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
When I look out across our land today, I see people who are not only quarantining from a pandemic, they are quarantining from truth and truth-tellers. They are tuning into and looking only for information that reinforces their own view of the world. They claim God is on their side, and do not seem to notice that God is nudging them in their sides to forgive those they have no intention of forgiving, to offer hope of God’s forgiveness to people they have been taught to hate. I am sad to confess that on my worst day and in my worst moments, I am numbered in this crowd, asking Jonah to move over and make room for me.
Thank God that those who pulled together all the books of the Bible did not omit Jonah. For it is a story that refuses to be heard as only a children’s tale. It is a story that celebrates the astounding grace and mercy of our God who can and does have a change of mind, a change of heart – after the people of Nineveh repent and years later, after Peter denies Jesus three times in public on the night of Jesus’ arrest.
Despite all that the Ninevites had done, had said, despite all they had left undone, left unsaid, despite all this, God forgives the people of Nineveh. In my most honest, lowest, and most unforgivable moments, that is exactly how I want my story, our story to end. By God’s inexplicable grace and astonishing mercy, I believe it will.