The story of Scripture is the story of reversal. From Genesis to Revelation the big story of our big book is how God is in the business of reversing things. The big picture is that we took God’s good creation, and we reversed its goodness through our rebellion, but that God immediately began the work of reversing all that we were destroying, breaking through with wholeness and life. The pages of Scripture—as messy as they are at times—are littered with stories of how God is doing this in miniature, in individual lives and communities as a foretaste of heaven. The story of Jonah is one of those tales that offer us in miniature a look at the whole big story of the Bible. It’s a story of reversal.
In chapter 1 God tells Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh. Jonah does the opposite, and God won’t let Jonah do his own thing, pursuing him onto the sea then into the sea and then into the belly of the big fish. But God reverses Jonah’s course. In the imagination of Frederick Buchner, “No matter how deep [the whale] dove and no matter how dark the inside of its belly, no depth or darkness was enough to drown out the sound of Jonah’s prayer. ‘I am cast out from your presence. How shall I again look upon your holy temple?’ the intractable and water-logged old man called out from sixty fathoms, and [the Lord] heard him, and answered him, and Jonah’s relief at being delivered from the whale can hardly have been any greater than the whale’s at being delivered from Jonah.” Surely having a recalcitrant prophet in your belly would require a whole lot of Pepto Bismol.
This brings us to Jonah 3, our focus of this week. Picture this with me. The fish has beached itself on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, finally ridding itself of Jonah. He crawls from the sea to the beach, washing the fish’s intestinal fluids off on his way and letting his eyes adjust to the sunlight after three days of darkness. Jonah is hardly on the beach before the Lord speaks to him again, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Unlike his response in chapter 1, Jonah is on board. He sets out for the east and makes his way to Nineveh, around 500 miles to the northeast of where the fish left him. It’s a pretty stunning reversal for Jonah. In chapter 1 he did all he could not to do what the Lord told him to do. In chapter 3 he goes and does what the Lord told him to do. There is no hint of rebellion. There is no delay.
So, it’s worth asking, why would Jonah have been so opposed to going to Nineveh? To use Frederick Buechner’s words again, “In the first place, the Ninevites were foreigners and thus off his beat.” That is, Jonah is the only prophet in the Hebrew Bible told to go to a foreign nation. Plenty prophesied about foreign nations from the safety of their homeland, but only Jonah is told to go into the hornet’s nest. “In the second place, far from wanting to see them get saved, nothing would have pleased him more than to see them get what he thought they had coming to them.”
While this story of Jonah is written centuries later, it is set in a time when the Assyrians were Israel’s biggest enemy, and Nineveh was their capital. For the early audience of this story, Nineveh was a symbol of the ruthless power of the Assyrian empire. The book of Nahum calls Nineveh a “city of blood” (3:1) and of “endless cruelty” (3:19). It was this empire that first systematically deported captured people from their land and replaced them with foreigners, which led to the destruction of the ten northern tribes that made up the kingdom of Israel. In other words, Nineveh is symbolic of their worst enemy. I don’t know if we have a modern parallel, but maybe it would be like God calling a first responder on 9/11 to go to Al Qaeda with a message of repentance. Tough work, right?
So, after over a month’s worth of walking, the equivalent of us walking from Grand Haven to Nashville but with far worse weather and terrain, Jonah finally arrives at the great city of Nineveh. Archaeologists have determined that Nineveh was the second largest city in its day, although it’s clearly hyperbole that it was a three-day walk to cross. It was actually three to four square miles. For them a day’s journey was around 20 miles, meaning if Nineveh were a three-days’ journey wide, it would have been around 60 miles across, which is larger than greater Los Angeles today. Still, Jonah starts his way through the city proclaiming God’s judgment against them. It’s a message that takes all of five words in Hebrew, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” There’s no call to repentance. He doesn’t tell them what they must do to reverse God’s judgment. It just is.
Now, it’s possible to read Jonah’s effort as lackluster. He’s only a third of the way through the city. He only uses five words. Is he trying? But I’ve changed my mind on this. I think Jonah’s all in. He’s tried running from God’s will, but through the miracle of the great fish, Jonah has seen God’s claim on his life. It’s a complete reversal for him. With these five words, Jonah is highly effective. Imagine with me—if I went downtown right now with a bullhorn and said, “Hey, everyone! Come to church at First Pres right now.” If there were 100 people down there, how many do you think would listen to me? Five? Maybe.
But in this case the Ninevites, from the least to the greatest go all in. Jonah’s word is so effective that the world has likely never seen such a spontaneous reversal. The people of Nineveh believe the Lord. They show signs of repentance by fasting and wearing sackcloth. Then the king of Nineveh gets involved, making a proclamation that everyone should join in this repentance, including the animals. Just imagine what this must have looked like. Every living thing in Nineveh is asking the Lord to reverse course. They’re not eating or drinking. They all are wearing sackcloth, which is a coarse fabric made from the hide of a goat or a camel, so even the goats are putting on an extra layer of goatskin to show how repentant they are. This is extreme repentance, and if you think about it, it’s hilarious to imagine animals donning sackcloth. If you think dog sweaters are funny, this takes things to another level.
The king concludes his proclamation with a question. “Who knows?” he wonders. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” It’s a great wondering, particularly because God does not relent when it comes to Jonah’s call. Jonah cannot escape it, but God does reverse course with the wicked Ninevites. Why is that? I think it’s because God’s love is relentless and vast. It’s a love so big that it won’t let Jonah hide it from his enemies. It’s a love so big that it welcomes all who would respond to it, even the worst of people. Why does God give Nineveh a forty day grace period? Why not just destroy Nineveh? “Here the book of Jonah looks into the heart of God and finds there only love, even for the worst of sinners. God does not want to give up on the Ninevehs of the world—the message for all readers of the book!”
As I said from the outset, the big story of the Bible is reversal, and Jonah is one small story that points to the big story of reversal. It should come as no surprise that we see this same pattern in Jesus, who actually speaks about the story of Jonah in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Religious leaders want to know what authority Jesus has to teach the way he is teaching and do what he is doing, so they ask him for a sign, some sort of proof that God is behind his actions. But Jesus, the one who has done countless miracles and changed so many lives, refuses to give a sign. Instead, he points to the story of Jonah as a sign for what is to come for Jesus. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus says, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the [fish], so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Jesus is talking about his death and resurrection and pointing to Jonah’s time in the fish as a kind of death and resurrection. Jonah’s adventure changed the course of his life completely, and Jesus’ death and resurrection are the crucial reality for every person in how God is reversing the course of all things for good.
It’s interesting to me, however, that often our response to reversals like these is skepticism. That’s the posture of these religious leaders. It’s also part of the story of Zacchaeus we heard earlier. He’s someone no one expected to change course. He’s just an outsider, but he encounters Jesus and—like the Ninevites—immediately reverses course. But what do the people do when Jesus changes Zacchaeus’ life? They grumble. Why is Jesus bothering with this tax collector? God’s grand plan of reversal is so massive that even the most open-minded among us finds a place where we wonder, “Can God welcome and love even this person?” As Pastor Kristine told us last week, we can come to the point where God’s grace is so far-reaching that it offends us.
Like Jonah, we are prone to imagine that there are limits to God’s gracious love. It could be people in our own lives who drive us up a wall. It could be groups of people we think are the worst. It could be nations that we view as a threat to our prosperity. Who are the people you have written off? Who would you be unwilling to sit next to in this sanctuary or to share a cup of coffee with at Aldea? Like Jonah, God is calling you to love and welcome even those people. Who are the people you see on the news or on social media that make you angry? Whom do you believe you have nothing in common with? Like Jonah, God is calling you to love and welcome even those people.
God’s gracious love is bigger than our imagination. It is limitless. It is extravagant. Perhaps we might even call it reckless. But “along with grace there is always the demand—God’s expectation of obedient response—because God does not save for no purpose. God has a plan for the world, and God saves in order to further that purpose.” It’s the purpose we encounter most especially in Jesus, and it’s the purpose that has carried on to you and me, to all whom God is calling to bring a glimpse of heaven to earth. It’s all about reversal—in your life and in the lives of all—until all things are once again incorporated into God’s loving rule forever. Our role now is to live into that great love every minute of the lives God has given us. Who knows? Maybe God will do a miracle for even the most obstinate among us.