For what seems like almost all of my life, I have been in love with the Old Testament. It started when I was a child with all the wonderful bible stories about David, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Adam and Eve, and Jonah, too. To me, there seemed to be tremendous grace in the Old Testament. But for many of us, especially Lutherans, we are afraid of the first half of the bible. We are afraid of that God of Law. However, there is amazing grace to be found there amongst the Law. After all, it is the same God as the God of the New Testament.
The story of Jonah is a fine example of God’s mercy and grace in the Old Testament.
Last week we learned that Jonah was a short preacher. I’m sure we could all remember his sermon. ‘40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.’ Didn’t really sound like he wanted to help out Nineveh. However, like so many times, God can use even a reluctant person to give his message. Have you ever had one of those moments when someone tells you that you said just the right thing at the right moment to them? Have you, at that moment, thought to yourself: I barely even remember saying anything at all? God can use us as his imperfect conduits for his message of life. Jonah is a fine example of an imperfect conduit.
You know, he didn’t want to go there in the first place. He ran from God, got stuck in the storm, was thrown into the churning sea, swallowed by a great big fish. While it was a fish sent by God to save him, it still doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend three days. He prayed to God for mercy—sort of—really just prayed in a whine. God showed him mercy anyway and had the fish spit him up on the beach and gave him a second shot at his call. Eventually he told God: FINE! I’ll Go to Nineveh. But I’m not gonna like it.
I’d say he made that pretty clear, too. He walked a short distance into a massive city and said “40 days and Nineveh will be over thrown.” That’s it. That’s all. No amen. No ‘see me afterward if you have questions’. No announcement about the Save Nineveh Committee forming in the fellowship hall this afternoon. No additional information for Ninevite refugees. No ‘Go in peace and serve the Lord’. Just: 40 days and it’s all over.
You’d almost think that Jonah WANTED the Ninevites to be overthrown. And maybe he did. They were his enemy after all. The long-standing enemy of his people who had invaded Jonah’s homeland and even taken many of his people back to Assyria as exiles. On top of all that, they weren’t even Israelites themselves! The Ninevites were not followers of YHWY.
But what did God think of this? Well, this is the Old Testament so we might assume dealing with a cruel God of the Law who hammers down on all those who disobey him. Well, maybe he was a little lenient with Jonah when he disobeyed God’s call and went the opposite direction. Maybe he was particularly generous in that supposed psalm of praise to God Jonah sang in the belly of the fish; the song which was all about how Jonah claimed God had sent him away instead of his running away. And God choose to forgive him and give him another chance. But, after all, Jonah was an Israelite. So it wouldn’t be too bizarre for him to show more mercy. But these people in Nineveh…they aren’t Israelites. They are enemies of the people of God. They do not even recognize him as the one true God. Surely God is going to smite them right out of existence just like Jonah prophesied.
Yet, a strange thing happens.
Actually several strange things happen.
First, the people who hear Jonah believe him. Now this is pretty surprising all on its own. Do we believe those people who are always saying the end of the world is coming? Nope. So this is pretty remarkable.
Then, somehow or another, the king of Nineveh hears this warning about the impending disaster and he does some quite dramatic things. The text says he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. He decreed to the city that everyone, even the animals, would fast and wear sackcloth and ash. This sounds quite odd to us today, but it means some pretty important things. It means that he, a king, the great king of the great nation of Assyria, was willing to humble himself. He came down from his throne and took off his royal robes, trading them for the plainest, roughest clothing of the day. The least royal items of clothing imaginable. And he sat in ashes. This, too, sounds like an odd practice to us. It was a symbolic gesture often used in those days to demonstrate a sense of remorse, sadness and mourning. Some traditions today will do things like cover all the mirrors and stop the clocks in the home of someone who has died. Some wear black or white clothing as a sign of mourning. It comes from that feeling that we all have in times of distress, sadness or loss when we just do not feel like wearing bright colored party dresses or fancy clothing. The tradition of using ash as a symbol of this kind of remorse is where we get the practice of Ash Wednesday. It is also the same general reason why we strip the altar and the entire worship space at the end of worship on Maundy Thursday.
So the king, who probably wore something like a grand purple robe, a crown, other fancy adornments, removed all of this and took up all the symbols of mourning and remorse. In a grand dramatic gesture, he even includes the animals in this practice. I cannot help but imagine my cats’ distain for such things as this when I read this text! But the point is that everyone—everything in all of Nineveh—was aimed at this symbolic gesture.
Why? Why would a king do this?
Well, he tells us himself, “who knows?” the king said. “maybe God will relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger so that we do not perish.” He does it because he has hope. The king dares to hope that this God of Jonah’s, this YHWY, might really be willing to forgive them and change his mind.
God does just that. He does change his mind and does not destroy them. It isn’t because they changed their clothes and agreed to roll around in ashes but because he saw they were all so willing to change their behavior and way of life that he chose to be merciful. It is also quite possible that God also saw this as an act of faith. An act of faith in a God they barely knew. Not faith in the fact that God would destroy them. If that is all they had faith in, they would merely have run away. It was their faith that God might be merciful.
This is the second time in Jonah’s story that non-Israelites have prayed to God and that God has shown them mercy. First there were the men on the boat with Jonah who prayed to God to save them. Then there is the king and people of Nineveh.
The truth is that over and over God shows mercy. Over and over the Israelites did not do as God wanted, did not follow the Law, did not do as they should have done and over and over, he showed mercy. He could have scrapped the whole thing, started over with an entirely other people as his people. But he didn’t. It’s almost like he wanted to forgive. Over and over, David, the greatest king of the Israelites, made mistake after mistake, poor choices and bad decisions. Yet every time he returned to God and sought his mercy. Over and over, God gave it. So many places in the Old Testament it shows that God was angry at the unfaithful or harmful behavior and the hurtful ways people treated one another and yet was ready at a moment’s notice to forgive. It was, and it is, as though he was hanging on every word, waiting for any excuse to let go of his anger and pour out mercy.
So this is really great, right? I think Jonah should be pretty proud of his prophetizing skills. Every preacher finds it fulfilling when someone is able to use a piece of their sermon in a constructive and life-giving way. It means that God spoke through Jonah to save the lives of so many people, and animals, too. God used Jonah’s voice as an instrument of peace and his speaking of that single sentence saved so many lives.
But this is not quite the end of the story. We still have a few questions left. Will Jonah be happy about Nineveh not being destroyed? Does he think it is ‘really great’? What was the rest of the reason why he didn’t want to go where God wanted to send him? And, perhaps most of all, what on earth does all this have to do with Jesus?
Well, you’ll have to come back next week to find out but I can tell you this: it is after God changes his mind and does not destroy Nineveh that Jonah speaks that now famous line: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.