The more things change, the more things stay the same.
The old adage offers a spot-on summary of the story of Jonah, whose cowardly, seaside shenanigans have been spotlighted in our Scripture lessons of the past two Sundays.
We’re halfway through the whale-themed tale of the Old Testament’s reluctant prophet, but we’re right back where we started – with the duplicate word of the Lord again coming to Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
First time around, Jonah wants nothing of being a prophet, a messenger for the Lord. So, instead of going 550 miles east in the direction God wants him to go, Jonah boards a sea-going ship sailing west more than 2,000 miles – in the totally and completely opposite direction of God’s precise instruction, simply because Jonah thinks he has better, less-risky things to do with his time and energy than a gig as God’s errand boy.
What happens next is the stuff of Sunday school lessons: The ship leaves port, into the path a nasty squall whose waves pummel the humble vessel and terrify its crew. Jonah gets blamed for stirring up the heavy rains and gale-force winds. So, he volunteers to be thrown overboard – into the churning, roiling seas – in hopes of making amends with God for running away.
And it works!
No sooner does Jonah make his big splash when the saltwater ceases its raging!
But then along comes a great creature of the deep – a whale, some say, whose gaping jaws scoop up Jonah. He slides down the creature’s gullet to begin a long, dark three-day layover in the belly of the beast. Jonah’s plea for God’s rescue includes a not-entirely-insincere confession of Jonah’s wrongdoing. And wham-bam, free at last! The creature vomits out Jonah onto a beach.
And we’re back to where we started: The word of the Lord coming to Jonah – and to us – yet again, bearing ancient truth that’s ever true.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be pleasing and acceptable in the heart and mind of Father, Son, and Spirit.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,
“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
“Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3)
The word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time.
And this time, Jonah obeys – I guess, well, sort of.
While his voice is in it – Jonah delivers God’s message, Jonah’s heart still doesn’t seem like it’s in on the action.
And understandably so! Nineveh is a terrible place, the capital city of Assyria, a nation that embodies the overwhelming and ruthless power of a cunning and merciless empire. God’s people, the biblical nation of Israel, were on the receiving end of Assyrian brutality, which conquered Israel and deported God’s people from the Promised Land – stripped, shaven, with fishhooks wedged in their backsides.
In short Nineveh has made life hell for God’s chosen people.
Now comes Jonah, marching into the cursed capital city of cruelty with a message from God: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
That’s just five words in its original Hebrew. Jonah’s done some editing. His matter-of-fact indictment pulls the punch of God’s actual orders to “cry out against” Nineveh and its sin-sick residents. “Announce my judgment against them,” God booms, “because I have seen how wicked they are.” Instead, they get Jonah’s pantywaist paraphrase: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
But go figure!
Nineveh responds with complete, crosstown repentance – and, apparently, belief in God. How’d that happen? In his half-hearted delivery of God’s message, Jonah never even once mentions the Lord, and Jonah never even once calls the Ninevites to repentance.
Maybe the writer of Jonah’s story left out part of the message. Or maybe Jonah himself edited out everything except the threat of judgment. Because that’s really what’s stuck in Jonah’s craw: He doesn’t want he Ninevites to repent, and turn to God, and be saved. Jonah’s just wants them to go to hell – directly to hell, without passing “go” and collecting $200.
Or perhaps, as some speculate, the surprising response of the Ninevites arises from Jonah’s violent expulsion from the belly of the great fish. The main god of the Assyrians is Dagon, a fish god. Maybe word of Jonah’s fishy encounter has reached Assyria, and they see Jonah as an emissary from their own god. Or perhaps they quickly figure out that Jonah is an Israeli, whose God the conquering and deporting Assyrians know full well.
Or maybe the God of Israel simply over-rode Jonah’s blunt message of doom and moved the Ninevites to repent and believe. The God who sends the storm and the great sea creature surely also could send the Holy Spirit to strongly encourage even these damnable pagans to change their hearts and their ways.
All the speculation is more than academic, because the Ninevites do what the Israelites never did in response to all the words of repentance from other prophets. Even the pagan king of Nineveh joins the civic movement toward repentance with an amazing speech:
“Who knows?” the king wonders. “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” With that, the king hitches Nineveh’s wagon to the mercy and compassion of a God that none of them really knows!
It’s said that God always hears one particular prayer – no matter who prays it: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Sure enough, God hears the plea of the Ninevites and does just that. Well, God doesn’t just hear their plea. God also sees their repentance on full display in their changed lives. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
Several important takeaways jump out of those words.
First, merely using that well-known plea for mercy does not guarantee salvation. It is all too possible to mouth the words without a corresponding change of heart and mind. For salvation to burst fully onto the scene, repentance must be sincere and heartfelt. And the fullness of salvation never comes until your repentance is complete. And the means of your salvation likely won’t be the process you envision or prefer.
Second, the king’s question reminds that God is free to respond in one of two very opposite ways: in judgment or in mercy. “Who knows?” God is not necessarily compelled by our prayers. God’s grace reigns supreme over our desires. So, you cannot necessarily presume God’s mercy.
But, finally, vitally, do not assume that a threat once issued is a threat that automatically will come to pass. God is free to change the divine mind, to relent, to “repent,” to choose a different direction – mercy over judgment – in response to our choosing the route of repentance.
The Church has long proclaimed God as fixed, immutable, and unchanging.
Yet here in Jonah, the Lord changes his mind. It happens a few other times in the Old Testament, too. And when the divine mind changes, it’s always in the direction of life. Perhaps then immutability is really all about God’s unchangeable will to save the world, including those whom God has threatened to punish fiercely for wicked disobedience.
Thus the Good News for God’s people comes with a banner headline that you don’t have to worry about the Lord arbitrarily changing his mind. Your salvation is secure! After all, God’s love is secure, because it depends not on your goodness or mine, but on God’s unfailing mercy and amazing grace. God forever pursues you and me in love, and surely great things happen when minds change, and God mixes with us.
God stands ready to forgive even the Ninevites, and by the same gracious love, God also stands eagerly willing to forgive you and me of our sins – and also the sins of even the most vile and repulsive of pagans. No sin is so terrible, no child of God so far gone, that the spilled blood of Christ cannot wash it clean. That is God’s blessed, enduring promise to us in Christ Jesus.
Indeed, the more things change, the more God in Christ stays the same.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, February 12, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the third of his four-part series from the Old Testament book of Jonah. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Stan Mast and Phyllis Tribble inform the message.