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 Chapter 3
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
This could be the introduction of a tragedy. Sometimes, you end up in a place and you say, wait, wasn’t I just here? Where life has turned around and given you the same struggles once again. Where lo and behold, the old argument with a loved one reemerges for another time around with renewed conviction. When lo and behold we keep making the same choices and the same mistakes over and again.
Sometimes you can look at our world and go… I think I recognize this tree from the last time we were here. I think I recognize this place where distrust meets aggression. I think I recognize this place where our deep shame meets the new fears in our life. Where here we are once again facing our racist, sexist, and terrible ghosts. I think I recognize this place where the swords rattle and the enemies wait for one another to blink, just like the time before.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” This sounds like it could be the beginning of a tragedy. And here’s what we know about tragedies: even going in we know how it’s going to end. People will not grow and change. Misunderstandings will not be recognized and instead will be amplified by bad choices and firm behavior. New understandings will not be reached. There will be no transformation. Faults will prove insurmountable, and these characters will keep playing the roles that they have been cast, speaking the words that have been assigned to them, passed down in tradition from one to the next. We will end the scene with death and weeping, and then the curtain closes. In a tragedy we know how it ends.
Let me tell you how it goes in nearly every book of the prophets: God says to the soon-to be prophet “Go to such and such, and tell them what I have to say.” The prophet immediately goes to where God has said, prophesies at length, ad nausem, using poetry, promises, threats of upcoming disaster, trying to get the people’s attention. And after all of this the most frequent response is that the Holy People of God will shrug their shoulders and imminent destruction and exile will occur. This happens in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; you name it, this is what a prophet does. And so we know that the people of God will inevitably do is fail to turn to God, continue in their wicked ways, and so get to feel the full brunt of their own consequences. We know how a tragedy ends.
Today we are not reading a tragedy, and how do we know? Because the animals are forced to wear funny outfits. No one puts a cow in a hilarious outfit in a tragedy. And so if the giant fish wasn’t enough to let you know,
we are hearing a different kind of story. Because in this one, God says to Jonah, “Go” and Jonah doesn’t. After his excursion in the whale, a second time God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah, the home of the enemies, the place of the wicked folks who don’t know God at all. Gentiles who don’t know their left from their right. This is the only time in scripture a prophet tries to go to a non-Jewish city.
So here comes Jonah to this enormous city. In he goes and gives the least compelling prophesy ever. In English it is longer, but in Hebrew it is only five words: “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” That’s it. No poetry, no eloquence, nothing dramatic. He walks into an enormous city of godless folks, utters five words and in so doing becomes the most successful prophet ever. He says “40 days more and Ninevah will be overturned,” you can hear in his voice, almost reluctantly. And these heathens are shocked, appalled, and no sooner has the whole city become repentant – all of the people are fasting and putting on sackcloth, a garment of repentance. Not to be outdone, the king comes off his throne, removes his royal robe, covers in sackcloth and ashes and decrees that all the city will have a time of fast. And not just the city, the animals. Even the animals are to be dressed in sackcloth and ashes to show their deep repentance and cry out to the Lord. For who knows? God may yet change God’s mind.
And so if the story we are used to says that God calls the prophet, the prophet goes and speak eloquently, the people do not change, and God brings calamity down, here the prophet goes under duress, speaks reluctantly, the evil people are dramatically moved in transformation going over and beyond anything we have ever seen, and God changes God’s mind and looks on them with mercy.
No one gets their parts right. The prophet isn’t earnest, the wicked people suddenly are virtuous, the terrible king is decidedly un-terrible, and God, rather than showing the mighty powers of justice and truth, shows a softer side. And you know what? Maybe that is a relief. Maybe if you think about the roles that you have filled, the place that you hold in that argument that always happens – the place where the sides have been well established, where move follows countermove in old battles and old sins – maybe it is a relief to learn we could do something different. We could respond in a different way.
I don’t know if you heard that the doomsday clock moved forward this week, saying we are just as close to the end of the world as perhaps we have ever been. Apparently, we are now two minutes to midnight. I was reading an article on this phenomenon, and how folks handle thoughts of existential threats, especially threats as vast as nuclear war and climate change. And the author writes: “Millions of Americans have come to expect the unimaginable, but they can’t imagine a way out of the present either. So when a board of experts tells them that catastrophe is at hand, they read the news and think: Yep. And then they wonder what’s for lunch.”And this feels true.
So here’s what I want you to imagine. I want you to imagine in a story the worst people in the whole world, for you in particular. The ones that are truly terrible in your mind. Of all the people in all the earth, these are the ones who make your eyes turn red and your blood boil. And then I want you to picture that these good-for-nothings were here also on earth this week and heard this prediction, this pronouncement from a small group of experts. And boy did they hear it. These terrible people sprang into action. They immediately stopped using their motor vehicles, leaving them stranded on the street to eliminate their fossil fuels. Factories were shut down until zero emission solutions could be created. People walked around in shock, their mouths agape saying, “what a shock, what terrible news!” World leaders when they heard the news couldn’t believe it, and immediately began the work of nuclear disarmament, calling in panels and experts, shocked and appalled that we would get to such a point. People start jumping into action,
willing to give it all up in the hopes that maybe perhaps this future catastrophe could be averted. People moved in prayer and tribute to make amends to those they have wronged. Praying to God, these truly terrible people took these words at exactly the seriousness that they warranted.
And so the question is for us, who are clearly the righteous people of God…, that perhaps if these truly terrible people could repent, change their ways, maybe we can do a lot better. Maybe we too can live not in a tragedy, but a comedy. Where our behavior can change; where we can let go of the things that we thought mattered so much to create something that is better; where we apologize readily; where we give things up in order to put right historical wrongs; where we listen to learn and be transformed; and we turn our lives in prayer and devotion, and so we get to put our dogs in funny outfits to show how serious we are.
I found this story the other day of Megan Phelps-Roper. Megan grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Which at this point you should be saying, why, those folks that seem to be running for the worst people in America?
Why, yes. She grew up holding signs promising death and destruction to all who weren’t in their tiny clan. She protested funerals, saying cruel things to the mourners. There are pictures of her holding signs so terrible, I won’t quote them in the Sanctuary because folks here don’t need to hear the words that are that vile and cruel to the children of God. Megan is an up and comer and a rising star in the Westboro Baptist Church. She is media savvy, she does television interviews as the fresh new face of bigoted hate that relishes in the suffering of others. And all the while, as she says it, she really believes it.
And then she goes on Twitter. The players are set, and so is the stage: put a person completely hatefully convinced on social media, and you know what will happen: a battle of trolls where rhetoric escalates, where hate escalates, here fury abounds, and the darker corners of the internet reveal the darker corners of our souls. Except this is a different kind of story. Megan begins to engage with folks on Twitter who start asking her questions, and she reciprocates. And so this is what happened.
She has a twitter friend named David who runs the blog “Jewlicious” and he
engages her in conversations. And she remembers this time when he, as a Jew, quoted Jesus to her, saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And she heard this and was changed. This bible verse, in this context, caused her to look at her family in a new way, and the removal of this one brick began to unsettle a fortress of certainty with her. And as time continued and they all fell down, she left the church, along with her sister. She wrote a public apology for her actions. She ended up staying at an orthodox Rabbi’s house, receiving hospitality and caring for their kids, washing up in a kosher kitchen. She asked for the forgiveness of others, not expecting it would be given, and then was shocked by the reply. She went to a drag show and danced on stage.
And how did I hear about it? Because there she is in a TED talk, extolling the virtues of listening and how to have conversations across lines of difference. So just to be clear, the voice of the Westboro Baptist Church who carried signs too terrible for me to name went on Twitter, that bastion of terrible conversation, and had her heart so transformed. She has publicly apologized for her actions and now is an advocate for reasonable conversation across lines of difference. What kind of flimsier mode of transformation can you find than 140 characters?
And so maybe I think I shouldn’t be looking at those parts of my life that are broken and waiting for this mountaintop vast epiphany. But perhaps God can make such strange works of transformation in the line for coffee. Maybe God has already sent the word to me a second time, and a third, and a fourth. Remind me again why I think God can’t change our paths with really paltry lines? Why I think that our paths are set? And why I read the newspaper
as if we are doomed and I am reading our fates written in stone? For who knows? Perhaps God has something else in store even for me.
For I believe that even now God is rewriting the script, whispering new options to the players on stage. I believe that God has imagined a future beyond the curtain; that God is picturing an end beyond the weeping; that God is telling a different kind of story. For as a Christian, we look at the empty tomb and laugh. For if God is writing a comedy, let’s be sure we don’t miss our cue. Amen.