Can we change God’s mind? What a question…also one that has plagued biblical scholars, theologists and society in general since the beginning of creation. After all, if I can change God’s mind, is he really God and if so, is He a just God? Otherwise couldn’t I just buy him off with a couple of oxen and a healthy donation to the church? Hey God, here’s a thousand dollars and my prize bull, could we forget that weekend in Vegas, after all the TV says, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. I don’t think so, yet Jonah chapter 3 translates verse 10 in the NRSV exactly that way “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.” [3:10] Seriously! I can change the mind of my Father, my creator, the creator of the universe, if only I will dress uncomfortably, stop bathing and eating chocolate cake? Noooo…Stop right there. Hold onto your horses and let’s look at this unfortunate translation, better yet let’s go to the beginning and start all over. We need to put Jonah and the Ninevites in their place and in their proper relationship to God. “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.” [3:1-2] This is Jonah’s second chance, as you may remember Jonah ran from the Lord the first time, because he hated the Ninevites and wanted them to be destroyed. God choose Jonah as his prophet to the Ninevites and he disobeyed the Lord.
Now normally in the Old Testament when you provoked God you got fried, instead Jonah got swallowed by a big fish, not deep fried (deep sixed?), still a goner. Strange as it may sound, our Lord is the God of love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness not malice, hate, and destruction. That’s some bad PR put out by the enemy, I am not saying that you cannot find death and destruction in the bible and directed by God, but only against his unrepentant enemies who have had multiple chances to repent but most often he is gracious and merciful, especially to the undeserving. Jonah is himself an example of this. Although Jonah is apparently blissfully unaware of this. God does not want to destroy anyone after all he created everyone, what potter creates a masterpiece just to break it.
At the time of Jonah’s rebellion, the world was almost totally polytheistic (oops) sorry, fifty-dollar word for people who worship lots of different gods, they have a god for everything. Got a bellyache it’s because you didn’t pay off the bellyache god, that other persons wealthy or influential, well that’s because they worship the Grand Poohbah. Whatever, worshipping a single god or monotheism was considered a little crazy, kind of like buying a new car and not taking out the extended warranty. Now remember pretty much the whole world thought this way, it would be like trying to tell people today that the world was flat, sure there are a few people who really believe this but their nuts, right. People who believed in a single god were kind of pathetic, I mean why have only one god, how powerful could he be? If one is good, two’s better and a dozen is unbeatable, right? If you only had one god then your people must be poor, socially backwards, pathetic. The Assyrians new this like we know that the world is round. This is the situation that Jonah found himself in, not only was God asking him to do the impossible he was sending him to Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian’s had decimated the tribes of Israel, enslaving and killing them for years. Not only did Jonah have reason to hate the Ninevites in his eyes their coming destruction was justice and well-earned justice at that. Reluctantly but obediently and still with the hope that the Ninevites would reject the word of the LORD “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. [3:3] This place is huge, think of trying to walk across New York city. The commentaries all get a little crazy about this and none of them can agree on the size of the city, everyone has a theory, all of them are rational and well thought out and all I will say is this “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” [2 Timothy 3:16] The point is Nineveh is huge and “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” [3:4]
One day’s walk that’s between 15 and twenty miles on foot, take a second and imagine that … a day … twenty miles, and only a third of the way into the city. Amazing, yes… what is AWESOME though is the message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” [3:4] It’s not even a complete sentence, please, if I walked in here this morning and proclaimed, “forty days more and you shall be overthrown” and left, how many of you would be like, OK, whatever, dudes crazy, lost his mind, time for a new pastor. And I think that’s the way Jonah presented it, still hoping that Nineveh would not relent. Poor Jonah, guys thick as a brick. Disobeys God, gets swallowed by a fish, cries out for forgiveness God has mercy and forgives him. Goes where he does not want to amidst his people’s enemies and preaches the shortest sermon in the history of sermons in the largest city in the world and still fails to recognize that the word of God is the word of the Creator that the universe was spoken into existence by the will of God and not by the words of Jonah. “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.” [3:5-8]
The shortest sermon of all time, not very eloquent, not even a complete thought, delivered with malice and spite yet Jonah was merely the instrument, but still God’s instrument and the word of the LORD is powerful indeed. Worlds shortest sermon and the world’s largest conversion.
The entire city from the least to the greatest repented asked forgiveness of a God they had never heard of or believed in the day before, warned by a prophet that despised and hated them. “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” [3:9] One and all they turned from their evil ways with no surety that it would save them. Jonah is praying for a different outcome, Jonah wants the destruction of the Ninevites and that’s the most amazing thing of all. God does not just wipe Nineveh off the face of the earth. Why? Why doesn’t God destroy all evil in the world, like he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. Too often we forget that Abraham pled for the lives of those cities. “Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” [Genesis 18:23-26] and Abraham keeps on 45, 30, 20, 10… and the LORD said, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” [Genesis 18:32]
God seeks us out. God wants us to come to him. No matter the sin. The heart of God is for all creation. No matter your personal Jonah’s, and we have all had one at one time or another in our life. That one individual that refuses to forgive you, that seeks your destruction, prays for it, goes out of their way to make you miserable it doesn’t matter to God, no matter what you have done. God pursues us to extend his mercy and love. Even the evil among us, God loves us all, He seeks to bring us into relation with Him because he cannot endure our loss. He has no pleasure in the destruction of his works. He loves our wicked world so much that he sent his only begotten son to redeem us. “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.” [3:10] I am not going to get all seminary on you, partly because I haven’t been to seminary, but mostly because it’s not necessary. The Hebrew translates loosely as God relented, consoled himself, had compassion for. We do not change Gods mind. That is not possible. We can change our hearts. By changing our hearts, by showing compassion and mercy freely to others, we invite God to relent, to have compassion and mercy on us. God wants to comfort us, to love us. We know love, only because he first loved us. God has compassion for us and it’s that compassion that sent his Son to us, it’s that compassion that extends his Grace to us and it’s that compassion that forgives us, redeems us, and set’s us free. Not by our sacrifices, not because of our Jonah’s, only by faith, by sincere repentance and God’s will, will we receive God’s grace.