The Nineveh Effect

John’s gospel introduces Phillip and Nathaniel. Mark brings us James and John. The order of their calling doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that no one needs convincing. Jesus calls, and they follow. The words are different – the settings too – but we are asked to believe that otherwise successful fishermen, or established (working) adults simply abandoned their plans and went along with Jesus. This is what makes Scripture so fascinating – there are ideas here that are outrageous, by our standards: “Get up, take your mat and walk!” to a man crippled for decades. “Get up, little girl!” to a child on the verge of death (or already dead). God-with-us moves among regular people, and extraordinary things happen. Follow me, Jesus says – and they do, Not just twelve men, but an unknown number of others – women, beggars, and various hangers-on; all eager to see what God might do.

It’s one thing to see people who are interested (the disciples, for example) drop everything and come running; they have seen something (or heard something) in (or about) Jesus that makes this a risk worth taking. They may already identify themselves as ‘children of God’ by virtue of their heritage, or their own religious experiences. It’s quite another thing to see strangers – or enemies – turn and follow; and this is the amazing thing about Jonah’s story.

Go to Nineveh – that great city – and speak my word to them. An altogether outrageous idea, for Jonah, at least. Here was a city whose chief trait is “wickedness” – and God has taken notice.
All kinds of questions come to mind; why would God care? Isn’t this the Old Testament – all that smiting and judgement – plagues and so forth…isn’t there a precedent for God’s course of action? Yes there is – God first sends a representative to call the city (the nation – the person) back to the “right path” or to ‘plead their case before God’ (Abraham in Sodom, for example…),  Nineveh is no different, except that Jonah doesn’t want the job.
You know this story – Jonah runs; God intervenes; Jonah reluctantly takes up the challenge and then, so sure he is that the people will not listen, he retires to a hilltop to watch the destruction…which never comes. And we are as surprised as Jonah was.

The turning point in this extended parable – for that is what it is – is found in the third chapter, verse five: “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” What a fantastic – an unimaginable thing! Repentance – devotion – worship and praise suddenly happens in the most unlikely of places; downtown Nineveh! And Jonah’s problem? The people believed GOD!
Jonah’s opinion of them – his preconceptions of what ‘these people’ were like, or what they might be willing to believe, are totally wrong. They listen to Jonah, but they hear God. This is crucial.

Too often, when we take this section of Jonah’s story aside for study, we come to the conclusion that we must be faithful and speak truth to our ‘enemies’ – We have been told that unless we take a risk, and ‘cry out against their wickedness’, God will pursue us until we take the risk; moreover, it is only through our speaking out that the wicked will turn to the truth. Fair enough. Think about our first objection in this story (Jonah’s first objection, really): They are not like us – they will never change, or (more despicably) they don’t deserve the chance that God is offering.

Jonah learned something from ‘the pagan city’ – he discovered that they were not really pagans – they just had never been invited to the party.  Yes, Nineveh is an Assyrian stronghold, and yes, the Assyrians were historically (and sadly, continue to be) enemies of Israel. Does that make them unworthy of God’s attention, God’s mercy, or God’s grace?

Jonah thought “yes”, but God proved otherwise. In the current world order, where we are so adept at identifying the wicked and eager to count ourselves among ‘the righteous’ there is a lesson for us here – and a note of caution, too.

Our opinions do not always reflect God’s desires. What we call hopeless, God will redeem – with or without our help, I might add. And dare I suggest that the voice of ‘the other’ – the stranger, the fallen, the enemy – might have something of God’s wisdom for us, if we thought to listen (or if we cared to hear?)

I have wondered aloud in the past about how we can discern the voice of God; who speaks for God, what does that sound like; how can we KNOW…and Jonah’s tale does not give me any real answers. The best I can do is consider this; not only does the voice of God take us by surprise, so too does the audience. As soon as we decide that we are God’s representatives in this world, and responsible for ‘getting the word out’, we have already forgotten that first, we must be the audience.

We must receive the word of judgement, or correction, for (and on) ourselves, and WE must decide to believe God. Without that remarkable turn; without a reluctant audience who defy logic and believe that God wants good for them, there can be no grace – no hope – no life.

We say that in Jesus, God has acted once and for all. We recognize the cross and the empty tomb as bookmarks around a remarkable, single event in the history of God’s people. We speak of those who are “born again”; changed (as the apostle Paul was changed) or called (as the gospel’s describe the call of the disciples) after one remarkable encounter. This is the faith that we profess, and the heritage that we share. But it is not enough to claim redemption, by virtue of our heritage or our week to week devotion, as a fait accompli. All these things can do is make us ready to believe. The believing – in which we discover our salvation – happens every day; over and over again – and is the most promising sign of God’s willingness to engage us, to reach out to us, to save us.
Thanks be to God for that persistent call; that consistent desire to offer grace; and for the continual revelation of God’s desire to do us good. Amen


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