Proper 20A – Jonah 3:10-4:11
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah has finally arrived at Nineveh. It’s a city so large it will take him three days to walk across it. Going a day’s walk into the city he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
What do you hear in his words? What do you imagine Jonah might be thinking and feeling? Let me tell you some of the things I wonder about as I hear his words.
- I wonder if Jonah wants revenge for Israel more than he wants reconciliation with an ancient enemy.
- I wonder if he’s thinking, “Paybacks are hell and you’re about to get yours, only forty days more.”
- I wonder if, for Jonah, winning is more important than peace.
- I wonder if he forgot how Abraham negotiated with God and pleaded for Sodom when it was on the brink of destruction.
- I wonder if he sees himself as right and superior and the Ninevites as wrong and inferior.
- I wonder if his sense of justice is more about retribution and punishment than restoration and wholeness.
- I wonder if he prefers the simplicity of continued division over the hard and messy work of being in relationship.
- I wonder if, as he walked across that city, he looked into the face of a single woman, man, or child, or whether he saw only a collection of stereotypes.
- I wonder if he stopped to consider who any of them were, what their lives were like, or what their hopes, needs, or struggles might be.
- I wonder if he stopped to listen to just one person, or whether he was more than happy to just threaten and wait for their destruction.
- I wonder if he ever looked at what was going on within himself as he spoke his words, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
You know, don’t you, how I came up with that list and why I can imagine what might be going on in Jonah? Because I have a Nineveh too, several actually, and I’m just like Jonah. I’m all in favor of this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. But for Nineveh? Really? No way. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
I’m betting you know exactly what I am taking about. I’m betting you have a Nineveh too and that you’re not all that different from Jonah or me.
So who is your Nineveh? Who are the ones with whom you struggle, the ones you just don’t get? Who are the ones you put on the other side of the line from you? It might be the Democrats and Mr. Biden or it might be the Republicans and President Trump. It might be the Black Lives Matter protesters or it might be the rioters and looters. It might be the immigrant, refugee, or foreigner. It might be the police. Maybe it’s someone with whom you’ve had a grudge or resentment for years. Maybe it’s someone who hurt, disappointed, or betrayed you. Maybe it’s someone who disagrees with you or has values contrary to yours. Maybe it’s someone who simply lives, believes, or acts differently than you. I don’t know who your Nineveh is, but I suspect you do.
After three days Jonah went out of the city and sat down to see what would happen to Nineveh. He’s angry and displeased that his ways are not God’s ways, that his thoughts are not God’s thoughts, that his desires for Nineveh are not God’s desires. The line Jonah has drawn between himself and Nineveh has become a line between himself and God. But God will not give up on Jonah just as God will not give up on Nineveh.
God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” Jonah doesn’t answer but I wonder if he remembers what he had said about God earlier: “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” I wonder if he recognizes that the very reasons God is saving Nineveh are the same reasons God saved Jonah after three days in the belly of the whale. God’s ways, God’s thoughts, and God’s desires are always for life and more life, even when ours aren’t.
What will it take for Jonah to accept God’s ways, God’s thoughts, and God’s desires as his own? And what will it take for us to do that? After all, let’s not forget that we not only have a Nineveh or two in our lives, we are the Nineveh in someone else’s life. There’s a Jonah out there looking at you and me, and saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
Aren’t you tired of hearing and speaking those words. I am. They’re not getting us anywhere. They’re not giving life to anyone. Why is it that grace and mercy struggle to gain traction in our relationships? Why would we rather be angry than patient? Why does love have such a hard time in the world today? And why is relenting from punishment seen as weakness and even injustice?
Is that really what you want for yourself, your children and grandchildren, your country? I don’t. I don’t want to keep living like that. I want something different for all of us.
Years ago I went to my priest to complain about a Nineveh in my life. I told him all the reasons my Nineveh ought to be overthrown. I asked him, “What do you think I should do?” “Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “I want you to pray that he would have all the blessings and good in his life that you want in yours.”
What if that’s how we spend our time between now and the election of our next president? What if that’s what we do as we read or listen to the daily news? What if that’s how we approach our divisions and disagreements? What if you and I pray for the well-being of our Nineveh?
After all, we’re all Ninevites.