Proper 20(A): God Changes God’s Mind
By: The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles
We all know the story of Jonah. It is one of the first stories we hear as small children. God tells Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me (1:2, NRSV).” He immediately jumps on a ship to flee from the presence of the Lord. “But,” we tell our children, “we can never be hidden from the presence of God, because God is everywhere.” And so, God calls a huge storm, the people discover it is Jonah who has angered God, and he is tossed overboard into the sea. God is merciful and sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole to save him from drowning. After three days inside a fish, Jonah finally calls out to God for salvation, and the fish spits Jonah onto dry land. Then God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and Jonah goes. And that is often where we stop. This is the story our people know: the disobedient Jonah learns his lesson and follows God’s commands. Except that Jonah goes only a day into the city, instead of three days to the center of town, and he is angry when they repent and follow God.
Jonah is in many ways an anti-prophet. He flees from God, changes the message God gives him, and is bitter in the end when God offers repentance to the Ninevites. He does the bare minimum required. Jonah stopped one day into the city in hopes that the message would not travel; he hoped that Nineveh would not repent and he instead could watch the city fall. In the passage for today God saw that the people believe, they repent, they change.
The news travels to the king of Nineveh, without the help of the prophet who normally is the one to carry the message to the King, and the king acts immediately. The king takes off his robes, takes off the things that show his power, and put on uncomfortable sackcloth, and then sits in ashes. He acts as though he is common; he acts in subservience to God. He then proclaims that all humans and animals alike put on sackcloth and fast from food and water and all will turn from their evil ways. The name of YHWH is not mentioned at all from Jonah and yet all the people of the city and their king know to repent. The king says that all shall do these things in hopes that God may nacham and change God’s mind and turn from his anger so the city will not be overthrown. In verse 10 God does nacham, God changes God’s mind, in the same way God changes God’s mind in Exodus 32:14.
God changes God’s mind and offers love and salvation for the bitterest enemy of Israel at that time. And Jonah is furious. Jonah intentionally offered no way for the people of Ninevah to repent, intentionally did the very minimum, and yet with that tiniest of nudges, the people believed in God and changed their ways. Jonah yells at God as an insult “ God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead (The Message)!” This is God’s very nature, and thanks be to God for that.
We look at this passage and judge Jonah harshly. Yet, in this strange and uncertain time I find myself aligning more than I am comfortable with Jonah. I look at the news and think THOSE people deserve what is coming to them, THOSE people should not be dealt with kindly and compassionately, THOSE people should get the virus because of their statements. I, at times, yearn for God’s wrath upon those who cause so much strife and misinformation. I get so angry about the proverbial bush (or gourd) that I forget entirely of God’s love and compassion for all of creation. As you preach this week consider the needs of your community: some need to know that even though Jonah was filled with anger and hate, God used that for good, some need to hear that in the midst of terrible things that we may be involved in ourselves God offers our redemption, some need to know of God’s care in the midst of their anger—after all God did give Jonah a bush to sit under. And maybe they need to hear that if even God can change God’s mind we can too—whether it is about wearing masks or examining our own privilege in light of protests. If God changes God’s mind, then we should not see changing our own minds as a weakness. I, for one, am thankful that in a season where I feel like I cannot offer my congregation what they really need or want, that God continues to use whatever we do for good. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Certificate for Theology in Ministry from Cambridge University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Candler School of Theology. AnnaKate is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and pondering ways to escape quarantine.