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Changing One's Mind

Note: Today’s sermon was preached by the Rev. Scott Clark, Chaplain of the San Francisco Theological Seminary

Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10

This morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures takes us right into the middle of the story of Jonah – you know, the story of the prophet who was thrown into the belly of the whale.  But these verses from Chapter 3 don’t really make complete sense without the rest of the story.  It’s not a long story, and it’s a good story. So why not tell the whole thing:

One day, the word of God comes to Jonah. The word of YHWH, the God of Israel — comes to Jonah, a prophet of Israel.  YHWH says to Jonah, “Arise, go, and cry out to the City of Ninevah!”  (Now Ninevah is a foreign city; it’s actually the capital of a powerful Empire.)  The Word of God comes to Jonah – prophet of this tiny Israel, and God says, “Arise, go, cry out to Ninevah – because their wickedness has come before me.”

So Jonah, arises, and goes… to Tarshish, just as far away from Ninevah as he can.  Are you kidding me?  You want me to go where, and say what?  Jonah heads to Tarshish, and to get to Tarshish he has to cross the sea, so he hires out a boat.

But God doesn’t make it easy.  The ship sets sail, and God hurls a violent storm at them.  The boat is crashing through this storm – everyone thinks they are doomed – so all the sailors start praying to their different gods – they start throwing cargo overboard – as if to appease the angry gods of the sea.  And Jonah… is down in the bowels of the boat… sound asleep.

So the captain goes and gets Jonah, and says, “Hey, wake up!  We are all about to die – we’re praying to our gods – you come pray to yours.”  Jonah gets up on the deck just as the sailors are casting lots to see who might be the cause of their troubles – and guess what – the lot falls to Jonah.  “What have you done,” they ask, “to make your god so angry?”  And Jonah tells them his story and says, “You know, you might as well throw me overboard now.”

But the sailors do everything they can NOT to do that.  They row hard and try to bring the ship to the shore, but that doesn’t work, and the storm just gets worse.  So they pray – they pray to YHWH, Jonah’s god, and they say, “Please don’t let us perish; and don’t make us be guilty of taking innocent blood, for you are God.”  But the storm just keeps getting worse, and so finally, they throw Jonah overboard.  And the storm stops.

Jonah though – is now floundering in the sea – and the story says that God sends a big fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah lives in the belly of that big fish – in the belly of the whale—for 3 days.  And while he is there, Jonah has time to think – and time to write a Psalm that he sings to YHWW – and oh, does Jonah sing to God – he praises God so much:  “God, you’ve cast me into the deep, and the waters have closed over my head, but I have remembered you, I have remembered that you are God, and I remember all my prayers in your holy temple.  And his song ends with the line, “But deliverance belongs to the YHWH!”  At which point – the story says – YHWH tells the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the shore.  I guess deliverance comes in all manner of shape and form.  As Phyllis Trible says, “God delivers the whale from its undigestable burden.”[i]

And then, we come to today’s Scripture, Jonah chapter 3:1-10 —

The word of YHWH came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose, set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of GOD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the King of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then 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. 8Human 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. 9Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said would come upon them; and God did not do it.