The closest I’ve ever come to wearing sackcloth was the last time the Patriots played the New York Football Giants in the Super Bowl. Overconfident in the undefeated Patriots’ ability to fend off all comers, I rashly wagered with a loudmouth Giants fan that New England would mercilessly mow down her boys in blue as with every other team they’d rolled over that season. Gathered among the faithful to witness what I believed to be the inevitable Super Bowl night, we were joined in disbelief at Eli Manning’s escape and David Tyree’s ridiculous helmet aided catch. Clearly the Lord’s hand was in it. Following the humiliating loss, I penitently paid my bet. I covered myself with a Giants hat and jersey—sackcloth and ashes for any Bostonian—walked the streets of Boston and loudly professed my love for New York, much to the derision of my fellow New Englanders. On the one hand I deserved the disgrace on account my hubris and misplaced faith. But on the other hand, my display was a hopeful prayer for a second chance, an opportunity for redemption and maybe even revenge. Tonight is that second chance.
For the overconfident King of Nineveh here in Jonah, potentate of pagan Assyria, the Bill Belichick of the ancient Near East, the prediction of his nation’s pending upset to underdog Israel elicited immediate—remorse! The king “rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” For this pagan king to offer such a shame-filled display in response to the words of an insufferable Hebrew prophet before the game had even been played was nothing short of remarkable—so remarkable that Jesus would commend its virtue centuries later as an indictment against Israel’s own arrogance. Not only did the Assyrian King repent, but all of Nineveh reformed their behavior, turned from their evil ways and from the violence and injustice of which they were guilty. And this without any guarantee of mercy. The king prayed to a deity he did not recognize—referring to God with the Hebrew generic elohim. “Who knows” said the king, “this God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
Of course for those who did know the Lord, who knew elohim to be Yahweh, the idea that he should ever change his mind was absurd. As the Reformer John Calvin would later assert, any suggestion that the Lord would change his mind or relent (or as the King James so boldly puts it, repent) would imply that “either the Lord is ignorant of what is going to happen, or cannot escape it, or hastily and rashly rushes into a decision.” The Bible unambiguously declares in Numbers 23 that “God is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” Likewise in 1 Samuel 15: “The Glory of Israel will not recant or repent; for he is not a human, that he should change his mind.” The problem, of course, is that God does repent and change his mind. He does it in Genesis where He repents of having made people. He does it in Exodus where he changes his mind about destroying the golden calf-loving Israelites. Likewise with the prophets Joel and Amos, God changes his mind about his plans for his people. Even in 1 Samuel 15 where the Lord says he doesn’t repents he repents over having made Saul the first king of Israel.
If such change of heart on the Lord’s part bothers you (and as we will see it clearly bothered Jonah), it may be because you project too much of your own manner onto God. We quickly think of all the times we change our own minds—times that usually have to do with poor decision-making skills, lack of information, fear, anxiety or sin—none of which characterize God. “God is not a human, that he should change his mind” should be understood as “God does not change his mind like we humans do.” Unlike humans, God does not say one thing and then do another, nor does he change his mind for frivolous reasons or for no reason at all. God is not capricious or arbitrary but consistent and reliable—and he never changes in regard to his dependability or character. As the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Word Made Flesh in Christ and the Holy Spirit who dwells in his people, the Lord is reliably personal and consistently loving. He is eager for relationship and therefore always responsive.
Because God loves us, he responds to our repentance and relents from allowing us what our deeds deserve. He is patient with us, creating space for the experience of relationship on our part, for the awareness of our need and for the necessity of our humility and surrender to his mercy. The long-suffering nature of God makes possible a new beginning after every personal disaster and failure. “God is patient with you,” the apostle Peter wrote, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
This is good news for sinners—not so good for those sinned against. This will be Jonah’s gripe. Nineveh was a nation devoted to violence and murder. The prophet Nahum labeled it “a city of bloodshed, full of lies and never without victims.” How can wearing sackcloth and ashes and promising to do better suffice for years of brutality? What if Syria’s current President Assad and his henchmen suddenly stopped killing their citizens and said they were sorry? Does everything revert back to normal as if nothing happened? What about the abusers in your own life? Saying “sorry” and promising not to do it again may be enough for God, but what about you? I remember a woman once narrating for me a horrific history of her own violation, sins she simply could not and would not forgive. If granting grace to her abuser was what it meant to follow the Lord, then she could not follow the Lord. True, God had forgiven her sins and shown her grace to be sure; but her sins unto others were in no way as heinous as what had been done unto her. “I need a God who gets even,” she said, “The angry and vengeful God is a God I can obey.”
That God was so merciful would be why Jonah found obedience so impossible. The Lord ordered the prophet to Nineveh to warn them their days were numbered—in effect to give them one more chance. But Jonah, the only prophet ever to disobey a direct order, ran away in the opposite direction. He boarded a boat headed for the other end of the earth, but he could not hide from God. The Lord furiously bombarded his boat with a ferocious storm. Recognizing his own days to be numbered now, Jonah gave up, but he didn’t give in. He went overboard, willing to drown rather than do as he was told. But God would not let Jonah off the hook so easily. Making him into whale bait, God had a great fish eat Jonah alive and then puke him up onto the beach. And when Jonah came to, God issued his order again: “Get up, go to Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” It’s almost word for word with the command in chapter 1, except that here the main Hebrew verb “proclaim” carries a more positive tone, denoting a call to repentance and deliverance. God is going to give the Assyrians a break and Jonah simply can’t stand it.
And yet maybe because three days in the belly of a fish in the middle of the ocean was as bad as it sounds, Jonah complies, albeit with the smallest amount obedience he can get away with. He trudges into Nineveh and delivers a one sentence sermon. Five words in Hebrew that translate to eight in English: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah doesn’t mention God once. Nevertheless, these minimal words were more than enough, causing a stampede of repentance—an altar call on steroids—which has presented a challenge to long-winded preachers ever since. Like the pagan sailors on Jonah’s boat, the pagan Ninevites were better at being chosen people than the chosen people. The Ninevites took Jonah more seriously than the God’s people would ever take Jeremiah or Joel or Amos or Jesus. When Jeremiah brought them bad news, they had him locked him up. When Jesus did the same, they him strung him up. It’s hard to see your enemies offered grace. Harder still is to have it offered to you. An offer of grace presumes that you need it.
Jonah preached during a politically prosperous time for ancient Israel. They were living the dream of favored-nation status—strong and rich—so much so that they grew complacent and started to gloat. They confused God’s glory for their own and hogged it all for themselves. Jonah breathed in this air of superiority, figuring with the rest of God’s people, that the favor of the Lord was what they deserved. The last thing he wanted was for the despicable Assyrians to have a seat at the same table. God knows they deserved nothing but ruin.
I’m teaching a class up at Bethel Seminary this quarter on the topic of Theology and American Culture. Of course, a better title for the class might be Theologies and American Cultures, given the reality of pluralism in our country. It wasn’t always like this. We hear politicians pine for a “Christian America,” a nostalgic time when, culturally speaking, faith in Jesus was practically inevitable. It was a time when everyone affirmed the same religious values, spoke the same religious language, understood all the religious symbols and had their religious beliefs buttressed by social practices and mores woven into everyday life. Sure there were other cultures around, but they all just melted into the pot. These days, what with the expansive growth of cities and urbanization, with stunning advances in travel and technology bringing with it exposure to so many different cultures and ideas, religious belief is no longer the status quo. The Melting Pot has become more of a Super Bowl Party Buffet, a pluralistic smorgasbord of distinctive flavors and tastes. The buffalo wings share top billing with the guacamole and the fried mozzarella. There’s not really a main dish anymore.
By 2050, America will be a country with no ethnic majority. As we discussed the implications of this in my seminary class, it was clear that Christianity would be changing too. We had Korean-American Professor Soong-Chan Rah as our guest in class this week—speaking to us via Skype from Chicago on his Smartphone (talk about stunning technological advances). He noted how when current majority-culture Christians describe theological perspectives different from their own, they’ll use labels such as Asian theology or black theology or liberation theology. But when speaking of their own theology they just say theology—this despite the phenomenal growth of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, numeric growth that has already lapped Christianity in the West. He called this labeling the bitter fruit of the church’s “western white cultural captivity.” He said it’s the cause of the American church being so individualistic and so commercially materialistic and so morally accommodating to popular culture. Professor Rah then went on to ask why in a day when white Christians jump into the political fray over all sorts of issues with little Biblical precedent, we remain comparably hesitant when it comes to caring for immigrants and aliens, which the Bible promotes over and over again. Professor Rah proposed that the reason for the silence on immigration from white churches is because white people are afraid of a nonwhite America and a nonwhite Christianity.
Naturally I and my class of snow white Minnesotans were duly offended. Were we being called racists? At a seminary? As budding young pastors and prophets for the Lord? And yet even being a prophet of God was no guarantee against fear and disgust toward those unlike himself. Jonah hated the Assyrians. The last thing he wanted was for them to show up in his country or at his church or at his table. So what they wear burlap and say the right words, so what that they turn from their evil—who’s to say that once they’ve been spared they don’t go back to their vicious ways? They were that kind of people.
And they were. Within 50 years, the Assyrians would rise up and run over Israel, leveling the Northern Kingdom and carrying its citizenry into exile. And the Lord’s hand was in it. Israel’s complacency and conceit were sins in his sight. God sent Amos and Hosea and told them to knock it off, but they didn’t. And so the Lord announced he would “spare his people no longer.” The repentant Assyrians became the Lord’s ironic instrument of judgment against his unrepentant chosen people. When it comes to his justice, God shows no partiality.
And yet, because God is reliably personal and consistently loving; eager for relationship and therefore always responsive, his anger can be interrupted, halted or completely turned aside. God can change his mind. His love knows no limits—except the limit on those who would despise his love. In their case, divine patience will take the form of waiting for that Day for which evildoers will have piled up their wicked deeds. In an analogous passage from Joel that gets read every Ash Wednesday, the Lord speaks from the verge of his destructive justice and declares that “The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. No one can endure it.” “But even now,” declares the LORD, even then with one last gasp, “return to me with all your heart… Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
Because God loves us, he responds to our repentance and relents from allowing us what our deeds deserve. He changes his mind. However strictly speaking, even sinners who repent still deserve to be punished. The God who loves cannot abdicate justice. Everything does not revert back to normal as if nothing happened. God’s righteous anger against sin and injustice remains in force, even in the face of forgiveness. It’s what makes grace so scandalous. God’s righteous anger is enforced, only not against the ones who deserve it. Instead, God absorbs his justice onto himself—onto the body and blood of Christ shed for us. And because God loves us, there’s no changing his mind about that.