“When God Saw…”
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10, January 24th, 2021
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Let us now open our ears to hear the tale of the man named Jonah who was swallowed by a whale! Our reading is from the Old Testament, chapter three, verses one thru ten.”
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.
4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
7 Then 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.
8 Human 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.
9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
“Given a second chance, Jonah was willing to encourage the people of Nineveh, to change their ways. Let us take note: Even the God of old was willing to give humankind a second chance!”
“When God Saw…”
The first time the word of God came to Jonah, he fled, for he was afraid to carry the harsh message of wrath, at the hand of God, for their wickedness. /Jonah 1:1-3/ He then boarded a small vessel, but when a storm threatened peril to the crew, they threw Jonah overboard. Legend tells us that a whale of a fish swallowed up Jonah and then at God’s bidding spit him out after three days and nights. /Jonah 1: 4-17, 2:1-10/ It is the greatly humbled Jonah which we now encounter in our scripture this morning. Thereby, when the word of God came to Jonah the second time, he was willing to respond more positively. I think it is fair to say, a great many of us today, are somewhat reluctant to follow the will of God – as we first grasp what God is saying to us. Sometimes, God seems to want us to do things, or say things that are at the very least – somewhat uncomfortable. Surely, there are a lot of times it takes a bit of courage, for a Pastor like me, to tell you what we believe the Bible is saying to us today! It would be so much easier to tell you what you want to hear!
Some of the great preachers of modern time are often quoted as saying some rather simplistic things, which have tremendous consequences if folks have the willingness to follow their lead. “Black Lives Matter!” Three simple words, with tremendous power to stir up a crowd – if – you are willing to open-up the subject. A common response is that “All Lives Matter.’ Of course, they do! God created us all equal! That is the catch. We do not treat each other as equals and there in is the rube, that is the gravel in this annoying phrase! When we ‘cop-out’ of the conversation by saying “All Lives Matter” in response to the statement “Black Lives Matter,” we are not engaging in the subject at hand. People of color are profiled and judged based on the color of their skin. Racism, Discrimination, Prejudice, and Bigotry are alive and thriving in the toxic environment of this country in which we live. Perhaps not in our church or maybe not in the community we personally live in, but it does all around us! As your Pastor, I am very much like Jonah, I do not want to talk about this! Therefore, I can easily identify with his reluctance to carry the message of God’s wrath to Nineveh!
It is easy to see why Jonah was afraid to carry the message to the leader of Nineveh, and thus he ran from his responsibilities. Yet, after his ordeal and subsequent rescue and liberation he became a bit wiser, and a bit humbler. He realized that God had given him a second chance and he was perhaps heartened and felt seemingly reassured that God would consider giving the people a second chance. Which is what happened. The king of Nineveh himself, “he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” /Jonah 3:6/ The king also told those in his charge to change their ways, asking God for mercy. There was hope, perhaps because of Jonah’s story, we do not know for sure. Yet, they felt it was worth the try, as surely, they too had heard that God had given others a second chance. Clearly, this writing is meant to encourage us to have hope, just as it did the people of the Old Testament! Our writing ends by telling us what we all pray for! “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” /Jonah3:/
Speaking the truth and speaking it openly, seems and sounds so easy. Yet, we all know this is not so. It takes courage to speak up. When a neighbor asks where you go to church, do you simply say: here in Palm Bay? Or are you willing to tell them you are part of the United Church of Christ; a church where all are welcome, no matter their skin color or their ethnic origin. Do you? Do you tell them that you are proud of the diversity of our church and its openness to all of God’s people? Our Christian heritage is something to be proud of. We are the uniting of four denominations: The Congregational church out of New England with its roots in the faith of the Pilgrims, the beginning foundations of democracy. The Christian church which settled more in the Carolina’s, and in its history was one of the first to ordain a woman to Christian ministry. These two eventual united into one body that later joined with the Evangelical and Reformed churches after they too joined as one body, thus in 1957 these four came together as the United Church of Christ.
Speaking the truth takes courage, as not everyone wants to hear the truth! Do you tell others that we have stood side by side with the migrant farm workers… when they were in the picket lines in California, seeking justice, after someone was killed in their ranks? Do you ever speak about how bus loads of members of our denomination traveled to support the Selma marches, back in 1965 against segregation; and do you speak about how we supported the efforts of Martin Luther King? Do you tell people how we are welcoming to people with varied sexual orientations – without bias or condemnation? The U.C.C. was one of the first to ordain a gay man. There is so, so much to speak of in our Open and Affirming stance in this world. It takes courage to stand up and be counted. Many modern churches have had to redesign their entrances and how people navigate within its sanctuary, ‘in order’ to make their places of worship accessible to the handicapped and disabled. Still other congregations have someone who can use sign language to assist the deaf. That took a volunteer to learn sign language, while other challenges often take financial gifts. It takes courage to ask a congregation to donate to a new lift for the handicap; especially when it is priced at ten thousand dollars, and they personally do not need it! Not to mention the budget that year was already strapped. The congregation I served in Middletown, New York, they did exactly that! The man who had his foot amputated because of circulation problems was eternally grateful for our efforts.
All of which our scripture lesson tells us, all that was first asked of Jonah… was to deliver a message to a people he knew were undeserving of mercy. Perhaps he thought they would kill or at least harm the messenger. Perhaps he just did not see the point. Just what was the point, why did God need for him to deliver the message? Especially if there was no chance God would reconsider the judgment placed upon the people of Nineveh. Granted, it is not such a big stretch to realize how pointless it all feels at times. Like washing dishes, they will just get dirty again. Or why make the bed every morning, no one cares, and it will need to be unmake again tonight. Really? You just can not let me say these things! Of course, we need to make our beds everyday and of course we need to wash the dishes after every meal. Why? Because it does matter! All these things matter a great deal! It mattered to God that Jonah was not willing to deliver the message to the people of Nineveh!
Legend has it that Jonah had to go through a sort of training drill to get the point! The point being that God sets the tone and direction of our assignments. We do not know the grand scheme of things. Jonah surely did not! When Jonah was properly prepared, and his attitude had been adjusted he did as God asked. And this reconditioned Jonah, he perhaps changed his tone as he delivered the message to the people of Nineveh. Was it his change in tone, as he told the story of his experiences to the king’s people… as he entered their community? Surely, this was what caused the king to trigger the people to respond as they did. Yet, we shall never, ever know for sure! But the reading tells us that the writer of this piece of scripture sure wanted us to know there was a time when a community named Nineveh, there was a time when the wrath of God was upon them… but because of a messenger named Jonah, the king repented, and the king caused his subjects to repent… and then God reversed the judgement imposed upon the people of Nineveh.
God has, and God shall, ask of us things we do not truly want to do. Yet, if we truly follow the will of God… we shall find a way to get it done; even if we need to go through a training session or three, before we are ready to proceed.
Without ‘jumping’ to the saving grace of God in the New Testament, specifically the gospel accounts of the Messiah, we need to see the willingness of God to forgive through the eyes of this Old Testament writing. It is important to realize that God has always been God. Our acknowledgement, our understanding of God is what has changed and grown. When we accept this response of the God of Old, then we shall more readily recognize, receive, and trust the God of the here and now! Our life journeys will probably not get us swallowed up by a large fish, as spoken of in this whale of a tale. Yet, we shall have moments of doubt and even dread, times when we shall want and need a compassionate God; a God who shall judge us with mercy!