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How many stories do you know from the Bible? I know that today many people are not as familiar with Bible stories as they once were. There are many reasons for that – which is not the point of what I want to discuss today. Suffice it to say that some of you reading this will be able to name many Bible stories and others – well, not so much. And that’s okay!
I have many Bible stories that I have come to love and to respect over my lifetime. On this past Sunday I had the opportunity to use the Book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) as a primary text for a sermon. If you are not familiar with the whole story of Jonah, I encourage you to look it up and read it. It is short – only 4 chapters and a total of 48 verses. But the writer of Jonah manages to pack a lot of action into those 48 verses!
If people know anything about Jonah, they know that he was swallowed by a giant fish (sometimes mis-characterized as a whale) and that he lived in the fish for 3 days and nights before being thrown up by the fish (sorry for the imagery!) on the seashore. From there he finally obeys God’s direction to go to the city of Nineveh. God asked Jonah to invite the people who lived there to repent of their evil ways. (To “repent” means “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better.”[i]) The unstated assumption, at least on Jonah’s part, was that if the people did not repent God would bring destruction on the city.
The story tells us that Jonah went to Nineveh, walked about a third of the way across the city, stopped, and preached to the people only five words in Hebrew (8 in English): “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) From those few words the Ninevites responded! They did NOT throw Jonah out of the city! No – they repented! They, along with their king, committed to change their ways and they all wore “sackcloth and ashes” as a symbol of their humility and repentance.
If the story ended there, it would be a happy ending. But it continues with Jonah complaining to God that God did not follow through and destroy the city. Jonah felt that his credentials as a prophet had been undermined. But God responded that he simply could not ignore the well-being of that many people in such a large city after they had responded so positively to Jonah’s (very brief) sermon.
The lesson for Jonah and the book’s readers is that “a prophecy of destruction is meant…to educate and bring repentance.” Even for foreign nations (Nineveh was in a foreign nation outside the boundaries of Israel) “the prophecy of doom is a conditional prophecy that will come true only in the absence of repentance.”[ii]
Our God is a loving and patient God, always prepared to extend forgiveness when we stray from his expectations of how we should conduct ourselves. As humans we can never truly be “perfect”. In the eyes of God, we are always persons of worth and human beings subject to the unearned gift of forgiveness from God when we stray.
May God bless you as you seek to repent of old ways and try to do better in new ways.
As always, I pray for you God’s blessings of joy, hope, love, and peace in these challenging times.
Canada West Mission Centre President
[ii] New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 4th edition, p. 1302
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