Jonah 3:1-10; Romans 12:1-8
Today’s passages are two of my favorites from scripture – the story of Jonah preaching in Nineveh and Paul’s exhortation to the house church in Rome, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These are provocative passages which beg the question, “Is change possible for persons, congregations, and nations?”
The book of Jonah is a whale of a story, even without the big fish – it’s full of theological and spiritual surprises, and is a wild ride, and if you hop on board that big fish, you’ll never be the same.
Now, Jonah gets a bad rap, and in a lot of ways he deserves it. He is judged as disobedient, xenophobic, angry, and vindictive. God gives him a job and he goes in the opposite direction.
Few readers of Jonah, however, ask the question, “Why does Jonah disobey God?”
Now, I can identify with Jonah’s struggles. I was raised in a conservative church. We knew who was saved and who wasn’t. We knew who was moral and who wasn’t. We didn’t yet know much about gays and lesbians or other religions, but we assumed only one path to salvation and they weren’t on it! We believed the Bible, just the way King James wrote it, and loved what God loved and hated what God hated.
Like the people of our church, Jonah was devout and orthodox and couldn’t believe God would ask him to reach out to Nineveh – the enemy, the infidel, the heathen. He was comfortable with God raining fire and fury on the Ninevites, and he knew that God wouldn’t want to save such an evil people.
That’s what he was afraid of – that God had changed the rules of the game; that God was a universalist and not a fundamentalist; and that the Ninevites would repent. But, God’s ways are often iconoclastic, shaking up our established theologies to awaken us to new images of God’s way in the world.
Jonah runs away, but as the saying goes, “you can run but you can’t hide” and so God whispers in the ear of a big fish – animals can receive revelations, too – who becomes a swimming Uber, picks Jonah up, gives him a Lyft and deposits him at Nineveh three days later, free of charge where Jonah grudgingly preaches, “God’s going to destroy you. Hell-fire and fury will level you,” expecting nothing to happen, or rather hoping the Ninevites won’t listen and bear the brunt of divine wrath.
And yet, they listen. They change. They turn from the pathways of immorality and violence to God’s way of Shalom. Even the animals fast and wear sack cloth and ashes, hoping against hope for divine deliverance.
And, to Jonah’s astonishment, God changes God’s mind. Nineveh is delivered; the city survives and embarks on a new pathway. What a troubling thing – God changes God’s mind. To those who believe in predestination, or a god who never changes, this is a theological nightmare. God is more flexible, imaginative, and compassionate than we can imagine. God is personal and when we change, God, like any loving parent or friend, changes and adapts as well. God is still speaking and there’s more light, as John Robinson asserts, to shine on the scriptures.
“Be not conformed, be transformed.” Despite their past – and we all have a history – the Ninevites can become a new creation. Change isn’t easy, and it’s easy to backslide into old habits and prejudices, but as twelve step groups proclaim, we can go forward one day at a time; making the next right decision, despite our ambivalence and anxiety, every moment of the day.
Is change possible? This is a tough question. Our society and the church is in flux, and we wish we were still in the calm streets of Mayberry, North Carolina or Olde Cape Cod. We lament the violence at Charlottesville and the rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. We ponder our dependence on economies that contribute to global climate change, and wonder if we can change our lifestyles enough to ensure a positive future for our planet and those caught in the maelstrom of climate change, drought, storm, famine, and flood. We see the changing patterns of religious life in North America and wonder if we as churches can initiate novelty to match the spiritual novelties that threaten to leave us behind. We wonder if we can embrace new ways of looking at our missions and ministries, recognizing that God’s call to us drives us beyond Sunday morning and our sacred brick and mortar and white steeple churches to be God’s partners in healing the world – a world of diversity, religious pluralism, suspicion of organized religion, addiction, and homelessness.
I believe that change is possible, but it is up to us to embrace the visions God presents us. We have our own “Ninevehs” – our own foreign places toward which God calls us. It may not be comfortable but this is where God wants us to journey with heart, head, and hands. God wants us to follow Gandhi’s maxim, to be the change we want to see in the world.
Now, I must confess that I’m still running the race; I’m definitely in process; and I still have thought and behavior patterns I need to challenge and fears I need to address. But, I take confidence in the affirmation that I’m not what I once was, that I’ve come a long way, and that there’s more to come in the future.
From that small town Baptist faith – and I’m grateful for it – I have come to see God’s wisdom in other faith traditions; God’s love in gay, lesbian, and transgendered people; God’s beauty in persons of other cultures and races; and God’s salvation including every last one of us, including the non-human world.
Change is possible, and to those who follow God’s ways, change is necessary, and when God asks us to go to Nineveh, God will provide a big fish, or Uber or Lyft, or a GPS to get there.
We are in the center of a cyclone these days, and only for a moment can we rest in the calm. Soon, we must also set sail in the direction God calls us, to unknown destinations as did Jonah and Paul and Abraham and Sarah. God is with us, and calls us to be transformed and renewed to bring healing, wholeness, and love as we journey toward God’s future.