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4Jonah entered the city, went one day's walk and preached, "In forty days Nineveh will be smashed."

5The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God.

Over the holidays there was a television special on the Discovery Channel commemorating the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that left 231,000 people dead or missing in southeast Asia (December 26, 2004).

Even a year later it was surreal to watch home videos of rampaging rivers of debris sweep cars, trees, boats, refrigerators and even entire houses through the main streets of villages.

The program interviewed several survivors, one of whom was a boy about 12 years old.

When asked to explain how such a tragedy could happen, he remarked,

"We have left our traditional ways, and so God was angry with us. He abandoned us. I think I am alive today to tell our people this."

Such thinking can be very dangerous.

Dangerous because of how it portrays the relationship between human actions and divine response.

To be sure there is a relationship.

There is a very real sense that who we are and what we do is seen and felt by God.

Who we are and what we do is both see… and judged by God.

The whole of scripture is based on this belief.

From when God interacts with Adam and Eve and their sins and cast them out of Eden…

To God hearing the cries of the Hebrew children when they were enslaved in Egypt and thru Moses liberating them…

To when the sins of Israel brought judgment and exile in Babylon…

To when God became human in Jesus of Nazareth and invited persons and principalities to be baptized and believe and live eternally…

God see and feels… judges and redeems people and nations.

Very dangerous stuff.

Dangerous because such a belief in human behavior and divine response has serious consequences.

Serious consequences for us.

Serious consequences for God

Dangerous also because such a relationship between human behavior and divine response can be perverted.

In the hands of many… God’s seeing and feeling… judging and redeeming can become an instrument to be used in the wrong way.

In the wrong hands… for the wrong purposes… God can be used… or so some believe… as a weapon against those they believe are evil…

Or simply those they want God to judge.

In the story of Jonah we have such an example.

A careful reading of the text demonstrates how the prophet takes the words and call God gives him and changes it to suit his own purposes.

In initially calling Jonah to go to Nineveh, God tells him to Preach to them. They're in a bad way and I can't ignore it any longer.

When God calls Jonah the 2nd time at the beginning of chapter 3, the message Jonah is to deliver is the same.

Preach to them. They're in a bad way and I can't ignore it any longer.

But when Jonah finally gets to Nineveh, Jonah changes the message. 4Jonah entered the city, went one day's walk and preached, "In forty days Nineveh will be smashed."

Where did that come from?

How did Jonah get from They're in a bad way to "In forty days Nineveh will be smashed."

Did we miss something?

Did Jonah hear something we didn’t hear?

Is there some part of the text missing?

I would suggest that none of that is true.

Rather… I would argue that the change in message is all the responsibility of Jonah.

It is Jonah who turned They're in a bad way to "In forty days Nineveh will be smashed."


We don’t know.

Maybe it has to do with being called to a ministry in a city he had wanted no part.

Maybe it has to do with all that time he spent in the belly of the whale.

Jonah had not wanted this appointment and so he would say and preach whatever he chose.

Maybe he truly sees the sinfulness of Nineveh.

Maybe Jonah is convinced that God has no other alternative but to destroy this evil city.

Whatever the reason… Jonah changes the message.

And therein lies the great danger.

The danger is believing that we know what God will do.

The danger is that we can predict… come up with a formula that allows us to state what the human problem is…

and then come up with the proper answer as to what God will do.

Human behavior plus/minus God’s commandments equals God’s response.

All neat and tidy just like an algebraic equation.

If only it were that easy.

Some people… and some preachers believe it is.

The number of people and preachers willing to tell you what God is saying and will do to/for you or to/for the country or to/for the world stretches in a line that goes around the block.

Perhaps the most publicized lately is Pat Robertson who has in succession suggested the following:

… New Orleans got what it deserved because of abortion and gay rights

… the citizens of Dover, PA should not look to God if disaster strikes their town because the voted “against” God by defeating council people who supported Intelligent Design

… and suggested most recently that God has struck down the Prime Minister of Israel because he was dividing up “God’s land.”

In would be instructive to know what God thinks about Rev. Robertson’s pronouncements…

Or any other number of preachers and prophets… including this preacher…

who make pronouncements in God’s name.

Perhaps upon hearing us wail away crying “Thus says the LORD”

God is like the young man in Abraham Lincoln’s story who was “too hurt to laugh and to proud to cry.”

What we have done… what Jonah and Rev. Robertson and you and I have done is the same thing.

We have changed the message.

We have heard God say one thing… then preached what we think or want or hope God will say or do.

We have read scripture… studied the signs of the times… prayed and listened to what God is saying to us…

Then we have taken all or some or one line of what God has said and twisted it to what we believe… or want… or expect God to say… and/or do.

Jonah probably did want Nineveh to get clobbered by God.

Served them right.

What with all that riotous living… they should not be surprised that God is going to carry out a divine act or judgment and retribution.

Vote for the wrong people… abandon the ways of truth and light and goodness and you will draw the wrath of God every time.

Tsunami… volcanic eruption… invasion by the enemy… a hurricane here and there… AIDS or a bird flu epidemic.

Just no telling what or how God will carry out God’s justice.


Except God never quite fits into our neat algebraic equations for the universe.

Except God gets to decide what God is going to do when and how God decides to act.

Except that God is free… free of all of our formulas and prayers and prophetic pronouncements and fervent prayers.

Jonah discovered that much to his surprise and shock.

Jonah showed up in Nineveh… broadcast his message of doom and gloom… it was carried in all the newspapers and cable outlets.

And then sat back to watch with pleasure the sound and light show that was to be God’s sentencing of Nineveh.

Sort of like “shock and awe ” reigning down.

But it never happened.

The citizens took Jonah seriously.

5The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it--rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

Even the king got into the act.

When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt.

I’d pay real money the day a president or a governor or a mayor performs such an act.

So much for the end-of-the-world for Nineveh scenario.

God… taking this all in from his sky box… likes what is happening on the playing field.

God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn't do.

What a let down.

Here Jonah had delivered his doom and gloom sermon… then bought his popcorn to watch the big show…

Only to discover the show had been cancelled.

In her commentary of Jonah in the New Interpreter’s Bible… my teacher Phyllis Trible says that God’s decision not to destroy Nineveh is not a direct result of Nineveh’s conversion.

She notes the king’s words,” Who knows? Maybe God will turn around as evidence that even the king doesn’t but into the quid pro quo relationship.

The king seems to believe that turning away from their sinful ways will be good for Nineveh… even if they are to be judged and destroyed in 40 days.

The king must know… or at least believe that God is not manipulated or controlled by human concerns or behaviors or prayers… not matter how earnest and heartfelt they are.

Such a conclusion seems to drive the Jonah’s and Pat Robertson’s of the world crazy.

They are so sure they know the divine mind and can predict with certainty the divine actions…

They are dumbstruck when God acts in a way contrary to their keen theological insights or personal prejudices.

But perhaps we should not be too hard on Jonah.

Or the Rev. Mr. Robertson.

I am reasonably sure we have all been guilty of deciding how God is going to act… certain in what fashion that God is going to answer our prayers.

We have all changed the message.

We change the message because we want to be sure that God will do as we believe God should.

We change the message because it is more comforting to live as if we are sure we know what God will do.

We change the message … finally… because it scares us out of our theological and Biblical wits to believe that the God we worship… the God of the heavens and the earth… the God of Jesus of Nazareth…

Is a free God.

A free God.

Free of our expectations.

Free of our interpretations.

Free of our sermons and free of our prayers.

No wonder many of our translations talk of the “fear of the Lord.”

Having a fear or fearful respect might well temper our modern pretension that we know all about God and how and why God acts.

Who knows:

Maybe believing in a free God just might give us permission to be free people.


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