Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? And what was the impetus? I’m not asking about the last time you changed your mind about what you would have for dinner. Or the color you would paint your living room. No, I’m asking about a real shift in your thinking—a significant change of mind. I’m asking about the kind of change of mind that reorients your life and how you see the world and yourself and others. I can think of three such mind-changing moments in my life.
The first of these moments happened my first semester of seminary. The impetus was a note scrawled in red on the paper I had written for Bob Poerschke. The note read: “Who is this zapping God your serve? I would like to introduce you to my loving and grace-filled God.” Over the course of that semester I would begin a process of changing my mind about who God is and how God interacts with us.
The second time I changed my mind about something significant was when my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Before his diagnoses, my father and I would often spar about religion and the bible and politics. His literal interpretation of scripture left us little room to have, in my opinion, a meaningful conversation about our faith and beliefs. When he learned he had a brain tumor his first response was that if it was his time to go God would take him but if it wasn’t God would spare his life. It was in that moment, almost as if I had one of those blinding light experiences, when I realized that my father needed his faith, not mine, to sustain him in a very uncertain time. That experience changed my mind about what it means to have a conversation about faith with someone who believes differently than me.
The third, what I would call a significant mind changing experience, has happened more recently. I have always been one of those people who believed that if someone really wanted something bad enough they could achieve it if they just tried harder, worked harder, did all the right things, took all the right steps, played by all the right rules. I no longer believe this to be true. There are reasons, good reasons, why some people struggle just to get out of the bed in the morning. Depression, anxiety, and the physical and emotional side effects of depression and anxiety. There are real reasons why some people end up homeless and are unable to stay in large homeless shelters: paranoia, fear of safety from having experienced sexual and physical abuse as children and even as adults. This to make the point that most people are doing the best they can at any given moment and my judgment that sends the message if only they would do this or that or follow this rule or not follow this rule or work harder or do what I think they should do then their life would be better is simply, well, righteous judgment. Most people ARE doing the best they can do!
These three mind-changing moments may not sound like much to you, but for me they have been significant turning points in my life. And not one of them came easily. Bob worked with me all three years of seminary to help me discover through the biblical story and my own life experience that God was not out to zap me, and you might argue that I’m still getting to know Bob’s loving and grace-filled God. A conversation about religion and politics with my father can still make my blood pressure rise but my respect for him as a person of deep faith keeps me in relationship with him. Interestingly, this lesson keeps coming to me – as I struggle to make my peace others who hold vastly different beliefs, particularly those who also call themselves Christians. And when I look out back and want more from the women sleeping under the Cox Ave. building I have to remind myself that for most of them, they are doing the best they can do. This lesson too, is an ongoing one – if I am honest, I have to admit to myself that it isn’t just those women who are doing their best, it’s all of us, no matter how we believe this church should respond to homelessness.
As I reflect on these moments in my life where I changed my mind about something significant, each change of mind was precipitated by the same thing: the pain that the alternative mindset caused me. Pain is often the motivating factor to changing one’s mind.
We see this in the story of Jonah and God’s call to him to go to Nineveh. At the heart of the Jonah story is not a big fish. At the heart of the Jonah story are the questions: “Who is God? Who are we? And what do the two have to do with each other. It’s all there, in four little chapters stuck in among all those skinny books at the back of the Old Testament.” (Deborah Steely) As Deborah Steely would say, “If you’re looking for the book of Jonah go to the Psalms and turn right and go to almost the end of the Old Testament.”
Jonah is one of the so-called minor prophets. We don’t know much about him, but we can guess that he was a very righteous person. Hebrew prophets so often were. We can imagine that Jonah had had some sharp words to say to his people about cheating their customers and charging exorbitant interest rates and neglecting the poor and needy; and so when the word of the Lord came to Jonah on this particular day, he probably thought he was going to be delivering yet another diatribe about bribery or greed or some other transgression of Israel. So imagine Jonah’s surprise when the God instead said, “Go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.”
Now a word about Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was Israel’s most feared and loathed enemy. For centuries Assyria had invaded Israel to burn and loot and plunder, and it was the Assyrians that had swallowed up ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. Asking a Hebrew prophet to go preach to Nineveh would be like asking a Holocaust survivor to go minister to neo-Nazi skinheads. Not an easy task.
Well, you know the story. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah heads in the opposite direction as fast as he can. He goes down to Joppa where he boards a ship heading to Tarshish. In the night a terrible storm comes upon the ship, so that it looks like it will break in half. Up on deck the sailors are bailing water as fast as they can to keep the ship from going down, and down below, Jonah is fast asleep.
Deborah Steely writes of what happens next. She writes:
“In the midst of this howling gale, there comes the strangest little scene. The sailors have cast lots—something like consulting a Quija board, or reading tea leaves—to see what has brought this calamity upon them, and it has become clear to them that Jonah and his god are responsible. They call for him, and there they stand on the deck: on the one hand, the frantic, sweaty sailors who are fighting for their lives, and on the other Jonah, cool as a cucumber, fresh from his nap, saying, ‘Yeah, well, pitch me overboard.’”
Deborah picks the story back up after Jonah has been thrown overboard, swallowed by a big fish, and spit up on dry land. She writes:
“So here he is, spit up on dry land. Does he leap on the nearest donkey and head for Nineveh? He does not. He waits around to see if Nineveh is really where God wants him to go. It is; the word of the Lord comes a second time, and does he hurry to Nineveh to help them save themselves? He does not…What he does is to creep into Nineveh about as far as the Wal-Mart. He stands on the corner with the traffic rushing by and says, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’ That is some powerful preaching. And then, he is so sure that God is going to blow Nineveh to bits that he climbs up on the hill back of Crabtree Valley Mall to watch the fireworks ad gloat. A day comes and goes, and the another day, and nothing happens, and then word comes to Jonah that the impossible has come to pass. That one little muttered grudging word of his has spread like wildfire across the whole city, and the whole population has in fact repented, and God has changed [God’s] mind [about destroying Nineveh].”
What does it take to change God’s mind?
Jonah is furious when he hears that God has spared Nineveh of a calamity. Why? If we read chapter four we learn why. Because, as the narrative tells us, Jonah knew all along that God is a gracious God, a merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. It’s not fair, Jonah laments. God has changed the rules and God has changed God’s mind and it’s not fair.
This is hard news, and not just for Jonah. A just and orderly and unchanging God we like. But a changing God is quite another thing. Who could ever be sure where that God’s anger would strike? Or where that God’s mercy might land? But this is who God is: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and ready to forgive. And this is who we are: frightened, graced, grace-less, mercy seekers for ourselves and justice seekers for others. And along the way as we live in relationship with this gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love God, our minds change sometimes and we become more like God—gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love.
What does it take to change God’s mind? It takes us learning to change our minds—to become more gracious and to be more merciful and to love to our enemies—those whom we don’t understand, and to those who are different from us. To be honest, the Jonah story isn’t about God changing God’s mind, any more than it isn’t about Jonah being swallowed by a big fish. No, this is a story about what happens when we have the courage to change our minds to be more like God. When we decide, in the little and big decisions of life, to be more gracious, and merciful. When we decide to be slower to anger, and abound more in God’s steadfast love. Because when we change our minds, to live this way, we understand more the mind of God, and most importantly, the heart of God.
When was the last time you changed your mind so that you might respond more like God?