January 24, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the book of Jonah God commands the prophet to go to the city of Nineveh and preach to them the need to repent lest they be destroyed. The people of Nineveh listened and repented and God decided not to inflict on them the disaster he had threatened. Mark’s Gospel continues last week’s theme. Here Jesus, walking along the Sea of Galilee, called Simon, Andrew, James, and John. They were fishing and Jesus invited them to leave their nets and follow him.

Of all the Old Testament Prophets, I think Jonah puzzles me the most. We can all agree that God sometimes chooses someone we wouldn’t but Jonah raises this to a new level. For the Jews of the time the city of Nineveh was seen as an enemy and worthy only of scorn. But God demanded that Jonah go there and preach repentance so that God will spare them destruction.

Jonah wanted no part of this plan and ran the other way hoping to flee from God’s command. He boarded a ship but when the ship ran into a storm the passengers grew fearful that someone on the ship was being punished. When they found out it was Jonah they threw him overboard in the hopes that the storm would end.

Instead of drowning, however, God sent a big fish (not necessarily a whale) who swallowed Jonah and kept him in his belly for three days and three nights before Jonah was returned to dry land.

But when Jonah finally agreed to travel to Nineveh he made, at best, a half hearted attempt to convert the Ninevites. While obeying God’s command he hoped the Ninevites would ignore him and suffer God’s wrath. And then, to Jonah’s horror, the Ninevites heard his words and repented and God spared the Ninevites.

I suspect we’ve all encountered people who claimed that they wanted something but really didn’t. When it came to put in the work to make it happen they essentially sabotaged it and then said that they tried their best. Jonah hoped to watch God destroy Nineveh and tell everyone he did his best.

Frankly, were I God I would have fired Jonah after he fled to the sea. Perhaps from God’s perspective this happened with more frequency. Perhaps he called people to be prophets who essentially told God to get lost but we don’t know about those people.

But amazingly, Jonah’s best efforts at sabotage didn’t work. To everyone’s surprise, the people of Nineveh heard Jonah and repented of their wickedness and they were spared God’s wrath. It almost seems straightforward.

Interestingly, it’s not. Periodically I’ll see something in the readings that puzzles me and I’ll look to different translations to see if they can provide clarity on the meaning of the reading. This time it just made things more confusing.

When we think of Jonah we probably think of the scene in the novel and movie Moby Dick. One of the opening scenes describes a church service where the minister reads about Jonah being swallowed by a whale and this provides a springboard to the story of Ahab and Moby Dick.

That event, dramatic as it was, can causes us to ignore something profound. When Nineveh repented God chose not to destroy them. But different translations describe it in different ways. The lectionary I use said that God “relented” and did not destroy Nineveh. But other translations say that God “repented” or God “changed his mind.”

Really? Can God repent? Can God change his mind? It’s almost as if God was also rooting for Nineveh to ignore Jonah and face destruction. Let’s look at these translations one at a time.

God can certainly relent and I don’t think there’s any confusion about that. We see this happen time and again: God warns a person, a group, or a city that they need to repent to be destroyed. Sometimes they repent and sometimes they don’t. God’s deal was that he would spare Nineveh and he did.

Can God repent? That’s more troublesome. We can certainly repent, but only because we can sin. We repent when we’ve strayed off the path, recognized that we’ve done it, and get back on the path. But if repentance repairs sin, how can God repent if we don’t believe God can sin? This reminds me of the end of the Noah’s Ark story (Genesis 8:21-22) where God promises never again to flood the earth. It can be read through the eyes of the flood being God’s loss of temper. Every parent I know recognizes time when they’ve lost their temper with a child and said or done something they regret. It’s a hard but necessary lesson.

Finally, can God change his mind? Almost all of us act as if our prayer can change God’s mind. Think about what happens when we hear bad news about a friend’s sickness. We talking about “storming Heaven with our prayers” and if our friend is healed we believe that our prayers worked. Several years ago a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The prognosis with ovarian cancer is never good and she asked for prayers for everyone. She promised to keep all of us appraised of her progress by email.

In the course of these emails some of her group asked for prayers for themselves or others and they were included in the emails. Eventually this turned into a book called The God Box that I strongly recommend (you can find it on Amazon). In the course of asking for prayers she formed a virtual community. We know about each other’s needs, we celebrate their victories, and mourn their losses. And many of us have never met. I can speak from personal experience that reading these emails has made me more compassionate and empathetic. Oh yes, and spoiler alert: my friend is now several years cancer free.

In the end, what do we do with this? I don’t know but here’s my suggestion: let’s not wander too far into the weeds of whether God can repent and recognize that we need to repent and we worship a God who understands our journey. Also, let’s not wonder if our prayers have the power to change God’s mind. Let us instead continue to pray in the knowledge that whether or not it changes God, it changes us.

Finally, if you’re interested in being part of this prayer community let me know and I’ll have you added to the list.