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Epiphany 3B 1st Reading

Chris Nafis

If the book of Jonah is anything, it is a book of absurdity. From the prophet who refuses to carry his message, to the polytheist gentiles who cry out to the Lord God for salvation, to Jonah surviving three days in the belly of a fish… ridiculousness. It’s like the Life of Brian of prophet stories, and yet it is within our canon. And the lectionary points us to the most absurd bit of the whole story for this week’s Old Testament reading: Nineveh repents.

Nineveh, of course, is a famously perverse Assyrian city, and since Israel herself almost never repents when confronted by a prophet of Israel’s own God, no Jew would expect anyone in Nineveh to respond to a Jewish prophet (let alone the whole city), especially when Jonah doesn’t even explicitly call them to repentance. Jonah walks, begrudgingly, into the city and carries the most abbreviated of all prophetic messages, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). It’s only five words in Hebrew. And yet, Jonah doesn’t even make it a third of the way through the city before the king of Nineveh is off of his throne and on the floor, covered in sackcloth and sitting in ashes.

It isn’t just the king who repents. By royal order, the entire city begins a fast, dresses in sackcloth, cries out to the Lord God of Israel, and turns from their evil ways and from the violence that is on their hands. Even the animals put on sackcloth and join the fast (see, ridiculousness). Because, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn form his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9). The lectionary excludes the best part, here; I don’t see how you could preach this passage without reading the whole chapter.

God knew what would happen all along. Jonah pronounced to Nineveh that the city would be “overthrown” in forty days (NRSV translation). The term “overthrown” can also be translated “overturned”, which is exactly what happens. The king goes from throne to ashes, and the entire city is overturned through repentance rather than obliteration.

The only thing that is not surprising about this story is God’s response to Nineveh’s repentance. When God sees how Nineveh has turned from their ways, God “repents of the evil” that God had planned to do to them (this is what the Hebrew says, literally, in 3:10). This is wholly within the character of the God we know from the scriptures – a God who is, as Jonah puts it in the next chapter, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Nothing else in this story seems to fit the mold, but the response of God is exactly what we (and Jonah) expect.

There are plenty of directions to go with this passage as a preacher. We probably refer to Jonah most often when talking about stepping into a calling we’d prefer to flee, and there is certainly room for an emphasis on that here. The Ninevites are the last people that anybody would expect to repent, and yet that’s what they do in this story. God sent Jonah for a reason, and great fruit came from him fulfilling his calling, however reluctantly.

Perhaps the most obvious preaching route here is the main thrust of the book: that the ones who are abhorrent to you may be the very ones in whom God is at work. From Jonah’s shipmates to the Ninevites, the fact that Gentiles are the ones who respond rightly to Lord God leaps out of this book. Jonah ends the book still bitter about the fact that God did not destroy the people of Nineveh. Who do we think that God cannot save? Who do we hope God will not save?

The truth is that mos