Lesson Focus: God loves even the most wicked and evil. We should love them too so that they might repent.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Understand the inhabitants of Nineveh as a proper model for repentance.
Identify the inhabitants of Nineveh as creatures beloved by God.
Comprehend that we too should love our enemies and those who have acted with great evil.
Catch up on the story: Jonah had been called to bring the message of repentance and grace to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh represented for Jonah and Israel all that was evil and bad in the world. The people of that great city and land were totally undeserving, in Jonah’s eyes anyway, of any kind of salvation that might come from God. Jonah, knowing that God is a God of grace and mercy, refuses to go and proclaim the good news. He runs away, buying passage on a ship bound for a distant land. A storm crops up and threatens the lives of all on board. The crew finally determines that the storm is Jonah’s fault. Jonah admits the truth and tells them to throw him overboard and the storm will stop. Jonah slowly drifts toward the bottom of the sea; his life is ebbing away from him. Suddenly a great fish swallows him up. While in the belly of this great fish Jonah sings a song of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, declaring in the end that deliverance comes solely from God. As the closing lines of his song are sung, Jonah is vomited back out onto dry land.
Jonah goes… We aren’t given many specifics concerning Jonah’s trip from the beach to Nineveh. Depending on where the fish spat him back on dry land, Jonah would have had a really long trip. See map below.
I imagine that on a walk that long Jonah would have had some time to think about what had happened and what he was about to do. Jonah wasn’t really thrilled about his task the first time God called him, but we find him at least willing to go this second time. There is nothing in the text that makes us think that Jonah’s theological problem has been resolved. His song of praise and thanksgiving in chapter 2 offer no plea for forgiveness for his fleeing. Neither does it give us any indication that Jonah is now on the side of the city of Nineveh, i.e. that he wants them to repent.
I can imagine that as Jonah is trudging across the hot desert he has a lot of time to formulate what he is going to say. One might think that he would have composed a great oracle like the ones we find in the books of Amos, Hosea and Micah, detailing all that the inhabitants of Nineveh have done wrong. Or he might have composed an impassioned plea informing the people how much God loves them and wants to be their God.
But we don’t find that. In Hebrew Jonah’s message is only five words long. In English, it is: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Nothing in this phrase indicates that Jonah wants the people to repent. Rather, it seems like he is making it as hard as possible for the people of Nineveh to experience God’s grace. Chapter 4 reveals for us that Jonah still really wants Nineveh to be brought to destruction (more on that next week!). Not only are Jonah’s words short and ambiguous, he only spends one day in the city, which according to the narrator, would take three days to cross! Jonah has only taken God’s message to one third of the population.
Nineveh responds… In spite of Jonah’s continued obstinate ways, God is working. One has to think that God had been preparing the people’s hearts to receive Jonah’s call to repentance long before Jonah ever got there. God’s grace goes before Jonah. As Christians and as Wesleyans we believe this is how God works. Long before any of us take the message of Christ’s salvation to anyone, God has gone before us, drawing that person to himself. We call it prevenient grace.
Nineveh repents; by order of the king everyone fasts. Even the cows and the chickens put on clothes of mourning. At this point it is best to keep in mind for whom this book was intended. Jonah was intended for God’s people who were found living in Judah after the period of exile is over. God’s people returned from exile to begin to eke out an existence in a land that had been ravaged by war, a land that was not truly their own anymore. The idea of God saving such an evil people like those in Nineveh would have been very disturbing for them, as it was for Jonah. They might have been asking, “What’s so special about Nineveh that they deserved being spared God’s judgment, when we, who are God’s people, weren’t?”
Maybe Nineveh’s response models for them, and for us today, how it is that we are to respond when we are called to repent for our wrongdoing and sin. Nineveh now aware of their sin, takes no chances. Their repentance and begging for forgiveness is so great that even the livestock take part! They threw themselves at the mercy of a God whose nature is exactly that, merciful and loving, and God did not turn away from them. How often, when we have sinned, or are confronted by another about our sin, do we throw ourselves into the arms of our merciful God? Or do we act with a sense of arrogance as Israel had at times, thinking, “Surly God won’t punish us, we are God’s people!”
God relents… The phrase, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish,” is found on the lips of the king of Nineveh. For him and the people of Nineveh, nothing was certain. Perhaps we need to have a bit of the same attitude toward our own salvation. Yet as Wesleyans, we have the doctrine of assurance: we can be confident of our salvation through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. What the people recognize is that salvation depends on God. They do not trust in themselves or their own virtue for salvation. We are not as good as we think we are. In fact, we are evil and broken. Thus, we trust only in God’s mercy.
I don’t want this to come across as though we need to be in constant fear of losing our salvation. Rather, I am questioning our smug attitude towards what we think we deserve from God. In reality, what we need to always be doing is evaluating where we are in relationship with Christ. Asking ourselves questions like, “How have I sinned?” “How can I make things right with my neighbor?” We need to be constantly confessing the difference between who we are and who Christ is. Perhaps the only way to true spiritual vitality is a naked honesty about who we are in relationship to Christ. Israel was not honest with herself about her relationship to God, but Nineveh was. For those who choose to truly repent of their sins, and realizing that they are completely dependent on God’s grace, grace will be given.
So What? The main question that is on the mind of Jonah and his Israelite audience is why would God care for Nineveh? The direct answer to that question comes at the very end of the book, which will we look at next week. Simply put, because they exist. The underlying theme behind the question is a little more sinister. Behind the question stands the notion that we should not care about the inhabitants of Nineveh.
In Jonah’s mind, Nineveh was a city of great evil and as such, should be destroyed as God said that he might do. This does not change the fact that in God’s mind the people of Nineveh are his beloved creation, too. God is saddened by their wickedness and desires that they turn to him. So, God offers them a chance to repent.
We often fall into this same trap that Jonah and his audience had found themselves in, the trap that says we should not care about our enemies. As Christians, and most certainly as Americans, we sometimes take up a stance that dehumanizes our enemies, labeling them wicked or evil and well beyond the scope of anyone’s forgiveness, let alone God’s. One has only to view the threads of social media to see this clearly. Every time an individual or a group perpetrates some form of evil there are calls from all different types of people for the most heinous of retributions.
It is sad when the church gets caught up in this trap as well. We have a tendency to demonize our enemies, whites, blacks, protestors, cops, homosexuals, sexual predators, ISIS and the like. When our discourse shows a lack of concern for those who have committed great evil we are exposed as being exactly like poor Jonah who wants nothing other than to see his enemies destroyed.
God has different plans. God desires us, as his sometimes reluctant prophets and preachers, to declare that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2) God cares for the vilest offender, and so should we.
Critical Discussion Questions:
How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
God looks compassionately to those who truly repent, even if they seem undeserving of God’s grace in the eyes of the world. God also looks to be constantly going before his messengers to draw people to himself. God works in spite of human unwillingness to respond to the call upon our lives to spread his good news. This should give us hope. Hope to believe that at the end of time God will ultimately win the battle over death, sin, and evil in this world. Our hope is not on the ability of Christians to convert the world, but on the great drawing power of Christ to bring the entire world back to him.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Salvation comes to those who truly repent. Regardless of what has happened before, of whom a person or group of people is, they can experience God’s saving grace through true repentance. Nineveh relented from the violence it had been doing, they fasted and mourned for their sins.
It also means that we value and care for those who have perpetrated evil crimes against others and us.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We are to begin to examine how we view and talk about our enemies. We must resist the urge to demonize or dehumanize those who have done unspeakable things so that we might care for them and about them in the same way that God does.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
At first, Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh but runs the opposite direction. Why does he now turn and obey God’s call?
What do you make of Jonah’s sermon? Why does he only offer one short sentence? Why does Jonah only go “one day’s walk” into a city that took three days to cross?
The people of Nineveh respond and repent despite Jonah’s lackadaisical effort. Why do they respond so positively?
What does the holistic nature of Nineveh’s repentance say about how we should approach our own repentance?
In the king’s decree we hear this line in verse 9, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” What was the salvation of the people of Nineveh based on?
The people of Nineveh were great enemies of Jonah and his people. Why does God care for them? What does God’s care for the wicked have to teach us about how we should think, speak, and act toward our own enemies?