Thursday, January 18, 2018

Complete Turnaround


Several times in the Bible, God is said to have changed his mind about a certain calamity or destruction God had planned to bring upon some people. In Sunday's reading from Jonah, we hear one of those moments. God planned to destroy the city of Nineveh for their terrible sins, but, after Jonah brought the message of repentance to them, the whole city--from the king of the Assyrians down to the livestock--fasted, put on sackcloth and ashes, and turned from their evil ways. In response, we hear that "when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it."

Dangerous though it is to flatly contradict the Bible, I do not believe that God changes God's mind. A God who changes God's mind does not make sense. Sure, it's one thing for God to change his mind about a punishment, but what about a promise of salvation? Could God decide not to love us? Could God decide not to keep the children of Israel for God's own? Could God decide to go ahead and flood the whole earth because God woke up one morning and felt like it? Surely, we depend on the faithfulness of God. We depend on knowing and believing that God will never change. So what do we make of passages like this one, when God is said to have changed God's mind?

The Assyrians were evil. Nineveh was the capital city of an evil empire. For decades, Assyrian raiders had come down from the north and attacked the villages of Israel, the northern kingdom. They would sneak in and terrorize the towns by night, killing men and carrying off women and children as slaves. The would rape the women of Israel and set fire to the crops. No one liked the Assyrians. God didn't like the Assyrians. If anyone on the planet deserved to receive God's judgment, it was surely the Assyrians.

In fact, the people of Israel depended on the knowledge that one day God would pay back the Assyrians for all their evil. Isn't that what it means to be God's beloved people--that God will fight against your enemies and repay them for what they have done? Eventually, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. Their only hope was that God would come and intervene and save them. When Jonah the prophet received God's word, it wasn't what he was hoping to hear.

Although it's not in the lesson for Sunday, we know about the first time Jonah was called by God to take the message of repentance to the enemies of God and God's people: he ran away. Then there was the whole storm on the sea, belly of a fish, vomited up on shore incident, and we pick up with the second time God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent. God wasn't sending the prophet to bring destruction but to invite repentance. And Jonah knew that God was a merciful God and that, if the Assyrians somehow found it within themselves to turn from their wickedness, God would change his mind and forgive them. And he did.

Human beings can be so completely sure of what God's plan for the world is that when something else happens it feels like God changes his mind. In the Bible, when God changes his mind, it's because he's no longer going to destroy the people conventional wisdom thinks he should destroy. What can we learn from that?

In silent movies, it's easy to tell who the bad guy is. He's the one with the dark clothes and the black mask. In life, it can feel like it's easy to tell who the bad people are. Clearly, they're the ones who disagree with us, who fight against us, whose god isn't like our God. But sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes God surprises us with a gift of mercy and love even to those we are convinced don't deserve it. Guess what! That's us as well.

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