[A sermon mostly on Jonah 3, and a little on Revelation 7:9-17, for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.]
The people of Nineveh – and to a lesser extent, the animals of Nineveh – are really the main characters of this reading, even though it comes from the book of Jonah and Jonah does play a part in it. So we might want to pause and ask: Who are these people, anyway, the people of Nineveh? How we answer this question may have a lot to do with the way we understand what happens in this dramatic chapter, this dramatic portion of the story of Jonah. And believe it or not, there is more than one way to answer this question …
We could say the people of Nineveh are the enemies of Israel and Judah, the enemies of the people of God. They are the feared and hated Assyrians, the ruthless rulers of the Assyirian empire, the warriors who have raided and captured and kidnapped and killed the Israelites for a long time, the armies who marched on and threatened Judah and Jerusalem – assuming this story is supposed to be taking place after that event. This is almost certainly how Jonah thinks about who they are, as his feared and hated enemies, the kind of people about whom people have been known to think and say things like “the only good Assyrian is a dead Assyrian.” Most readers of the book of Jonah think that attitude is what explains Jonah’s epic refusal to follow God’s instructions in the first place: he runs the other way because Nineveh is a tough and violent place where no one in their right mind goes unless they have to, certainly not an Israelite, and he doesn’t care anything about these people, anyway – they’re the enemy, and if he had a hand grenade, he might throw it in their general direction, but loving them enough to go warn them of their impending doom is the last thing he wants to do, because … they’re the enemy.
We could even say they’re not just the enemies of God’s people, they’re the enemies of God, too – since their whole way of life is opposed to God. They ignore God’s instructions; they are wicked, evil, and violent – and I know this is not unfair to the Ninevites, because these words are in the Bible, this is how the story itself talks about them, in fact, it is how the Ninevites talk about themselves, these are the words the king’s proclamation uses to describe their behavior.
Although it may be a little unfair to call them the enemies of God, because it’s not obvious they even know enough about God to be God’s enemies. Since their whole way of life has been devoted to ways that take them away from God, it’s just common sense to assume that they don’t know God very well, certainly not personally. We know from our own experience that the people and things we know best are those we spend the most time with and do things with. For instance, my daughter is a swimmer, she’s been swimming since she was very little, and because of that, I know a bunch of other swim parents and they know me, because we have timed races together, we have helped out at concession stands together, we have sat in the bleachers at swim meets together … and I don’t know the soccer parents and the softball parents in my daughter’s class. And the same thing goes for the swimmers – my daughter knows the coaches of the swim team very well: how the coach likes to have things done, what it means when the coach starts them out on :30s (don’t ask me what that means, but it means something to her), when the coach is being serious and when the coach is joking … and the swimmers get to know the other girls on the team, who comes to practice regularly, who works hard and who slacks off, who is doing as well as they can, who could be great if they would just put a little more effort into it … they know one another because they spend time with each other. But those swimmers know a lot less about the girls who play volleyball or soccer. What they are doing determines who they’re doing things with and that determines who they’re getting to know. So for the Ninevites, the way they’re living means they don’t know God very well. So maybe the Ninevites haven’t exactly decided to be God’s enemies, maybe they are not God’s enemies on purpose … they may not even be thinking about God much at all when the story begins.
Aside from that, though, calling the Ninevites the enemy isn’t a wrong answer to the question of who they are. However … if we stop there, if we accept that answer, we have a real mystery on our hands, because we know that God insists on warning these people about the danger they’re in, insists on sending a prophet to their great city, even when God has a mighty hard time getting that prophet there, and a pretty hard time getting him to do his job – in fact, from the reading this morning, it seems like Jonah must have been something of a slacker as a prophet even after he arrived in Nineveh, since he only goes a day’s journey into a city that is a three days’ walk across, and he delivers a very short message, more like a fortune cookie than a sermon …
So it isn’t enough to say the Ninevites are enemies. They are also people who matter to God. They are people God cares about, as well as animals, it seems, that God cares about. These days someone might come up with a bumper sticker that says “Ninevite lives matter.”
And I think we know why they matter, too. I think the text gives us a lot of clues about this, too, actually points us in the direction of why this is, because Jonah reminds us in the reading we had last week that God is the creator of sea and dry land, and because all through this story there is a parade of God’s various creatures: the fish, the animals, the sea and wind, later we’re going to run into a plant and a worm … and this might remind us that the Ninevites are some of God’s creatures, too. Another right answer to who the Ninevites are is that they are God’s creatures – the people from the greatest to the smallest, and all the animals, are all God’s handiwork. We could even say that the Ninevites are God’s valued and valuable creatures.
Not only that, but since God insists on warning the Ninevites, we start to realize that as God’s creatures, MAKING A DIFFERENT CHOICE IS ONE OF THEIR POSSIBILITIES. We know God called the creation good. Over and over and over. And even though the Ninevites have been practicing being wicked and evil and violent, the possibility that God built in, created in to them … the possibility, to choose for life, to fulfill their purpose in this larger creation, to live out God’s original vision for their lives is still there. Doing what they’ve always done is not their only option. Getting reoriented to the direction in which their good lies, in which their real purpose in God’s creation lies – this is another option, and it’s open – the Ninevites are people with the possibility of good.
More than that, I think we know – well, I think we can assume – that the Ninevites are people that God wants or hopes will realize their possibility for good. Surely, we believe that God wants everything God has made to realize God’s good intentions for its creation. God makes creatures that can live and flourish, that can know and love God, presumably with the vision that they will live and flourish and know and love God. And not because God is selfish, as if God needs a chorus of yes-creatures, but because God knows that loving God orients the creatures to their own greatest good. Because God is the greatest good in the universe, is the greatest good for God’s creatures. God’s vision for the creation is the best – it doesn’t get better than that. God knows us from the source-code up; knows what we need, what’s good for us what’s best for us, what we’re capable of – and if we knew what God knows, we’d probably realize that what we’re capable of is a whole lot more than most of us actually think. God knows that if we’re going to become the best versions of ourselves that we can be, we’ll need to be in close, communicative relationship with God. That’s where we’ll get our instructions, our direction, our inspiration, our encouragement. It’s how we’ll stay clear on who we are and where we’re going. It’s how we’ll stay well away from pitfalls and keep from walking into dead ends and brick walls. Everything God has made needs that close, communicative relationship with God. So God gives all that God has made the permission and the encouragement to be and to become all that God intends, or envisions.
This is a whole different way of thinking about who the people of Nineveh are. From God’s point of view, at least as we can understand it from this story, these people – and even their flocks and herds – are God’s valued creatures, who God wants to see realize their possibility for choosing goodness, choosing God – so, people God wants to draw closer to him. We could say they are God’s beloved, despite their evil and wickedness; they are lost as they can be, but GOD’S INTENT, IS FOR GOD’S CREATION TO REALIZE THE POSSIBILITY WITH WHICH GOD HAS ENDOWED IT. Whether we call this God’s plan, or God’s hopes and dreams, or God’s intent, or God’s vision, or God’s destiny … whatever word we use, it seems that God is working towards realizing the purpose for which God has made all that God has made, and that purpose has something to do with making real, with realizing, the good that God created into that creation in the first place. This explains why God warns the Ninevites.
So another way of thinking about the Ninevites is that they are the people who receive the grace of God. In this story, that grace is in the form of Jonah’s warning. Believe it or not, in the 1930s through the 1960s, there was a raging theological argument about whether human beings were so completely lost and depraved that we could not possibly turn towards God without God’s grace, or whether there was a little spark of goodness or God consciousness or something because of God’s original creation that gave people the possibility of turning towards God. And what’s unbelievable about that argument to me is that these smart theologians ever thought we could answer that question, as if both of those things were not the grace of God, as if whatever way we come to God is not already always by the grace of God. And we have it on good authority, the best, that God seeks us out, and that when God and we connect, when that possibility becomes a reality, there is rejoicing in heaven.
And then, as it turns out, the Ninevites who are people who receive the grace of God DO what it is possible for them to do, whether because of the grace of God from their original creation or because of the grace of God given to them right then and there: they believe God, they turn from the evil and the violence they have been doing, they fast and put on sackcloth to mourn their not having been what they could be, they cry out for another chance. They realize this miraculous possibility that God has created into everything that God has made: to believe God, and to turn towards God. It’s pretty dramatic – more dramatic than real life usually is, we don’t see that kind of sudden, dramatic turn-around everyday, but honestly, sometimes we do see it just that way; almost all of us have known, or maybe we have even been, someone who suddenly “saw the light,” who really got the message, who “hit bottom” and decided something had to change and that change had to start this minute, … sometimes someone “gets religion,” as we sometimes say, and it sticks, and it changes that person’s life, and the life of everyone they come in contact with from then on. That does happen in real life, sometimes.
So the Ninevites are those people, who dramatize the possibility and the meaning of salvation.
And in that way, the Ninevites are not only people from a long time ago, or people in a Bible story, but they are people like us. That is, they are God’s valued and beloved creatures, with as yet unrealized possibilities for goodness and greatness, who benefit from God’s grace and mercy.
Those people have a destiny – the old Westminster catechism described it as the chief end, or purpose, of humanity: to glorify God and to enjoy God forever; we had a description of that destiny in the reading from Revelation this morning, a destiny that includes people from every nation, every tribe, every people, every language. God’s vision for all of creation is for a loving, whole, flourishing relationship; it’s the kind of relationship God wanted with the people of Nineveh, the kind God wanted with Jonah, and the one God wants with all creation. In that vision, God’s people are drawn to worship God enthusiastically and continually, awed by the vision of God’s goodness, beauty, justice, love and power; God comforts them and guarantees their ongoing and complete love and joy.
The people of Nineveh are people who demonstrate how to pursue that destiny, by responding to God, by taking God up on God’s offer. They have come through the great ordeal of being separated from and ignorant of God, and then learning firsthand the salvation of God, the salvation that comes with the possibility of turning toward the life God offers, and living it. But in that, they are in the end no different from all that God has made – including our neighbors, including all the members of our family, including Jonah, including us.
The people of Nineveh are the people who remind us: God gives all that God has made the permission and the encouragement to be and to become all that God intends. When we take wrong turns, God seeks us and warns us to bring us back. Because God’s great delight is for us to make full and free and beautiful use of the gifts that God has given us; to turn our talents to good use; to develop our God-created possibilities – to be and become all that God has made us to be.