Nineveh’s revival – Pentecost comes early #JonahWasWrong

Sermon from today – once again I have followed Phillip Cary’s interpretation in a variety of ways.



“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Nineveh is a large city – a three-day walk to get across it. Jonah walks a full day into the city and then begins to make his bold declaration, his repeated declaration:

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

The last time I heard a city-centre preacher in the mold of Jonah was outside the Eaton’s Centre, downtown Toronto – it was this past Christmas. Tabea and I were downtown to see The Wizard of Oz at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. And on our way back to the subway after the show, there was a soapbox preacher outside the Eaton’s Centre. We didn’t stop to listen, but the sound bite that hit my ear suggested it was that same old combined message of love and judgment. The tone of the street preacher was the tone that every street preacher or street evangelist of this kind seems to have.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

The message that Jonah proclaims is actually somewhat peculiar. We notice that

there’s nothing about God in his message;

there’s nothing about God’s love in his message;

he offers no description of the specific wickedness of the Ninevites;

there is nothing about repentance or the possibility of a new life with God.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

What is the message that Jonah proclaims? In his contemporary translation of the Bible, Eugene Peterson translates Jonah’s proclamation as follows: “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.” That seems to be the message Jonah declares, and wants to declare. Nineveh is going to be destroyed. Point final. No possibility that God will relent. No possibility of an outcome other than wrath and punishment. No possibility of escape for the people of Nineveh. That’s simply the way it is, ladies and gentlemen. Get ready for it. Destruction is coming.

But it turns out that his message isn’t quite right. Jonah’s bald statement of fact turns out not to be a bald statement of fact.

How is that so? Well, there is Jonah in the middle of Nineveh offering his pared down, simple message of judgment – there he is offering his oddly vague declaration of destruction. And here’s the peculiar part. It turns out that this pared down, vague message is enough to do the job – it is enough to effect a change of heart and mind and life in the people of that ancient city. We read in verse 5, after Jonah has made his proclamation: “The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”

During the depression era in the 1930’s there were many people for whom the economic crisis meant they couldn’t afford to purchase clothes – new or used. In those desperate times there were those who could not afford to buy cloth to make their own clothes. And so when old clothes wore out, and there was nothing left to wear, it wasn’t entirely uncommon to find clothes being made out of old burlap bags – rough burlap bags that had been used for potatoes, or used for grain, or used for coffee beans. To use burlap bags for clothing was a sign of utter poverty. When you were wearing burlap, you had hit rock bottom.

The people of Nineveh – from the greatest to the least – from the richest to the poorest – from the youngest to the oldest – upon hearing the message of Jonah – put on sackcloth. Sackcloth was a rough, coarse fabric not unlike burlap. No one would choose to wear sackcloth, just like no one in the depression era would have chosen to wear clothes made of burlap. It was a sign of poverty and need that you would stoop to only when you had no other choice.

To put on sackcloth, as the Ninevites did, was a confession of their poverty – by putting on sackcloth they were saying: “We have nothing to offer – we are poor in spirit.” Putting on sackcloth – literally cloth used for sacks – was the best way that the Ninevites could think of to express that they were in need of mercy, in need of help – that they knew their city had bottomed out, morally and ethically speaking.

Not only do they put on sackcloth, they also hold a fast.  From the greatest to the least – from the youngest to the oldest – from the richest to the poorest – they voluntarily stop eating. Again, it is a sign of their need – a sign of their poverty. Fasting is a way of expressing and feeling, in the most concrete and physical way possible, our need of help, our need of mercy – it is a way of saying that we need something more and something different in our lives. The people of Nineveh see their violence; they see their implication in a culture of injustice; they see what they had been blind to for so long – that goodness and truth and respect had been drained out of their culture. They believed now that God is calling them to live differently and to abandon their former ways. Their fasting gives expression to their need and their poverty and their emptiness.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”

 Is Jonah right? Is it true that forty days and Nineveh will be overturned? Is it true the city will be smashed? Or is it the case that Jonah’s bald statement of fact is in fact note a statement of fact?

Not only do all of the people of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes, but we read beginning in verse 5: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

The humbling of the people of Nineveh becomes a national humbling in this moment when their king takes off his royal robes and himself puts on sackcloth – when the king takes an ultimate posture of humility by sitting in ashes. He humbles himself in a decisive way – making the prayer of the people his prayer.

Would his prayer have sounded something like this: “O God, we have seen our violence; we have seen the injustice in our social structures. O God, we have been blind. Goodness and truth and respect have drained out of our culture. O God, may the word of your prophet prove false. Relent – give us another chance.”

Perhaps the experience of this king and his people feels far from our own experience. We may think to ourselves: “That’s so Old Testament. The anger of God. Sackcloth and ashes. A prayer that God won’t destroy them.” That’s so Old Testament. We may think that all of this is so far from our experience. Aren’t we modern women and men, don’t we live in a culture that is just and fair. Aren’t we a good people?

But perhaps we will be disabused of that notion when we remember that garment factory collapse in Bangladesh two weeks ago – when 1,200 workers were killed while making cheap shirts for us in the west. Or of the collapse of a shoe factory in Cambodia on Thursday – killing 2 and seriously injuring 5 – so that we can have cheap shoes.

Perhaps we will be disabused of this notion of the goodness and justice of our society when we realize that while Malawi’s health care system is almost non-existent, ours is massive. And that life expectancy in Malawi is 53 years, as opposed to 80 years here in Canada. We get to live almost 30 years longer, just because of where we are born, and because of the massive financial resources we spend on health care.

And perhaps this morning we can draw on recent history in Canada to get a sense of how this nation is perhaps not that far from Nineveh. In June of 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology to aboriginal peoples in Canada, particularly those who had been sent to residential schools. He offered a confession; an acknowledgement; a plea for a new way of being – perhaps an echo of the prayer of the king of Nineveh. Here is a small part of what the Prime Minister said on behalf of the government, and behalf of all Canadians:

To the approximately 80,000 living former students [of residential schools], and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you. Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.

Are we so removed from that Old Testament world in relation to which we often feel so superior? Is our culture as rich in goodness, truth, and justice as we sometimes like to tell ourselves? Or are there not fundamental ways in which the reality of Nineveh remains our reality.

Would it have been inappropriate for the Prime Minister to have sat in sackcloth and ashes as he offered that apology. Would it have been inappropriate, in conjunction with this confession and apology, to announce a national day of fasting to give expression to the poverty and need of the nation?

We come back to Nineveh, and we read in verse 10 of chapter 3: “when God saw what they did, how they turned former 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.”

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jonah offered a statement of fact – a simple message of judgment. And he was wrong. God relented. God did not destroy. Wrath gave way to mercy. Death gave way to life.

But in another peculiar kind of way, maybe Jonah was right, without even knowing it. In a certain sense, Nineveh was indeed overthrown, overturned, changed, turned upside down. Nineveh was not overthrown in the sense that it was smashed but it was overthrown in the sense that it became an entirely different place. Nineveh was overthrown, overturned, changed, turned upside down – injustice gave way to fairness, oppression gave way to freedom, violence gave way to peace, manipulation gave way to transparency.

Utterly overturned.

Today is Pentecost – the church’s celebration of the coming of the Spirit upon and among the disciples as they gathered in that upper room. On the face of it there is no obvious link between our narrative in Jonah and the narrative of Pentecost. But let me offer one loose yet meaningful connection between these two narratives.

We recall that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was accompanied by tongues of fire resting on each of the disciples. Fire within the Old and New Testaments has a variety meanings but one of those meanings relates to purification. When it comes to judgment, fire is often present in the scriptures, not because fire destroys but because fire burns away impurities – fire refines – fire in a sense cleanses. The fire of God – the Spirit Christ sends – does not destroy. It renews. John the Baptist said of the one coming after him: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

When I think of the King of Nineveh sitting in a posture of utter humility – acknowledging the failures and wickedness of his people – when I think of him sitting in ashes – sitting in the residue of fire – I cannot help but make the link between the king’s experience and the work of the Spirit in his life and our life. As the king sits in ashes,

it is an expression of humility, but it is not humiliating,

it is an expression of judgment, but not of condemnation,

it is an expression of loss, but not of hopelessness.

The ashes reflect the fact that the purifying work of the Spirit is being done – and has been done. The people and their king are being renewed through the love of God, through the moving of the Spirit.

Jonah was wrong – the city was not destroyed or smashed.

And however inadequate Jonah’s message to Nineveh was, the narrative reveals a God who nevertheless used that inadequate message of Jonah to touch the hearts and lives of women and men – teaching, renewing, and transforming them according to his good purposes.

May the Spirit that brings new life – the Spirit that purifies and renews – the Spirit that burns with holy fire – be alive among us.

Thanks be to God, through Christ our Lord, amen.


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