Sunday, November 8, 2020

Overthrow, Turn, or Transform? Jonah 3:1-10


Rev. George Miller

November 8, 2020

Jonah 3:1-10


For the past year, a 10-gallon fish tank has stood in my living room.  Blue gravel, green plants, red striped fish.


For the past 2 months, the tank has looked like a disaster- the water murky, the leaves brown, many fish dead.


Nothing seemed to make a difference. The gravel was suctioned, chemicals poured in, water changed on a weekly basis. 1 gallon, 3 gallons, 5 gallons, nothing worked.  An algae bloom made it impossible to see anything.


So, on Monday 10 1-gallon jugs of water were put on the counter for 48 hours to let the chlorine dissipate.  3 bowls were placed beside them.


Wednesday morning the process began. 


The remaining fish were scooped out and placed in the bowls. I felt bad doing this, thinking as if I was causing severe trauma and apocalyptic fear.


The dying plants pulled up, their life-less roots and leaves pruned away.  The gravel scooped up and run under water.


The problem that plagued the tank soon emerged- there was so much filth, waste, and decaying food that had fallen into the bottom of the tank that the water was a dirt brown cesspool.


No doubt the high levels of ammonia and oxygen-depleting algae were killing the fish.


For the next hour, I went to work, feeling so bad for the fish, assuming they were terrified.


The inside of the tank was rinsed out, the glass wiped down.  The filters replaced.  The cleaned gravel scattered; the pruned plants put back in.


Slowly, the new water was poured in, the filter and heater turned back on.


Gallon after gallon of life-giving H2O streamed into the tank; eventually the fish were restored to their clean home.


Whatever trauma they experienced seemed to dissipate as they swam, schooled, and explored.


Was their tank overthrown, or was their tank now transformed?... 


…Today we swim into a 2-week study on the book of Jonah, yet another look into how people act, God responds, and politics and faith come together.


In today’s chapter the prophet Jonah has appeared to the people of Nineveh.


Jonah is a Jew, an Israelite who worships Yahweh.  The people of Nineveh are not Israelites, they are not Jews, they worship a completely other god.


Nineveh was a notorious place, feared by all the nations around it.  They were known for being ruthless, bloodthirsty, endlessly cruel.


The thought that the God of Israel would want them destroyed was no surprise…but the idea that the God of Israel could show them grace and mercy…well that is not something Jonah wants to believe.


Jonah is an unwilling servant who is sent by God to the godless place to give them a message- in 40 days you will be overthrown.


That’s it; that’s all we’re told Jonah said.  This foreign man from a foreign land sent by a foreign god.


But, for some reason, what he says spreads throughout the land, person to person, house to house, until even the king of this vile city gets wind of what’s been said…


…and miracle of miracle, he takes the warning seriously and uses his dominion in a most positive way.


Instead of denying safety procedures or claiming alternative facts, the ruler listens to the warning, humbles himself, and issues a life-saving mandate-


He tells every citizen to fast, to wear sackcloth, to cry out to Israel’s God, to stop acting unjustly, unkind, unethical.


“Who knows?” says the King, “Maybe God will relent, act merciful, and prevent us from death.”


Thanks to his decision to take current events seriously, the King not only saves the lives of 120,000 humans, he saves the lives of all the animals too. 


Interesting how nearly 3,000 years ago, politics, faith, ethics, and the environment were all intertwined…


Scripture tells us that God saw what the people did; God changed God’s mind.


What great news, affirming that God does see and hear us; that God is a thinking, compassionate Creator.


But does it also mean God is wishy-washy?  Is God so easily swayed by sackcloth and a few “I’m sorrys”?


That’s for you to discern, but there’s another part of today’s story to dive into.


In verse 4, Jonah speaks about Nineveh being overthrown. 


What does overthrow mean?  Does it mean being utterly destroyed?  Does it mean “no more”?


Language is a funny thing; the Hebrew language is complex, with words that can mean more than one thing.


In verse 4 we are told the Hebrew word used means “overthrown,” but in other passages, it means something else. 


In Exodus 7:17, Moses tell the Pharaoh that he will strike the water and turn it into blood.


The Hebrew word used for “turn” is the same as what’s used for “overthrown.”


Psalm 105:25 reads “whose hearts God then turned” implying transformation.


So, in Jonah 3:4 when the prophet says “Nineveh shall be overthrown,” did he mean destroyed, turned, transformed?


Yes?  No? Both/and?  Neither/nor?


Think back to the fish tank illustration.


There it was, filled with murky water due to too many chemicals, too much waste, and a caretaker who was worried about upsetting the tank’s citizens.


The truth is, the tank and everything in it was dying and nothing gentle, or easy was going to save it.


It required a complete and utter change.  It needed fresh, flowing water.  It needed gravel washed away of its impurities.  It needed that which was dead and dying to be pruned away. 


To do this, it took an act of uneasy, compassionate acceptance.


Those poor fish had to got through some radical, invasive feeling events.


Did it seem like a complete upheaval to them?  Did it seem like their world had been overthrown and annihilated?


In the end, what they experienced was a transformed reality, an improved environment in which they could see clearly, swim calmly and continue to breathe in life giving oxygen.


Maybe today’s story about Nineveh is a bit like that fish tank.


Change, transformation, and being overthrown was going to happen to the nation no matter what, but the question became- how, and what kind?


Perhaps if the King had not responded and did not mandate sackcloth and improved behaviors the citizens of Nineveh would have fallen by their actions or the hands of their enemies.


But, by responding as the King did, the inhabitants experienced a whole other kind of change- one that was life affirming, healthy, and empowering.


As it turns out what Jonah said did come true, perhaps in a much different manner than some may have expected.


With today’s story we are reminded of at least 3 truths-


One, as far as our religion goes, politics and faith are intertwined.  As the leader of the nation goes, so go the inhabitants, human and animal.


Two, change and transformation can often feel like upheaval.  It can be scary to go through, and we don’t always know the long-term outcome.


Three, God is wildly free.  Free to hear, see, act. Free to show concern to whoever God wants to show concern to.  Free to show grace and mercy wherever God wants to show.


Are we also willing to hear, to see, and to do what we need as well so that we can continue to move and swim in the fresh, clean, life-giving waters of our baptism?



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