Saturday, March 12, 2016

If at First You Don't Succeed

Jonah 3

Along I 95 there are many billboards that can catch your eye.  Several years ago now there were some in particular that were sponsored by an organization called Vales and they were a series under the title, “Pass it On”.  They were always very clever and inspirational.  One in particular I remember spoke to me.  It had a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and next to it the billboard read, “Failed, failed, failed.  And then…”[i]  and underneath those words was the word ‘Persistence’ in bold red letters.  Simply put.

What we know and what the billboard does not explicitly say is that Abraham Lincoln first ran for non-public office for the Illinois State Legislature in 1832 and was defeated.  In 1834 he ran again and served four executive terms.  In 1846 he was elected to the House of Representatives but lost his reelection.  He practiced law until in 1854 he ran for the US Senate and lost and again in 1855 he lost for a different Senate seat.  Finally in 1860 he was nominated to run for the Presidency and of course, the rest, they say is history.  He was one of our finest and most influential presidents ever but it took several defeats and failures for him to get there.  Yes, persistence!

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”[ii]  God could be the poster deity for perseverance with our man Jonah. God could clearly occupy a space on one of those billboards because in today’s lesson from Jonah chapter 3 we see that God did not give up on Jonah and some very good things came out of it, for the people of Ninevah at least.  This is the third of four sermons from the Old Testament Book, Jonah.  It is read during the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur for what it tells us about repentance so it is fitting for us to reflect upon during Lent because Lent is a time of repentance and reflection for us too as we journey to the cross of Jesus. 

You will remember that in Jonah 1 he’s asked to go to Ninevah and preach repentance but he flees in the other direction, hops a boat and then is tossed overboard only to find himself in the belly of the whale.  What we learn from this is that God sticks with us even when we are obstinate and do as we please, God never gives up on us.  God may get a little perturbed at times with us, who wouldn’t?  But God is in hot pursuit of us and we are never left alone to our own human devices.  We also learn that God saves us when we are drowning even if it comes in the form of a really big fish. Salvation happens. 

But even inside of the belly of the whale Jonah did not really get it.  Repentance does not come easily for him, he’s pretty thick headed.  Yet God still sees some potential with Jonah and has a job that needs doing.  Good thing God does because I am loathe to really see any ‘redeeming attribute’ with Jonah.  You have to hand it to God for trying once again, persistence.

Today we will think about Chapter 3 and what nuggets of learning and inspiration that it holds for us.  I believe that today’s chapter focuses much more on God than it does on Jonah. We will conclude this story of Jonah next week with chapter 4.

I share with you now from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ chapter 3 of Jonah.   

Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.

Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.

Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”

The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”

God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.

This is not what Jonah expected when he stepped foot in the great city of Nineveh. Only eight words of prophecy here, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” and the entire city, which apparently was huge, repented.  The king really took it to heart and traded in his royal duds for some not so fashionable burlap and sat down in the dirt.  This is how the ancient people repented of their sins.  He declares a fast for all the people including the animals!  Then he decides everyone should dress in burlap like him even the animals, once again!  I can’t say that I’d want fasting animals dressed in burlap around me but the king was insistent, NO ONE will go without repenting.  Those must have been some pretty big sins.

“Who knows?  Wonders the king, maybe this foreign God will change his mind, maybe God will turn around and let us live”. (v. 9)  God was taking note of all these repenting people and bleating sheep and forgave them all proving that God can change the divine mind and that God forgives all people, even non-Hebrews as these Ninevites were, and calls them into the covenant of love.  God perseveres, Jonah went, Ninevah repents, God relents, Mercy extended.

There truly is a “Wideness in God’s mercy…for the love of God is broader than the measure of our minds”, as the old hymn reminds us.  We cannot possibly know the mind of God and the ways in which our God loves and forgives and the people whom our God chooses to forgive.  That is beyond our human capacity.  I’ve taken that off my to-do list.  I encourage you to do so also.  It will save you a lot of fretting and worry.  What we can know is that God does forgive generously, and faithfully without conditions.  Even when we cannot.

God’s theology is revealed in verse 10, “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.” 

Now we know that God is no longer responsible for the calamities of our lives, that God doesn’t send tornedo’s to regions who espouse gambling and drinking no more than does God send tsunami’s to countries who might display lewd and lascivious behavior.  That is just old theology.  We have progressed much further along in our understanding of ourselves and nature. 

We do find ourselves however in these foreign lands of gambling and drinking and lewd and lascivious behavior, and if not that crude, we find we no longer lead a life that we might be proud of, for whatever reason, no matter how you got there, and if not that you are just no longer attentive to God’s call in your life, or if not that you just don’t care, you’ve become apathetic about your faith, not ‘feeling’ it, you’re just going through the motions.

We all are there at one time or another and when you realize that you have lost your way it is time to perform t’shuvah.  T’shuvah is a complete turning around of your ways, of changing your behavior, of letting go of a bad attitude and starting a newer, healthier one.  T’shuvah is the Hebrew word for turn or to return.  There are many places in the Old Testament where people were seriously encouraged to perform t’shuvah.  Ezekiel says to the people, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin (Ezekiel 18:30).  Jeremiah proclaims to the house of Israel, “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord.  I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, I will not be angry forever.”  (Jeremiah 3:12).

T’shuvah asks that we clean the windows of our soul and return to a view of life that once made us so happy. T’shuvah is to turn away that which destroys yourself and others and return to a God whose arms are open and waiting to embrace us in love not anger, kindness not malice, acceptance not rejection.  T’shuvah is a way in which we clean up our lives so the light of God’s love can be received.

This is Lent.  It offers you an opportunity to do that.  It provides a time to empty, to clean, and to return to what is good and wholesome for you.  Do some honest soul-searching.  Get down on your knees.  Pray with your tears if you have no words.  It takes work, yes, like the Ninevites who put on burlap and sat down in the dirt, we need to feel the scratchiness of the burlap and the grittiness of the dirt upon our skin, upon our soul.

What changes need to be made in your life (no one else’s) so that you can live more gracefully and lovingly?  Ask for the grace to see the deepest part of you that hurts, that has sinned.  How might your life be changed when you’ve examined yourself thoughtfully, thoroughly?  Will you be brave enough to perform t’shuvah?  Right now it’s all about you and no one else.  It’s about you and your relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Painful as it may be, it will not last forever.  The Psalmist reminds us, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30: 5b)

Joy does come, and will come.  That is our Easter promise.

Throughout all of this, throughout all of your life God is persistent in pursuing you.  Just like God pursued Jonah, just like Lincoln who finally won in the end and accomplished great things, God will continue to look for you, engage you, forgive you and accomplish great things through you.


[i] Abraham Lincoln billboard,
[ii] T.H. Palmer, ‘Teacher’s Manual’, 1840.

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