Who Knows?: The God of Second Chances (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

John 21:15-19
Genesis 18:16-33
Jonah 3:1-10

We are continuing our study of Jonah.  In chapter 1 we learned how Jonah was not called to preach to a group of people he didn’t like, or that he did not like foreigners, but to an empire equivalent to the Nazi regime or ISIS.  However, we are commanded to love our enemies because God gives us hope that the world can be different and has freed of us from the fear of our enemies. Then we examined the poem Jonah composes in the guts of the fish.  There we saw that the only thing Jonah really gets right is that he belongs to God.   That relationship is God’s goal throughout scripture where God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  Last week we looked at the events of Jonah chapter 2 as Jonah was swallowed by a fish and then vomited back up.  Jonah saw this experience as a journey from death to new life and as a picture of baptism.   Jonah had been subjected to the judgment of God, but God had provided the fish as means for Jonah to safely pass through judgment.  Remember that I pointed out that the gender of the fish changes illustrating that the guts of the fish was actually a womb and that through this experience Jonah was reborn.  Jonah had once been a prophet whose message had been about building walls to keep Assyria out, but now Jonah had a new mission to extend a message of hope to bring Assyria in.  

We pick up our story with Jonah after Jonah has been vomited by the great fish on dry land.  According to our text, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.  The familiar commission that we read in all the prophets, “arise, go and proclaim” that was originally given to Jonah in chapter one is repeated again.  This time Jonah does what we originally expected, he arises and goes to Nineveh and this time, as verse 3 tells us, according to the word of the Lord.  

Nineveh is again described as the great city just as it was in chapter 1.  We are told it takes three days to walk from one side to the other.   That would be a staggering size for a city in the ancient world.  More than likely this is a figure of speech and is probably related to the three days and three nights Jonah spent in the great fish.  If you remember from last week’s sermon, I said the expression “three days and three nights” was thought to be the length of time it took to journey from death to life or back from death to life.  So Jonah has journeyed from death to life in a great fish and now Jonah’s words will move Nineveh from death to life.  

Jonah only makes it one day into Nineveh before he proclaims the words God had given him.  Until this point the story had focused on the command to proclaim the words of the Lord, it is only at this point that we learn the content.  “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  Only five words in Hebrew.  The phrase “forty days and forty nights” is also significant recalling both the flood of Noah when God’s judgment is brought down on the world for the same reason that God judgment is threatened against Nineveh, because their evil has risen to the presence of God.  Forty days and forty nights was also the time period the Israelites waited after Moses journeyed up to Mount Sinai to intercede for the Israelites after they made the Golden Calf. Here the Israelites were in danger of judgment because of their evil as well.

The crazy thing is this - to our astonishment and to Jonah’s as well, the people of Nineveh believed.  The text uses a different word for believe that rarely found anywhere else.  The word is amen which is where where amen comes from.  It means trust and is derived from truth.  We also find this word used to describe Abraham’s response in Genesis 15 after God makes the covenant with Abraham, “and he believed, and God counted it to him as righteousness.”  So here we have the people of Nineveh imitating the faith of Abraham.  Also, If you will remember, Jonah is introduced in chapter 1 as Jonah the son of Amittai which is another word related to belief.  The people of Nineveh believed God because of the words of Jonah the son of belief.  

In some ways the people of Nineveh behave like the sailors, who also are ready to believe in Jonah’s God.  The sailors feared God but that word does not go quite as far as believing.   The sailors heard Jonah’s confession and were immediate danger.  Only the threat of danger confronted the Ninevites.  There is no indication given in the story as to why the people trusted God so readily.  When details like that are left out we call it a gap.  Gaps are used in a story to pique our interest and make us speculate.  I think that is exactly what is going on here and I want to do more with it.  However, it will fit it a bit better when we get to chapter 4.  For now, I just want to point it out.

One interesting point is the common people are the first to repent and it is only later that the message comes to the king.  In fact, verse 6 tells us the word reaches the king coming to the king indirectly.  The repentance of Nineveh is a true grassroots movement among all levels of society.  The king’s proclamation merely makes official what the people have already spontaneously been doing.  My favorite part is that according to the king’s proclamation, not only do the people have to fast and wear sackcloth, but so do all the animals.  

Jonah’s message did not contain any instruction as to what the people might do to avoid God’s coming judgment.  Even the king’s proclamation contains only a little hope and no certainty.  He says, “Who knows?  God may turn and relent”  Nor is the king and the people’s fasting and sackcloth merely for show.  Everyone is ordered to turn from violence which was the great strength of the Assyrian Empire.  Violence was how Assyria maintained their position of dominance.  

Then another crazy thing happens - God changes His mind.  God said He was going to bring disaster to Nineveh, that He would overthrow Nineveh in forty days, and He relents.  The word relent is nachem in Hebrew and means to be sorry or regret.  God was sorry that He was going to bring disaster on the Ninevites and so He does not do it. 

On the surface this is a pretty straightforward story.  Jonah tells the people of Nineveh that God is going to overthrow their city.  The people of Nineveh feel genuine remorse and change their behavior.  God decides not to overthrow city and so for the people of Nineveh disaster is averted.  Yet amid the simplicity there are some big questions.  Why does God trust this message to someone who had run away from him once and only does what he commands by way of weird, miraculous intervention involving a giant fish?  Why do the animals of Nineveh have to fast and wear sackcloth?  How is God sorry for a decision He made?  It makes us uncomfortable for God to be inconsistent and change His mind. 

So let’s start with the first question.  The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.  If the plan to use Jonah to proclaim a message to Nineveh did not work the first time, why does God try again and even go to such great lengths as having a fish swallow Jonah to have Jonah finally deliver His message?  

I think this illustrates one of the great lessons of the Bible and it is this - Our God is a God of second chances.  A few examples from scripture will illustrate this point.  If you remember the story of Joseph, Joseph is a super annoying little brother who is shown incredible favoritism by his father.  Joseph’s ten older brothers are so bothered by Joseph that they decide to kill him.  However, one of the brother’s named Judah points out if they kill Joseph, then they have to go through all the trouble of covering up a murder and they get nothing.  So instead Judah suggests they sell Joseph into slavery.

Joseph ends up in Egypt and after a lot of bad things happen to him, Joseph becomes second in command of Egypt.  Meanwhile there is a famine in Israel and Judah and his brother have to journey to Egypt to get food.  When the brothers arrive they meet Joseph do not recognize him and Joseph decides to test them by requiring his younger brother Benjamin who is their father’s new favorite son to stay behind.  Judah knows this will crush his father and fears the news may even kill his father.  So Judah decides to stay in Benjamin’s place.  Judah has been given a second chance and as a result God invests the line of Judah with the kingship of Israel and even the messiah.  

Another example is from our reading in John.  After Jesus had been sentenced to crucifixion, Peter famously denies knowing Jesus three times this after promising that he would never betray Jesus and would fight to the death.  Yet, Jesus comes to Peter and after sharing breakfast with him, asks Peter three times if he loves Him.  Peter repeats that He does and Jesus restores the breach in the relationship by commanding Him to feed His sheep.  What Jesus wants Peter to know is that He has not given up on Peter and that He still wants Peter to be part of His mission to restore the world to Him.  Jesus does not just say thats alright Peter, I forgive you, Jesus gives him a job.  Peter has been given a second chance and so after Jesus’ ascension, we find Peter at Pentecost delivering the first sermon in Acts 2.  

Looking back through scripture we can find that the whole history of the Bible is God giving His people second chances.  God’s plan to rescue the world is not thwarted by anyone because He is reconciling the world to Himself and for some reason He has selected His people to carry that out despite their fear, their lack of understanding, or even their disobedience.  Even at the start of the Bible the work of humanity is not ended with the fall, but God continues with Adam and Eve promising that the serpent will defeated and that defeat will come from Eve even though it was Eve who choose to listen to the serpent rather than to God.  

God is a God of second chances because He has chosen His flawed people to be the means He will bring salvation to the world.  In theological terms, God has chosen His people as mediators.  A mediator is a person who works between two groups to reconcile them together.  A mediator has a foot in both camps and work to reconcile both sides to each other like a liaison or an ambassador.  Jonah is sent as a mediator to bring God’s word to Nineveh.  

If we look at our other reading we see another instance in which God selects cities for destruction.  The evil of Sodom and Gomorrah much like Nineveh had reached the point where it had risen to God’s presence and could no longer be ignored. Yet before God issues His judgment He tells Abraham about His plans.   We are told that God decides to consult with Abraham because the Lord is going to bring to Abraham what He promised him.  The promise that God is referring to goes back to Abraham’s call in Genesis 12.  Abraham is commissioned, using language similar to Jonah’s, to arise, and go to the land God would show Him so that God would make Abraham a great nation and Abraham’s name would be great.  However, the point making Abraham a great nation and make Abraham’s name great is so Abraham would bring blessing to all the peoples of the earth.  Abraham is to mediate God’s blessing to the whole world.  

In that capacity, Abraham then argues for God to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is an amazing move and almost does not seem smart to debate with God the way Abraham does.  Yet, God condescends to change His mind repeatedly because this is exactly the role God had called Abraham to fill.  Abraham as God’s representative is to be a mediator.  Moses does the same thing later during the forty days and forty nights on Mt Sinai.  Moses begs that God not destroy His people because of the sin of the golden calf and again God changes His mind.  Delivering God’s message and advocating for others is exactly the job of God’s people.  

Jonah is really bad at this.  At no time does Jonah mediate for Nineveh. Jonah pronounces doom without hope.  Based on prior examples we would expect Jonah when faced with God’s potential destruction to act as Abraham or Moses did.  Yet still God changes his mind because of the actions of the people of Nineveh.  Jonah, despite the fact that he has been given a second chance and despite the fact that he has seen the pagan sailors turn toward God, fails to fulfill this role.  

In the big story of the Old Testament we will see God’s people fail repeatedly at their role just as Jonah did.  Israel was to be a light to the nations and Jesus tells them they have taken their light and hidden it.  Yet God will not be thwarted and so He sends Jesus as the ultimate mediator, both God and man both from Heaven but an Israelite who does what Israel was called to do and sacrifices Himself for others as Israel was called to do.  Who even while being crucified ujustly as a criminal, says “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  

Nor is this salvation that Christ brings about His people alone.  Nothing less than all the nations of the whole world was in view in God’s commission to Abraham.   In Isaiah 49, God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring them back preserved to Israel; I will make you a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  Yet it does not end there because not only is Jesus a mediator for all the nations of the earth but He is a mediator to bring restoration to all of creation.

When we look at our other example where “forty days and forty nights is found,” Noah passing through the waters of destruction as Jonah did, brings about salvation not just to his family, but to the animals as well.  So when Jonah comes to Nineveh what is in view is not just the people of Nineveh but also the animals.  God’s concern is for His whole creation that He created good and despite sin and the fall, He is working to restore all of it.  

Paul says in Romans 8 that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Our purpose as followers of Christ and the work of remediation is bigger than just making sure that we go to heaven when we die.  It is much more expansive and cosmic than that.  Last week I said that salvation was not an end, but a beginning.  Jonah was reborn for a purpose to act as an agent of restoration.   What Paul tells is that at least part of that purpose is that the creation itself would be set free from its bondage to corruption and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  Paul says that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth.  The imagination of the people of Nineveh was big enough to realize that truth.  

Jonah has not grasped the enormity of God’s plan, but it is ironic that just as the sailors saw something bigger than themselves, the people of Nineveh do as well.   As Jonah confessed in chapter 1, he serves YHWH the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land - in other words the God of EVERYTHING.  We in the church can also rest in our own salvation and become so myopic that we loose sight in the enormity of God’s plan for the cosmos.  Perhaps it is time for the church’s hopes and dreams to be bigger than what they are because they should be more than about our salvation but about resurrection!

So are you ready for some sauce as Chris Lundberg might say?  I want everyone to find a child near them with a worksheet and look at the upper right corner.  What you are looking at is ancient cuneiform.  If you remember back to high school, cuneiform was the writing system of the ancient Sumerians.  They would use a sharpened stick and make these series of wedges into clay tablets to represent words.  The cuneiform symbol you are looking at means Nineveh.  Notice that it is a box which means house and inside is what looks like a fish. The name Nineveh means “house of fish.”  

So God uses a fish to swallow Jonah giving Jonah a second chance.  Jonah then acts as a mediator to bring salvation to the house of fish giving them a second chance.  He does this incredibly poorly giving them five words with only a hint of hope.  Nineveh does not even know if their actions will work.  The king says, “who knows” just as the captain of the said, “Perhaps we may may not perish?”  ‘Who knows?” Jonah should have known that God was the God of second chances. Actually we will learn in chapter 4 that he did know.   However, imagine this scene, after spending three days and nights in a fish and then being vomiting up on dry land.  Then journeys to Nineveh - by the way if you look on a map Nineveh is a long way from the coast.  Then spending all this time thinking about your weird experience in a fish you arrive at Nineveh and then sees this sign?  Can you imagine the irony was not lost on Jonah?  

Second chances are God’s business and now God is extending that second chance to those outside His people because at verse three tells us, Nineveh is a great city TO GOD.  Nineveh is part of God’s creation as well.  Who knows?  God knows and his people should know and we as the church should know.  It is why we are to serve, to feed, to heal, to bear witness, to sacrifice, and to mediate because it is our responsibility as God’s people to cry, “Father forgive them for they know what they do.”  

We know because God is a God who relents and does not do it.  The whole story of the Bible is a God who gives second chances and who changes His mind.  We are often bothered by this - a omniscient God should be consistent and not change His mind.  This is inconsistent and illogical.  It destroys my rational theology about who God is.  To this charge the answer is - that you have understood correctly.  It makes no sense, but God is a God who fights for His creation over and over again.  Who even condescends to relent and change His mind who sends Christ the ultimate mediator, God and man, to empty Himself and take on the form of a servant, to humble Himself to the point of death even the death on a cross.  

For Resurrection Church and the followers of Christ we are to answer the world that we know that God will save this world.  We are to be mediators of this message.  We are to be a people with dreams of resurrection as wide as big as the whole cosmos.  We are to present a picture of a God who cares about His creation and who works to restore it.  To tell the story of a God who is not bound by logic, but only by love because as Jonah proclaims in his song, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”