Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” Jonah 3:4-10
And the people of Nineveh believed God. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it all my life, seen it on the flannel graphs and heard it in Sunday School. Just like the fish swallowed Jonah whole and spit him out after three days. That’s what’s supposed to happen in the story. My familiarity blinds me to the miracle of it all. The fish swallowing Jonah was an extraordinary thing! The wicked, pagan Ninevites humbling themselves before God and acting out their repentance was no less of an extraordinary thing!
We’re meant to be surprised by this incredible response of a godless people. How could they, first of all, believe God and then respond to him by turning from their wickedness in repentance? These people did whatever pleased them; they were known for their cruel violence and the last people we’d expect to yield to a holy God.
If you’ve grown up around the story of Jonah I challenge you to drink in the story in a whole new way. Pretend it’s the first time you are hearing of it. Close your eyes and imagine yourself as one of the Ninevites. Take yourself through their steps of repentance. Imagine what it must have been like for a whole city to decide together to take visible steps in seeking forgiveness from an unseen God. Now, call to mind anyone in your life you may have considered beyond God’s reach of forgiveness. Confess your hypocrisy and remind your heart of the relentless love and mercy of God available to all people.
By Ellen Rosenberger