That’s how our Scripture for today begins. Doesn’t it intrigue you, just a little bit? If this is the second time, then what was the first?
To find round one, we have to go back to the beginning of Jonah, this short but very interesting book in the Old Testament. Chapter 1, verse 1 tells us that “the word of the LORD came to Jonah.” God gave Jonah instructions to go to the great city of Nineveh. God needs someone to cry out against their wickedness.
If Jonah were alive today and was going to obey God’s word, he’d be going from Israel to northern Iraq. Perhaps he’d pull up Mapquest to plan a route that looked something like this, putting him in for a 14 hour, 770-mile drive.
But this is not what Jonah does. Instead, Jonah’s reaction is to plan a route that looks more like this, from Israel to southern Spain. That’s 3,569 miles in the wrong direction. Granted, the Jonah of the Old Testament travels a slightly more direct route by boat – but still. When the word of the LORD comes to Jonah, Jonah doesn’t just refuse to go. He goes the opposite way about four times over.
What in the world would give Jonah such an adverse reaction?
Well, Nineveh didn’t have the best of reputations. We know that right off, because God is sending Jonah there because to address wickedness problem. But I’m thinking this “word of the LORD” is not the first time Jonah heard bad things about Nineveh. It’s actually mentioned several other times in the Bible.
Nineveh is founded by a mighty warrior with the unfortunate name of “Nimrod.” He was a descendent of one of Noah’s sons (Genesis 10:6-12).
In 2 Kings 19:36-7 it’s mentioned as the capital city of Assyria. As such, it reached its peak between 704 and 681 BC. It was a large city surrounded by a double wall.
Two other Old Testament prophets beside Jonah hit the topic of Nineveh. Zephaniah mentions it in 2:13: “And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and he will make Nineveh a desolation.” Nahum’s whole book is trash-talking Nineveh. He calls it “City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty – no end to the plunder!” (3:1).
In the year 612 BC Nineveh fell, suddenly, to the Babylonians and the Medes. But for our Jonah, it’s not fallen yet. God is threatening to take it down, and using Jonah to make that threat.
So lets say Jonah hates the Ninevites. He knows their reputation all too well. He despises these bloodthirsty Assyrians. If that’s how he feels, wouldn’t he be thrilled at his assignment? What makes him want to run such a ridiculous distance away from Nineveh?
To find that out, we have to follow the rest of the story.
You remember: there’s a huge storm on the boat on the way to Tarshish, and the crew figures out that Jonah is the problem. Reluctantly, they throw him overboard – at which point the storm stops and a huge fish swallows Jonah. He’s stuck in there for three days, giving him time to think and pray the Psalms. Then the fish spits him out, and…
“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time” (3:1). The word is the same, just more succinct: Go, do what I told you to do. So Jonah goes. He walks around Nineveh preaching what I can only view as a really terrible sermon. He doesn’t ask them to change their ways; he doesn’t hint at any possibility of redemption. Just: 40 days and this place is going down.
Miraculously, though, the people respond to God’s word, as miserably interpreted by Jonah. They fast and dress in plain clothes. They act like they’re really sorry, and God takes notice. So God changes God’s mind. God decides not to destroy Nineveh. God gives them a second chance.
This is why Jonah did not want to go.
Jonah gets mad. He yells at God: “I knew this would happen! You’re so full of grace and mercy and forgiveness. I knew you wouldn’t go through with it with these miserable Ninevites. Just kill me now.” And when God questions him – “Are you sure you need to be so angry over this?” – Jonah goes out of the city and sits, to see what will happen.
I know this kind of reaction, because I live with two toddlers. I can imagine Jonah going “hmph!” the way they do. I can see him crossing his arms defiantly like they do. I can see the ugly expression on his face, full of anger and determination. He’s thinking exactly what my kids think when they do this sort of thing: “If I hold out long enough, she’ll change her mind.”
God did change God’s mind in this story. But God is not going to change it again.
And there sits Jonah, pouting. Maybe he’s thinking: “Our stupid God of second chances. Hmph!”
That’s what Jonah doesn’t like, right? That God would change God’s mind to give these Ninevites a second chance.
A second chance.
Do you see an irony here?
“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time…” (3:1).
We love second chances when they’re for us. We love mercy and grace and forgiveness when they’re for us. But then there’s “those people,” the ones who have made a life-long pattern of doing the wrong thing. We are sick and tired of those people. We don’t want to be hurt anymore by those people. For them, we don’t want mercy or grace or forgiveness. We definitely don’t want any second chances. We want God to stick with the first message: 40 days and you’re going down.
I have a good friend who’s an elementary school teacher. She’s always pointing out the bad choices her students are making: eating your crayons was a bad choice; biting your friend was a bad choice; throwing your shoe out the window was a bad choice. She says it this way on purpose, because she wants to make it clear that the choice was bad, not the student. We all make bad choices from time to time. That does not mean we are permanently classified as bad people – at least not for those of us who believe in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
The Ninevites had made a lot of bad choices, no doubt about that. But those choices did not lock them in as bad people. They repented, and God gave them a second chance.
There are people today that we could view as Jonah views the Ninevites. Countries that have made a life-long pattern of terrorism, or weaponry, or classism, or sexism. Peoples that get stereotyped as deceitful, stealing, violent, immoral. As we see those same groups show up in the news day after week after month after year, we can start to think like Jonah: They are bad; they do not deserve a second chance.
But they do. God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness is available to everyone.
Sometimes that is hard to hear, so I’ll say it again: God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness is available to everyone.
Our God is a God of second chances.
A second chance for Jonah and a second chance for Nineveh.
A second chance for you and a second chance for “those people.”
A second chance for all who turn away from evil and back to God.