Third Sunday after Epiphany | Serving a God of Change | Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | Pastor Norma Johnson | January 24, 2021

Serving a God of Change

The conditions that Christians face today beckon the church beyond a “business as usual” posture and into a “missionary posture” – a genuinely missionary engagement with the modern world, and for us, a western culture that that is increasingly resistant to the gospel. We stand today like Jonah facing Nineveh, and like Nineveh facing Jonah.

And we do so, serving a God who can change God’s mind!

But, we want to serve a God who is constant!

So did Jonah!

We want to serve a God who is consistent in demand and in decisions.

So did Jonah!

The prospect that God may change God’s mind is frightening to us.

And so, it was for Jonah!

I wonder, though, if consistency is such a good policy. Things change.  New information comes to light; circumstances and situations change. It seems to me that remaining flexible and responsive to the card that life deals us may be a better way of doing things. But then I’m just a pastor. Yet, to me, this consistency thing seems to get carried too far. It’s sort of like saying, “My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Now, I know first hand that as a parent, flexibility is best. Things change. Children grow up!  People change. Even the ground we walk upon changes. As a pastor I have learned over the years that despite our best efforts to the contrary, things change constantly, even in the church – thus the need for updating a constitution. Now, going out on a limb, I think that is safe to say, that the only thing we can absolutely count on, in this life — besides God’s ever-present grace — is change. And yet, somehow, we are drawn to what we think is unchanging, dependable, and fixed.

But things change. And like the book of Jonah says, even God changes. Now, the church has a rather large investment in the idea of an immutable, immovable, unchanging holy deity. But walk with me for just a moment. In our Sunday Morning Bible Study, we are reading through our history as recorded for us in the Old Testament. There we see that God changes. For instance, during Israel’s liberation from slavery, God was a liberator for the people. When the people made it to the promised land and had some conquering to do, God suddenly emerges with a lot of warrior-like characteristics. And, this goes on through the exile and the promised return and ends up with God present with us in Jesus Christ, talking to us about forgiveness, love of enemy, and self-giving love. If we follow these stories, we see a God who is anything but consistent.

So, I bring us back to the Old Testament lesson for today.  Look at the Jonah story. At the point where we join the action of this book this morning, Jonah has already been swallowed and spit back up by the great fish. All this happens because he tried to avoid God’s call to him to go to Nineveh and warn the people to repent of their evil ways. So, one more time, God comes to ask Jonah to go into Nineveh and give them this message, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

That’s it. The last warning. God wants to give the people of Nineveh one last chance to repent before they are destroyed. Jonah, however, didn’t really want Nineveh to repent. These were some nasty folks, and Jonah really wanted God to take care of them once and for all. He hated the idea that God might change God’s mind. It was unthinkable. God said God would destroy Nineveh, and that should be that! After all, it’s not as though they didn’t deserve it. Why should Jonah have to travel a three-day walk throughout the city so that these people could get off scot-free?

But, with the fish-thing still fresh in his mind, Jonah thinks he had better go. So on through Nineveh he goes, shouting all along the way, “Forty more days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Now, iI it had been up to Jonah, he’d have given them about twenty minutes. And don’t you know that Jonah’s worst fears were confirmed. The King listened. He heard the warning and got all of the people to repent and change their ways, and Nineveh was saved, . . .and God changed God’s mind.

It seems to me that we need to promote flexibility instead of consistency. Whether it’s in our personal lives, our family lives, our church, or our community, it makes sense that we work to be adaptable as change comes. We certainly had no choice about that when COVID hit!  We had to change!  Who would have guessed a year ago that we would be worshipping on something called Zoom?

So, I suggest, that flexibility makes sense especially when we lean into the forgiving and loving arms of grace.

Friends, this is not to say that rules and regulations aren’t important. We need to know what the boundaries and limits are for our lives so we can live peaceably with all of God’s children. Without rules and regulations, there would be anarchy.  So, we need the benefit of common understanding and common ground. And all of this is good.

Also, it is important for us to understand that one of the most primal pieces of our lives together is the truth of constant change. That fact was difficult for Jonah who found extreme pain and unhappiness because he couldn’t handle a God, or a Nineveh, that could and would and did change.

And so, I encourage each of us to think of ways that we ourselves resist change, and how that resistance may cause ourselves, and others, a world of pain? If we’re parents, it’s often hard to accept and navigate the changes our children experience. Let’s pray for openness for all of us who are parents and for all people involved in the lives of children.

In the places where we work, change can be difficult and even feel threatening. Let’s pray for the ease and grace to embrace changes in our workplaces.

There are times when we are locked in conflict with someone and are unwilling to deal with the possibility of change in the heart of our adversary. Let’s pray for our adversaries and for our own anger.

There are so many ways that we can work to bring God’s way of being into the world, and most of them, if not all of them, involve our willingness to embrace change. So, where is change coming from for us? In our own body as we age? In our marriage or love relationship as time marches forward? In this church as we prepare together for the call of a new pastor?  And, does change come in the way we experience God? Do we grow into different ideas and understandings of the holy? Can we live with a God who can change God’s mind? A God who can repent of anger and turn to us in love? Can we follow love’s energy, even though it is unpredictable and yes, changeable?

Perhaps, if we can open our hearts to a God of change, maybe then we can welcome change in ourselves and in others? Maybe then we won’t feel the need to hold on to our expectations for ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors.

Instead, let us hold one another accountable in love. For, the question to ask doesn’t really have to do with consistency; it has to do with love. It’s not about whether someone’s actions reflect consistency. It’s about whether our actions reflect healing, help, and hope in love.

So, let us make a new beginning this very day and become a witness, and an example, of God’s grace as the only way into, and out of, life’s struggles, challenges, and changes!


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