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. (Jonah 3:10)
We human beings change our minds from time to time.
Sometimes, that is a very good thing. Over time we grow in knowledge and wisdom. Our perspectives broaden and we learn new things. We admit that we were once wrong or at least uninformed in our previous opinions. It’s a sign of maturation.
For instance, I know people who once believed that black people are inferior to white people. They now acknowledge how narrow their perspective was.
By contrast, changing your mind can also signal a character defect. Some people choose one thing and then its alternative and switch back yet again. I’ll buy the blue sweater, no the brown, no the blue. They are simply indecisive.
In this political season we are quick to denounce people who change their minds for political advantage. We call them flip-floppers. They strike us as untrustworthy.
People change their mind. But many of us pull up short when we hear that God could change his mind.
We believe God is the perfect judge of humankind because God’s knowledge and goodness are themselves flawless and infinite. He is our rock and our salvation because his steadfast love for us is unrelenting.
Saying that God changes his mind makes him sound unreliable.
We say that God loves us unconditionally. Could God change his mind and not love us anymore?
God has set down moral laws. Could God change his mind about what is right and what is wrong?
God judges our eternal destiny. Could God make a mistake and reward and punish the wrong people for the wrong reason?
Above all, God promises to redeem those who love him. Might God decide to break that promise?
And yet here it is plain as day in the Book of Jonah: God changed his mind. In fact, understanding how it is that God changes his mind helps us to understand how reliably just, loving and good God really is.
So let’s turn to Jonah to examine more carefully what it means to say that God changes his mind.
When you hear the name Jonah you probably think about a whale. The story of Jonah and the whale is very familiar, but it may catch some people by surprise that Jonah is in fact a prophetic book like Isaiah and Jeremiah, or Daniel and Micah.
Today’s reading says nothing about the whale story, and in fact it brings us to the central theme of the whole book: God’s response to Nineveh.
Nineveh is the capitol of Assyria, a militaristic state that was Israel’s and Judah’s greatest enemy at one point in their history. In fact, Assyria eventually annihilated the Northern Kingdom (Israel), leaving only Judah.
Let’s be clear. The Assyrians were not simply misunderstood strangers or despised competitors. They were violent aggressors determined to expand their own territory and influence and to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors. Havoc and misery followed in their wake wherever they went.
So, God commissioned Jonah to send Israel’s deadliest enemy a prophetic message. God will destroy the citizens of Nineveh for their wickedness unless they repent.
By Jonah’s own admission, he refused to go to Nineveh in the first place because he didn’t want God to let Nineveh off the hook. Jonah wanted them to pay for the evil they had done.
Once Jonah finally gets to Nineveh, he does a very half-hearted job of prophesying. He goes only a few blocks into that immense city. And then he barely mumbles a brief, uninspired warning to repent.
No poetic heights like Isaiah or Jeremiah-like fire. More like a sour office memo: Repent or God will get you. He did the bare minimum to avoid a second trip in a whale’s belly.
And what do you know? Incredibly, the entire city of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes. As the Scriptures tell us, “They turned from their evil ways.” And God changed his mind about them.
Nineveh repented and God relented. He did not overthrow Nineveh. Instead, he forgave them.
When God forgives, He is changing His mind. But we have to get clear about what this means.
You might think that God forgave the Ninevites—that God forgives our wrongdoing—because of something we do. Specifically, it’s a common mistake to think that our repentance convinces God to let us off the hook for our sins.
There are two main problems with this point of view. First, it assumes that God simply overlooks evils that have been done. This violates God’s perfect justice. So it cannot be true. God, being the infinitely just God and all, will by his very nature address wrongdoing.
Second, explaining God’s forgiveness by way of our repentance places our redemption and reconciliation with God entirely on our shoulders. It’s as if an act of repentance can earn enough points with God to cancel out the wrong we’ve done, and so we balance our accounts with God. It’s as if we could build up a credit with God and get ourselves into heaven.
But this is not the Gospel. The Gospel is not a set of steps to follow to win God’s approval or to avoid his anger. It is Good News about how God has already changed his mind about us by doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Listen to what Jesus himself says at the very beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Somewhere along the line many of have come to believe that our repentance is the beginning of the Gospel. So the Gospel goes like this. Repent and God will change his mind about the punishment you’ve got coming. In other words, we can change God’s mind and avoid eternal calamity by giving Him a sincere apology.
Do you see what this formula does? It ignores the very beginning of Jesus’ proclamation: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
According to God’s own sense of good timing, he decided to dwell among us in the flesh. In Jesus, God draws near to us even when we are as twisted and tangled as a box of coat hangers. But our repentance does not coax Him to come near.
God is perfectly just. Even what may seem like the tiniest sin is infinitely repulsive to Him. Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. If you get angry with somebody you have just murdered him in God’s eyes. If you feel lust for someone, you have already committed adultery with her.
Our repentance does not erase those sins or heal their damaging effects, and God certainly does not change his mind about sin. Instead, he decides to apply infinite mercy to what deserves infinite punishment. Our repentance is a response to God’s gracious initiative.
But our broken lives and broken hearts and broken relationships are real. God cannot ignore them or wave a magic wand to make them disappear. They have to be set right, and that is very costly.
It costs God to change his mind. And we see that cost on the Cross of Christ. The suffering of Jesus Christ is the cost of forgiveness.
How silly it is to think that our apology, no matter how sincere, could convince God to pay a price like that.
And how glorious it is to know that God loves us so much that he pays it simply because He has decided to pay it for us.
God changes His mind. Not from caprice or indecision or even in response to our own change of heart. God changes His mind because His perfect justice serves his perfect love for you and for me.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on January 22, 2012.