Connections 01.21.2018: A Second Time

Jonah 3:1-10

Mr. James Boggs died a few weeks ago. He was my Little League Baseball coach. He taught me many lessons; one in particular has stayed with me through the almost half-century that has passed since those days.

I was at bat. I don’t remember all the details, but I know that we had at least one runner on base, there were two outs, and the count was in my favor, which means that there were two or three balls and one or no strikes. Mr. Boggs hollered, “Take a pitch, Mike.” (We weren’t advanced enough to be receiving signs, but he meant that I shouldn’t swing.)

Now, you need to understand a few things. First, I was ten years old. Second, I was a lousy hitter. Third, I ordinarily did whatever an authority figure told me to do.

So what happened next surprised everybody, but especially me. The pitcher threw the first pitch I had ever seen that I knew for a fact I could hit. I mean there was no doubt about it. It was like I was playing tee-ball again; the ball practically stopped right in front of me. I knew Coach Boggs had told me to take the pitch. Everyone knew I would do what he had told me to do.

Only I didn’t. I swung at the pitch. And I hit it. I hit it hard. I hit a line drive straight to the first baseman.

I was out. The inning was over.

When I went to the dugout to swap my batting helmet for my glove, Coach Boggs said, “Didn’t I tell you to take that pitch?” “Yes sir,” I replied. He nodded and looked away.

We had a couple of practices before our next game. He didn’t say anything about my failure to follow instructions. When we gathered for our next contest and I looked at the lineup card to see where I was batting, I wasn’t on it. Only eight names were listed. A blank space glared at me from somewhere in the middle of the lineup card.

As I stood staring at it, Mr. Boggs walked over, a pencil in his hand. “Do you think you can do what I tell you to do from now on?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I answered. And he wrote my name on the lineup card. From then on, I did whatever Coach Boggs told me to do. And I did it gladly.

God had told Jonah to go to Nineveh once before. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh and so he tried to sail to Tarshish instead, which led to some fairly traumatic experiences: the prophet got tossed overboard and swallowed by a big fish.

The verse immediately before this Sunday’s lesson text says, “Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (2:10). As Jonah struggled to his feet on the beach, trying to remove some of the residual junk that being in a fish’s belly for three days produced, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’” (3:1-2).

God penciled Jonah’s name back on the lineup card. The reluctant prophet remains reluctant, but this time he does as God commands.

The people of Nineveh don’t need God to speak to them a second time. They repent the first time they hear what God has to say to them. On one hand, responding positively the first time is better. On the other hand, it’s good to know that God offers a second time.

In Mark 1:14-20 (the lectionary’s Gospel text for this Sunday), Simon and Andrew respond to Jesus the first time they hear him say, “Follow me.” That’s good. But as the unfolding story reveals, the disciples often don’t understand and obey Jesus’ words the first time he says them. By the grace of God, they get other chances.

What is God saying to you? What is the Lord telling you to do? How have you refused Jesus’ summons to follow him? Maybe you’re hearing God speak to you for the second time, the third time, or the twenty-seventh time. What matters is what you do with the opportunity you have this time.

Discussion

1. Why do you think God told Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh rather than use a different prophet?
2. What kinds of results come from acting “according to the word of the LORD “ (v. 3)? What kinds of result come from not doing so?
3. What do you make of Jonah’s sermon (v. 4b)? Why might the people of Nineveh have responded to it as they did?
4. Why do you think the king of Nineveh included both animals and humans in his fasting decree?
5. Why does God decide not to destroy Nineveh? What does this teach us about God?

Reference Shelf

Jonah 3:4 recounts Jonah’s execution of his task in the briefest possible terms. Jonah, the reader is told, began to enter the city, going a third of the way in, one day’s journey. Jonah’s message to Nineveh is as terse as any speech recorded in the Bible. It consists of only five words in Hebrew, and it offers no way out for the people. He merely states God’s verdict: forty days until Nineveh’s overthrow. The prophet offers no call to repentance, no message of hope, and no plea for change. When viewed against chapter 4 … Jonah clearly did not preach to get the people to change their ways. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh. He delivered this message in hopes that the people would do nothing and that God would make good on the threat to destroy the city.

Despite receiving no instructions from YHWH’s prophet, the Ninevites intuitively react with fear and contrition. Jonah 3:5 reports the response was immediate, unequivocal, and surprising: “The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them.” The people put on sackcloth to show remorse. They do not question Jonah’s message; they presume he speaks the truth. They do not ask Jonah what
they can do to avert the disaster; they know
they must demonstrate contrition. They do
not ask who is to blame; they all take responsibility. Rarely does a biblical text recount such a
positive response on the part of anyone, which
is then all the more surprising that it is the
people of Nineveh, a despised, pagan people, who show such remarkable resolve to change in response to the word of YHWH, no matter how poorly that word was communicated.

James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 439.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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