Praying from Nineveh

It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.

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Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.

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The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.

But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.

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I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.

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What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.

The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.

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But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!

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May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*

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*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!

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