January 24, 2021

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Scripture Reading: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10

Conversion of Nineveh

3 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.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.Read full chapter

10 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.


“Changing Our Mind”

Some words in English that are just fun to say. Bumfuzzle means to confuse someone, and the collywobbles are what we have when we’re nervous and get that queasy feeling in our stomach.

Godwottery is a convoluted way of speaking or gardening, and a snollygoster is a shrewd, unprincipled person. I think my favorite, though, is sialoquent, which means spitting while talking.

The German language has given English some fun words to pronounce, too. There’s blitz and bratwurst, delicatessen and doppelganger, kindergarten, knapsack, and kohlrabi. We can round out the list with sauerbraten, sauerkraut, spritz, stollen, and streusel.

It’s no accident that a lot of those German words describe food. It’s so much easier to say “sauerbraten” than it is “roasted meat marinated in vinegar before cooking with peppercorns, garlic, onions, and bay leaves.”

Another German word that has no English equivalent is Schadenfreude. Let’s use a clip to see what it means. This was one of the first YouTube videos to go viral and, as of Friday, had 878 million views.


That grin on Charlie’s face is 100% Schadenfreude, smiling at the yowls of his older brother even as he chomps down a little harder on his finger.

Schadenfreude takes many shapes and forms. Our hearts are secretly warmed when incompetence comes home to roost, when hypocrisy comes to light, or when a rival falters.

We secretly rejoice when annoyingly successful relatives and friends face setbacks and challenges. We grab hold of others’ disappointments to feel better about our own.

Are we proud of it? I hope not. All of us, though, have felt the secret thrill of satisfaction at what we feel is a well-deserved dose of comeuppance for the smug, the hypocritical, and the wicked.

It’s wrong, of course, to put ourselves in God’s place as judge and final arbiter. It’s dangerous, too. Our private delight in the humiliation of others can become a public menace.

We live in an age of Schadenfreude, and its fruits of discord and disagreement are plain to see.

All of which brings us to Jonah, who swam in a spit-warm sea of Schadenfreude. He was more than happy to preach hellfire and damnation to the people of Nineveh because, as far as he was concerned, they had it coming.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians were Israel’s longtime enemy. That made them God’s enemy, too…right? Surely God would never forgive them! Surely God couldn’t love them!

Still, there was this nagging little doubt in the back of Jonah’s mind that Israel’s worst enemy might repent or find mercy in God’s sight.

To make sure that wouldn’t happen, Jonah skipped town and hopped on a ship that would take him as far from Nineveh as he could get. Things went downhill after that.

Jonah’s boat almost sank in a storm. A giant fish then swallowed him and puked him out on the beach at Nineveh. Maybe, Jonah decided, he could give this whole “prophet” thing a shot.

That didn’t mean he had to like it, though. He only went a third of the way into the city before sharing a message that, in English, is just eight words long. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

He didn’t say why. He didn’t say how. He didn’t even say on whose authority he spoke. It was a sure-fire recipe for a flop—or so he hoped.

Turns out Jonah’s sermon was a breathtaking success! Out came the sackcloth! Into the fire went all the little statues of fertility gods.

Who knew this whiny excuse for a preacher could move the sorry heathens of Assyria to turn on a spiritual dime and repent?

Jonah was the most successful prophet in scripture, bar none. And how did he react? He was beyond mad.

How dare God not obliterate Nineveh? How dare God forgive the unforgivable! How dare God not hate the people whom Jonah hated?

There’s the rub, isn’t it? We confuse what we hate with what God hates. We might even indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude, reveling in our hating and in the misfortune of those we consider our enemies.

Oh, we loudly proclaim our innocence. While “hate” makes headlines—hate crimes, hate groups, hateful websites and social media networks—we see ourselves as frere from that kind of wickedness.

“Those people are sick!” we self-righteously proclaim.

“I don’t care what they call themselves, they certainly aren’t Christian!”

Right about then is when Jonah invites us to sit down next to him on a hill overlooking Nineveh, just aching for judgment and destruction that never come.

Jonah reminds us that hate can shape the hearts and lives even of those who seem outwardly respectful and faithful, people like you and like me.

Jonah warns that wickedness doesn’t spring from the fact that you aren’t like me, or that “they” aren’t like “us.” Wickedness comes when people aren’t like God. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Ninevites or New Athenians.

God’s point is that the kingdom must grow, and all are welcome. As much as it might give us a case of the collywobbles, that kingdom includes bumfuzzling snollygosters and sialoquent godwatters. It also includes nasty Ninevites, vengeful prophets, and you and me.

God’s wants everyone to turn away from wickedness and toward the only God who can not just free a guy from the belly of a fish, but free God’s Son from a stone-sealed tomb and the very powers of death itself.

Jonah’s story ends with a question, one that the book—and the angry prophet—never answer. God asks:

Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who don’t know their right hand from their left, and many animals?

It’s not so different from the words of the loving father to the prodigal’s angry, older brother in Luke.

Son, you’re always with me, and all that’s mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

Neither story wraps up the loose ends. We don’t know whether Jonah spent the rest of his life sulking because God had mercy on the city Jonah hated, or whether Jonah came around to seeing things God’s way.

We don’t know whether the prodigal’s angry older brother ever went inside to welcome the once lost with joy and love.

There’s no tidy ending for us, either. Will we spend the rest of our lives swimming in a sea of Schadenfreude, or accept and share the power of God’s gracious, life-giving love?

We know what God wants us to do. The ending of the story, though, is up to us.