I have a tendency to be a control freak! There I’ve said it. I also know most of you well enough to know that I am not alone in this. There is no shame in it- it is just the way we are. I may be biased but think most people can relate. We want to know what to expect and what our future looks like. We plan vacations with the perfect itinerary. We have 5 and 10 year plans for school, career, family, money and retirement. We research, prepare, and execute. We have it all worked out.
But, then, life happens. Situations change, plans fall through, other people don’t cooperate with these plans. People get sick, storms happen, we win the lottery or lose a job, we don’t like these moments of flux because it reminds us that our sense of control is a delusion. Being the control freak that I am, when I am not in control, I really want God to be. I want God to be predictable and to fall into my sense of understanding who God is. But God’s idea of being in control doesn’t always make sense to me and I struggle to figure God out.
On one hand, because I like to have a plan, I want God to have a steady and fixed plan too. I want this especially when my own life seems out of control. But on the other hand I want God to listen to my prayers, respond when I am in need. When I see the chaos of the world around me I really want God to be flexible and do something to change the course of the world. There are some people in this world who believe that God has a very strict plan that cannot and will not be altered. They believe that the days of earth’s existence are numbered and even that God has planned out the number of each of our days.
They trust that God is all knowing and everywhere. We don’t do anything without God’s permission and God already knows what we will say and do. They even believe that God already knows who is saved and who is damned. They believe that God’s plan is in motion and we are just along for the ride. They believe that we are kind of like Jonah- You can run but you can’t hide from God. Like it or not you will do what God wants.
You see, God had already called Jonah to go to Nineveh once and the first time he took off running for the hills. He ran to the farthest place away from Nineveh he could find…. A port city on the coast of Israel. Nineveh is thought to be near current day Iraq so this was no short distance, especially on foot or horseback. Jonah was serious about getting away. But God pursued Jonah and will not allow him to have a peaceful life until he submits to God’s will.I honestly don’t mind this perspective because it means God has a plan- I just need to figure out what it is and do it. But is this really the way the world works? Do we not have any say about our lives and our future? Is our willingness to play along the only thing we have control over?
No! I can’t believe that. Too many other things happen in life to believe that. Scripture tells us that even though God has the final say- we do have to contribute and we do have some control over our destiny.
Consider our story today about Nineveh. Jonah begs God to save him, concedes to God’s will and walks all the way back from current day Tel Aviv to Bagdad to perform his job as a prophet. I imagine he does it a little begrudgingly too, tired from travel and still peeved at God for chasing him down and making him do this. So, he walks 1/3 of the way into town, yells out once “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Then he turns around, walks out of town. “Alright God, I did what you told me to do, now I am going to go up here on the side of this little hill and watch as you do your thing- This should be worth my trouble to watch you destroy this city.
But then the strangest thing happens. Nineveh doesn’t respond the way Jonah expects with apathy and hostility. In fact, people who don’t even know God actually respond to this crazy man screaming on the street corner. They immediately begin to repent of their sins. They take off their nice clothes and put away their rich foods and beg for mercy. And God changes God’s mind.
Wow! How does this happen? God is God and the God Jonah thought he knew wouldn’t change his mind. God had a plan right? This seems like a lot of trouble if God knew they were going to change their ways anyway- why not just make them do what God wants without Jonah? Why not just snap your fingers and fix Nineveh and let Jonah get his destiny at the bottom of the sea? This all knowing, all seeing, in control of everything God changes his mind just because a people say they are sorry?
Yes, that is exactly what happened--God is not a puppet master. We aren’t simply characters in God’s eternity long screen play. We have a say and we have control. This isn’t the only time that God changes God’s mind. God can be reasoned with- Moses convinces God to not destroy the Israelites after they built the golden calf to worship. Abraham pleads with God to not destroy any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah and God relents allowing Lot and his family to escape.
The New Testament tells us to pray, ask God for what we need and to be persistent in our prayers. We know these stories- it is why we pray. We believe that when we pray something happens, God hears, and God considers our needs. We don’t always get what we think we want but we get a voice. God gives us free will. God has not written all the pages to the book of our lives.
Nineveh knew that their destruction was well deserved. God had every right to do as God pleased. But, they felt the convicting grace of God on their hearts and not only one or two people but the whole city repented and turned their lives around. In fact, the city was overthrown, not because of God’s wrath but because they accepted personal responsibility for their actions and begged God for mercy.
The reason God relented and the reason God rescued Jonah from the raging storm is because God is a God of second chances. Jonah got a second chance because in the depth of his despair he cried out to God and God heard his prayers. Nineveh got a second chance because it cried out and God heard their prayers. And God is ready and willing to give you a second chance too and for most of us we are asking God not for a second chance but a third or fourth or tenth chance. It won’t always be fun.
Jonah endured the troubled stormy waters of the sea and days of darkness and uncertainty. Nineveh spent time in rough sackcloth and ashes, fasting and praying in fear and uncertainty if Jonah’s prophecy would come true. Your opportunity for another chance may not be pleasant either but you will come out the other side better because of it.
There is a balance of power between us and God. We aren’t in control of everything but we are also not at the mercy of a God who is inflexible and unforgiving. God is in control but we have a role to play. We get to decide how we will respond to God and to the circumstances of the life that surrounds us. We can seek to be in a relationship with God or not. We can live through the troubles of life without the calming, loving and peaceful presence of God or we can wallow in our suffering.
But God always wants us to choose God. God wants us to ask for another chance. God is pursuing us, seeking to be in a relationship with us and is willing to go to the ends of the earth to bring us back to that relationship.
What kind of second chance do you need? For what do we as individuals, as a church, as a community need to repent? Are you willing to do what it takes to change your life around? God is willing to do God’s part; offering you love and forgiveness many times over.
Maybe you are being called to offer a second chance to someone else. Maybe you see the circumstances of life that surround you and you are being called to help others begin again. God is calling you to leave the fear and anxiety behind, accept a life full of the peace of Christ and share that with others. Everyone deserves a second chance even Jonah, even Nineveh, even you.