Text:Jonah 3, 4
We are living in a time of uncertainty, and it reminds me, believe it or not, of a baseball story. I’m a Cardinal fan, and it’s been a long time but I may have shared the story of Cardinal pitcher Jouquin Andujar. Jouquin was a colorful character. When he took his practice pitches before each inning, the last pitch he would throw wildly and like a bullet, about 20 feet up on the screen. Besides just plain orneriness, he did this to send a message to the opposing players that his fastball just might get away from him. He didn’t want them getting too comfortable at the plate.
A reporter once asked Jouquin to describe the game of baseball in one word. He was from the Dominican Republic, liked to be known as One Bad Dominican, and his English wasn’t perfect, but he had a wonderful response. The one word to describe baseball, he said, was “YOUNEVERKNOW.“ It was an inspired answer. And it’s true. You head to the ballpark and it could be a no-hitter or an 18-17 game. Youneverknow.
YOUNEVERKNOW actually applies to a lot of things. If you were asked to describe the story of Jonah in one word, a good answer would be: YOUNEVERKNOW.
God asks the prophet Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh. Nineveh was a foreign city, denounced for its violence and evil by the prophets Zephaniah and Nahum. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and not surprisingly, Jonah did not want to go.
Jonah didn’t like these people, didn’t like the idea of God caring about these people, and personally, it would be fine with him if they all rotted in hell. And besides, Jonah knew it would be an exercise in futility. There was no way the Ninevites would listen to him. Nineveh was to the east, so Jonah did what any self-respecting prophet would do: he got on a fast boat headed west.
That probably makes Jonah a lot like us. If we were asked to do something that seemed just too difficult or too distasteful, or we were asked to minister to people we absolutely did not like, our first reaction might be to run.
Jonah skips town and fast, but the ship comes upon a terrible storm and it looks like everyone will die at sea. The crew figures out that they are in this predicament because Jonah had disobeyed his God. The crew members come across as decent and sincere people – they are not worshipers of the God of Israel, but they are much more appealing characters than Jonah, the prophet of God. They really don’t want to do it, but as the storm intensifies they do what they have to do. Jonah is thrown overboard and the storm immediately calms. Jonah ends up being swallowed by a big fish and after three days to think about what has transpired, he is vomited up on the shore.
And so the Lord asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh. It’s an offer Jonah really can’t refuse – I mean, he’s already done hard time in a fish’s belly. So he goes to Nineveh. He didn’t have to like it, but he went.
Nineveh was a very large city. The passage says it took three days to walk across the city. Maybe that is a case of describing Nineveh in legendary terms, but at one time Nineveh was actually the largest city in the world, the greatest urban center on earth. Jonah travels one day into the city – he doesn’t even reach the heart of town. And here is his entire text: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. In Hebrew, it’s just five words. A five-word sermon that does not mention God, does not say why the city will be overthrown, and holds out no hope of escaping this sentence. To be honest, it was a pitiful performance, a half-hearted effort.
But amazingly, the people of Nineveh responded. Jonah doesn’t even mention God, but the people nevertheless believe in God. They fasted, put on sackcloth, and repented of their sins. The news reached the king, who followed the lead of the people. He took off his crown and his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. He proclaimed that every living thing, human and animal, will put on sackcloth and ashes and fast and repent of their evil ways and the violence in their hearts and perhaps God will spare them.
And it works. Because of their repentance, God decided to spare the city.
This made Jonah very upset. He was disillusioned and depressed by the success of his mission in Nineveh. He was at the same time the worst and the most successful prophet ever.
The lessons of this story might be summarized in that one word: YOUNEVERKNOW.
1. YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do. It was inconceivable to Jonah that God would want him to go to Nineveh. He thought he knew better than God.
Contrast Jonah with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” And Andrew and Simon and James and John follow. Just like that. No questioning, no delay. There was no doubt some uncertainty, some sense of “what are we getting ourselves into?” But nevertheless, they followed, because they knew that God had called them.
There are those times when we find ourselves in places and situations we never would have expected. Maybe we find ourselves living in Iowa. Maybe we find ourselves in a Baptist church. Maybe we find ourselves involved in an organization or cause or role we really hadn’t planned on. We never planned to coach kids. We never planned to lead Sunday School. We had no ambition to become a deacon. But here we are. Circumstances, or maybe God, led us to this place and we said yes. Youneverknow.
2. And then, YOUNEVERKNOW how others may respond.
Jonah had the Ninevites all figured out. They were heathen beyond hope. And yet, every person in the city repented. Men, women, rich, poor, boys, girls, royalty. They all repented of their sin. Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. (Which gives us hope, because I know there are some cats out there that definitely need to repent.)
Today, there are people that society has by and large written off as worthless. As beyond hope. The church can sometimes write those people off too. What would happen if we took seriously the fact that no one is beyond hope, no person is beyond reaching, no one is beyond being transformed by the love of God?
The great German pastor Helmut Thielicke had an old photograph on his desk. It was a snapshot of a Christmas pageant. A group of grizzled looking men are wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands. Another group of men is kneeling before them, feigning terror. It is clear that they are supposed to be the angels, speaking to the fearful shepherds.
Why was this photograph the only one on the pastor's desk? Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain. The men in the scene were hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ. Murderers and rogues were dressed like angels. For Thielicke, it was a parable, not unlike the story of Jonah, a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to change us. The message of Jonah is that change is possible even in the most unlikely places and unlikely people. YOUNEVERKNOW.
3. The story of Jonah also tells us that we never know what the future will bring. Jonah would not have imagined that God would ask him to go to Nineveh. When he went the other way and found himself thrown overboard in a storm, he was not expecting to be swallowed and then barfed up on the shore by a big fish. When he finally did go to Nineveh, he was pretty sure of how things would turn out and basically sabotaged his own message, trying to fail, but the people repented anyway.
Jonah’s experience sounds a lot like 2020. We haven’t been swallowed by a big fish and vomited up on the shore and then sent to the last place on earth we would want to go; it just feels like it. We never would have imagined what would happen over these past months.
But here is the Good News: the story of Jonah tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW about God. Jonah assumed that God was just like him, assumed that God didn’t care about those no-good Ninevites, assumed that God operated in predictable ways.
Contrast Jonah with the king. I love the king in this story. The king has better insight into God than God’s own prophet. The king says to the people, “Who knows? Maybe God will relent.” He doesn’t claim to understand how God operates. He knew that we don’t control what God will do. But he also understood that what we do does matter. And because of the people’s repentance, God spared the city.
What this tells us is that the future is wide open. The future is filled with possibility. We are not just actors playing roles that are designated for us, but we have a part in shaping the future. What we do matters.
Jonah thought he had things all figured out, but he was wrong. Like Jonah, we get into trouble when we think we know it all. But the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.
To say YOUNEVERKNOW does not mean that we don’t know anything. It is a word that speaks of mystery and possibility and wonder and faith. We don’t know, we won’t know until we try - we won’t know until we check things out.
YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do until you
YOUNEVERKNOW how others will respond until they have the opportunity.
YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring until you
have lived it.
YOUNEVERKNOW about God until you commit yourself to following in God’s ways.
YOUNEVERKNOW is really an invitation to give things a try – to give God a try.
The invitation for us is that in the midst of these uncertain times, we might commit our lives to following where Jesus leads us. That might mean going to some unexpected places.
That can mean living without knowing all the answers.
That means the future is wide open. It is filled with possibility. And until we really seek to follow Jesus, well, YOUNEVERKNOW. Amen.