Note: A sermon delivered to Orange City United Methodist Church (Orange City, FL) on March 21, 2021.
It was the worst sermon I have ever heard. Sermon? That’s not right… There would’ve had to have been something good in it for it to be that… Worst prophecy? Worst exhortation to change? It was just so bad, it’s hard to describe.
He did nothing right—and he certainly didn’t look like a foreign dignitary. He was dirty, and not just normal dirty. Believe me, there are a lot of dirty people near the wall, but he stood out even compared to them. What’s strange is usually his people are cleaner than most if anything—I’ve dealt with Israelites before for my business…And the way he smelled. I—*disgust*. I mean again, anyone who lives in a big city gets used to certain…smells—but this was unlike anything I’ve smelled before. It smelled a little of ocean and fish and lots like mold and rotting flesh. I gagged when I came near.
He walked slouched and dragged his feet through the dust, as if he resented everything around him, as if he resented what he was doing, as if he resented himself. And his message—I guess that’s what I’ll call it—there was no power in his voice. He didn’t proclaim it or shout it; it was slurred and comparatively quiet. You could hear him if you listened, but he wasn’t any louder than the normal city happenings. Did he have too much to drink? Was he even trying to be heard? Did he want to be heard?
It was short too. Much too short. Five words he said. Only five. And he said it in Hebrew—not Assyrian! How was anyone supposed to hear this—to understand this? He appeared a lunatic, a fool, or worse. Few of us speak Hebrew. People were avoiding him—with good reason. Luckily, I’ve picked up some Hebrew on the trade routes, so I was able to put it together. “The end is coming for Nineveh,” he said.
Can you believe his audacity? He comes into the heart of our empire, to one of our great cities. And a foreigner, one of our enemies, says we will be overthrown. Decades ago, we would have never tolerated that. Our god Ashur was good to us, then.
But in spite of all of that—the presentation, that smell—something clicked within me. By all rights, he should have been dismissed, laughed, or emphatically fanned away from our city. But what he said spoke to me. I was changed that day.
Ever since the death of King Adad-nirari many years ago, it’s been tough for us Assyrians. I remember he was a king to be feared—he subjugated many nations around us. But death came for him early, and the kings who replaced him haven’t been the same. Shalmaneser was barely a king in his own right, and now Ashur-dan appears nearly helpless. His own cities keep rebelling. Our enemies to the north constantly harass us. Food has been hard to come by and everyone keeps getting sick. Even worse, the sun was blotted out of the sky in the middle of the day not long ago. We all knew something worse was coming.
All of that to say, my heart was ready to hear that prophet’s message. It certainly wasn’t anything he did that made me change, but it was something done in me before he ever arrived. The groundwork was laid by Someone Else who came before. In spite of himself, I knew what he said was true, what he said mattered, what he said needed to be heard by everyone.
So I did what he should have done. I stood behind him—I didn’t want to take his authority—and started shouting his message in Assyrian. You should have seen him jump! He turned back to look at me. He glared at me. As if I disgusted him. Somewhat ironic considering his appearance.
I could tell what I said—what he said through me—reached the hearts of others too. Us Assyrians, we knew we needed to change. But it’s not right to say any of us believed him or his message. No, no. We believed God and God’s message. As lazy as he was, as unfriendly as he was, as revulsed as he was, we still heard God through his untranslated, curt, negative message. And we knew what we had to do.
What else can you do when you’re faced with your own demise and the demise of your nation? Maybe a country more sure of itself, more arrogant, would do nothing, but we could read the signs of the times. We’ve been humbled since the death of Adad-nirari. So we changed our behavior. We banded together, corporately, and put on clothes of mourning and fasted together. We did this at first without our king—who knows how long it might take for our government to do something? The edict that he did announce was as much a response in support of what the people were already doing rather than any real leadership. Although our response was simply mourning, that edict was the first to suggest we might avoid the disaster—that prophet sure didn’t make it seem like we could get out of it! Go figure that the king who has the most to lose is the most focused on keeping it all. Power can so easily become an obsession.
So we fasted and mourned, for the thousands who would die. We were united by our grief and our shared fate. United by a prophet who cared less about us than a perfunctory proclamation. All of us, even the animals, beset by disaster, found our unified voice. And together, we cried out to God for mercy.
I followed behind him that day, shouting God’s message. He meandered through streets. It’s pretty easy to get lost in Nineveh—it could take you three days if you don’t know where you’re going. He clearly didn’t. I don’t think he wanted to.
He only spent the one day proclaiming his message. Usually those foreign dignitaries spend three days, one to establish their credentials, one for their message, and one to wrap up business and be sent off. He didn’t even care to give us the proper time. Then he left. Somehow, it was all we needed.
And I can’t help but wonder what might’ve happened differently if he had been more responsible about his presentation. He didn’t even mention his God’s name. I’ve learned it on my routes. Does his God, this I AM, this Yahweh, does he want to be known by us? Does I AM care about us beyond the threat of judgment? Does Yahweh care about more than merely stopping our violence? Should we follow Yahweh instead of Ashur and our own gods, and would he even have us? Did he want us to convert to their beliefs? What would Nineveh look like following Yahweh and not Ashur?
Or was that not the purpose that day? On that day, did he care more about our violence than who we worshipped? …
And what about the prophet? I could smell his distaste for our city from the moment I saw him. He came into the heart of our once proud empire to proclaim judgment. I suppose he did what he was called to do—he delivered his message—but it seems like a technicality to me. He did nothing right, and most of the work was done before he even arrived. Thank God he did speak out though—he gave us new life! But has there ever been as such a low effort prophet? As biased a prophet? As racist a prophet? I suppose I don’t blame him. We have been his enemies for longer than either of us have lived. What kind of God promises the judgment of his enemies and then relents? How did the prophet feel about our change and the fact we’re still here, in spite of his best—or worst—efforts?
I can’t help but wonder, how much did he show us who God is and how much did he get in God’s way? What if he’d cared about us as much as his God did? What would we have heard then? How would we have changed then? …
I suppose for my part, sometimes I wonder who I will tell about this, or how I will do that. But I’m so grateful for this second chance, this second life, this second birth, it just seems to come up. But not everyone who has experienced this second birth is talking about it. My guess is those who have been saved and aren’t talking about it basically fall into two categories: they’re either ungrateful or they avoid meaningful conversations with others. To be honest, I can be like that too. Sometimes, I avoid those conversations—and it can be oddly easy to forget the real change this has meant on my life. Real change; not just feeling a certain way or knowing new things, but more than both of these in a manner that is reflected by what I do. What I mean is, real change in my heart, and my mind, and my strength. In the right situation, when I “get it”, this story just comes out of me naturally. It might be more accurate to say at those times I have to stop myself from sharing about the mercy we were shown.
During those times when it isn’t flowing out of me naturally, the major personal challenge is self-reflective. Self-reflection is hard work, and often uncomfortable. But important things, things that really matter, usually take hard work. It’s not like those street-vendor charlatans, who will read back a few cards and tell you how to fix your life, your job, and your marriage in seven easy steps.
No, I need to challenge myself to reflect on my shortcomings. Are they internal or external? Am I forgetting the depth of mercy I was shown? Is there distance between what I know to be true and what I experience to be true? If so, how do I relive the experience? Do I gather close friends and retell our stories—bringing past experience into a relived present? Do I read the stories of that mercy written by our chroniclers? Do I simply turn to inward meditation? What else might work for me?
Or is my problem external? Do I only have relationships with those who already know the story, and already know my version of it? Are my conversations with others more about protecting my self and my identity than extravagantly sharing about God’s extravagant mercy? Have I simply given myself no opportunity? Do I care about the people on my trade routes enough to share a life-changing event? Where do my prejudices interfere with my story-telling?
How am I like that prophet, and how am I being reshaped into a second-chance being who is wholly unlike him? How am I being reshaped into a second-chance being who was shown God’s mercy?
Photo: “Repentance of Nineveh”, John Martin, 1789–1854. Wikimedia Commons, https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/7620