Nineveh – Hope for the Hopeless

Wednesday, February 28, 2018
First Lutheran Church- Albany, NY

Hopeless – Could there be a worse word in the English language? When a person is hopeless they have totally given up. They feel there is nothing more that can be done about a particular situation. “What’s the point; it’s hopeless.” And when this state of hopelessness continues for too long, they themselves feel as though they are hopeless – that their life has no meaning. They feel they are beyond help, beyond attention, and their life is worthless. Hopeless – just the very word casts a dark shadow.

When a person is hopeless they can find themselves in a dark emotional state. Their joy is gone, and their voice may eventually grow silent. After all, what’ the point of continuing to speak when no one is listening, when you keep being ignored. We see this a lot when a person is burdened with chronic poverty. They may try to get ahead, but circumstances prevent it. A loss of employment, inadequate pay, increases in rent, medical expenses….the list is endless to the contributing factors that lead to poverty. And while poverty can happen to anyone, minorities are the most vulnerable. And many times these individuals are so misunderstood. Names like lazy get thrown around by individuals who don’t take the time to find out who these people really are, and what their situation is. Hopeless – another word for lost and neglected.

It’s not just individuals that suffer from hopelessness. Entire groups, communities, and countries can be overcome by the spread of hopelessness. Ethnic communities that are seen as the “other” are looked down upon, ridiculed, and left to their own. These communities and countries try to speak out for help, but it’s easy to just say, “We’ve got our own problems to fix. We’re not going to help those communities, those countries. ” After you’ve been ignored and beaten down long enough, sometimes hopelessness can turn to anger and violence because one feels helpless. And so people act in ways they normally would not. They want someone – anyone – to hear them. Hopelessness – it leads to hunger, suicide, riots, and even death.

Our Scripture reading this evening is a perfect example of an entire country being labeled as “other.” Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria in what is now northern Iraq. Assyria was the hated enemy of Israel. The Israelites remembered the many battles they had with Assyria, whose power – like their own – was growing. Power, then and today, causes conflict. And each group labeling the other as the enemy leads to suffering. The people who suffer the most are not the governments of each country trying to get ahead and hold on to their positions of power, but the individuals in those countries – individuals who as a whole don’t want war. They want safety and peace for their families whom they love, and whom God loves.

When a person or place is considered “other” it’s impossible to realize that they too are beloved by God. The Book of Jonah begins with “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” The people of Nineveh, like people everywhere, were acting in ways that were hurtful to God, and so God asks the prophet Jonah to go and speak the word of God to them so they will repent. Jonah however, didn’t want to do that. Jonah didn’t want to waste his time with those people. So Jonah runs as far away from Nineveh as possible – all the way across the sea to Tarshish or what is now Spain – where he thinks he can hide from God. After the incident with the whale – we won’t go into that tonight – God asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and Jonah finally agrees. He speaks the word of God to them, and we hear that they surprisingly turn around. The people fast and repent. Everyone repents, even the king.

It makes you wonder if maybe this was the first time anyone came and spoke the word of God to them. The word of God is powerful. God’s Spirit can do amazing things with people’s hearts. It wasn’t Jonah who caused them to turn to God, it was God’s very word and Spirit that transformed them. What a wonderful gift for the people of Nineveh to have received. They may have never heard how much God loved them. The people of Nineveh may have felt hopeless – trapped in being labeled one way because of the actions of their government, much like people today in various countries including our own. And Assyrian soldiers were exceptionally brutal and gruesome in their treatment of captives discovered through inscriptions and tablets found by 19th century archaeologists. But individual men, women, and children are not directly responsible for the actions of their governments. We only have to look at the refugee situation today to see that people in situations like this are seeking refuge and release from war and brutality. So to label an entire country as the enemy is as sinful as the actions many people condemn.

And the Ninevites were a condemned people, even by Jonah, but not by God. For God saved the people of Nineveh. God heard their cries, felt their sincere repentance, and breathed new life into them. Isn’t that what we all hope for?  That all people will experience God’s grace? Or do we, like Jonah angrily say, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. “Wow, angry at God’s graciousness! How quickly Jonah forgot what God did for him. Jonah really is speaking for many people even today. Deep down, many people want to see revenge. They want people to get what’s coming to them, forgetting that if God gave us what we deserved, we’d all be punished. But that’s not the God we worship. Our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God’s word is relevant for us today. Like Jonah and his anger over the bush that died, it’s easy to feel compassion for something when it affects us personally, but hard when we haven’t built a relationship or connection. When we label someone or some country as other, we separate them from ourselves. We take away their humanity, and then it’s easy to not care what happens to them. But God cares about relationships. God cares for every living part of creation.

And that’s why God’s word is hope for the hopeless. God’s word is filled with mercy, grace, and forgiveness – sometimes even for those who may be beating themselves up for something they haven’t done themselves. The hopeless need to hear that they are not forgotten by God, but God is with them even if they don’t acknowledge God’s presence. Our belief or unbelief does not impact God’s presence, but our awareness and realization of God’s presence transforms us. It moves us from a state of hopelessness to a place of hope, knowing that while we don’t know how God will act, we believe that God will indeed do something. And most of the time God works through people. God’s work – our hands.

Hope – could there be a more powerful word in the English language? Hope is not mere optimism or positive thinking. Hope gives people the courage to get up day after day and try again even when the circumstances seem hopeless. Hope gives courage to those who are living in fear, confident that the God who loves them will never leave them. Hope is a light in the darkest of places that keeps one moving forward even when the way is dim, even when we are afraid. Hope raises us up from the shadow of death, and breathes new life into us. In God’s eyes no one is a hopeless cause. No country is hopeless. In God’s eyes all people are worth saving. Hope will turn the world around. That is the word of God we need to hear and to proclaim to others today. Amen.

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