We all come to a place in our life where we realize that something’s got to change. It can be a big something or a small something.
For some, it’s making some big changes in your priorities. Maybe you decide you’re going to reignite your marriage, pay more attention to the kids, make time for date nights, no more missing dinners. Being busy seems to be the norm these days. When asked, “how’s life?” The number one answer seems to be, “it’s busy.” How might that answer change for us? How might our answer become, “It’s fulfilling. It’s rich. I’m living out my calling”? And I don’t mean in a superficial kind of way, but a real, authentic life that is filled with purpose. We all come to a place in our life where we wake up and realize we need to make some changes.
The past few months, I felt this sort of nudge to make changes in my health. I needed some exercise. The last few months I have started to rise at 5am. I have signed up for these exercise classes called “Hit” and “Burn” at the local gym. (I was hoping for one to be named something like “Breathe” or “Waterbreak”). Everyone in there is so fit! I’m the only out-of-shape one. The first day, I acted like I could exercise like it was 1999. That didn’t happen. And I’m the only guy in the class. I am always like 3 exercises behind the others. It doesn’t help my ego that afterwards in the parking lot, these ladies are hopping into their muscle cars and revving up the engine. Me? I’m waving from my mini-van.
Just the other morning, we had finished our workout. As we are filing out, our trainer is telling each person, “You killed it today. You rocked those burpees. You punched that workout in the face.” When she comes to me she says, “I’m glad you keep coming.”
Making changes can be hard. But we can make changes. A big part of change is about continuing to show up and to believe change can happen. If we believe it, people can change for the better.
In fact, that’s what the gospel is all about. Jesus came to change us by working in us. It boils down to one word. Believe. We have to believe we can change or else we will rarely try.
Just look at the lesson from the story of Jonah from chapter 3. To do a little review, the prophet Jonah is a runner. He continually runs away from his calling. God has called him to proclaim the message of change to this nation called Nineveh. The people of Nineveh are violent people. They have killed Jews and destroyed the Jewish temple. God wants them to change or else God is going to destroy them. So God calls Jonah. But Jonah doesn’t want the job. He flees on a ship in the opposite direction. The sailors throw him overboard because they realize they are about to sink because of Jonah’s disobedience. God sends a large fish that swallows Jonah and spits him out on the shore of Nineveh. God says to Jonah, “Get up Jonah and proclaim my message.” So Jonah sets off to the city and finally proclaims the message God gave him: “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
And how do the Ninevites respond? They believed. Here is a nation outside of the faith who believed a Jewish prophet named Jonah. They believe God’s word. They believed God when God said that he is going to ruin them in 40 days because of the ways they have hurt and destroyed. They didn’t think this message was an idle threat. They didn’t think Jonah was some silly ridiculous prophet. They saw a man willing to risk his life to deliver a message from God. They accepted and believed that they had been violent. They had killed. They had mistreated. They needed someone like Jonah to call them out on it.
For us to have real sustained change in our lives, we must believe whole-heartedly in the message. The Ninevites changed because they believed God’s message was true about their life. They didn’t respond, “That’s not us. We’re not like that.” Or, “You know, Jonah might have a point. Maybe we should roundtable his message for a while.” No, that’s not the tone of their response. The tone of their response is, “He’s right. We better get our act together. Jonah’s God means business.”
They believe it so much that they spread the word to their king. Miracle of miracles, he too believed.
As we think about those areas we want to change, we must ask ourselves, “What do we believe needs to be changed about our life?” That’s not the same question as, “What could we change? Or what might help?” The question is about belief. What do you believe God is calling you to change? Because here’s the good news. God wouldn’t call you to change unless God believed you actually could.
Then notice what this King of Nineveh does. He rises from his throne and removes his robe. His throne is where he wielded his power. And his robe signified his importance. In this moment, he steps away from his place of power and removes his robe of importance. Then he sits in ashes. He sits in the base elements of dust to which one day he shall return. It was dust that reminded him that if he didn’t change, he and his own country would soon be reduced to ashes.
He rises from his place of power. He removes his symbol of authority. He covers himself in ashes and sits. When we truly believe it’s time to change, we must be willing to rise from our thrones, remove our symbols of power and lower ourselves to the ground. If it’s time for us to make changes, we will need to sit in the dust. The people of Nineveh would turn from their violence. They would turn and make a change from their wicked ways. The Lord would show them mercy.
In the gospel accounts, Jesus once said that the only sign he would give the people was the sign of Jonah. The sign of Jonah was the sign of repentance. That sign meant that when the people heard the message that they needed to change, they believed and changed and God showed mercy. Jesus would call the people to change their heart and life by the message of his death and resurrection. Through this miraculous message, God showed them and us mercy.
My wife recently introduced me to the podcast “White Lies”. I couldn’t stop listening. It’s about these two men from Alabama coming to terms with Civil Rights movement and their state’s racist past. They researched the death of a white clergy man named Jim Reeb who came to Selma in aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. As Jim Reeb, a Unitarian minister, husband and father of four, left dinner one night in Selma, there were four local white men who hit him over the head with a billy club repeatedly. He would die a few days later. These men went on trial and were found not-guilty and set free.
More than 50 years later, these two journalist uncovered how the sheriff, the judges, the jury and the witnesses, covered up what really happened. The white community in this town knew the men on trial were guilty but they spun a web of lies to change the narrative. Eventually those lies turned to sustained belief in a false story. Do you know why the people in Selma couldn’t change? They were willing to believe in a lie rather than confront the truth of the past, which led them to believe that everything was fine. The past was the past. Water under the bridge. But what if that community had been like the King of Nineveh? Instead of covering up their history of violence, what if they had removed their cloaks of concealment and stepped down from their power to lay bare the deeds of the past?
No doubt, Selma has made progress. The podcast celebrates that in the year 2000 the city of Selma elected their first African American mayor. But within weeks of his election, the city erected a bust and statue to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. The white community of Selma justified this monument by arguing that this was about honoring their heritage. If Selma honored the legacy of Civil Rights, they should also honor their Confederate heritage.
The journalists interviewed a lady named Grace, an African American woman from Selma who was at the bridge on “Bloody Sunday.” They asked Grace whether she thought these election of this mayor and the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest were related.
She said, “Now, you know you’ve already answered that question in your mind. But when I look at Nathan’s head up there, his mouth started moving. It says, you may have a Negro mayor, but we are still here.”
We have made progress, but there’s still so far to go.
As hard as the past may be, God calls us to tell the truth of it. For it’s only when we believe in the truth of it that we can really change.
If we are brave enough to believe the truth, then change is possible. Sometimes, we need to get off our thrones and sit in the dust. We need to take off our robes of success that conceal the real problems underneath. That goes for anything in our life that needs to be changed. We will not change if we will ourselves to believe in the lie. If a person believes they don’t have a drinking problem, they’ll keep on drinking. If a person believes their marriage is fine and it’s not, they’ll keep on with the same bad habits.
It’s for these reasons we need people like Jonah to deliver the real truth from God. That’s why the people of Nineveh could change. They believed and accepted the truth about themselves.
The good news is we can change for the better. Real change is possible. As Jesus once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” That’s why Jesus came. Because Jesus loves you and cares about your life. God is a God of mercy.
In the gospel of Luke, Luke tells us about a man named Zaccheus. He was a tax collector and he cheated people out of their money. One day, Jesus was passing by. He was short so he climbed a tree to see Jesus. Jesus said, “Zaccheus, come down. For I’m coming to your house today. ” Jesus played host in Zaccheus’ own house. It was when Jesus came into his home that Zaccheus was confronted with the truth about himself. He acknowledged that he had cheated people. Then he made plans to pay them back their fair share and more.
Jesus said, “Zaccheus, salvation has come to you today.” Why did Zaccheus make a change? He believed in God’s message. The Lord brought joy and salvation to his life.
Friends, change can happen when we believe in it enough. What do you believe God wants to change in our world, in our community, in your life? The folks from Nineveh believed in God’s call for change and God turned around their lives. God can turn around yours too if you can believe it!