Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Jonah 3:5-9
They simply believed God. Polytheists and idolaters suddenly became monotheists, listening to the one true God. When the real God speaks, it is different; and he spoke through Jonah. Jesus said, "they changed their hearts and lives in response to Jonah's preaching" (Matt. 12:41) Repentance. Jonah simply preached the word given to him and the people responded. The word God said to speak, cut to the heart of the Ninevites and they heard it!
Repentance is not just saying I think I will change, or that's a good idea and I agree; but actual change. There are physical signs of repentance. For the Ninevites, it was fasting and putting on sackcloth. They didn't just say "sorry", but did sorry. You say you are sorry, now show me. They did.
The king of Nineveh repented too. Jonah's message eventually got to him, and he responded as his people were responding and used his authority to encourage the nation wide repentance. The king added some more dimensions to the repentance, saying to call out to God and forsake their evil ways. He put more "shoe leather" onto his repentance, walking it out.
Jonah did not go to the king first because that was not his assignment. His assignment was to walk into Nineveh and proclaim the message God gave him, which he did.
What does it mean, that we hear God's word today that calls us to change, to repent; and we do not. We read our Bibles or listen to a message or read book, that is a written message from God; and we do not change. The actual message calls for change, but we detach from it and watch the message, like watching an entertainment, and keep ourselves above and beyond it's touch. We fold our arms to the message, over our hearts, and close our eyes and cover our ears. What happens to the person who does this over and over, while self-identifying themselves as "christian"? Remember where Jesus said he will say to them, "I never knew you"? But we cast out demons in your name! I never knew you. But I went to church, I learned about you, about God.... I was a good person..... I did things for you... I memorized scripture... I tithed... I spoke in tongues... I healed the sick.... I wrote books about you.... I NEVER KNEW YOU (Matthew 7:21-23)
What if the people that Jesus says he does not know are people who refuse to repent? Religious people who have taken on Christianity and "believed", but never belonged to God. Jesus contrasted the Ninevites who repented at Jonah's message to the people of his day who professed to be God's people, but approached Jesus (and John the baptist) with skepticism. Jesus comes and forces a decision onto each person. He says, "follow me", "I am the way", "I am the bread from heaven". He does not say, "vote for me", "read my book", "listen to me on my pod cast", "become my fan", or "join my club". When he says words like, "follow me", to all of us in one way or another, we have to respond and repentance is part of it. We make changes, U-turns in our lives, we leave things behind and follow him.
Do you remember what Jesus message was? It was, "Change your hearts and lives (repent), for the kingdom of God has come" (Matt. 3:2). Jesus called for repentance then and he does now. Jonah had a message from God and the Ninevites repented. In Jesus days on earth, some responded and repented while others did not. Today it is the same. Even if the church has lost Jesus original message, watering it down and adding hamburger helper; his message still stands. Are we turning from sin and walking with him? Are we faithful to him or are we just fans?