Monday, April 02, 2012

Sermon on Jonah 3:5-10, for Lent 6, "Jonah: The Survivor Series Part 6: 'About Face!'”

The following Lenten series I will be preaching on is adapted from Dr. Reed Lessing's series on Jonah the prophet. Dr. Lessing is professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. 

If this has happened once, it has happened a billion times. A husband and wife are in a car, and the wife tells her husband to turn right at the next junction, and by mistake, he turns left. When he realizes what he has done, he says to his wife “I’m sorry love, I went the wrong way.” But if that is all he does, it isn’t enough. His saying sorry isn’t getting them any closer to where they want to be; it isn’t even stopping them from getting further away. To get where they want to be, he needs to stop the car, turn it around and go back on to the correct road that his wife told him to take in the first place. That is repentance; it is an about-face!
The people of Nineveh are a powerful, arrogant, violent, wicked people. Jonah is a little guy from a weak nation at the edge of their soon to be empire. They might have strung him up from condemning their fine city. But they don’t. They listen to him. Mind you, it might be easier to listen to a prophet who has recently spent the last three days in the belly of a fish. His skin, hair, and clothing may have been bedraggled, and there is a dried up piece of kelp hanging off his ear. I might listen to a guy like that who says: “Repent, or God will do to you what he did to me!”
Seriously though, whether Jonah showed up like that, or he cleaned himself up a little before arriving, the people hear his message and believe it. They recognize that they’d been doing great evil, and they repent. While we see just a little regret in Jonah for his disobedience, his flight from God in his request to be thrown overboard, and his prayer in the belly of the fish, the Ninevites demonstrate the greatest example of corporate repentance that we find in the Bible. They hear Jonah and spontaneously respond in faith. They declare a fast, they remove their clothes, put sackcloth on their bodies and ashes on their heads and go about mourning. This fast of regret and mourning is complete in that from the least person in the city, to the greatest, they all fast. Even the king, when he hears the news of their impending doom, gets off his throne, removes his royal robes, puts on sackcloth, and sits down in the dust. In all humility and contrition, he trades his robes for rags and his throne for the dirt.
He sets a royal decree that wasn’t needed. He told the people to do what they were already doing; to fast and wear rags. He extends the fast not just to people, but to the animals as well. Nineveh goes from this powerful, arrogant, wicked city to become a city of massive mourning. You couldn’t hear yourself think in Nineveh in those days! Have you ever heard a hungry cow? All of Nineveh’s cows and sheep and horses would have been complaining loudly, the people would have been sitting in the streets calling out to God to forgive them, babies would have been crying for their mothers to feed them! What racket!
God empowers a change of heart, and a change in behavior. The king doesn’t just call the people to fast and mourn, he calls for a change in behavior. He says in v. 8: “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.” The Ninevites repent and believe (pp. 299-307).
God empowers an about-face. J. Edwin Orr, a professor of Church history has described the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Welsh Revivals of the nineteenth century. As people repented they did all they could to confess their wrong-doing and to make restitution. But it unexpectedly created serious problems for the shipyards along the coast of Wales. Over the years workers had stolen all kinds of things, from wheelbarrows to hammers. However, as people repented, they started to return what they had taken, with the result that soon the shipyards of Wales were overwhelmed with returned property. There were such huge piles of returned tools that several of the yards put up signs that read, “If you have been led by God to return what you have stolen, please know that the management forgives you and wishes you to keep what you have taken.”
Can you imagine if that type of repentance came upon our town, state, or nation? It might do a number on our economic system! The repentance that we see in Nineveh is nothing short of a miracle. It is impossible even to imagine that Nineveh would repent at the sound of this reluctant prophet’s voice. It was a miracle, but not impossible for God. In the same way, when we repent of our sin, it is a miracle in our hearts that we have heard the gospel and responded positively. Nineveh’s change evoked the LORD’S change (pp. 324-41). Our God changes from condemnation to grace, finally for the sake of Christ. What an awesome and lifegiving about face!!! It means we survive!
Author Ken Sande tells the story of Thomas Edison’s ability to delegate big tasks when others would have refused. When Edison and his staff were developing the incandescent light bulb, it took hundreds of hours to manufacture a single bulb. One day, after finishing a bulb, Edison handed it to a young errand boy and asked him to take it upstairs to the testing room. As the boy turned and started up the stairs, he stumbled and fell, and the bulb shattered on the steps. Instead of rebuking the boy, Edison reassured him and then turned to his staff and told them to start working on another bulb. When it was completed several days later, Edison demonstrated the reality of his forgiveness in the most powerful way possible. He walked over to the same boy, handed him the bulb, and said, “Please take this up to the testing room.” Sande then comments: “Imagine how that boy must have felt. I can imagine that he was a nervous wreck. And I do not doubt that Edison was also a nervous wreck. But that is not how it is with you and God! When God forgives the past, it is gone. There is no nervousness. There is no worry: ‘What if I mess up again?’ There is only the peace and joy of knowing that the past is forgiven and the future is full of the promise of our crucified and resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ, who creates all things, including you, new! 

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