Monday, February 02, 2015

Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5,10, for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, "God Relented"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. One of the most fascinating stories in the Old Testament is the prophet Jonah. Jonah happens to be the only prophet Jesus directly compares Himself to, and He says the Sign of all signs that will prove who Jesus is, would be the Sign of His three day burial and resurrection. Jesus says this was foreshadowed by the 3 days and nights Jonah was in the belly of the whale. Jonah lived about 800 years or so before Jesus, during the time when Assyria was the mega power in the Middle East, and had a reputation for its terrifying armies and the total destruction they brought on conquered lands. Nineveh, the capital city, was the heartland of the wicked empire that spread violence across the Middle East, even to Israel. It’s not too hard to figure out why Jonah didn’t want to obey God’s command to go there and cry out against their evil.
The prophet Jonah can teach us a lot about ourselves. Instead of obeying God, Jonah boards a ship sailing to Tarshish—a futile attempt to run away from God. God miraculously provides a whale to bring repentant Jonah back to his second chance to obey. Our reading begins: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” Later on, when you have opportunity, you have to take 10-20 minutes to read through the whole, short story of Jonah. It’s filled with humor and irony—and when you read it, you’ll see that by chapter 4, Jonah is still not free of his animosity against the Assyrians and his bad attitude toward God. He believed that if anyone deserved what was coming to them, it should have been the Assyrians.
We don’t have to travel far at all from the ancient city of Nineveh to find a modern day parallel for Jonah’s situation. The city of Mosul, in Iraq, is the modern day city built on the ancient ruins of Nineveh. Mosul has long been very important to Christians, and there has been a Christian community there almost 2,000 years. In the 1990s, an estimated 2 million Christians lived there. A year ago perhaps only 200,000 were left—10 %. An article I just read says that at the end of 2014, it’s believed that the very last Christian man in the city, a 70 year old man Yacub, was driven from the city. Christian population: zero. You probably know why—the city of Mosul has been overthrown by the terrorist group the Islamic State, or ISIS. They destroyed what was believed to have been the historic tomb of Jonah, and drove out every last Christian. You know their reputation for terror and bloodshed, and their rogue state in Iraq and Syria.
Just imagine being called by God to be a missionary to the Islamic State, to go and denounce the wickedness of the terrorists, and to tell them “Yet forty days and Mosul will be overturned”. You might be feeling what Jonah felt. It’s not exactly parallel, but both the Assyrians and modern day ISIS were bent on violent conquest, and boasted of their terror. We might find it easy to criticize Jonah for his reluctance to go, or even his bitterness against the Assyrians—but perhaps we should appreciate how difficult his task was. But at the very least, I hope that unlike Jonah, we would rejoice if they repented.
Would we feel the same as Jonah? The book really leaves us hanging with that question. It’s a question that reveals our own attitudes about the lost. God’s final question to Jonah at the end of the book leaves us hanging for his reply—“Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons, who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” The impact of the book should be for us to reexamine our own attitudes towards unbelievers, the wicked, and ultimately also consider our own repentance. It’s really the same issue Jesus often posed to the people of His day, that He came for the sick, and not the healthy. Do we care for the lost, or do we fear and resent them? Jesus leads us to humble ourselves and see God’s grace for us is meant for others as well. Jesus instills His heart in us.
How does that translate to our attitudes toward anyone or any group of people with whom we might have the opportunity to share the gospel, closer to home? Right here in Hawaii? When we see people opening practicing false religions, or living in open wickedness in defiance of God’s Word, or when we see people immersed in crime or violence—do we despise them and assume that they wouldn’t get God’s Word, or aren’t worthy of hearing it? Do we ignore them because they never come to church? Or do we see them as people trapped in great spiritual darkness, as God saw the Ninevites? Jesus helps us to see people this way, and He uses us to bring them to His Light, His Truth. He saw the people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” and He had compassion on them. Jesus spent the better part of His ministry associating with just those sorts of sinners that the religious people of His day had written off. And He often found in them much more fertile soil to receive and grow His Word.
Do we see those who are living in obvious, outward sins as being deserving of God’s punishment, while blind, like Jonah, to our own sin and darkness? Perhaps we forget the scale of God’s love and mercy toward us, and the unthinkable debt of our forgiven sins. When you wash your face each morning, remember the washing of your baptism and God’s unbounded generosity, so you may feel compassion for those who are still in the darkness and blindness of their sins. Instead of praying for the judgment of the wicked, we pray for their enlightenment, and that we might even be able to bring the light of the good news of Jesus to them.
When Jonah made good on his second chance to obey God, he declared this message God gave Him for Nineveh. The sermon: “Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Is five words long in Hebrew. If I gave a 5 word sermon, I’d have been done a long time ago, and would be sitting back watching how it affected you! Did Jonah just put forth nothing but the minimum effort God required? Or was that all God wanted him to say? In any case, the response is nothing short of incredible. That single sentence had 120,000 inhabitants of Nineveh, capital of terror, repenting and believing in God. From the king and the nobles to the lowest person and even the animals (!), they put on the sackcloth of mourning and repentance, and humbled themselves before God. Not just an outward show, either, which even hypocrites can do. But God saw that they turned from their evil way. Their change was in the heart and their actions.
Can you imagine a 5-word sermon having the same effect today? Whether as dramatic as converting terrorists and bringing them to their knees in humility and prayer, or as ordinary as bringing friends, neighbors, and strangers away from evil and back to God? Can you—do you—imagine God’s Word transforming the people of Kauai? God is ready and able to break the power of sin and darkness, in whatever ways it holds people captive here or around the world. God’s own Word , and His power is in no way diminished today. One commentator said that this total success of the prophet’s message, despite his attitude, is proof that “Even with crooked human writers, Yahweh, [the Lord] writes straight.” That means that there’s hope for us sinners, and that even though our attitudes and intentions may not always be right, if we obey the Lord and do His will, He will still bless His Word and make it bear fruit. His Word brings true change in our heart and actions, as Jesus forgives us and gives new life.
But perhaps the greatest surprise and best news of the book is that God reversed His verdict against Nineveh, and spared them, at least in that generation, from total destruction. God’s mercy won the day. There may actually have been a hint of God’s plan for this in Jonah’s sermon itself: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” may have a double meaning. “Overthrown” can mean total destruction of the city, or it can also mean “overturned” as in “turned upside down.” And God’s Word did indeed turn the city upside down, as they repented and believed in Him. Who says that God can’t turn the island of Kauai upside down, and awaken people to put their trust in Him? It begins right here with our hearts, with our repentance and trust in Jesus. God must overturn the pride and the idols  and stubbornness of our heart, to make room for Jesus to reign there alone. God’s mercy isn’t conditioned on our repentance, but God’s own hand steers and works repentance and faith in us, freely by His Holy Spirit.
But doesn’t this make God’s promised judgment of Nineveh an idle threat? Be sure that God makes no idle threats, and He was serious. Had they continued in their wickedness and ignored Jonah’s warning, it would have been a forty day countdown to their destruction. Proof came 100 to 150 years later, when the Ninevites returned full swing to their former bloodshed, plunder, and violence. God sent the prophet Nahum to decree their final destruction, which came in 612 BC. But for Jonah’s generation, the Bible points to their conversion as genuine. Jesus even says that they will rise up at the judgment and condemn the unbelieving generation who didn’t hear and believe Him—because the Ninevites, repented at the preaching of Jonah—and Jesus is the One Greater than Jonah. God showed incredible mercy and spared them judgment.
But isn’t this still a case of God changing His mind? Doesn’t the Bible say He doesn’t do that? In answer, there are several times when God changes a course of action or how He describes feeling about something. For example, He regrets that He made man because of their wickedness and violence before He sent the Flood. On another occasion, He was ready to destroy Israel during the Exodus, for their constant complaining and idolatry—but He relented when Moses pleaded for God’s mercy on the people. And in Jonah’s time He shifts from judgment to mercy for the people of Nineveh, because they humbled themselves. Sometimes it was a shift from grace toward judgment, because of the increasing wickedness of the people. But more often, when God changes His course of actions, it’s in the direction of showing mercy. All this points us to the very heart of God. God desires above all else to show mercy.
A close study of the passages that talk about God not changing His mind, reveals something else that is interesting. While He may at times reverse His judgments—one thing God never reverses are His Gospel promises and His covenant love toward His people. These stand unchangeable and certain, and God cannot revoke them because it is impossible for Him to lie, and He’s not a man to change His mind. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
So whether God deals with us in judgment, according to what our sins deserve, or in mercy, according to His free grace for us in Christ Jesus—God is still the same in His character. And one thing that Jonah got right for certain, is the character of God—He is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” God above all else wants to show us His grace and His mercy. And even when God raises up disaster and judgment against the wicked, it is not God’s desire for the wicked to die in their sins, but rather that they turn from their way and live. Don’t you think it brought God incredible joy to see 120,000 Ninevites repent? If Jesus says that all heaven rejoices when 1 lost sinner repents, imagine the celebration for 120,000! And God will celebrate for every lost sinner that repents here on this island and around the world.
If we want to see perfectly the character of God in His mercy, we need only look to the prophet greater than Jonah—Jesus Christ. The Prophet who had pity on the great city of Jerusalem—who mourned for its repentance; who had pity on the people who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd; who has pity on us in our sin, darkness, and need, and who comes to us. Calling, inviting, showing mercy and kindness. Bringing light and truth to our darkness. Turning us to His cross and empty tomb, where we find the sign that He is the Son of God—the Savior who is mighty over sin and death. And by humbling ourselves to trust in Him, God will spare us the judgment of our sin, and show us His continuing, unbroken love. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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