The power of proclamation - Jonah 3

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 15th February 2004.

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Who do you think wrote this poem entitled, 'The hands of God' ?

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
But it is a much more fearful thing to fall out of them.
Did Lucifer fall through knowledge?
oh then, pity him, pity him that plunge!
Save me, O God from falling into the ungodly knowledge of myself as I am without God.
Let me never know, O God
let me never know what I am or should be
when I have fallen out of your hands, the hands of the living God.
That awful and sickening endless sinking, sinking
through the slow corruptive levels of disintegrative knowledge
when the self has fallen from the hands of God
and sinks, seething and sinking corrupt
and sinking still, in depth after depth of disintegrative consciousness
sinking in the endless undoing, the awful katabolism into the abyss!
even of the soul, fallen from the hands of God!
Save me from that O God!
Let me never know myself apart from the living God!

Who would you say had written such a poem? Charles Wesley perhaps? Maybe an associate of Billy Graham? Believe it or not, it was D. H. Lawrence- not a person we normally associate with religious piety. The one who penned 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' also wrote that heartfelt poem. You see even the non-Christian cannot escape the reality of living in God's universe. However much he may try and suppress the knowledge, he is aware that there is a God and as a moral being he is accountable to him. More than that, when cut off from him, he sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss of self- destruction and misery. That is the experience many of the artists and writers of the 20th century were trying to express, whether it is the anguish displayed on the canvas of painters like Francis Bacon or the absurdity of the plays of Samuel Beckett. With God having been declared dead-non-existent- we are left feeling terribly alone and lost in despair. Of course, as we have been seeing over the last few weeks, this has also been the experience of God's prophet Jonah. In attempting to run from God, he felt himself falling from the hands of God, only to be caught up at the last minute by these hands and put back on course. But as we shall see this morning, this was also the experience of the evil regime of Nineveh, the city to which Jonah had been sent. The good news, the gospel, is that it is as we place ourselves into those strong, gentle hands of God we find life and forgiveness. And that is exactly what the people of Nineveh were to discover for themselves. So do turn with me to Jonah chapter 3.

The first thing we see is a divine call vv 1- 3a. 'Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.' Notice the graciousness of God's call in v1. God's word came to him just as it did at the beginning of the book, as if nothing had happened in between. God doesn't chastise Jonah or rub his nose in the dirt, he has been forgiven and his rebellion has been forgotten. He is simply reinstated as God's servant. Again this is an indication of the kind of God he is, the kind of God he wants the Ninevites to know he is. You see, he is far more willing to leave the past behind than we are. You know there are many Christians who do not allow themselves to be used effectively by God in the present because they are still nursing failures of the past. But if we are called to proclaim a message of forgiveness and hope like Jonah, then we must embrace such a message and apply it to ourselves first of all. It is those who have tasted God's mercy who are best placed to proclaim God's mercy, because they can do so with heartfelt conviction.

But then notice the clarity of God's call- ' Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.' God's servant's task is really quite simple. He is a messenger. He doesn't have to work out the message to give, he is called to deliver it without addition or subtraction. And of course the church's task is exactly the same. We have a gospel message contained here between these pages. We don't have to be creative in producing a new message for a new millennium- it is the same message about God rescuing people who cannot rescue themselves from a judgement which is most certainly on its way. Sure, we have to be enterprising in how we communicate that message, as no doubt Jonah had to be, but what we tell people is a given. And that does take the pressure off. If I thought that my job was to come up with a new idea every week instead of getting over what God has written here, I would pack up tomorrow in despair. Thankfully I do not have that impossible burden, instead I have a delight in sharing with you God's message which saves. And, you know what? So do you.

Thirdly, you can't help but be struck by the receptivity of God's call in v3a as we read that Jonah, 'obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.' If only he had done that in the first place it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble wouldn't it? But nonetheless God was to use the trouble to enable Jonah to do the job he wanted him to do. Let me explain. Jonah had been to hell and back. That is how it had felt when he was being dragged down into the swirling sea and left entrapped in a living tomb. That is an experience which would have scared him spit less. And yet he discovered that all along the line God was with him. Now, imagine what must have been going through his mind when he had the call of God before the big fish episode. To ask this man to go and preach to the people of Nineveh would have been as terrifying and as foolhardy as to ask a Jew to go to the Reichstag in 1939 and preach anti- Nazi ideas to Hitler and his gang. You are going to need something very special to nerve you before you do that aren't you? What about a close encounter with death and miraculously being brought through to the other side? That is what happened to Jonah. And so in comparison to that preaching to the Ninevites would have seemed like a walk in the park- well not quite, for he would still have been afraid but at least he would have had the personal knowledge of God's presence and rescuing power because he had experienced it for himself. You know, God will sometimes test us big time so that he can use us big time. I can look back and see how being placed in impossible situations which at the time I hated, was being used by God to enable me to cope with experiences which were to come later on. God does that sort of thing. And if God loves you and you love him he will do the same with you too, so don't be surprised when it happens.

The effect is to produce people of character who will be willingly used. That is what we see here with Jonah. In fact in the original v 3 says Jonah 'walked to Nineveh'. That was a 900 mile hike through the desert routes. And here the writer is making a theological point, not just a geographical one. As we have seen Jonah is an Israelite of the old school. Israel was God's chosen people, the others were not- tough on them. Let them come to Israel and worship, why should he go to them? But this way he had to cross several boundaries of non-Jew territory before he got to Nineveh. That is always the calling of God's people. They are to move out of their comfort zones, beyond the people they feel at ease with in order to reach those who culturally and religiously are as far from them as they could possibly be. They have to cross the boundaries. Paul sums up this missionary calling in 1 Corinthians 9 by saying that, 'He has become all things to all men in order to win some.' If it means eating kosher food to win Jews he will eat it. If it means eating pigs trotters to win gentiles, he will eat them. What does it matter so long as that person can hear the saving news of God's love in Jesus? Personal preferences must be put to one side if it means reaching out with the Gospel. That goes for styles of church services, styles of music, where church meets whether in a building like this or in someone house or a coffee shop or pub, if that is the way to reach a dying world with the Gospel then we have to do it, friends.

And when we have the courage and the will to do that, by God's grace we shall see a human response v 3b- 9. Just look at vv 3 and 4, 'Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city.' This was no backwater. Throughout this book we are told that Nineveh is a great city and just how important it is underscored by this little phrase that it 'required a visit of three days.' It is not that it was a city so huge it would take you three days to get around it by public transport. Rather, that in a city as prestigious as this one the protocol you followed took three days. So on day one a state visitor or ambassador would arrive, get settled and locate the appropriate government department he was to visit. On day 2 he would be received by the officials and business would be conducted. On day three he would be given a right royal send off. Jonah was only on the first days' part of this schedule -just making contact and the response he received was electric, it was both immediate- v5 'The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.' and it was impressive- v6ff 'When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.' And to see why this is so we need to understand the nature of the message and the background to the message.

We saw in chapter 1 that the message Jonah was given to proclaim should be translated: ' Preach to Nineveh because its trouble is of concern to me.' The same message of grace is being proclaimed here: ' Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.' 'Well', you may say 'that sounds like a message of fire and brimstone to me'. Well, not quite. '40' is sometimes used in Scripture to refer to an indefinite amount, like 'dozens' in English. The Ninevites recognised this as a common way of giving a warning. If there had been no chance of repentance then no time period would have been specified. Then we have the phrase that Nineveh will be 'overturned'. And that is deliberately ambiguous. It is a term used to describe the 'overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah' in judgement. But it is also used to describe a complete reversal, a turning upside down, so in Deuteronomy 23: 5 it reads 'the Lord has turned (same word) the curse into a blessing for you.' In other words, this message to Nineveh could be referring to a change of heart that God will bring about through his message. The choice is theirs. If they ignore the warning then they will be overturned like Sodom. However, if they heed the warning they will be turned from evil to good. And that is exactly the same message for the world today. To ignore God's plea to turn from going our own way and turn back to himself is to sign our own death warrant. God does not send any one to hell, we only send ourselves. He saves people from hell and the consequences of their actions.

But you say, 'it really does stretch credulity to the limit to believe that after only one day's preaching you end up with a wholesale revival-the whole city turning to belief.' But who said anything about it being after only one day's preaching? You see, just as God had been working through circumstances to get Jonah to change his mind-through the storm, the fish and so on, God had also been working through circumstances to get the Ninevites to change their mind- which may be behind that word 'troubles ' in chapter 1 and verse 2, 'their troubles have come to me.' What troubles?

You know it is amazing what God will use to get our attention. Archaeological findings have thrown up some interesting facts about the Assyrians who lived in Nineveh. According to what are called 'omen texts' there were four things which could move its people and its King to fasting and mourning: the invasion by an enemy, a full solar eclipse, famine and disease and a major flood or earthquake. They took these things as signs that all was not well with the gods. We know that at this time Assyria had been heavily defeated by a enemy nations, that they had been subject to a major earthquake and on the 15th June 763 BC a total eclipse had fallen over the land. Given those circumstances God had been carefully preparing the way for Jonah's message. That is what a sovereign God does. You see while things are going along swimmingly, the economy is strong, the standard of living is high, health and wealth abound- who is going to consider whether their relationship with God is at fault? That is why by and large during times of prosperity and ease religion tends to take a nose dive-except where the religion is doctored to promote more health and wealth. That is why God will use calamity which is of our own making to get our thoughts refocused on eternity. Let me tell you something. Prior to the carnage of the First World War, the whole of Europe believed it was on the verge of a new age of peace and prosperity ushered in by the findings of modern science. In spite of a veneer of religion, often tied to nationalism, immorality and smugness began to hold sway. When the storms of the great war eventually broke upon people's lives many were perplexed. This should not have been happening- the weak moral optimism that was being preached from many pulpits began to appear the facile sham it was. In 1916, a Congregationalist preacher, P.T. Forsyth wrote this: 'World calamity bears home to us the light way in which, through a long peace and insulation, we were coming to take the problem of the world and especially its moral problem. 'We do not bother about sin' we said with some satisfaction. The preachers protested in vain against that terrible statement- those of them that had not lost their Gospel. But they were damned with the charge of theology. And now God enters the pulpit and preaches in His own way by deeds (he is speaking of the war). And his sermons are long and taxing, and they spoil the dinner. Clearly God's problem with the world is much more serious than we dreamed. We are having a revelation of the aweful and desperate nature of evil.... We see more of the world Christ saw. It calls for a vaster salvation and a diviner Christ than we were sinking to believe.' And he was right. War and natural catastrophes are meant to shock a nation into repentance, and God would rather have us being rudely and painfully shaken awake to our plight than for us to quietly drift off into a slumber and find ourselves in hell- either a hellish society like the one we are busy making or the real fires of hell itself. In other words he loves us too much to let us destroy ourselves without a struggle. And that is what he is doing here with the Ninevites.

Why is there war? Why are there natural disasters? Well, according to the Bible they are divine signals that all is not well between us and our maker. The question is: will we pick up the signals and do something about them? These people did- v5 'They believed God'. They didn't set up a theological commission to look at the problem of why a good God allows evil, they put on sack cloth and ashes and turned to this good God to ask him to avert more evil. And notice everyone was involved- even the animals had to fast- v7. And this was not seen as some way of pulling God's strings, for we have a very telling phrase in v 9, 'Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.' Do you remember how time and time again Jesus was often pleasantly surprised by the faith of people from which one normally would not expect to find faith- a Roman centurion, a Greek woman, and was frequently disappointed by the lack of faith amongst his fellow Jews? That is the point here. It is Jonah the Israelite and his fellow Jews who, for all their talk of belief in God, had such a poor track record in showing it, while it is these people who have so little revelation to go on- a day's sermon- who put their trust in God. It may be a wavering trust, a tad uncertain- 'who knows?'- but it is real faith nonetheless. And we know it is real because it showed itself in action. And maybe you are here this morning and things have not been going terribly well for you. If the truth be known they have been pretty disastrous and you are wondering what God is saying to you. You know a little about him, not much, but still enough for you to respond to his call to trust him. In fact you and I have a lot more reason to trust him than these people ever did because we now have the full revelation of God in Jesus. Will he be compassionate and relent of bringing judgement upon you? Why yes, because he has taken it upon himself at the cross so that you and I might be spared. That is how much he loves you.

And so we come to a surprising reprieve v10: 'When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion on them and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.' Let me ask: what is the real miracle of the book of Jonah? The prophet being swallowed by a giant fish? You find that difficult to believe? A man brought back from the dead? The real miracle is here: that a wicked idolatrous, arrogant people should respond to God's invitation and warning and that God himself should show mercy and spare them. That is a major miracle. From one point of view God would have had every right to wipe this city off the face of the earth because of what it had done. Justice would demand it. When a juggernaut is heading towards you and at the last minute it draws to a halt- that is a miracle. And when the juggernaut of God's judgement is suddenly halted and is replaced with tender compassion-that is no less of a miracle. And these people knew it. And one of the words which appears over and over again to describe the reaction of Jesus when he sees people, like this, who are lost in sin and humbled by it, is the word which is so prominent here-the word compassion. He too was called to preach to a city- Jerusalem- and when he came there he simply wept because he knew that unlike this city repentance was not on their agenda- but he died for the people anyway so that some who did believe would be saved. And the same eyes that wept over that city are the very same ones which looks upon our great city, and the same heart which was full of compassion and which reached out in mercy ,is the same one which yearns for its inhabitants to know him. But he doesn't send a Jonah with a message, he sends people like you and me.

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