Sermon, July 12, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
At His Mercy
The Word of the Lord comes to us again this morning through the prophet Jonah. This is a wonderful little book, isn’t it? Four short chapters, and so many lessons to be learned for all of us about living out lives of Christian service. As I said before, our experiences are thankfully not as extreme or dramatic as Jonah, but we certainly can learn a great deal.
In the first message we learned about calling from God, and some of what it means to be called by God. We didn’t exhaust the topic, but we talked about how we have many different callings, and it is our responsibility to respond with humble obedience to those callings, both the monumental and the mundane, whatever they happen to be. And we used Jonah as a negative example of how to respond to a calling from God, no matter what our mind or our own opinions say about it. Like I said, we haven’t exhausted that topic, because discerning the calling of God is not always easy or clear. Sometimes it is, I guess—if God gives you a child, you are called to be a mother or father to it, and so on.
And then last week, using the second part of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2, we examined how to respond when we are confronted with our wrongs. Thankfully we were able to use Jonah as a positive example when we looked at that—when confronted with his sin through people inferior to him (heathen sailors), Jonah responded with great humility, so much humility that he had to beg them to carry out what amounted to his execution, by throwing him in the sea. There are no limits to what God can do to reorient us to will, and we saw Jonah’s contrition for his sin completed in the belly of a great fish.
Quick sidebar, since we didn’t talk about it last week, but what of this fish? People have postulated about what kind of fish it could have been, or if it was a whale, and all of these other ways to explain how someone might survive in a fish for three days. And that’s all interesting, but ultimately unimportant, because it was all at the direction of God, and it’s possible that the fish itself was one-of-a-kind, never seen before or since. In the last verse of chapter 1 it says that God “appointed” a great fish to this work, many other translations say “prepared” a great fish. He didn’t just send a great fish, or had a great fish do this, the text suggests that God specifically prepared and maybe even designed this great fish specifically for this task. So in the end, it doesn’t really matter and shouldn’t concern us—we believe it happened, because it’s in the Bible. That’s just a quick comment on the fish, in case it bothered you at all.
So now, with the first two episodes of the story behind us, and Jonah returned to his right relationship with God, we turn to chapter 3, and see what becomes of this ministry that he now undertakes, like he should have in the first place. Let’s read together Jonah, chapter 3, the entire chapter. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
Amen, the Word of the Lord.
So, once again, God calls Jonah, a second time it says, God calls him to arise, go to Ninevah, and call out against it, and we finally get those satisfying words that were missing the first time: “so Jonah arose and went to Ninevah.” The narrative of scripture often describes events dispassionately, unemotionally, and this is certainly one of those times. We need to think for a second about how momentous a thing it was for Jonah to go and preach to Ninevah, and that should also help us understand why, in the weakness of Jonah’s humanity, he fled on a ship the first time.
Have you ever delivered news that you know could cause you trouble? We can all relate to this, right? Bad news is never fun to give. I’m sure some bad news deliveries are popping up in your heads right now. The ones that jump to my mind the quickest are the three times in my life that I’ve had to go home and tell my wife that a job I was planning to get, that was extremely likely for me to get, was offered to someone else, and there was no other job for me lined up. That puts a pit in my stomach thinking about it just now. Over the last few months there are many people in our country who have had to deliver bad news to their families about loss of work. But in those situations I wasn’t in any danger, I was delivering bad news to someone who loved me unconditionally. What if that isn’t true—perhaps you’ve had to deliver bad news to someone who could harm you, or could become very angry about what you have to tell them. None of that is fun. Let’s get into the mind of Jonah a little here by looking at how motivated he might be to follow this calling against Ninevah.
There are many things going on here, it’s a complex situation. First, Jonah is a prophet of Israel. He has spent his entire career as prophet bringing the Word of the Lord to his people, the Israelites, the chosen nation of God, and doing so in Israel. By this point he’s certainly brought the Jews words of blessing, and words of warning, good news and bad, messages to the king of Israel, and perhaps also prophecies about other nations, like we read in many other books of prophecy here in the Bible—prophecies about nations surrounding Israel. So first, he’s being called away from his country to continue his ministry in a different country—he might not be motivated to do that. Maybe he’s unconcerned about that other nation, maybe he doesn’t care about them. But also maybe, maybe he’s worried that by being sent there, away from Israel, that the Lord’s favor is shifting away from Israel and toward another people.
And then there’s the people that he’s called to preach to specifically. Who were the Ninevites? We read in the text of Jonah here that the reason that Jonah must go is that he is meant to call out against their evil. God wants Jonah to “call out against” the city—he’s bringing a message of judgement, bad news. But there is more context to Ninevah. Ninevah at the time was the de facto capital of the Assyrians, who were the nation to the North of Israel, with land that stretched fairly far East. If you can get a current Middle East map in your heads, Israel, which by now is the Northern Kingdom of the Jews, since they already split from Judah—Israel is in the northern part of what Israel is today, and the Assyrians were the people in what is current-day Syria and northern Iraq. Because they shared a significant border with Israel, and were much larger as a nation, Israel was constantly either at war with them or at least under threat of war. How often do we read about the Assyrians in the Old Testament? It is the Assyrians, that in less than 100 years after this, the Assyrians will defeat the Israelites and carry them off into exile. That’s all about to happen. There was no love for Assyria in Israel, not even neutral thoughts, they were a constant enemy.
Was Jonah surprised that God would call him to specifically target the Assyrians for their evil? Of course not, they were the bad guys. They weren’t God’s chosen people called to a life of service to YHWH, they were heathens! So as far as the content of the message, Jonah would have been fine with it, would have welcomed it. But God didn’t just say “write this curse for Assyria down, and share it with the Israelites around you, so you can all talk about how bad I think they are.” He probably would have gotten a lot of likes on his Facebook page for doing that. No, God tells him to take this terrible news, this news of judgement, to the capital of Assyria and put it in their faces.
How might he expect to be received in such a place? He may definitely have feared for his life. He would have looked at it as a possible suicide mission that he was supposed to carry out. How might someone from South Korea be received if they traveled to Pyongyang and stood on a street corner with a loudspeaker and declared that North Korea was evil and they were about to be destroyed. I’m guessing it wouldn’t go well for them.
So this is a difficult mission, this context, what Assyria was to the Israelites, must have played a role in why Jonah initially fled. But what do we see from Jonah 2.0? Do we see hesitation? No, we see the boldness of the prophet of God, the kind of boldness we are called to.
We read, “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth.” Like I said, this was the de facto capital of Assyria, it was a great city. We read in chapter 4 that it was home to more than 120,000 people, which is enormous for 800 years before Christ. So yes, it was exceedingly great. People have quibbled over exactly what “three days’ journey in breadth” actually means, because if it literally meant walking, that would mean the city was 100 miles wide, and it certainly wasn’t that. But it was a city where a visit, to explore the entire city would take three days.
And as we read on, we see no hesitation in Jonah. The text infers that he began to preach fairly immediately after arriving in the city. He journeyed in a day, and then began to call out. He didn’t explore the whole city, look for the best place to preach from, get to know the people—no, he got in and he preached the Word of the Lord, no matter how uncomfortable. He tells them in forty days the city will be nothing, it will be destroyed.
So our first lesson is this: We are called to boldness, boldness in Christ. The apostle Paul says don’t boast in anything, but when it comes to Christ, boast, be bold, let everyone know it. Jonah faced insurmountable odds. If he would look at the situation with a cost/benefit analysis, there is no way that he would come out on the side of “yes, I should go do that,” except for the fact that on the benefit side was obedience to God. That tipped the scales and there was no other option.
Do we operate the same way? I’ll tell you, over the past several weeks, social media has been a fairly unsavory place to exist (this sentence is edited, I initially tried out some other choice descriptors for it). That’s why for the most part, I have always stuck to pictures of my kids and funny things, so I don’t contribute to the anger and hostility that grows unchecked there. And there is plenty of that: arising from this vitriol is the so-called “cancel culture,” an unbelievable swath of intolerance growing out of all things, what was initially a call for tolerance!
We have so much to lose, are we willing to lose it? This is not political commentary, it’s the culture we’re living in, ravaged by sin. The devil has been quite successful in convincing people that everyone who doesn’t share every opinion of yours, no matter how inconsequential, that person is actually evil and should be deprived of their right to function in society. Are we really that far away from churches being driven underground in our country? One thing God’s blessed our culture with a healthy dose of for generations is optimism. That might be going away, but we’ve always thought, when we see persecution and atrocities around the world, we’ve always thought that “it couldn’t happen here.” It absolutely could.
What is our role, what are we called to? We’re called to boldness, boldness in Christ. God, in his wisdom, could have ended this story with Jonah being a martyr. The Assyrians could have killed him right there, or at the very least expelled him from their city on threat of death. But they didn’t, did they? How did they respond to the Word preached with boldness from God’s prophet?
5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The people of Ninevah believed God. If you’ve ever struggled with the idea that it’s not you, it’s always God that brings people to faith, if you believe that it all rests in a choice that you make, I bring you the people of Ninevah. There is no reason that the words of a single prophet from an enemy nation preaching in a hostile, foreign city, there is no logical reason that his preaching would have been effective. There’s no reason that the people would have responded in the way they did, but for the grace of God and the Spirit moving them. They responded to the words of Jonah by calling for a fast, by humbling themselves as an entire people, from the greatest to the least, it says. Not just the greatest person, but all the way up the chain, the account goes on:
6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
The king of Ninevah immediately believed as well. The word reached him, it doesn’t even say that he heard Jonah himself, but only a report of what was said. And his response to the declaration was the same as his people, actually it went a little farther.
7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
He went farther by saying that even their animals should be held to fasting. That’s kind of a silly overreaction, because it was not the sins of the creatures that God was angry with, it was the people, so having them fast and put on sackcloth is neither called for nor necessary. But I digress—in that proclamation of the king there he says some important things. He requires of the entire city a fast and putting on of sackcloth, which is of course as sign of mourning and humility, and he tells everyone to call out to God. And he tells them to do that not just because he was scared for the future of the city. If there was a nuclear weapon set to destroy Casper, buried underground or something, and it had a 40-day timer on it, we would be worried, and rightly so. And if it was told to us that the way to defuse this bomb was for everyone to not eat, put on rags, and say a bunch of words, I think we could probably do that. If that were the strategy that was going to be successful, we could probably pull together and do that, it would be easier than some of the alternatives.
But the king doesn’t tell them to do it because it’s the magic trick to make this go away, he instructs everyone to repent. He admits that there is a real reason for God to be this angry with them as a people. And not only repent of what’s been done that brought the curse, but then sin no more. “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”
So the king admits, as a federal head of his city, his people, that they have wronged God. Not the pagan gods that they worshipped, but the God of Jonah, the God of their enemies the Israelites. Think of that! What an incredible admission! Like I said, only God’s working could produce such a miraculous turnaround in the entire city of Ninevah.
And this is done with no expectation of God’s mercy from the Ninevites. There was nothing in Jonah’s message to them that said “You’d better repent now or there will be destruction!” No, he simply said, “in forty days, the city will be gone.” And this lack of assurance that anything will quell God’s anger is reflected in the king’s statement, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
Calvin mentions, when reflecting on the Ninevites responding to the Word, how suddenly they took the message to heart and repented of their ways, after Jonah had just been with them days. How much more blessed are we to have sat under Christian teaching our entire lives, and still we have hard hearts! When you think of the spiritual condition of Israel at this time, with bad king after bad king, this was probably the greatest expression of faith that Jonah had seen, and he had to go to Ninevah to get it.
So, we have the boldness of the Word preached, the faithful response to that Word, and we come to the last, the great mercy of God.
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
God relented, gave mercy when justice was due. This is one of those times, where if we take passages out of the whole of scripture, we can get to the point where we think we see God changing his mind. Does God change his mind? Did the Ninevites, by their actions, convince God to show them mercy? Well, if the overview of Reformed Theology is still ringing in your mind, you must say of course not—all of history is already decreed, none of it is conditional! So why does God threaten destruction and then remove it? Why is that how the story goes?
In a lot of ways it is the same as the question “why do we pray?” God doesn’t change his mind, what is going to happen will happen, so what is the point? That’s a good question, and I know it’s one that people struggle with. When we pray, when we petition God for things, when we ask for things, it is not to convince him to do something or respond to our will. In fact, how does our model prayer begin, “thy will be done.” What we are doing when we pray, then? Through prayer, God is shaping you, not you shaping him. R. C. Sproul said it this way:
Is God confused, stumbling through all the different options—Should I do this? Should I not do that? And does he decide upon one course of action and then think, Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all, and change his mind? Obviously God is omniscient; God is all wise. God is eternal in his perspective and in his full knowledge of everything. So we don’t change God’s mind. But prayer changes things. It changes us. And there are times in which God waits for us to ask for things because his plan is that we work with him in the glorious process of bringing his will to pass here on earth.
Don’t we see an incredibly rich example of that right here? God is showing his will through people on the earth right now. Even this story, was God surprised when Jonah ran? Of course not, but through that running God built Jonah into a bolder, stronger, more faithful prophet. Was God surprised by how the Ninevites reacted to the preaching of destruction? Of course not, we just talked about how their response must have been the work of God in their hearts. But through that process, he humbled a city, restrained evil in the world by having them turn from their wickedness, and through their praying, their crying out to him, changed them as people and brought glory to himself. God works all things according to his purposes.
This is important to remember in times like these, times of difficulty for Christians because of persecution but also for the entire world because of the havoc that is being wrought by a microscopic virus. God is working all of this to his glory, and his purposes. What might those be? What is God teaching us through our current struggles? How is he giving us opportunity to bring him glory with our entire lives?
He’s calling us to a life of obedience with this story here, and we can be confident that all of his promises will be fulfilled, everything he predestined will come to pass. Here in Jonah 3, he’s telling us all three of these things: to be bold, be humble, and pray. Be bold, knowing that the message he is preaching through you, through your words but also your actions, that message is the only message in the world that saves, the only one. Be humble, because you deserve punishment. You can’t save yourself, you can’t even contribute to it. And pray, because through prayer God is deepening his relationship with you and your understanding of him. He is shaping you through prayer and reminding you that there is no other way to be saved than by his mercy, and only through his son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, what a glorious story of redemption this is, showing you can and do work your will through the most unlikely of characters. Help us to remember that we are just as unlikely characters as were the Ninevites, but we thank you for calling us out of that bondage and giving us new life through your Son, in whose name we pray, amen.