On the Plains of Moab Blog
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February 24, 2013, 12:25 PM

Sermon Text - I, Jonah: "Who Knows?" Sermon #5 of 7

Text: Jonah 3:3-10

Today, we finally arrive in Nineveh with Jonah here in the remainder of Jonah 3.  Remember that last week we only covered the first three verses of chapter 3.  By way of review, we have been focusing in this series on the life of the prophet Jonah as a sort of mirror reflecting who we are before God.  In other words, Jonah's adventures resemble the stages we go through as we follow Jesus the best that we can.

1. Sin

In the first sermon, we found Jonah saying "No" to God, bringing to the forefront our basic problem in this life:  Sin.  Jonah is a sinner.  Our sin too, is the most pressing problem in this life.  It brings us down and it separates us from God.

2. Judgment

In the second sermon, Jonah was on a ship heading out to sea, away from the presence of God when a fierce storm sent by God put a stop to that run.  Jonah received the judgment his sin deserved:  He was thrown overboard to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.  The inconvenient truth of the Bible is that this is also what our sins deserve.

3. Grace

Sermon number three took place in the belly of the great fish (or the whale).  Jonah's prayer recognizes that it is the grace of God that saves his life from certain drowning.  Undeserved and unexpected.  It is only God's good pleasure that saves a sinner.  Jonah inside the belly of the great fish is a picture of what God does for us through Jesus Christ (Ichthus), saving us from certain and sure death and eternal separation from God.

4. New Life

Last week, Jonah was right back in Joppa, receiving the exact same commission to go to Nineveh.  God gave Jonah a new life.  When God saves us through Jesus Christ, we too are given new life.  Last week I suggested to you that each week when we cycle through the prayer for forgiveness and hear the promise of forgiveness, we are in Joppa being re-commissioned once again to go out into the world anew.

5. Repentance

Today, the focus in this sermon is not so much about Jonah as it is on the Ninevites and their response to Jonah’s preaching.  Today, in Nineveh, the word is repentance.  This little word is important in understanding aright how to receive God’s offer of salvation to the world.

Let's go to the text.  In Jonah 3:3, we read that Jonah…went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. (ESV).  This "three days' journey in breadth" has puzzled some.  Did it take Jonah three whole days to walk through the entire city of Nineveh, end to end?  Man, that would be a huge city.

Probably not.  Most likely, this is diplomatic language.  Royal protocol.  When an emissary comes into an ancient town on official business, the duration of the mission is usually three days.  This detail tells us that Jonah would be in Nineveh preaching three full days.  And so, Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey.  And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (3:4) ESV.

This forty days and judgment brings to mind the forty days of rain upon the earth in Noah's day and especially the forty years of wilderness wanderings of Moses and the people of Israel.  Forty days is a symbolic period of purging and purification.  While the darkness of judgment hangs over their heads for forty days, they can either respond in a positive, constructive way by owning up and repenting to live; or they can go over the cliff together in their sin.

What comes next is entirely unexpected!  And the people of Nineveh believed God. (3:5 ESV).  It says that on the very first day of the Nineveh crusade, right out of the starting gate, the response to Jonah's preaching is right up there with Billy Graham.  The Ninevites believed God's word to them.  No need for days two and three of the crusade.

When it says that the Ninevites believed God, it means that they responded to his message by turning away from their sin.  In other words, they repented.  Their immediate reaction to Jonah’s oracle of doom included putting on sackcloth and fasting, both gestures a sign of contrition and desire for mercy.  The king of Nineveh went even further by putting aside his royal robes and sitting in ashes.  He calls for every Ninevite, rich and poor, old and young, all the way down to even the animals highlights to do just as he has done.  The king says, “Who knows?  God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (3:9 ESV).  Who knows?

There is a prophetic key in Jeremiah that helps us understand the Ninevites response Jonah’s impending message of divine doom:  God says, if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. (Jer.18:7-8 ESV).  Usually, when God issues an oracle of doom, there is a possibility that it could change, based on the response.

Joel 2:11-14 also sheds light on their actions, and in particular, the king of Nineveh’s question about God: …the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it?  "Yet even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments."  Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him…? (ESV).  Who knows?  We know God is good.  May we then expect that if we turn things around and fly straight, he might turn and do the unexpected, the outlandish, and forgive us?

The answer we get in Jonah is that God is indeed willing to relent and spare the Ninevites.  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. (3:10 ESV).

The evil, bad, wicked, oppressive, violent, enemy Ninevites expressed genuine repentance, and God responded by repenting himself.  Repenting of the disaster that he intended to bring upon the city.

Now, from what we know of God and his dealings with Jonah, the sparing of the Ninevites should not be surprising.  After all, Paul in his letter to Timothy says that God our Savior…desires all people to be saved….  (1 Tim. 2:3-4 ESV).  Even hopelessly bad people.  Even people who have done terrible things in their life.  Even people who have hated God.  Even people that you do not like personally!

But here is where that little word that we are focusing on comes into sharp focus.  Repentance.  God’s acceptance is contingent on repentance.  The apostle Peter expands on Paul’s thought in 1 Timothy:  The Lord…is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV).

As an aside, let me tell you what repentance is NOT:

An actual note to the IRS:  Enclosed is a cashier’s check.  I cheated on my income taxes 20 years ago and I haven't been able to sleep since.

PS  If I still can't sleep, I'll send you the rest.

Repentance is recognizing the course you are on is wrong.  Repentance requires not only a change of mind; but a change of direction in life.  Heart, mind and will turning to God.

So often, we hear of God’s love as an unconditional guarantee of God’s love, no matter what we do or how we live.  We can believe anything and do anything our hearts desire because God will accept us unconditionally.  That is not Christianity.  That is a form of universalism.

On our website, you can find a section called “What We Believe.”  Under that tab you’ll find the “Four Non-Negotiables for New Hope.”  The very first non-negotiable states:

The doors to this church will always be open to anybody and everybody. No matter where they are in life; their economic status; their race, color, creed, living arrangements or sexual preferences. We are called to proclaim the good news of the Gospel; and every man, woman and child should have the opportunity to hear and respond to the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

That final clause, that all should have an “opportunity [just like the Ninevites] to hear and respond to the life-giving message of Jesus Christ.”  Each man, woman and child must be in the place where they are able to respond in faith to what Jesus has done with his life and his cross.  That means repenting of all known sin and a willingness to see sin for what it is and walk away from it and into the arms of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is why I keep getting up here each Lord’s Day and preaching the same Jesus week after week.  This is why I keep talking about the love of God.  This is why I will continue to invite you into that love until I have no more breath.  Because, who knows what will come of it?  Who knows?

You have heard the Word of the Lord.  Please consider it well.   Amen.

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