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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Unexpected Change (Jonah 3)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 3, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go" (Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go" (ST. MARGARET)
The Word in Music: "Merciful God" (choir) (Getty & Townend/Courtney)
Song of Confession: "Shine into Our Night" (Sczebel)
Offering of Music: "Minuet in G" (Bobby White, piano) (Bach)
Song of Sending: "Praise is Rising/Hosanna" (Brown/Baloche)
Postlude: "Praise the Lord, Rise Up Rejoicing" (Wood)

"Unexpected Change"
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Text: Jonah 3

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today’s text is full of unexpected change!  After Jonah’s wide-ranging flight from God’s mission and the supernatural pursuit, capture, and redemption of Jonah, we left off with Jonah being spit up by the giant fish back on dry land.  Finally, we get to the original mission: Jonah goes to Nineveh to speak a Word from the Lord.

But not so fast.  I had always imagined the great fish spewing him forth at the gates of Nineveh.  I think I mistook the “three days’ walk” for how far he had to go to get to Nineveh.  But remember the geography from the first week?  [I illustrated using the entire front of the sanctuary for scale.]  Israel is on the southeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.  Nineveh is some 500 miles inland near modern day Mosul, Iraq.  Jonah had taken off towards Spain and though the fish brought him to shore – at the closest he still would have been very far from Nineveh.  I mention all that to say that he had to face all over again whether or not to listen to and obey the Lord.

What was the “three days’ walk” about then?  We’ll get to that in a moment.

As we read through all the unexpected change in this chapter, I want to highlight three pairs of message and response to help us follow the flow of the story.  Let’s start in Jonah 3, verse one…

Message and Response #1: Go and Tell (vv. 1-4a)

The first message is fairly obvious to spot because we read that the Word of the Lord came again to Jonah (v. 1). And here it is: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” (v. 2)  The contents of that message are actually our second message and we will look at that in a moment.  But this first message is from God to Jonah and it is (again) to GO AND TELL.  The first time Jonah ran from this task.  But this time his response is different.  He obeys and does what the Lord commands.

There are several unexpected changes here.  One is that Jonah got a second chance.  Did you see that highlighted in verse 1?  The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.  And maybe it’s expected that Jonah will obey the second time around… or maybe not.  I’ve certainly known people who have blown a second chance.  I have blown a second chance.  But Jonah didn’t disobey again.  He changed; he obeyed; he went.

And this was no easy obedience.  I’ve already mentioned the great distance to get to Nineveh.  And I’ve mentioned the “three days’ walk.”  What is that?  It’s a measure of how large the city of Nineveh was.  Once Jonah made the long journey to Nineveh, he wouldn’t be able to simply shout the message once from the city gate.  The city and surroundings of Nineveh were so large it would take someone three days to cross it.  That’s big!  It was a “New York City” of the ancient near east.  And you get some sense of that in verse four, when Jonah goes through the city for a whole day proclaiming God’s message, and after one day he has only “begun to go.”  His task was to traverse this great city speaking God’s message over and over.

Indeed, God has saved his life and given him a second chance at a difficult obedience.  And I would say, unexpectedly, Jonah obeys.

Another subtle unexpected change is the charge given to Jonah.  The first time around God told him to go “cry against” Nineveh because of their wickedness (1:2). This time God indicates there will be a specific message and God will provide it.  I’m not sure of the significance of that change, just noting that God seems to be intent on delivering a specific message to the people of Nineveh and has gone to great lengths to do so.

Message and Response #2: Judgment is Imminent (vv. 4b-6)

The second message is the one God gives Jonah for the people of Nineveh.  It’s there in verse four: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  In other words, judgment is imminent.  Apparently, Jonah did not elaborate, and perhaps that was the change between the original charge and this new message.  It was simply “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  Given the size of the city and the brevity of the message, it reminds me of the folks who walk the streets of New York with the signs that say “the end is near!”

It’s not my idea of effective communication.  And there was not even the modern-day, “REPENT, the end is near!”  It was just “the end is near!”  That’s what I find so unexpected about this message and response.  It really sounds to me like a straightforward, unpleasant, announcement of the end.  That context makes the response all the more unexpected because the ENTIRE city was moved by the message.  I’ve got to think that the Spirit of God had been at work in advance of Jonah and was moving powerfully as he passed through the city.  It sure wasn’t the complexity or winsomeness of his message. 

Just listen to the depth and breadth of response described in verses 5-6.  First the people believed in God.  Not just they believed the message; but they believed in God!  And they demonstrated outwardly what God was stirring inwardly.  They stopped eating and declared a fast.  They put on sackcloth, a sign of mourning and repentance.  All of them did; even up to the king.  His response gets its own description.  He arose from the throne, the sign of his power and authority.  He laid aside his robe, also a sign of his power and authority; and he covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes – signs of his personal mourning and repentance.  That the king would do this and it be known so publicly was an indication of the profound response in Nineveh to the Word and presence of the Lord.

It is so unexpected that it should be mind-boggling.  An entire major city responds to a short sentence of judgment.  One of the most powerful rulers in the known world humiliates himself in public mourning and repentance.  A people known for cruelty and evil turn to the Lord.  Although maybe that is not the most unexpected thing; sometimes those at an extreme are more aware of judgment than those who are so-called “good people.”  At any rate, the complete humbling, mourning, and repentant response of Nineveh was as miraculous and unexpected as anything that happened in Jonah 1-2 with the storm or the great fish, though perhaps finding some parallel in the pagan sailors turning to God in faith.

Message and Response #3: Repent in Hope of Mercy (vv. 7-9)

A third message comes in the form of a proclamation from the king of Nineveh.  Having himself been overcome by mourning and repentance, he nonetheless uses his authority to spread the word.  Even in his humiliated posture, he remembers that the city is his responsibility and he does what he can to protect it.  We could probably spend some time trying to unravel and understand his actions.  But I take it as a sign of his authentic repentance that he proclaims the fast for the whole city.  And what a motivation!  I’m pretty sure it did not come from Jonah, who only was to announce judgment.  Could it have come from the Spirit of God, like the sailors moved to faith and sacrifice in chapter one? 

The king proclaims a fast for the whole city and entreats the people to “call on God earnestly” as they turn from their wicked ways.  Why? It is IN HOPE that “God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” 

Talk about unexpected…

  • A king and city being led to REPENTANCE!
  • A king and city being led BY THE SPIRIT OF GOD to repentance
  • A FOREIGN, PAGAN, WICKED, VIOLENT, POWERFUL king and city being led by the Spirit of God to repentance
  • A foreign, pagan, wicked, violent, powerful king and city being led by the Spirit of God to repentance IN HOPE OF GOD’S MERCY
Unexpected… by us; foreseen, planned, desired, purposed by God.

Remember last week?  We talked about the holy God who persistently pursues to save?  This is God being God!

What about the foreign, pagan, wicked, violent, powerful part?  God announced His desire to save the nations of the world from the beginning and throughout redemptive history, Old AND New Testament.  This is God being God!

Really, for all the unexpected change in Jonah 3, the one thing that should NOT be unexpected is the character of God, who is holy and just, but full of compassion and mercy.  What is so surprising here is not God being God, but the degree to which the Word, power, and presence of God can so completely transform the human heart and the world in which we live.

Have you heard that Word, witnessed that power, and experienced that presence?  Know that it is God’s character and desire that you would.  That is Good News!  Amen.

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