Sunday 14th September 2014 Jonah and the grace of God

by David Clarkson

Sunday 14th September 2014  Jonah and the grace of God

This is week three in our series on Jonah. We’ve already had a brief recap of the story so we know that it starts with, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai and said, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and its people were incredibly wicked. What they would do to their prisoners of war is, they would rape the women. They would murder the children. They would take the men and they would skin them alive, then they would take their heads, cut them off, and build pyramids with their skulls to say, “We were here, and we conquered this city.”

Instead of being obedient, Jonah decided to take a boat in the opposite direction. Because of the storm God sent, Jonah ended up spending three days and nights in a big fish, then being vomited up onto the beach. That’s where we pick up on the story today, and we are going to see one of the most beautiful pictures of grace – a picture of the grace of God, to those who don’t deserve it.

Chapter 3 begins with, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” So, even although he did not deserve it, Jonah got a second chance. There are some people who won’t give family members or colleagues a second chance if they fall out. God is not like that. He is the God of second chances. I can’t tell you how many chances and had from God throughout the years. And for some of us here today God wants to offer another chance. It may be that God has spoken to you in the past about surrendering your life to him, but you’ve not done it yet. Today he wants to give you another chance to finally put your trust in him. Others of us, like Jonah, have been in fellowship with God, but have been disobedient. Last week we saw that Jonah said, “What I have vowed, I will make good.” Today God comes again to give us another opportunity to make good.

My prayer is that each of us will experience the grace of God today. Do you know what an etch-a-sketch is? It is an old toy where you turn little knobs and it draws a picture on screen and when you shake it, the picture disappears. That’s what grace does – it clears the slate and makes everything new. None of us deserve God’s grace, but he offers it anyway.

In verse two God says, “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim the message I give you”. In the original Hebrew it actually means, go now. Not just go, but go immediately. There is an urgency about it. Jonah had messed about enough and it was time simply to do what he had been asked. Perhaps God has put something in your heart and you’ve been putting off, messing about with it and today he is saying, “go now and do it”.

God called Nineveh great because it was a place of power and influence. It was a city of at least 120,000 people, the capital of the Empire, the political and cultural epicentre of the nation. It was surrounded by a wall that was around 7 ½ miles long.

Verse3 tells us that Jonah finally got it right – he obeyed the word of the Lord. Then verse four tells us that he started into the city. The Hebrew word used here means to untie or loosen so that you can go. Last week we looked at a verse that said, those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.. In order to start in the direction that God wanted him to go Jonah had to release those things which he was holding on to. He had to untie himself from the idols. Maybe you need to untie yourself and let go of something so that you can do what God has called you to do. I don’t know what that would be for you. Could be that you are holding on to self-will. “I am going to do what I want to do no matter what.” It could be that you are holding on to a sense of financial security or control. “Well, I can’t go take that job, because this one’s just too secure.” It could be that you are holding on to your reputation, what other people think of you. “Well, if I do what I think God wants me to do, they’re going to think I’ve lost it,” and you have to let go.

So, Jonah went and it must have been difficult. Imagine him walking towards the gates of Nineveh, thinking to himself, “What will I say to these people? They don’t like me and they are not going to like what I have to say.” He might have been scared but he preached what God told him to preach. The Bible says this, “He proclaimed, forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Eight words in English. It’s actually five words in the Hebrew language. This message was short. It was direct, and it was offensive. Some sermons in our country might be better if they were short, direct, and offensive. Forty days, and you will be overturned. Forty days. Now, the word overturned in the Hebrew language, it’s a word that had a double meaning. The word is ‘hippock’ and Jonah used it because it was the word God gave him. It can mean overturned and destroyed, but it can mean overturned and changed. And so the message from God could be understood as, “Forty days and you will either be destroyed or you will be forever changed. What’s it going to be?”

Notice, the time was ticking for the mercy of God. God’s mercy, you need to understand, is a limited time offer. You don’t have forever. You don’t even have a promise that you will wake up tomorrow. The mercy of God is a limited time offer. “Forty days and you will be destroyed, or forty days and you will be changed forever. Which will it be?” Some of you, you may be on day thirty-nine. I’m sorry this isn’t the three steps to happiness, but this may be the one step to repentance you need to hear. Times’s ticking.

Jonah preached the message with boldness and passion. And verse five would have been one of the most difficult things for anyone living at that time to believe – it says, “The Ninevites believed God.” Notice wasn’t Jonah they believed, it was God. God was at work through the faithful preaching of his word. I suppose today’s equivalent might be if everybody on the strip in Las Vegas began to worship Jesus and all the casinos were turned into churches.

Then the Ninevites began to fast as a symbol of humility and repentance and from a desire to see and to hear from God. They put on sackcloth as a physical reminder of their sin. Then when the King heard the news he did the same. He instructed everyone to call urgently on God. They understood that they were far from God and that they needed to change. That’s why the King says they should give up their evil ways and their violence. True repentance involves changing behaviour as well as just saying the words.

And the same is still true – if you have never made the decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour then you need to repent and ask him to forgive you. You may be someone who follows Jesus but you need to repent of those times when you behaved like Jonah, ignoring God and going our own way.

I think there’s something of that message for the church in Scotland today and also, perhaps more specifically, for us. “Forty days and you’ll be overturned or changed”. I wish that those who call themselves Christ followers would hear it and call urgently on God. You see, either Jesus is who he says he is, Lord of all, or we’re wasting our time here. And if he is who he says he is, then we need to be a people who take up our crosses and follow him. I’m not sure how to do it, but I really believe that as a congregation we need to learn to pray. We need to spend time praying together with passion and conviction, calling urgently on God, because
• it’s in prayer that we build a relationship with Jesus;
• it’s in prayer that we hear from God;
• it’s in prayer that we are energised;
• it’s through prayer that nations are changed.

I know that many people here pray on their own but what I’m talking about is corporate prayer and I don’t know how to do that. For all the great things that happen here in the church we have not really, in my time, been effective at praying together. And the thing is that I believe that prayer is the vital ingredient that not only holds everything together but is, if you like, the ingredient that causes growth. Somehow we need to learn to pray together.

Jonah comes out preaching fire and I suspect he’s concentrating on the “overturned and destroyed” meaning but the Ninevites, these people who were far from God, turned to God. And maybe this is your second chance, your opportunity to turn to God. Maybe you feel you are so far from him that nothing can make a difference, but God says that if we seek him we will find him. When the Ninevites turned to God he had compassion on them. If you turn to him today he will have compassion on you too.

The Ninevites repented but history shows that it didn’t last very long, however, they got another chance and there have been Christians in that area for almost 2,000 years. My prayer is that we see more and more people coming to church but that they, along with us, will grow more like Jesus. We need people who don’t just go to church, but people who will be the church. If we repent and turn to him, God will pour out his grace on us.

Let’s pray: Father, as your people we repent of those things that get between us and you. We ask that you would give us a fire and a passion to be Jesus in this world, to love recklessly, to give generously, to serve boldly. Where we are holding onto something that is keeping us from you, help us to let it go. Help us to turn to you and receive your grace. Help us to trust you no matter what. Amen

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