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Thanks for joining me again today. We’re going to be looking at Jonah, chapter 3 today. Jonah, God’s runaway, rebellious prophet has survived. He’s been vomited out by the giant fish onto dry land. A second chance.
Let’s read chapter 3 together: Click here to read Jonah, chapter 3.
Everybody thinks that Jonah’s about a big fish, but that’s not it at all. Jonah is about a God who is so merciful, it shocks us if we ever truly catch a glimpse of it. God shows his mercy to Jonah first. We see that by the fact that Jonah is alive. Not only did he survive being caught in a fierce storm, he survived being thrown overboard into the sea. Not only that, he survived for three days inside a giant fish. Jonah who disobeyed and rebelled against God was alive because God showed mercy to him.
But more than that, God’s mercy is shown in that he recommissioned Jonah:
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.’
This second call begins with exactly the same words as the first call back at the beginning of chapter one. This really is a second chance for Jonah, a fresh start. Jonah ran away from his calling and God brought him back and now he begins again.
God has not given up on Jonah. That’s a message of hope for all of us rebels, all of us failures, all of us who have run off and done what we know is wrong. God is merciful, God is gracious, more gracious than we dare imagine and if we come back to him we find him — our Father — greeting us with open arms.
Jonah recommitted himself to the worship of the Lord, and as I explained last week — he did so with an incomplete grasp of God’s grace, with still some pride about his religion, and without any mention of going to Nineveh. But still that imperfect repentance was accepted. And that’s good news for all of us who worry whether we’ve repented correctly. Have we said the right words? Have we beat ourselves up enough? Do we feel sorry enough? No. You don’t. But we are not saved by our tears, but by the blood of Christ shed for us unworthy sinners on the cross. If you think of this as a thing which you must get right, you won’t. We cannot atone for our sins. We just don’t have enough credit to pay that debt. Jesus does, and he has paid it for us. Because of Jesus we have a Father who scans the horizon waiting for us to come home so he can embrace us. We have a Father ready to forgive.
Jonah found mercy and heard God calling him again when he was perhaps still soaked and stinking of whatever fish vomit smells like? The so-called prodigal son in Jesus’ parable returned and found his father embracing him and rejoicing over him, while he was barefoot and in rags perhaps still stinking of the pigs he tended.
God’s mercy is not earned. God’s love doesn’t wait for you to get everything right. Stop beating yourself up. Repent, come back to God and know that when you do you come back to the arms of your Father who missed you.
God had a purpose for Jonah, he had a job for him to do. Jonah had a role to play in God’s mission and if God can use a rebellious, foolish, half-drowned, fish-vomit-stinking man like Jonah, he can use you.
One of the remarkable things about Jonah is that, although this book is grouped among the prophets, the content of Jonah’s message plays such a minor role in the book. We’re given one line. Jonah walked into this huge city and said:
‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’
(Jonah 3:4b, NIV)
That’s all we’re told and that may well have been all that was said. And yet everyone repents. Everyone responds to this message in the best possible way they could. Even the animals fast!
Jonah didn’t skilfully craft a clever message. Jonah didn’t do market research to work out how best to reach the Ninevites. Jonah proclaimed the message God gave him. And that is where the power came from — this was God’s message and God’s word is powerful. It doesn’t matter how well-crafted your argument is, or how charming you are, if it’s not what God wants you to say then it’s just hot air and nobody will be saved. It doesn’t matter how hard you can work, how clever or strong you are — if God has called you to do something your role is faithful obedience. God works the miracles. Not you.
The great English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was preparing to preach to a crowd of 23,654 people at The Crystal Palace in London. He wrote about something that happened a day or two beforehand:
“In 1857, a day or two before preaching at the Crystal Palace, I went to decide where the platform should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God. Years after, he told this story to one who visited him on his death-bed.”
That workman didn’t need to hear anything more than the powerful word of God: “Behold the Lamb, of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” That’s from John’s Gospel, chapter 1, verse 29. A few words, that’s all. But God’s words!
And that’s what happened in Nineveh. Everyone immediately responded in the best possible way to a very simple message, because it was God’s message. It was a miracle! But that’s also what happens every time someone comes to a real saving faith in Jesus Christ. It takes a miracle. It takes divine intervention to turn rebels and wretches into the children of God. The power comes from God himself. God works in people’s hearts to change them. God gave us his word and as it says in Isaiah 55:
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
it will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:10-11, NIV)
God’s word is living and powerful. Which is why we read it. It’s why those who preach and teach God’s word should do so with fear and work hard to be faithful and accurate messengers.
What this incident in Nineveh tells us is that the power for God’s mission comes from God himself. One Israelite man walking into the middle of a huge pagan city and proclaiming a one-line warning against it led to the whole city repenting. The power for that didn’t come from Jonah and why should we expect it to? Although this book is called “Jonah” he’s clearly not the hero of this story. God is.
So then when we, the church, engage in gospel ministry, be that through missionary work, family devotions, bible studies, preaching, outreach, or patiently and gently giving a reason for the hope you have to your friend who asks you; let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the power comes from us. That’s humbling, but it’s also empowering.
If you know that the power doesn’t come from you it keeps you from thinking too much of yourself. It prevents you from becoming proud, because you know that if there is ever any real growth, ever any real spiritual awakening in someone, ever any life-changing, life-giving encounter with God, then it may have come through you, but it certainly didn’t come from you. So, we stay humble and we take care to ensure that it is God’s message we’re delivering, and not our own fancy ideas.
But, if you know that God Almighty can work through you with the power to bring people from spiritual death to new life in Christ, through your humble witness people can encounter God, then that will make you bold to proclaim the gospel. So what if you’re not the most persuasive speaker? So what if you’re not a big, magnetic personality. So what if you’re not an expert biblical scholar? It doesn’t matter! The power comes from God!
One of my favourite quotes about mission comes from a Methodist pastor and evangelist who served God in the 20th century, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), D.T. Niles. He said:
“Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
The message of Christianity is the good news that, although we cannot and do not save ourselves, God himself saves us. As Jonah himself said at the end of his prayer from inside the fish: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9b, NIV)
Salvation is of the Lord. Not of me. Or you. Which is why it’s so important we immerse ourselves in God’s word. It’s so important we know God ourselves if we want others to get to know him through us.
We want people to know how great this God is who sent Jesus to rescue us, to take our place and suffer our punishment. We want people to know his unimaginably great grace and mercy.
Jonah is a book of mercy. God had mercy on Jonah his rebellious prophet and he had mercy on Nineveh in sending them Jonah to bring about change in the city and in forgiving them. Throughout this whole story we see God pulling the strings. God is the power behind what happens. God sent Jonah. God sent the storm when Jonah ran away. God sent the fish to catch Jonah. God sent Jonah again and gave him a message full of power that would bring the Ninevites to repentance. God has been in control all along. God’s mission is motivated and powered by God.
So whether you are called to go to the other side of the world, or to go into work, or to sit with your kids and talk to them about God, your mission to be a witness for Jesus comes from God and is empowered by God.
Before the risen Lord Jesus ascended to heaven he commissioned his followers, and this commission still applies to us today
Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
(Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)
During these pandemic times it’s difficult for us to imagine going to the nations, but we don’t have to. There is plenty of gospel work to be done right here. In our towns and even in our own homes. But as we go about our mission let’s all remember its motivation. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and therefore we are to make disciples, teaching people about him. The power for the church’s mission comes from God and for that reason we can be confident of miracles happening and lives changing. We can humbly, yet boldly, do what God has called us to do.
Lord, we pray that today would be a day of rest. Help us to rest from the trials of the week. Help us to rest from worry. Help us to rest from fear. Help us to rest from the striving to be good enough. Help us to rest in your goodness and in your power, in your mercy and in your grace. We can rest because you never sleep. We can rest because you are a good Father who takes care of us.
We pray for peace in this world. We pray that soon we would all be able to rest from this fight against Coronavirus. We pray that a great blow might be struck against it. We pray for powerful treatments and vaccines to come soon. We pray for those who are working so tirelessly in this fight, may they have a chance to rest soon. We pray for healing for those who are sick. We pray for comfort for those who mourn. We pray for rest for those who hunger and thirst for justice, may they be filled as your peace and justice rush into areas of corruption, grief and abuse. May this world be a kinder place, a more just place, a more peaceful place. May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
As churches prepare to resume meeting in congregations soon, we pray for protection and wisdom. Help us to be careful, to spot potential danger and to prepare well. Protect all who come.
We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.