This is the third instalment of the series from Jonah that I preached at church recently.
Jonah Goes to Nineveh NIV (New International Version)
3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
If you are a fan of classic comedies, you are probably a fan of the classic: "Ground-hog Day". In this 1993 comedy, "a weather man (played by Bill Murray) is reluctantly sent to cover a story about a weather forecasting "rat" (as he calls it). This is his fourth year on the story, and he makes no effort to hide his frustration. When he awakens the next morning, however, he finds that it's Groundhog Day again, as is every day after that, forcing Phil to relive the day over and over again. First, he uses this to his advantage, then comes the realisation that he is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place, seeing the same people do the same thing EVERY day. After eight years, eight months and 16 days, he eventually, he learns from his experiences and used the opportunity to do what was right, and escapes reliving that day.
Jonah chapter 3 could easily be Jonah's ‘ground-hog day'—a chance to "redo" his decision in chapter one to do a runner.
We find that in verses 1-3. The wording is very similar. (Read both 1:1-2 and 3:!-2). The only real difference is what God says. Instead of preaching against the great city because of its wickedness, Jonah is to proclaim to it the message that Yahweh will give him.
Verse 3 shows the vast difference from the first opportunity given to Jonah and the second. Chapter 1 says "But Jonah ran away…". Chapter 3 says "Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord…".
The second part of verse three seems to be a subject of endless discussion. Honestly, being a theologian is hard work, but sometimes, the focus seems to get a bit off-kilter. With the amount of discussion around whether the historical town of Ninevah would take three days to walk through (or around) or whether it meant the wider region, or whether it must have been figurative or even whether it was Ninevah at all that Jonah went to is pretty remarkable. For this simpler brain of mine, I tend to look at the wording and can't help but think they are on the wrong track completely. There are at least two meaning to the word great. One does mean large, but the other is that it is "of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above average." I tend to think that when Jonah is describing Nineveh as great, he means it's a great city (like Melbourne is a great city, but it's not huge). Even the part that says that a visit required three days seems to fit that concept. It didn't take three days to walk through or around it; it just took three days to experience the city.
We don't hear much more than the first day with Jonah though. On the first day, he got his message out. Forty more days and the city will be overturned! Now, I'm sure he said more than those few words, but that succinctly summarises his message. You lot are on a time limit! God is about to destroy this wicked town.
We don't hear whether Jonah told them torrent or not. We don't hear about where he spoke. We do hear about the reaction of the Ninevites.
When the Ninevites heard the message, they believed Jonah and believed God. They knew that they were to be destroyed in 40 days. Something interesting to note here is that at the beginning of the Chapter, God is described as the Lord (or Yahweh) but when the Ninevites they believe in Elohim (Or God in our translation). Yahweh was the God of Israel, and the name Elohim was not necessarily Yahweh. Ninevah was not in Israel, they were not Israelites, but they believed in the message from an Israelite prophet. They did believe in Yahweh even though they didn't name it at the time.
The Ninevites believed God that the city was doomed. So they did what any God-fearing person would do at the time…they fasted and put on sackcloth. In verse 6, we find that even the King did the same. The whole sackcloth, ashes and sitting in the dust are symbolic of mourning. They were grieving what they had done. They were repenting of their ways. In fact, with the king himself doing that, we were also giving up his thrown to God as well. The town of Nineveh was turning from a monarchy to a theocracy. A place where God ruled.
This King also goes further than was asked of them. This could well be in the same ways that they used to worship other gods. The king decreed that even the animals fast and be covered with sackcloth. It's a good thing that I'm not God…I don't know that I could stop myself from laughing at the sight of all the animals wandering around covered in cloth.
The King then goes on to command that everyone call on God to relent and turn from his fierce anger. He asks all Ninevites to seek God's compassion.
This chapter deals a lot with repentance. Not just the repentance of one person. We see that in Jonah's change of heart to God in chapter 2 but the repentance of a whole city! Jonah finally sees sense inside the great fish, he gets vomited out, and then God repeats the command to go and speak to the Ninevites. One of the most remarkable things is the readiness to change that exists within the Ninevites. Let's assume, just for the argumentative theologians here today, that Nineveh was big enough to take three days to walk through. That Jonah did open three days getting God's message out there. Assuming that Jonah didn't sleep and didn't stop talking the judgement that was about to face them, how many people would he have preached too? If we use the immediate city of Shepparton, how many people would you reach if you told everyone you came across that the city would be destroyed in 40 days? Perhaps more in jail than not…it's just an example!
At the very worst case, in just three days of hearing God's word, the whole town of Nineveh grieved their behaviour. The whole town. Isn't that remarkable? We'd be hard-pressed to get everyone in this church to agree in three days let alone the whole city! But grieve and repent they did. Grieve and repent. They go together, don't they? God tells us that there is something in our lives that isn't right. We grieve that have done or are doing that. It's through the grieving that we decide not to do it anymore. We choose to repent. And often it isn't the first time that we have repented, is it? I know people who will say that it isn't true repentance if you have to do it again. God doesn't see it that way. The whole story of the Old Testament is God continuing to save a nation that repented and repented and repented. They did it again and again. When I first became a Christian, I heard that repenting and asking forgiveness was different. That it wasn't repenting if you kept on with that behaviour or attitude. It was asking for forgiveness. It caused me a lot of guilt. It is sort of true that repenting isn't just asking for forgiveness. In the true sense of the words, repenting isn't asking for forgiveness at all. Repenting is choosing to turn away from a certain behaviour and taking up a new behaviour. In our case, choosing to act in a way that honours God. The asking for forgiveness usually happens beforehand in the grief of understanding what we did. So for those who had the same thing happen to them. We do ask for forgiveness in the process of God showing us our sins, and then we choose to turn away from (repent) that action to God. What I've come to realise is that we often find ourselves having to repent again and again and again for the same behaviour (just like the Israelites). My hope and prayer for each one of us are that each time, we get closer and closer to being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
Jonah has repented, Nineveh has repented. They have both chosen to turn from their evil ways and turn to God.
[use skit demonstration of walking away from God and turning to find him right behind us]
That's repentance. That's responding to the Holy Spirit's prompting of a problem and turning back to Him.
This passage isn't all about repentance. This passage is also about God's compassion. Without God's compassion, there is no point in repentance. It's useless because it doesn't change anything. Repentance is only important if something else happens. In previous messages, I've talked about God initiating contact with us and how we respond. It's the same here.
God gets our attention and lets us know that something is wrong. He got the attention of Jonah in the ocean, and he gets the attention of Nineveh with Jonah. They hear God and respond. Jonah by praying one of the great prayers that we can read in the bible and Nineveh respond with fasting, grieving and praying.
At this point, their repentance hasn't changed anything. If God were to walk away at this point of the story with Nineveh, they would go past the forty days, realise that God hasn't acted and return to where they were (possibly a little embarrassed about all the carry on). Or they do all their grieving, and when the forty days arrives, they all die.
That's the key for each one of us. They key for those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, those who maybe wonder whether he is the Son of God or not, those who have long given up on the idea or even those who actively think otherwise. The Ninevites were not believers in Yahweh. Sure, they believed in "God" of some sort but not particularly about the God of the Israelites, but they heard the message of Jonah, and they repented. The key is that God will respond with compassion, grace and mercy.
And yet, that's all we need to do. The rest truly is up to God. We can't convince God to do anything else. We can't repent harder or louder or larger. All we can do is to hear God's initiating voice on our sinful behaviour and decide to turn from those ways and return to the behaviour that God would have us do. God will do the rest.
We don't have to worry that God won't respond. He will. Next week we will look at the rest of Jonah, and we will find God's great mercy. He does forgive those who come to him asking for forgiveness for our actions. He does show mercy to us. He does show grace.
And isn't grace the whole message of the book of Jonah? God's grace extended to the great city of Nineveh. It was God's grace that initiated the whole event. Not just to Jonah. Not just to a city in Israel. Not just to His chosen nation. This account of Jonah drips grace from its pages. Each step of the way shows God's grace to those who don't deserve it.
Where does this leave us this morning though? So far, we have learnt some things about Jonah, Nineveh, God, repentance, compassion and grace (well I hope you have). What have we learnt about ourselves? I'm also hoping that you have learnt about the journey that you take when you are asked by God to repent and change your behaviour. Do you take the long road to get there and end up being vomited up by a big fish for your next chance? Do you hear the word and respond immediately? Whichever way it is (though, if we are all very honest, it's most likely the way of Jonah) we get to make our own choice about how we respond. Do we grieve what we have done and change? Or do we continue in the behaviour? The message from this passage is that God has initiated something to make us a better "us" and he wants us to respond. He wants us to put up our hand and say, Yes Lord, I will change what I do. I am sorry for what I did, and I ask for your forgiveness, your grace and your mercy. Your homework for this week is to identify where the Holy Spirit is convicting you of an area of your life that you need to be turning away from. Is there an activity that you do, that God is asking you to give away? Is there a heart attitude that is negative and not God honouring? If you need to pray, go and do that. I imagine that not many of us need to pray about what God is pointing to us to repent of. This week, we get to choose to repent, to turn away from whatever it is and turn to God. It doesn't matter if you've "done it before". It doesn't matter that you may have repented before. God's grace isn't dependant on how many times we turn away from something.
Let's not be stuck in the same cycle as Phil was on Groundhog Day. Let's not rerun the same day for over eight years. This week, choose to be as determined as the Ninevites. Choose to hear and obey the voice of God this week. Choose God.