Regular posting is still difficult, I’m afraid. My diary is choc-full and I can’t do much about it. Meantime, here is tomorrow’s sermon in the series on Jonah.
One of the most popular British Christian websites is called ‘Ship Of Fools’. Its strapline is, ‘The magazine of Christian unrest’, because it once used to be … a magazine. And I was a subscriber during its short publishing life in the 1980s.
The articles were often humorous, but always making a serious point about the life of faith. One of my favourites was ‘The Ship Of Fools Dictionary Of Sanctified Jargon’. It poked fun at some of the words and phrases regularly used in church circles. Under ‘Suffer the little children’ it said, ‘See next entry.’ The next entry was ‘Sunday School’, which was wickedly defined as ‘In most cases can be an effective means for inoculating children against the effects of Christianity for life.’
But I want to talk about another of the definitions: ‘Laid on my heart’. The definition read, ‘Roughly translated, this phrase means that God has caused an individual to be concerned about a particular need or situation. Avoid using I’ve had leprosy laid on my heart, etc.’
‘Laid on my heart.’ Yes, it’s a Christian cliché. As is much of our talk about ‘God’s heart for’ someone or something. But sometimes we can’t do better than this language. And I think our passage today is a case in point. It may not specifically talk about God’s heart for Jonah or Nineveh, but in religious shorthand, that’s what it’s about.
So we begin with God’s heart for Jonah. If you remember last week, Jonah, who had preferred the idolatry of comfort to his calling, was preserved by God in the severe mercy of the big fish for a purpose, and Jonah promised to lay down his idols. In the opening verse of chapter three, we get a further flavour of God’s gracious purposes for his rebellious servant:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.
A second time. Here is confirmation of God’s intention to use Jonah, even Jonah, who had not simply missed an opportunity but had energetically tried to get as far away from the call of God as possible. God does not take the view, “Well, Jonah, you fouled up and walked away from my call. I’m going to look for someone else to fulfil my purposes with regard to Nineveh.” No: God says, “Here’s a second chance, Jonah.”
A friend in the circuit where I grew up once had some advice for the teenage Christians about seeking God’s guidance when we are not sure. She said, “When I think God might be saying something to me but I’m not sure, I say ‘No’, because I know that if it’s really him, he’ll ask me again.”
I’ve told that story to some people who find it quite dangerous. Clearly, if you get yourself too easily into a habit of saying ‘no’ to God, you will harden your heart and close down the possibilities of ever hearing from him. But if you do it on the basis that God doesn’t just give us one shot at knowing his will but is prepared to speak to us again and again, then there is a real chance that my friend’s advice has some wisdom.
Remember, after all, the young Samuel who struggled to recognise that it was God who was calling him. It took three times before he realised it was God, and that was with the help of the highly fallible priest Eli.
Of course, Jonah is different from Samuel. Jonah knew what God had said first time, and deliberately chose to disobey. Samuel just needed to get tuned into the voice of God.
But take some good news from God speaking a second time to Jonah. What are your regrets in the life of faith? Do you believe God can speak to you again? Because he can. What opportunities have you missed for him? Do you realise that he hasn’t thrown you off the team for those mistakes? He is working at creating new openings where you can serve him.
But more than that: are you aware that there are areas of your life where you have significantly let down God, because you deliberately chose the path of disobedience and sin? Have you felt since then that the best you can do hope for is to hang around on the fringes of the church, but never have a hope of doing anything worthwhile for him again? The story of Jonah encourages you to see that God’s heart for you is very different.
What, then, will be Jonah’s heart for God? We read very quickly in verse 3a:
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.
When you realise just how full of grace God is for you in Jesus Christ, the only option that makes sense is to respond in obedience. God’s grace is not only about his forgiveness of our sins: his mercy extends further than that, to the granting of second chances. If you are hearing God give you a second opportunity after an earlier failure, then let that grace stimulate your heart to grab the new chance with both hands.
Jonah did. Simon Peter did after having denied Jesus three times. You are no less cherished by your heavenly Father than these ancient servants of his. Perhaps even today you are hearing the God of the second chance speak to you. If you are, then right now you have a golden opportunity to say to the Lord, “Today, I say ‘yes’ to you. Today, I will begin to obey you out of gratitude for the second chance you have given me.”
God has a heart of grace – of second chance grace – for you. Do you have a heart of gratitude for him and for his purposes?
We also need to consider God’s heart for Nineveh. You may think at a glance that God’s heart for Nineveh is purely that he desires its destruction. Jonah’s message is summed up as,
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Verse 4)
But listen. There is more to it than that. God describes Nineveh as ‘the great city’ (verse 2), and the TNIV’s rendering of verse 3 as ‘a very large city’ omits a possible additional reading of, ‘even by God’s standards’. God sees this huge ancient city and is full of compassion for its inhabitants, lost in sin. For Jonah’s message again is “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Forty more days. If God simply wanted to destroy these wicked sinners, then why the forty days? The patience of God is evident here. Through Jonah, he gives them time to hear the message and respond. Again, it’s not simply a case that if you don’t grab the message at the first opportunity that’s your lot, you’re fried. It is always good to respond to the voice of God when you hear it. But such is the heart of compassion that God has for sinful human beings that his grace extends beyond the immediate, the instant, the now.
If you listen to the stories of how many people come to faith, a common pattern is that a whole series of events and conversations happened over a period of time to draw them to Christ. And in a time when people know the basics of Christian faith far less than in earlier generations, we can more and more expect the journey to faith often to be a long, and even a slow one. But this is God’s heart: it is one of patient, loving persistent for those who are lost from his love.
So again, we ask the question: do we share God’s heart? The call to mission is a call to be involved with people for the long term. I am not criticising special missions and mission events, because they have their place. But what we cannot do is use occasional short campaigns and think we have then discharged our responsibility to share the love of God with the community, run back over the Christian drawbridge, pull it up and huddle together until the next occasion in a few years’ time. If we share God’s heart for those who do not know him, we shall commit to long term engagement with such people. ‘Hit and run’ won’t do: God engages for the long term with people. Will we?
For look what happens when we examine Nineveh’s heart for God. When they receive the message of the holy God who is nevertheless patient with them and full of compassion, they respond just as Israel, the people of God did in repentance – with sackcloth and fasting (verse 5). When it comes down to it, they’re just human beings – human beings loved by God – not enemies to be stereotyped. If they can respond like this, don’t we owe it to them to treat them with dignity and love?
In fact, there is a totality of response to God. Even the animals are involved (verse 7). The Persian custom was that animals shared in mourning ceremonies. Here, then, it indicates just how thorough the response to God’s message through Jonah is.
It’s something underlined when the king appears in the story (verse 6). He calls the people to do more than indulge in the ritual of sackcloth and fasting (verses 7b-8a), but to match the ritual acts with changed behaviour. He calls people to ‘give up their evil ways and their violence’ (verse 8b).
Now that’s interesting. Not just their general ‘evil ways’ but specifically their ‘violence’. Calls to repentance are specific. The Holy Spirit does not simply leave people with a general feeling of condemnation, just telling them they are useless and worthless. That voice comes from the enemy, who wishes to reduce us to utter despair.
Instead, the Holy Spirit puts a finger on something specific and says, ‘This is what you need to leave behind.’ Violence is a pretty good specific sin for Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was known for its aggressive behaviour. They know what they have done wrong, and they turn from it. Zaccheus knew he had to turn away from his greed and exploitation. Those with a heart to turn to God will know that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, and therefore any turning will be specific.
It also means that when we are involved in mission, our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will show people the specific actions they need to take in order to be right with God. Sometimes the Spirit uses our voices to tell them (although we have to be careful not to sound harsh or judgmental), and sometimes the Spirit does it by a direct whisper into their hearts. But whatever means God chooses, this will be one inevitable consequence of meeting Christ at the Cross.
What we also know about the Ninevites’ response is that just because they discover a gracious and compassionate God, they don’t simply treat God as a celestial chum, as if he is no more than a spiritual mate. Listen to the caution in the king’s voice:
Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. (Verse 9)
As Christians we want to respond with more than a ‘Who knows?’ We want to say more than that ‘God may relent’, but without sounding presumptuous. It is our privilege as bearers of the Gospel to promise the Good News of a God who will relent from judgment when repentant people turn to him through Jesus Christ.
That’s what we read he does here in the final verse of the chapter. As the sailors in chapter 1 received mercy in the storm and as Jonah received mercy from drowning via the big fish in chapter 2, so here the citizens of Nineveh receive mercy from what their sins of violence deserve. The book of Jonah keeps before us the vision of the God who is extravagant in mercy and outrageous in grace.
A good friend of mine is an Anglican vicar. However, some years ago he left parish ministry to work with an evangelistic organisation. Not only is he involved in special weeks of missions with churches and areas of the country, he is also involved with the community in the village where he and his family live in the Fens. He regularly emails me his prayer letter. He doesn’t see as many conversions to Christ as I am sure he would like to, but when he does, you can feel the joy as he writes about them. He has a heart for the God who has a heart for him and for the world.
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.