Sermon Ideas For Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Part 1
As children growing up in Sunday School, we learned the wonderful story of Jonah and the whale. Oddly, that famous story, while certainly integral to the narrative of the story of the prophet Jonah, is really the point of the book. Three of the most important messages of the story of Jonah are found in the section of Jonah appointed here—that God can use even the most reluctant agents to accomplish the divine purposes; that God works remarkable miracles with nonbelievers which can make the faithful look pretty bad; and that God judges people in their present situation, rather than based on their pasts.
Having been convinced that God wasn't going to let him escape (the remarkable story of the giant fish underlines the divine persistence), Jonah went to the people of Nineveh to call them to repentance. Nineveh was a bustling metropolis, but part of the pagan world rather than the monotheistic world of Israel. Funny old Jonah was sent off to tell those pagans to repent, and behold, it worked! They repented in great numbers, and so God decided not to punish them. This is the first lesson: One of God's most comic and reluctant prophets effected the repentance of so many unlikely urban pagans.
In recounting this pagan repentance, the text emphasizes that God saw what the Ninevites did. God saw their deeds, we are told; God decided to spare them not because their internal attitude changed, but because they changed their way of acting toward each other. Traditional commentators relate that the people of Nineveh began to return objects lost in a field, a vineyard, the market place, or the street to their rightful owners. They tore down the royal palace, returning to their rightful owners all the stolen bricks in the structure. Any vineyard which had two stolen seedlings was uprooted and returned to the rightful owner; any garment containing stolen thread was unraveled and the thread returned to the rightful owner. Never mind that they repented for the wrong reason, i.e., out of fear. When it comes to repentance, even the wrong reasons can still produce the right result.
One would think that Jonah would rejoice at this dramatic turnabout, and that he would be satisfied that God had worked through him to bring about such a remarkable change. But the Bible goes on to tell us that Jonah, grieved and furious, realized how bad this would make his own people look in God's eyes. Israel, who had known God so well, kept on defying God, while the pagan people of Nineveh who didn't know God at all, experienced a sweeping reformation. This didn't make the people of Israel look very good, and Jonah was furious with God for sparing Nineveh to stand as such a challenge to lsrael. Those who think they are God's own, whether Jew or Christian, are not always left looking good
when the God of surprises decides to act in history. "Really," Jonah says to God, "it would have been better for me and for Israel and for everyone else if you had wiped out the people of Nineveh as they deserved, instead of deciding to spare them."
From God's decision to spare the people of Nineveh, we draw a third lesson: God judges people in their present situation, rather than based on their pasts. That's why Jonah became so angry with God; he knew that God is a God who forgets easily, one might say, for scripture teaches us repeatedly that we stand before the judgment seat as we are at the present moment. By tradition, this principle is first enumerated in Genesis when a miracle occurs to save the life of Ishmael, the "rejected" son of Abraham, during his expulsion to the wilderness. The angels complain that Ishmael should not be saved because his descendants would grow up to murder Jews. God answers the angels that he would not judge Ishmael on his past or a presumed future, but on Ishmael's present situation of innocence and desperation. So, too, with the people of Nineveh: At the moment God judged them, they had repented, so God did not judge them on the basis of their pagan
past but upon their postrepentance condition. God doesn't remember all the wrong things we have done, neither does God allow us to build up some bank of past good deeds. We are called therefore to be ready for that judgment at every moment within our presentness.
A Jewish sage has defined repentance as "an approach to God from the distance of sin." All too often we find ourselves at that distance, yet it is this approach and return, this repentance, that God so desires from us, both as individuals and as a community, in order to cooperate with the divine plan for restoration and redemption. God is both Creator and Redeemer, calling all of creation into service through the process of repentance. Repentance must have an outward showing; it must be so thorough that it produces deeds as a proof of its sincerity. At the moment of repentance, we are purified so completely that we are fit to be judged in a state free from past sins now forgiven, free to rejoice in the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast hesed. God desires not the death of a sinner, any more than God desired the death of the people of Nineveh. Rather, God desires our repentance and return, that journey from the blackness of sin to the light of God's presence. The efficacy of repentance is above our logic, but in its incomprensible power it is what God most desires of us. Through repentance God grants us life, and the promise that we will be God's people, and he will be our God.