Sermon Ideas For Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Part 2
If today in one of our churches we had to deal with Jonah, I suspect he would not fare too well. His shameful behavior does not testify to faith, courage or commitment, unless it is commitment to keeping his own hide in one piece. He's a selfish coward who gladly preached to the converted in the safety of his own environment. When God challenged him to go to Nineveh where people truly needed a good preacher, he ran. Now, having been brought up short through a drastic and traumatic divine intervention that he doesn't care to repeat, he is prepared to go east instead of west though still not showing an overabundance of enthusiasm.
What does one do with a leader who failed? What would we do with a David after that disgraceful adultery with Bathsheba and arranged murder of her husband? Or what place would we find in the church for a Peter who scandalously denied his faith and his Lord? Would we give Jonah a second chance? We need merely look around us at the many persons once in leadership positions in their churches who were forced to resign and, too frequently, pressured to leave their denomination after committing a public sin, even after they acknowledged their failings. Their skills were not diminished, their faith may even have been stronger after having been tested by the trial of public disapproval, but the church said, "We can't use you any longer. Go away!" There is, it appears, a tragic arrogance operating in judgmental churches, a hypocritical assumption that those who cast the stones that drive out sinners are indeed without sin themselves.
Unlike many Christian communities, God believes in second chances. An individual's sin, however disgraceful it may have been, does not automatically negate that person's call to service. Surely there must have been in Israel other, more respectable people who could have picked up God's banner. But the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Not to someone else, to Jonah, the coward, the deserter! God obviously does not shoot deserters.
Having been forgiven, having been given this second chance at meaningful ministry, one would expect from Jonah a sense of humility and gratitude. Humility because Jonah's initial deserting of his calling isn't all that different from the backsliding engaged in by the people of Nineveh. In God's eyes, sin is not a matter of degrees, sin is simply black or white. Jonah's behavior was shameful and inexcusable; in other words, sinful. Gratitude could also be expected since God had not simply written him off as a unworthy servant but put him back to work. It might have been expected that Jonah's message to the sinners of Nineveh would have sounded somewhat like that of Joel, "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful" (Joel 2:12,13). Jonah most certainly could have used himself as a prime example of God's grace and mercy.
He's a prophet, however. Prophets have no choice in what they say (Deut 18:18). As Jonah makes his solitary way to the great city of Nineveh, he may well have wondered how the people would receive him. For his message was incredibly blunt. "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" It may be, of course, that this represents merely a summary of all that he said. More likely he made his way through the city streets saying only this much and no more. Though God, whose words Jonah echoes, is often inviting, God does not always plead with people. Certainly not now in Nineveh. God's message is clear, "This is the last warning you will get. The end is near."
What an interesting image: the redeemed, forgiven sinner from Israel bringing a message threatening inescapable judgment to the citizens of Nineveh. God works in mysterious, seemingly contradictory ways to bring salvation to people who are, in Jonah's opinion, hardly worthy of it. Even more interesting is it that the forgiven sinner, now once again a prophet, is so unforgiving and merciless himself. He has come to believe his own message: he is convinced Nineveh will go up in flames, and he relishes the thought. Hence his later disappointment when nothing happens.
Nothing happens to the city, of course, because something happens to the people. They also believe the message. It goes to show that God can indeed effectively use people with clay feet to bring a message of salvation. Without being urged or invited to repent, the people repented nonetheless. We can speculate over how they knew what to do. Perhaps they asked Jonah and perhaps—though unlikely—he told them. At any rate, they responded in humility, with fasting and pleas for mercy. The harsh message of Jonah succeeded where one more gentle might have failed. God knows the right approach to break down the resistance of those who are estranged but not yet beyond hope. This, too, can be an example for the church. Sometimes an ultimatum is called for: confrontation with God's judgment instead of God's love. Love can indeed attract, but the shock treatment of judgment is more likely to change behavior.
Left unanswered in this passage is the mystery of a God who changed his mind. Did God truly intend all along to turn Nineveh upside down? Did God have no advanced knowledge of the response Jonah would engender? Would God actually have gone through with it when the forty days were up?
Jonah shows us a God who is not bound to rigid rules, unless it is the rigid rule that those who repent must be forgiven and restored, not overturned or turned out. Jonah shows us a God who can and will punish if words, whether gentle or harsh, bring no change of heart or behavior. Jonah shows us a God who would much rather forgive, however.