Jonah 3:1-10

May 12, 2002


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

In previous weeks, we considered Jonah the Flabbergasted (1:1-16) and Jonah the Fish Food (1:17-2:10). In looking at Jonah the Flabbergasted, we noticed that Jonah:
A. acted on the basis of his feelings rather than according to what he knew to be God’s will for his life;
B. believed, to his peril, that God ruled only over a small geographical area and that you could therefore run away from him;
C. claimed to worship God, but he did not obey him.
In Jonah the Fish Food, we further observed that:
A. real changes began to take place in Jonah’s life when he took time to think and to pray;
B. neither circumstances nor location can place the truly repentant sinner beyond God’s reach;
C. difficulties, such as the fish, often result in our ultimate deliverance.
Today, we shift our attention to chapter 3, where we encounter Jonah the Follower.

We left off last week with Jonah lying on the beach. He had just been spit out of the fish’s belly, and he no doubt looked a mess. With apparently precious little time to recover from this outrageous ordeal, Jonah quickly receives the word of the Lord for the second time. This word is, you will note, essentially the same as the first: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Jonah, in other words, receives a second chance, something like Simon Peter in John 21:19. His fate, therefore, was not like that of the disobedient prophet discussed in 1 Kings 13, a prophet who was fatally mauled by a lion for failing to comply with his calling. On the contrary, Jonah disobeyed, but he lived to tell about it.

Now, to be sure, Jonah’s second chance is not simply like starting all over again. Hopefully, our previously provoked but now praise-promising prophet has learned something during the last few event-filled days. Indeed he has. This time following the reception of his divine instructions, we do not read the unexpected “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish,” but instead the more comforting “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” We all can now breathe a sigh of relief!

Nineveh, from everything that we know, was a marvelous city. In the book of Jonah, the writer tells us three times that it was “a great city.” Nineveh was the New York or London or Paris or Mexico City of Jonah’s day. While most of our translations suggest that Nineveh was a “very large” or “exceedingly great” city, verse three literally reads “Nineveh was great to God.” What a striking description. After all, Isaiah informs us that people are like grasshoppers in the eyes of God (40:22). Nineveh, according to the writer, was so great that even God was impressed. Nineveh was no rural community by any stretch of the imagination–no Grantham, or even Dillsburg, for that matter.
We learn further in verse three that three days were needed in order to travel from one end of the city to the other. By simple calculations, this implies that Nineveh was approximately 50 miles in diameter. Although available archaeological evidence clearly indicates that the city was in reality only three miles across–a huge city nonetheless by ancient standards–the point is abundantly clear. Nineveh was no rural community–no Tiner, Indiana; Wilbur, Nebraska; or Phillipi, West Virginia.

Why, writers in the ancient world described the walls of the city themselves as standing 100 feet high. These same walls were wide enough that two or three chariots could parade around on top of them, side by side. Nineveh was no rural community.
And here comes Jonah. It would be like you or me arriving in the United States for the very first time, knowing no English, and being dropped off at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. Our task? To proclaim God’s message to the entire population of New York. Where would we begin? How would we communicate? Are any of you ready to sign up?

Yet here comes Jonah, skyscrapers reaching heavenward, horns screeching, sirens blowing, venders selling “pork” sausage, and people shoving their way through the crowds while guarding their pockets. Here comes Jonah, a needle in a haystack. “Forty more days,” he shouts, “and Nineveh will be destroyed.” What an endearing message. What a way to introduce yourself to the locals–it’s like Sodom and Gomorrah all over again! How will the people of Nineveh react? If a few terrified sailors threw Jonah into the sea, what might a city full of offended and enraged Ninevites do?

Shockingly, they respond in no less an unexpected way than did Jonah when he first received his call. The Ninevites immediately repent–they listen to Jonah and believe God. The Ninevites, like the pagan sailors in chapter 1 and indeed like all of humanity, are needy creatures before God. Even the king cries out to God and issues a decree summoning everyone and everything in his kingdom, including the flocks and herds, to fast and seek the Lord’s mercy! “Who knows?” he asks. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

“Will God forgive the Ninevites?” the readers throughout time wonder. “Will he relent and show compassion to these despised foreigners?” While the fish was forced to swallow one unanticipated morsel, we have already been asked to swallow two–a fleeing prophet and a repentant city. Will we now be asked to swallow a third and even more startling tidbit? Will God show mercy? “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” A hush falls over the crowd as the curtain falls following this third scene. The audience scarcely knows how to respond.
Think with me for a few minutes about what has just transpired. Note, for one thing, that Jonah’s “2nd chance” did not result in any alteration in his calling. This third chapter begins in essentially the same way as chapter one–it’s a virtual direct quote: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” Jonah, quite clearly, receives a second chance, another opportunity to do what he had initially refused to do.

That is more than some people get. Jonah’s health might have failed. Family pressures could have forced him to return home. Political conditions could have changed and prevented him from making the journey. Jonah might have been killed. In truth, disobeying the call of God does not always end with a second chance–there are no such guarantees. That is why it is so important to be attentive to the voice of God and quick to obey.

Jean Paul Sartre was a renowned French existentialist, a philosopher who proudly announced his disbelief in God. On one occasion early in his life, Sartre wrote an entry in his journal in which he described what he perceived to be God tugging at his heart. When I sensed this, Sartre wrote, I asked him “to leave me alone.” “And,” Sartre eerily writes, “he did.” When God calls you, when he prompts you, when he sends you, when he pulls you to himself, listen and follow. You may not get a second chance. Something might happen to you, or God may find someone else.

But assuming for the moment that you, like Jonah, do get a second opportunity, please notice something very important: Jonah’s calling remained the same. It’s a crucial point–we have got to understand it. Jonah ran away, and he got himself in all kinds of trouble. Yet God, in his infinite mercy, protected him and eventually delivered him. What we must recognize, however, is that once Jonah’s relationship with God had been restored, the task from which he had originally run was still waiting for him. Jonah, in other words, was forgiven, but he had to pick up his cross right where he had left it.

During my years in seminary, I met a good number of students who were older than me. I had gone to seminary right out of college, and was therefore younger than a lot of seminarians who came following a career change later in life. One of my classmates, however, sticks out in mind today. Al was nearly 25 years older than me, and he once told me that God had called him into the ministry when he was still in his late teens. “God called me to go to seminary years ago,” Al told me, “and I refused.” Al enlisted in the Air Force instead, and tried to forget about this unmistakable call on his life. After years and years finally softened Al’s otherwise hardened heart, he cried out to God from the cockpit of his jet. Sensing God’s presence and grace in that plane, Al nevertheless heard the same words that he had previously heard over twenty years before: “Al, go to seminary.”
Running from God is simply a waste of precious time. When you return, you will face the very thing that you ran from. God is patient, understanding, and forgiving, but also firm. He knows that you cannot conquer a problem by running from it. Jonah’s call was to go to Nineveh. If he had refused again following this second directive, who knows? But if Jonah wanted things to be right between himself and God, he had to begin in Nineveh. Learn to obey God when he calls. Learn to respond willingly and gladly to his will. Running is a waste of time, and it will not change anything.

Notice, secondly, that Jonah, upon arriving in Nineveh, shared God’s message. When Jonah was originally called in 1:2, he was simply told to preach against Nineveh. On this second occasion, he is instructed to proclaim the message that God will provide. In other words, Jonah apparently did not know in advance exactly what he was to say. It appears as though he received the message only after arriving in Nineveh. And what a message it was: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overcome!” In Hebrew, the message consists of only five words! Five lousy words! A task as daunting and overwhelming as preaching in the city of Nineveh, and yet the sermon consists of five, short words. As a preacher myself, I can only imagine the time I would save each week if I only preached five-word sermons! Some of you might wish that I did!

But look at the results. Those five words brought the people of Nineveh to their knees. These people did not repent because Jonah had prepared an eloquent sermon. They repented because Jonah had obeyed God, and God had gone before him.

It is important, of course, to avoid any misunderstanding at this point. There is a certain but unmistakable tension in the Scriptures concerning the message which God’s people are to share. On the one hand, we find Moses who, after offering a variety of excuses in his efforts to wiggle out of God’s calling to go to Egypt, suggests that he simply cannot speak well enough to perform such a task. “Why Lord,” he argues, “I am slow of speech and tongue.” To this, the Lord simply replies, “I made your mouth, didn’t I? I will help you speak and I will tell you what to say.” In a similar way, Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 10 not to worry about what they will say as they go out in his name. The Spirit, Jesus assures them, will speak through them as needed.

So, too, for us. We might very well find ourselves in certain situations and in the company of particular people and not know what to say. We might not have had the opportunity to fashion our words in advance or to carefully think through our response. On such occasions, the Bible assures us that, as God prompts us to speak out in his name, he will at the same time tell us what to say. It might be a call to share your faith with your neighbor or someone at school or work. It might be an unexpected encounter with someone you have not seen in years. It might even be a nagging suspicion that you must preach an unprepared sermon on a text you never studied, even though you had a perfectly acceptable sermon all ready. That is exactly what happened to me one Sunday while I was pastoring in Kentucky several years ago. My sermon was ready to go, but as I sat there during the worship service, I had this frightening feeling that the good Lord wanted me to preach on a totally different text! Nervously, that is exactly what I did. After the service, one of the board members told me that it was the best sermon he ever heard me preach!

If God calls you to a task, he will enable you to do it. Do not let your human weaknesses and deficiencies stand in the way of following the Lord. The God of heaven and earth is more than capable of helping you along the way.

There is the other side of the coin, however. Peter encourages his listeners to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks them about their faith (1 Peter 3:15). Timothy is similarly instructed to study and to handle the word of truth correctly (2 Tim. 2:15). We are confronted throughout Scripture, then, with this pressing exhortation or call to study, to learn, to remember, to grow, to teach, to think, to give reasonable answers, to prepare, and to use our minds. On the one hand, God will provide the message. On the other, we are to study and prepare. What do we make of it?

Just this. We are to serve the Lord with every ounce of energy that we have, and we are to saturate our hearts and minds with his truth. When we have a job to do, we are to take it seriously, and to prepare prayerfully for it with everything we have. But sometimes we simply cannot do that. A situation arises on the spur of the moment, or God at the last second leads us in another direction. Sometimes he might lead us to a place where we find ourselves in over our heads. Then what? Run? Hardly. Obey, and trust God to provide whatever we need to fulfill our responsibilities. A failure to study and prepare is presumptuous and often laziness. A dependency upon our own skills and abilities, as if our competence and training alone somehow builds the kingdom of God, is arrogant and lacking in genuine faith.

I must at least point out one final and overarching idea here in Jonah 3–we’ll talk about it more later. God’s compassion extends beyond all human walls and barriers. In this story about Jonah the Follower, God acted graciously and compassionately to a group of people that Jonah and his fellow Israelites had long since discarded. “Let them rot,” Jonah thought. Yet, in God’s sight, even the Ninevites, the enemy, are worthy to receive his message. Even the Ninevites are forgiveable and redeemable. Even the Ninevites are suitable recipients of God’s love and grace.

What a reason for you and me to be overcome with a sense of hope this morning. Hope because God’s mercy therefore extends also to each of us, regardless of who we are or what we have done. But beyond that, this story of Jonah the Follower gives us hope because, as you and I faithfully share the Gospel of Christ with those around us, God goes before us, and everyone around us is fertile soil. Even those whom society might label “despicable” are loved by our Lord.

We have so much to learn, don’t we? But I wonder if the fundamental lesson for today isn’t a rather simple and familiar one. Learn to follow the promptings of God in every area of your life, and trust him to enable you to do whatever it is that he asks of you. Go for it. Step out. Put your fears aside. Venture into the unknown. The God who made heaven and earth can handle you too.