Sermon: Overthrowing Nineveh

Father, open our ears to hear your Word. Open our hearts to receive it. Open our mouths to speak it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

When I was sixteen, I went to church camp for a week during the summer. It was a camp I loved, the very place where a year before God had called me to be a pastor, to preach his word to all. That year, however, was different. New directors had come in who wanted to share a new gospel for a new day, where God’s word could be changed to fit the needs and desires of the modern world. I fought against them all week – publicly, privately. At times I denounce what they were saying, other times I silently resisted. Once about twenty of us were sitting in an optional group discussion about the questions of faith. The camp counselor began by asking people to go around the room and share whether they believed that you had to believe in Jesus Christ to go to heaven. I was slated to go second-to-last. Person after person confessed they did not. They had Real questions: What about those who have never heard? What about the Old Testament? What about hell? What about good people in other religions? I’m not sure I can believe in a God who would do that? I filed away my responses, hoping the leader was planning to use this an opportunity to help answer these questions. I was disappointed. She spoke about how she thought God would save everyone regardless of what they believed, talking about good people with sincere faith in other religions. Then she suggested we move on to the next question, since everyone was obviously in agreement on all this. Only two of us said, “No, we are not done.”

While it was not the week I had hoped for, it was certainly an important season in my life. I began to learn then about the temptations we each face as we seek to share Christ. The temptation to compromise, to withdrawal, and to cowardice.  The story of Jonah, as we pick it up again in chapter 3, provides a response to each one of those temptations we face.

So I invite you to turn there in your Bibles with me. Jonah 3. Jonah is in the Old Testament with Amos and Obadiah on the left and Micah and Nahum on the right. Jonah 3, beginning in verse 1. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

The Word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from this throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall put on sackcloth and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, he changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jonah’s story provides a response to three temptations we face when we are called out into the world to share God’s Word. The temptation to compromise, to withdrawal, and to cowardice.

The first temptation is compromise: We are tempted to change God’s word based upon our circumstance. Verse 1: The Word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.

God’s word did not change between the first and second time it comes to Jonah. Chapter 3 follows the exact same pattern as chapter 1. The story of Jonah begins again here. God’s word come to Jonah. Jonah is told to get up and go to Nineveh. Jonah gets up and responds. The call of God is the same – both before Jonah disobeys God and after he is vomited out by the fish. God’s word is consistent to Jonah – get up, go to Nineveh, proclaim my word. Jonah’s disobedience could not change God’s word or alter God’s plan. This is good news, because God is faithful and trustworthy.

My mother has two auto-immune disorders: Sjogrens and Lupus. They are exhausting and hard on her body. She has to go to the doctor regularly for checkups. What would happen if every time she went to the doctor he had changed the diagnosis based upon how my mom was feeling. Oh, your lungs are a little sore, I think you have X disease. Oh, your joints hurt, it is Y syndrome. Oh, you have fatigue, it is Z virus. You would start to wonder if you could trust what the doctor was saying. Does he really know what is wrong? Can he really help me?

If God’s Word changed every time our feelings changed, or our culture changed, or

our desires changed, then we would begin to wonder whether he could be trusted. Does God really know what is going on?

The Word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time and it was the same. It did not change. Though Jonah had changed, God’s call upon him did not. Though Jonah had gone through a harrowing time in the fish, God’s Word was the same. There were slight changes is how Jonah was to deliver this message. He was to proclaim God’s word to Nineveh, instead of simply cry out against it. Yet, the word itself had not changed.

We can be tempted, when we head out on the road to Nineveh, head out into the world God has called us into, to change God’s word based upon the changing of the times. We are tempted to this, because new people, new times, or new circumstances all create different challenges and opportunities and we can be tempted to think that the old message, the old word, the old gospel simply isn’t good enough for the new day.

We are tempted to change God’s word, because the message of God does not fit in our contemporary world. It does not sit comfortably with the desires, values, and dreams of the world around us. But it never has. No culture, nor any age, has been a comfortable place for God’s word. Every culture in every time is challenged by God’s Word. Every one of us finds places in the Bible that are a challenge to believe or a challenge to follow. But our difficulty with it does not make it less God’s Word. Nor does our difficulty with it give us a right to change it.

To paraphrase a friend of mine: “I love Jesus too much, I love the gospel too much, I love those who do not yet believe too much to give in, to back down.”

If difficulty with God’s word or God’s calling upon our life was a reason to change it, then Jonah would have done it. The last time God told him to go to Nineveh, Jonah fled. He wanted nothing to do with what God had to say to him. He did not want to obey at all. If changing circumstances was a reason for us to think that God’s commands had somehow changed, that God’s call upon his people was different, we would have seen it in Jonah. Before and after three days and nights in the belly of a fish is quite a change in circumstance.

Yet when Jonah hears it a second time, this word of God did not change. The Word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Jonah did not receive a different word from God than he did before. Jonah changed, but God’s Word, God’s call did not. The first time, the second time, the 71st time, God’s word does not change. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, God’s word is trustworthy and true.

This is the first temptation: to change God’s word to fit our circumstances or sensibilities. Yet, when Jonah receives God’s word the second time, it is the same word. When we receive God’s word today, it is the same word. This is good news, because it means God can be trusted.

The second temptation we face is withdrawal. We are tempted to stand back, to stand apart from the very people God has called us to minister to. Verse 3: So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. Jonah goes into the city of Nineveh. In order to proclaim to them, Jonah must go to them. In order to minister to the people of Nineveh, he must physically go and be among them. Place matters. God has called us to a particular place when he calls us to follow him. Jonah does not stay outside the city, but goes in.

Jonah cannot speak God’s word to Nineveh if he stays in Israel. He must go and go into Nineveh. Similarly, we cannot say we are proclaiming God’s word to the nations if we only talk about God in this room. If the whole of our mission takes place within these four walls, then we are giving in to the temptation to withdraw. We are, with good reason, gathered together every Lord’s Day to worship, pray, and hear God’s word. But we are also, with good reason, scattered throughout the week to all the places God has called us. As missional, hospitable, and inviting as we need to be in our worship and fellowship, we also need to be in Nineveh sharing the word of God – in homes, schools, workplaces, shopping malls, and soccer games.

While the temptation is very real for us to withdraw into a holy huddle, there is a promise for us when we head out into all the places God has called us. Nineveh would have been a challenging place for Jonah to be, but it was exactly where God wanted him. When Jonah steps foot into Nineveh, he is exactly where God has called him to be. Perhaps that meeting you are dreading this coming week, that relationship you don’t want to invest in, that person you don’t want to sit beside, perhaps that is exactly where God calls you to be.

There is one more temptation for us as we go out into the world to share God’s Word:  Cowardice. More specifically, we are tempted not to trust that God’s word is enough.

Verse 4: Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

In Hebrew, Jonah delivers a five word sermon. He is sent thousands of miles to Nineveh and speaks five words from God. Five words and everything changes.

Every word in this short sermon weighs a pound. There is so much we could notice here. We could see that Jonah does not speak about the past or present, but confronts them with the future. We could notice that God isn’t mentioned in the sermon, nor is there any hope held out of mercy. We could even notice that there are no directions on how the people of Nineveh should respond, simply a statement of fact. We could notice how this is a message of judgment or how the forty days echoes the forty days of flood, forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ forty days in the desert. We could even see how the word ‘overthrown’ could mean destruction, but could also mean transformation.

All of these things are fascinating aspects of this five word sermon. But for the sake of dealing with our temptations as we share God’s word, I simply want us to notice how pathetic and how powerful this sermon is.

First of all, this sermon is absurdly short. Maybe some of you were wishing I took a little bit more of Jonah’s advice on sermon length, but five words is not much. “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” There is so little there. There is so much more we would think should be said. Where is the call to repentance? Where is the naming of Nineveh’s sins? Where is the promise of mercy if they repent? Where is the mention of God?

The sermon is so short that many bible scholars have tried to find ways to explain it. Some say that this was not the whole sermon, but just a summary of what Jonah said. Others say that Jonah gave an intentionally short and weak sermon because he did not want Nineveh to repent and be saved. I do not know if either of those are true. All we have are the five words that are both pathetic and powerful.

They are powerful, because at these words from Jonah, 120,000 people turn their lives around and turn to God. And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. It is shocking and appears to come from nowhere. In a book filled with miraculous storms and miraculous fish, the greatest miracle of the book is right here. The people of Nineveh believed God.

Even when Jonah had not told them about God, they believed God. Even when Jonah had not told them to repent, they turned from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands. Even when Jonah did not address the king himself, the king humbled himself – rising from his royal throne to sit in ashes in repentance, removing his royal robe and replacing it with sackcloth. Even when Jonah has said but five words, even the animals and livestock of Nineveh are called to join in this public display of turning from evil toward God.

There is no natural explanation that can account for the response we see to Jonah’s speech. As it turns out, Nineveh was overthrown. The city was turned on its head, but not by conquering armies or fire and brimstone, but by the word of God. It was the Word of God which conquered Nineveh. It was the Word of God that brought the king to his knees.

Just as the sailors in chapter 1 were brought to the end of themselves and were promised that if they trusted the prophet of God plunged into the deep for them they would be saved, just as Jonah while sinking down turned his face toward the LORD and was raised up, now Nineveh upon hearing the coming destruction of the city, falls before God and asks for mercy. At every point, the powerful word of God works to save, even as it proclaims judgment.

Jonah on the road to Nineveh is a testament to the power of the Word of God to change the world. When Jesus hung on a Roman cross, the Roman Empire was the most powerful force ever known to human history. Jesus died according to the decree of the representatives of Rome. Many of his followers for decades and centuries to come would face the same fate. But belief in Jesus Christ overthrew Rome. There were no Christian armies that conquered the capital. Instead, it was the Word of God that overthrew the empire.

We, like Jonah, have been called to get up and go out into the world where God has placed us. As we do, we face regular temptations: to compromise and change God’s Word to make it more comfortable. But we saw that the word that comes to Jonah the second time is the same word that came the first time. We are tempted to withdraw, but we saw that Jonah heads out into Nineveh, which is exactly where God wants him to be. We are tempted to cowardice, not to trust that God’s Word is enough. But we saw that God’s word is strong enough to save, strong enough to topple an empire.

Many of us, I imagine, hear God’s call to Jonah and do not feel up to the task. We do not know enough, speak well enough, have enough answers, or feel confident enough to share Christ in community. But Jonah’s story should not give us confidence in ourselves. We are not up to the task. Jonah sure wasn’t. But God is. The story of Jonah is not about how heroic or competent Jonah was, but about the way the Word of God brings salvation to ends of the earth. God is the hero of Jonah, which means that if we want to follow God’s call, we do not need to be heroic either, we just need to be faithful.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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