Sunday, August 16, 2015
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Jonah
The Gospel of Grace for Everyone 

Introduction and offering:

Did you enjoy the barbecue last week? Mad props to our staff and volunteers who put all that together—there were a lot of moving parts!

Introduction: Today we read one of the best stories in the Old Testament: Jonah. Jonah is one of the Minor Prophets—there are 12 of them, called minor not because they less important, but because they are smaller than the big boys, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Jonah is unique among the Minor Prophets: rather than a prophecy or collection of prophecies, it is a story about a prophet—a very ornery prophet. The story is full of grace. Jonah receives grace when he runs from God and is rescued by God. Nineveh, capital of Assyria, Israel’s ancient enemy, receives grace when she repents at Jonah’s preaching. And Jonah receives grace again when he pitches a fit after Nineveh repents—a very strange reaction for a preacher! God’s grace shines through this little book.

The Big Idea: God shows grace to everyone: to a rebellious and selfish Jewish prophet, and to a sinful but repentant foreign nation.

I’ve broken the story into two acts. In Act 1, God calls Jonah to preach to Nineveh, but Jonah runs the other direction.   In Act 2, God gives Jonah a second chance, and this time, Jonah goes. Let’s see what happens and what God might want to say to us.

 

Act 1: Jonah runs, God pursues.

 

Ch. 1: God calls, Jonah runs, God pursues.

 

Jonah 1

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

The story starts with “the word of the Lord”. God speaks and the story starts. Your relationship with God didn’t begin when you believed; it began when God called you to believe, when God began to work in your life and draw you to Himself. God initiates; we respond. God initiates: this is grace. We respond: this is faith. Our entire relationship with God is our responding in faith to God’s gracious initiative. Here is God’s grace in the first verse!

God calls Jonah to go preach to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, one of Israel’s ancient enemies. Later, we’ll see that the message is “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Judgment is coming! But why would God send a Jewish prophet to give them 40 days warning? Grace! God is giving them a chance to change, to turn to Him. And here is Jonah’s response.

3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Jonah ran from God. Nineveh is northeast of Israel; Jonah went to Joppa on the Mediterranean coast and headed west. Jonah’s response is to run away in the opposite direction, as far and as fast as he can (sea travel was the fastest at the time). We don’t know the location of Tarshish but it’s somewhere west; some have suggested that it’s the farthest port imaginable. We might say he headed for Timbuktu! He’s running from God. In a moment I’m going to ask if you are running from God. Has God called you to do something you don’t want to do, and you’re running from Him? Hold that thought. God calls, Jonah runs, God pursues.

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)  

11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”  

Jonah owns up—he admits that it is his fault, that he’s running from God. So what would be the obvious thing to do? Turn around! Go back and do what God asked! Repent! Jonah would rather die than repent! He would rather die than do the thing that God asked him to do. This is one stubborn dude. So he tells them, “Throw me into the sea.” Certain death! Not, “Let’s turn back, and I’ll do what God wants.” Instead, Jonah says, “Kill me.”

13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

These foreigners are now worshipping God! God’s prophet is not—he’s still trying to run or die trying. At this point, if I was God, I’d say, “Ok, enough is enough. I’m gonna find a new prophet.” But God doesn’t give up so easily. He’s not done with Jonah.

17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah thought it was over. “If I can’t run away, I can die. It’s over.” And God says, “Not so fast, big boy. I’m still here.” It’s grace—God is showing grace to a stubborn, rebellious prophet.

So has God asked you to do something and you’ve run from Him? Friends, you can’t run fast enough or far enough to escape Him. He is the Hound of Heaven. God is pursuing you for your own good.

ILL: When Laina’s sister, Liane, was a flight attendant for American Airlines, she was based in New York City for a while. One night, she went for a walk—not the smartest thing for a woman to do alone, particularly in her neighborhood. On the way home, she noticed a man following her. She picked up her pace; he picked up his. She turned a corner; he turned right behind. By the time she reached her apartment building, she was running, and ran up her stairs two at a time. The man followed her. She reached her door, and was about to scream, when the man spoke. “This isn’t a safe neighborhood; you shouldn’t be walking at night alone. I’m an undercover cop. I followed you home to protect you. Don’t do that again.” She assured him that she wouldn’t.

God pursues us to save us, because He loves us. Stop running from Him. He pursues you to show you grace. Stop running and turn back to Him and do the thing He’s asked you to do.

So Jonah has been tossed overboard. What happens next?

 

Ch. 2: God rescues, Jonah repents, God rescues.

17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

When you’re thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean, you’re going to die by drowning…unless God rescues you by having a huge fish swallow you. Now you’re going to die by digestion! That’s what Jonah must have thought. “I’m still going to die—death by digestion!” Unknown to Jonah, God had rescued him. Stuffed into the belly of a huge fish, slowly being digested, God had Jonah’s attention.

Jonah 2

1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said:

“In my distress I called to the Lord,

and he answered me.

From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,

and you listened to my cry.

3 You hurled me into the depths,

into the very heart of the seas,

and the currents swirled about me;

all your waves and breakers

swept over me.

4 I said, ‘I have been banished

from your sight;

yet I will look again

toward your holy temple.’

5 The engulfing waters threatened me,

the deep surrounded me;

seaweed was wrapped around my head.

6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down;

the earth beneath barred me in forever.

But you, Lord my God,

brought my life up from the pit.

7 “When my life was ebbing away,

I remembered you, Lord,

and my prayer rose to you,

to your holy temple.

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols

turn away from God’s love for them.

9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,

will sacrifice to you.

What I have vowed I will make good.

I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’ ”

Jonah prays, he cries out to God. “In my distress, I called to the Lord and he answered me. From dead in the realm of the dead, I called for help and you listened to my cry.” Jonah stops running. He asks God to save him; he trusts God to bring “my life up from the pit.” He promises to make good on his vows. It seems like this was a foxhole conversion: “God, if you get me out of this, I’ll go to Nineveh.” And God did.

10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

God rescued Jonah by having the fish swallow him; God rescued him again by having the fish spit him out. It’s God’s great grace!

Have you ever prayed from the belly of the fish? Ever been swallowed up by your circumstances, felt overwhelmed, like you were slowly being eaten alive?

ILL: In 2002, when we were back on Nora Street, we hired a consultant and did a 17-week capital campaign to raise money to buy this property and build. We worked really hard, but when Commitment Sunday came, we raised less than a million dollars, not enough to buy the property, let alone build anything. I knew that it was my fault, that I had ignored some inner leadership promptings about how we were doing this. So the next Sunday, which was supposed to be Celebration Sunday, turned out to be Come to Jesus Sunday. There wasn’t much to celebrate, so we set aside all our beautifully prepared materials; I gave everyone a blank piece of paper and said, “Write down what you can give right now and over the next 3 years to make this happen.” We raised just over 3 million in gifts and pledges—better, but still not enough for the $12.5 million project we had planned.

I was devastated. I wanted to quit. I wrote my resignation letter in my head. I wanted to run away. I felt like a total failure. From the belly of the fish, I prayed. Sometimes it was an angry prayer; sometimes bewildered; and finally, it was simply submission. “Ok, I’ll stay in the saddle and let’s see what You can make of this mess.”

God directed us to a different architect and builder, and we built this. It was twice as big for much less money. Afterwards, we realized: If we had succeeded in our campaign, we would have built the wrong building and been overcrowded immediately. God rescued us. And He used my stupidity to do it! That’s grace!

Are you in the belly of the fish? Turn to God! Pray! And see what He will do!

So Jonah has run from God, been rescued twice and is vomited onto dry land. God has shown grace to a stubborn and rebellious prophet. We’re ready for Act 2.

 

Act 2: Jonah preaches, God relents.

 

Ch. 3: God calls, Jonah obeys, God relents.

 

Jonah 3

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Does this sound familiar? We are back to where we started. God gives Jonah a second chance and calls him again. Aren’t you glad for second chances? It’s God’s grace! This time, Jonah obeys.

3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah proclaims a simple message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Bummer! It doesn’t sound like gospel, like good news, does it? But it is. It’s a warning. If God had wanted to destroy Nineveh, He would simply do it. But He gives them a 40-day warning. There’s only one reason to do that: to give them a chance to change. It’s God’s grace again! God is giving Israel’s arch-enemy a chance to change and be spared.

And they do! The Ninevites repented. They responded by believing God! All of them repented in sackcloth with fasting, including the king. The king issued a proclamation calling everyone to fast, to pray (“urgently call on God”), and to repent (give up their evil ways). And they did.

Friends, it worked! Jonah’s preaching worked! He obeyed God and turned an entire city to the Lord! Jonah is the envy of every preacher—we all want to be like Jonah! I would love turn all of Spokane to the Lord! I do think Jonah had one extra thing working for him. I think he must have looked shocking. Don’t picture him like this. The digestive juices from the fish must have bleached and wrinkled his skin, and he probably still smelled like seaweed.   That would get your attention! Maybe I should try that.

But of course, the hero is not Jonah (as we’ll see clearly)—it’s God. Israel’s enemy repents and God relents. God doesn’t send the promised destruction. You need to know this about God: He doesn’t want anyone to perish; He wants everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Sadly, some people will perish—but God doesn’t want them to. He wants everyone to turn, to repent, to live—even His enemies! That’s not just the New Testament God; that’s the Old Testament God too (He is the same God). Have you ever wondered why there are all those prophets in the Old Testament? Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the 12 Minor Prophets—pages and pages of what seems like doom and gloom. But what’s really happening? Listen to this:

Ezekiel 33:11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’

God doesn’t want people to die; He wants them to live, so He calls to them, “Turn! Turn from evil. Turn to Me! Why will you die?” You can hear the heart of God in every prophet calling people back to Himself, back to life. Why are there all those prophets? Because God is the Hound of Heaven. Because God is full of grace and doesn’t give up easily. Because God keeps pursuing us with life. So He just kept sending prophet after prophet: “Please, turn back to Me.” You need to know this about God. He doesn’t want anyone to perish; He wants everyone to come to repentance and life. It’s God’s grace!

So Nineveh repents. It’s all good, right? Mission accomplished. Disaster averted. People converted. Alls well that ends well. Not quite…there’s still Jonah.

 

Ch. 4: Jonah pouts, God responds.

 

Jonah 4

1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

This dude is a piece of work! Nineveh turns to God, so God relents and lets them live, and Jonah is ticked. “Isn’t this what I said back at home? I knew You’d do this. I knew that you’d let them off the hook. This is why I ran away. I wanted you to destroy them, not save them. But no…I know You. You’re a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Sheesh! Just kill me now. I’m better off dead.”

One thing in Jonah’s defense: he did have a problem back home. When his fellow Israelites hear what happened, they won’t be happy. Jonah will seem like a traitor—the guy who saved Nineveh from God’s destruction. Jonah and his countrymen were devoted nationalists; they were for Israel, and against everyone else. God is for everyone. God’s grace is for everyone.

So God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry.” Jonah pitches a fit.  Jonah pouts and God responds.

5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.

He is still hoping for destruction. He is still putting his nationalism above God’s grace.  

6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.

Jonah is happy about the plant. “Thanks God for providing some shade.”

7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah’s mood swings wildly from happy to wanting to die. God provided the plant for shade, then God provided a worm to kill it, and a scorching wind. God is up to something. God is still speaking to Jonah, still pursuing Jonah, trying to win his heart.

9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

Jonah is a classic over-reactor. Can anyone relate?

ILL: One time Laina and I were on our date, and I asked her where she wanted to go for dinner. She couldn’t decide, and I got frustrated and just pitched a fit. I did a U-turn on Grand Boulevard, and said, “Fine, we’ll just go home.” Do you know what she did? She started giggling. “You’re so cute when you act like a baby.” I’m like Jonah, a classic over-reactor.

God’s still after him; here comes the punch line.

10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

God says, “You’re concerned about a plant. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, about 120,000 people? And many animals (I love that—all dogs go to heaven).” Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh? Jonah would say, “No. Destroy them. Let them die!” But God’s grace is great—great enough to include everyone, even His enemies.

Shouldn’t you be concerned about Nineveh? Let’s personalize it. I asked you to Barbecue First, to have some friends, neighbors, family over, and just be friends. Let God use your friendship to bring people to Himself. But let me dial it up. Maybe God wants you to invite Nineveh over. That neighbor that has been a pain in the butt and you hope they just move. The family member who is estranged from you. The friend who disappointed or betrayed you. The guy at work who seems like a jerk and you just try to avoid. God’s grace is for everyone. What if God wants you to invite Nineveh over?

This is the shocking message of Jonah. All the other prophets in the Old Testament were sent to Judah or Israel. But Jonah was sent to Nineveh, to Israel’s enemy, because God was concerned for them too.

ILL: A Hasidic story tells of a great celebration in heaven after the Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and the Egyptian armies are drowned. The angels are cheering and dancing. Everyone in heaven is full of joy. Then one of the angels asks the archangel Michael, “Where is God? Why isn’t God here celebrating?” Michael answers, “God is not here because he is off by himself weeping. You see, many thousands were drowned today.”

Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You a Story (Word Publishing, 2000)

This is the shocking message of Jonah. God’s grace is for everyone. God cares for us. And God cares for the Ninevites, our enemies, the people we wish would go away! He calls us to tell them, and when they repent, He relents, because He wants them to live. God is the original seeker. He seeks out Jonah and shows him grace after grace. He seeks out Nineveh and shows them grace. He seeks us out and shows us grace too.

Jonah is a glimpse of the gospel—a story of a God who would go to crazy lengths to redeem even His enemies.