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Jonah: Swallowed up by God’s Grace

Week Three: A Second-Chance Prophet

We’re in the third week of our series on Jonah, the short book about a God who is LONG on grace and a prophet who was SHORT on offering grace to others. In week one, we saw a runaway prophet named Jonah get saved by a gracious God and a big fish. He had been told to go to the great and wicked pagan city of Nineveh in Assyria. Instead he ran the opposite direction, boarded a ship at Joppa and headed for Tarshish in Spain.

Of course, he never made it there, because our great and mighty God appointed a storm to nearly capsize the ship while scaring the pants off veteran sailors, appointing the storm to cease after the crew hurled Jonah into the sea, and appointed a big fish to save Jonah.

Last week we looked at the repentant prophet, having survived the chaos and near-death experience because of the presence and grace of God while living in the belly of a great sea creature for three days and nights. Finally, God appointed this large whale or fish to gently vomit Jonah onto dry ground, presumably back to where he started when he was called by God in the first place.

Let’s look at what happens next in this historical, yet prophetic book. [READ JONAH 3].

[MAIN] We’re back where we began. This chapter begins pretty much like the beginning of the book: Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

To be fair, Jonah had two good reasons to run the first time. First of all, Jonah was afraid! The Assyrians were brutal pagans who wanted world domination. They mastered the art of human torture, slavery, and assimilation of conquered peoples into their own culture. Jonah was scared!

Second, he despised the Assyrians because they did not worship Yahweh and they hated God’s people, Israel. They wanted what Israel had…trade routes between Assyria and Egypt. Nineveh was a major city in a morally bankrupt hostile neighboring nation. Who can blame the guy for running? But no matter his reasoning or ours, running from God’s word or God’s will and purposes is still disobedience.

When Jesus said seek first the kingdom of God and HIS righteousness…he’s saying that we are giving God permission to interrupt our lives for any reason at any time.

Discipleship is demanding. Ministry is messy. Christianity is costly. Following Jesus is FREEDOM…but it’s also fraught with failure, fear, and struggles. There’s nothing cheap about God’s grace.

In Luke 9, we read about an encounter Jesus had with a couple of potential disciples; and when he asks them to follow Him, each of them made excuses about their own priorities: “FIRST let me bury my father”…“FIRST let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus offers some challenging words about discipleship: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience.

In her recent Bible study on Jonah, Dr. Sandra Richter tells the story of a young Assemblies of God pastor from Pennsylvania named David Wilkerson, coauthor of the 1962 autobiographical novel, The Cross and the Switchblade. We see in the character of this young preacher a life of committed disciple who said YES to Jesus’s call on his life.

In 1958, David saw a photograph in Life magazine of seven teenagers who had been arrested for gang violence in New York City. He felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to “go to Nineveh,” as it were, to share Christ with those seven teens. But that nudge was only the beginning of what God had in store for him. Later, Pastor Wilkerson sought out any young drug addict or gang member who would talk with him about Jesus. He preached on street corners in the roughest parts of NYC. This led David to establish a recovery ministry known as, Teen Challenge, a program where thousands of young adults have found safe space, freedom from addiction, and a new lease on life. He also founded Times Square Church in NYC.

Q: What if David had never obeyed the Holy Spirit to leave his cushy, safe church in Penn. and go to the streets of NYC? Would Teen Challenge had been formed? Would thousands of young folks ever received the help they needed? But David DID go to his Nineveh.

How about you? What if the Spirit nudged you to do something beyond your comfort zone?

  • Pray at Planned Parenthood every week?
  • Take a leadership role in our community’s government or school board?
  • Become a part of the worship team at BUMC?
  • Lead a Life Group?
  • Gently confront a Christian friend you KNOW is living contrary to God’s Word?
  • Stand up for someone, or a group of people, who have been treated unjustly…even if it risks your job or any possibility of advancement?

The possibilities are endless, and I suspect that—in describing some of the ways we might be called by God to do His will—I have struck a nerve with some of you. Maybe you’ve been led by the Spirit to do something…say something…but, like Jonah, you ran the other way. Now, after time has past, you wish you had a second chance…a do-over.

That’s what happened with Jonah. God was not through with this repentant prophet. Our God is a God of second chances. “The Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God gives Jonah a second chance to make a first impression.

Notice what God does NOT do. God does NOT compromise with Jonah. He doesn’t say, “Uh, hey, Jonah. Uh…look, I’m really sorry about that Moby Dick incident; and I REALLY hate to put you out, but I was wondering if you could maybe go try to talk some sense into those knucklehead Ninevites?”

NO! God tells Jonah the same thing he told him at the beginning. “Go to that great city, Nineveh, and tell them what I want you to say.” God does not compromise His Word to convenience us.

Too often, we will fully embrace the parts of the Bible we agree with politically, morally, socially. But if we have a differing opinion from the Bible about how we can live our lives, then we will expect God to compromise…to be OK with that. Oh, we don’t SAY that God approves of our actions and attitudes; we just convince ourselves that—on balance—all the other things we believe and all the other good things we do outweigh any disobedience to Scripture we may have. Friends, God does NOT wink at our sin! A holy God does NOT compromise and stoop down to our level!

God gives us a do-over…but not a “do-as-WE-want-over.” So, Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh, walks half-way into the huge city (think NYC) proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

The next statement is crucial…unbelievable, reallyà “The Ninevites believed God.” It’s one thing for a group of wayward Christians to believe God. We should know better anyway. We, of ALL, people should stand ready to believe the Word of God. But for a group of pagan polytheists who believe god can be represented by a piece of wood or metal, the fact that they believed God because a prophet said so, is utterly astounding! It speaks to the POWER of God’s Word, not the persuasiveness of the prophet. It was God at work in their lives when they didn’t even know it…THAT made the difference.

Here’s a major point of the entire book of Jonah, I believe: The Ninevites responded to the Word of God BETTER, in many ways, than the Israelites had done countless times before when the prophets of God would warn Israel of coming judgment due to their apostacy.

Through this little book, God is once again telling the Israelites to HEED THE WORD OF GOD. Come back to Yahweh. Worship ONLY Him. Follow the Law. Act justly to everyone, including the stranger and foreigner among you. Be honest in your dealings with everyone.

A SECOND major point I think God is trying to make is this: ANYONE who hears and obeys the Word of God can be made right with Him. Friends, we are left without excuse. God’s Word is TRUE and should change the way we believe and I behave!

It changed the Ninevites…at least for a time. Notice what happens next. Not only did the Ninevites believe God, their actions followed their beliefs. They proclaimed a fast throughout the land—from the greatest to the least—they put on sackcloth, a sign of mourning and contrition. Even the king sat in ashes in sackcloth!

Not only that, the king’s declaration called for a radical 180-degree change in behavior: “Let everyone give up their evil ways and their violence.” They KNEW what they were doing was evil and violent but they did it anyway…UNTIL the word of God through Jonah reached their ears. The fear of utter destruction compelled them to turn from their wicked ways.

I’ve heard some folks say that when they went to other churches over the years, all they heard was hell, fire, and brimstone preaching. Then they came to the Methodist church, where they discovered God’s grace. Such distinctions between the UMC and other churches leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m thankful that Wesleyans understand God’s primary attribute is LOVE, not wrath. We have seen in the book of Jonah God’s universal nature of grace by saving the Ninevites, the pagan sailors, and the rebellious prophet.

But, as I said, God does NOT wink at sin. God is holy and cannot be in the presence of unholiness. God maintains his purity and rejects, fights against, and destroys that which would offend, attack, or undo his holiness and love. God’s anger and wrath must always be seen in relation to his maintaining and defending his attributes of love, holiness, righteousness and justice.

Grace? Yes. And wrath and judgment? Yes. They cannot be separated. So, we must proclaim both. Sometimes it is the message of God’s mercy that compels us to move toward Jesus. Other times, it may be the fear of God’s retribution that causes us to turn from our sin and back toward God. We cannot neglect one or the other. The end goal is the same: HOLINESS. Becoming more conformed into the character and nature of Jesus. Drawing closer and closer to Him.

Finally, when God saw the repentant hearts and actions of the pagan city of Nineveh, He did in fact relent from bringing destruction upon them. Again, we see the outrageous grace of God! Like Jonah, Nineveh got a do-over!

And that’s a good word for you and me. We don’t always know what to say or how to say it. We don’t always do what we know we should do…and sometimes we do what we KNOW we shouldn’t! When commit “little sins” (like fibbing about having other plans when we really don’t, or getting angry with the stupid driver who doesn’t know how to merge), it’s pretty easy to believe God can forgive us…giving us a do-over.

But when we REALLY blow it…when we make a mess of our lives, or the life of someone else, we may struggle to believe God will STILL give us a do-over if we ask Him. But THAT’S the kind of reckless love God has for you and me. God is rooting for us! He’s NOT against us. He’s not waiting and watching, hoping to catch us messing up so He can say, “Ah Ha! Gotcha!”

NO! When we mess up, God is just as sad about it as we should be…maybe more so. And He calling out to us to turn back to him SO THAT he can forgive us. 1 John 1:9 says this: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Isn’t that GOOD NEWS? Through Jesus Christ, the righteous One, our advocate with the Father, who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, we can have a “do-over,” no matter WHAT we’ve done or not done, and no matter to whom we’ve done it or not done it. God is giving us a second chance at a first impression!

I ran from my calling into full-time ministry for three years, not three days. And God STILL gave me a second chance. I’ve hurt people with my words and actions, and God STILL gave me another chance.

What about you? What is it that God is nudging you to say or do that you said have continually said NO to? He’s waiting for you to say YES. He’s patient, but God doesn’t have to make your life comfortable while He waits. Maybe you’ve been restless because you haven’t acted on God’s call on your life. Maybe someone in here is being called into full-time ministry, but you’ve run—like Jonah—filled with all kinds of excuses why you aren’t the right person for the job. If that’s you, I want to pray for you…and everyone in this room who have been running from God…in hopes you will respond in obedience to God’s call on your life.

We all have a general call to become committed, life-long followers of Jesus Christ. But we also have specific calls on our lives. Some are seasonal, some are life-long. I can’t know your calling, but I can encourage you and help to equip you to fulfill God’s specific call in your own life. Please reach out to me if you want to talk about it.

But as we close, let me pray for you…AMEN.