Good morning! Today we continue our study of some of the characters of the OT. We’ve called it the Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful! Maybe we should add the smelly! Today we look at the second episode in the life of Jonah – the prophet with the fish scented cologne. If you missed Pastor Ralph’s great message on Jonah 1 you can get it on our website.
Let’s open our Bibles to Jonah 3. If you remember, Jonah was a Hebrew prophet called by the LORD to go preach in Nineveh – one of the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful, most feared, most depraved cities in the ancient near east.
Jonah refused. He must have figured God had lost his mind so he headed in exactly the opposite direction to Spain which was the end of the earth at that time.
But we don’t serve a colloquial God. The whole earth is his. Anywhere you run, he’s already there. The LORD gives Jonah a free ride back to Joppa in the belly of a fish. He provides Jonah with some new clothes and sandals to replace the ones the fish digested and sends him on his 800 mile hike to Nineveh.
That’s at least a month of praying, arguing with the LORD and muttering to himself. Maybe you can relate. But God is sovereign and he gets his children where he wants us even when we don’t want to go. Are you with me so far?
Let’s pick up the story in Jonah 3:3. “Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days.” Jonah 3:3
Jonah obeyed the LORD, but his heart wasn’t in it. Jonah was still a reluctant prophet. There’s an important lesson for us here. When the LORD calls us to do something, we don’t have to like it. We start with obedience and wait for the heart and the feelings to follow.
Excavations of ancient Nineveh show that the walled city covered 3 square miles. The communities that surrounded Nineveh were 60 miles in circumference. It was a big place. Jonah begins to preach his way into the city center. “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned!”
So why would the people of Nineveh listen to this weird Hebrew prophet? Let me give you three possibilities. First - Jonah wasn’t just any old street preacher. He had been in the belly of a fish for 3 days/nights. Perhaps his skin and hair had been bleached white.
Second – Jonah was speaking the Word of God. “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12
The Word of God is like a search light penetrating and exposing our sin so we can see ourselves as we really are. Evidently the LORD used the power of his word to convict the people of Nineveh.
The third thing is this. God has put a natural knowledge of right and wrong into the spiritual DNA of all people. Paul writes in Romans 1:18 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” Rom 1:18
Our problem isn’t that we don’t know right from wrong, it’s that we refuse to live by the truth God has given us. Whether we have ever read the Bible or not, we have a natural understanding of right and wrong. It may not be complete, but it is there and our sinful nature rebels against the truth God has given us.
On the outside, Nineveh looked rich, successful and prosperous, but underneath their façade, like ancient Sodom and Gomorra, they had become increasingly wicked and depraved. So much so that even the pagan nations around them despised them.
I think the Ninevites knew it. I think they even despised themselves. But they weren’t sure how to deal with it. They were stuck. They were in bondage to their sin and couldn’t free themselves. That should sound familiar.
So when weird Jonah came to town speaking the Word of God, they were convicted to the heart. They knew the judgment of God was upon them.
“The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 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.” Jonah 3:5-6
The Ninevites worshipped a pantheon of gods of whom Ashur was the chief god. Behind each of these gods was a demon that you had to keep happy so he wouldn’t destroy you.
The God of the Hebrews was very different and when push came to shove, almost all these ancient cultures knew this. That’s why the sailors were so frightened when Jonah told them he was a Hebrew and he served the God of the Hebrews, the god above every God.
The king announced a decree. “Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 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. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Jonah 3:7-9
This is obviously a public confession of sin and a cry for mercy of behalf of the whole nation. I pray that America will come to this place before it’s too late. A deep depravity has taken root in the soul of America. It’s evident in the way we behave, the way we speak to each other and about each other, and in the selfishness that has gripped us as a people.
Like these Ninevites, we’ve used our freedom as a license for wickedness and it’s catching up with us. And like the Ninevites, God loves us, he doesn’t desire the death of the wicked but that we repent and turn to him. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? Ez 18:23
The story of Jonah is a double story. It’s the story of fallen sinful human depravity – both in Jonah who knew the LORD and in the Ninevites who didn’t yet know the LORD.
In the same way, it’s a story about us – the family of Christ Lutheran in 2018. We are more like Jonah than we may want to admit. We, too, have written off people loved by God because we think they are too different from us, too depraved for us. We’ve been blind to our own depravity and we like Jonah and the Ninevites are drowning in our own depravity.
Let’s turn back to chapter 2 and look at Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish. “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.” Jonah 2:1-2
Salvation always involves dying to ourselves. Some people say, “When you hit bottom look up.” It’s sad that sometimes it has to get so bad before we finally give up and look to the Lord.
Jonah’s testimony goes on… “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. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.” Jonah 2:3-6
These are some of the most terrifying words in all of Scripture. It’s a picture of drowning in our own depravity. But there is a hope here that we dare not miss. This is what Jesus did for us on the cross. The terror he faced was being separated from his Father and drowned in our sin. But he went through it because of his love for us and for his Father!
Jonah’s testimony ends “But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you and to your holy temple.” Jonah 2:6-7
What Jonah hadn’t yet realized is that his story and the story of the Ninevites was the same story. They were both in bondage to their sin and could not save themselves. The judgment of God was upon them and they were hopeless and helpless against it.
But God rescued them and he has rescued us. He put our sin on his own Son, Jesus, and he died in our place. Then on the third day, God raised him from the dead and through his death, God provides salvation for us and puts us back on the road again. Jonah ends his song with these words. “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 2:9
You and I, Jonah and the Ninevites have all been saved from death, forgiven of our sin, and put back on the road for a purpose - that we might live the rest of our lives proclaiming to the world that Salvation comes from the LORD.
Did you know that that phrase in Hebrew is literally the name Jesus! He has saved us from our sin to trust him, bow before him, love him, and proclaim him to the world.
The last verse of chapter 2 reminds me of 3 important things. Are you ready? First: God’s ways are not our ways! Second: Life is messy but God is still in control! Third: God has a wonderful sometimes quirky sense of humor!
Here is it -“And the LORD commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Jonah 2:10
“Praise and thank you, Lord!” I think…