God Wants to Save
a sermon based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Jonah is story about a prophet who goes AWOL. Read it for yourself this
afternoon. Youll follow this hapless, water-logged anti-hero as he sloshes through
one misadventure after another. In chapter one, for example, God speaks to Jonah and says,
"Go to Nineveh" but Jonah says "no," and goes on his own cruise in the
ocean blue and ends up as fish food.
In scene two, Jonah yet alive but a prisoner in the dank, dark cavern of the
fishs belly, shows us the importance of the kind of prayer that has been baptized in
Gods Word. Jonah prays a doleful lament ("God-get-me-out-of-this-jam,
selah") that is both inspiring and effective.
Still up to this point, Jonahs journey has been a real downer. If you follow the
Hebrew language, the writer uses the word for "down" to describe Jonahs
journey. Jonah goes . . .
Down to Joppa,
Down to the ship,
Down to the innards of the vessel,
Down into the sea,
Down into the belly of the fish,
Down to the land of death
But it seems that the winds of destiny have changed for Jonah. Hes no longer
down, but up on the beach. Hes just been dropped off by a Moby Dick kind of fish.
Can you see him? Hes still pulling seaweed from his beard when he hears that
"Yes . . .?"
"Its me again."
"I still need you to help me."
"Okay, okay. Ill go where you want me to go, do what you want me to do,
So Jonah finally arrives at Nineveh to preach. Lets look at Jonahs message.
Would you feel a little incomplete if this happened next Sunday at church? We have our
call to worship, some hymns, a chorus or two. Then when it comes time for the homily, I
get up in front of you and say, "in forty days your church will be split." May
God add his blessing to these words." Then I sit down again to sing the final hymn.
Would you rush to compliment me on the way I carefully shaped that sermon? Would you be
impressed that I had memorized the entire sermon? Maybe youd wonder what new method
of Bible study I had learned. Well, that is exactly how this reluctant prophet addresses
the people of Nineveh. "In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. The End." The
end? What do you mean, "the end?" Whats the rest of the sermon? What are
we guilty of? Where do we need to repent, the people must have wondered.
Jonahs message is abrupt. These are the briefest words of prophecy in the entire
Bible. We dont even know where this brief message came from. Nowhere in the entire
story does God give that particular message to Jonah to speak. There are several things
that are suspicious about Jonahs words. All prophets begin their oracles with the
traditional formula: "Thus says the LORD." Every time a prophet addressed a
foreign nation, that special formula was always used to identify God. Another thing. Every
other prophet always stated clearly and precisely what sin or sins for which God was
bringing judgment upon a people or nation. Sometimes it was because they were dishonest or
violent or because they worshiped false gods or neglected the poor among them. Yet, Jonah
mentions no specific or general sin that has brought them impending doom. And what about
hope? God usually allowed people a window of opportunity to repent. But not in Jonah. So
you have to wonder if Jonah is speaking out of turn. if Jonah is giving a partial
I think-humanly speaking-Jonah certainly speaks out of pain and anger. He truly hates
the people that God has sent him to. He may even have withheld information that might have
saved them. He doesnt want to give them a hairs breath of a chance to make
amends. As far as hes concerned, he just wants them to hear the bad news. Wants the
people of Nineveh to know that God is a mad hatter and will overthrow them.
I probably wouldnt have a job on Monday if I gave that kind of message on Sunday.
But get a load of the response to the word of this seven-word sermon: "The people of
Nineveh believed Gods message." Clearly, we have a Billy Graham Crusade in
progress-the entire city comes forward to the singing of Just as I Am.
We have an interesting insight here that will shed even more light on this revival. The
writer carefully uses the word, "Elohim" as their word for "God."
Elohim is a generic deity word; its the kind of word you use when youre not
too familiar with God. The way we speak of God when accepting best actor awards at the
Grammys. Apparently, the people of Nineveh dont even know Jonahs God
personally; they havent heard enough to even know of Yahweh, Israels God. Yet,
they act on what they do know even before all the facts are in. They immediately turn
their lives upside down and inside out. To the last citizen, the people of Nineveh repent
They quickly burn their Sunday papers and make ashes and put on sackcloth. Where does
this style of wardrobe come from? It comes from the very opposite side of Madison Avenue,
MTV and Wall Street. It comes from hearts that are crushed by an awareness that they are
in need of grace. They are in need of forgiveness.
When, for example, Mordecai discovers the plot to exterminate the Jews, he puts on
sackcloth and ashes, and goes out into the city crying with a loud and bitter wail. Then
all of the Jews fasted, wept, and wailed and many people lay in sackcloth and ashes. When
everything that makes Job the most coveted man the world is stripped away-wealth, land,
cattle, mansion, family-he sits down among the ashes to remind himself of what truly is
important in life. And when God comes as a whirlwind at the end of the story, replacing
all of Jobs wealth and family, when Job sees a glimpse of Gods awesomeness,
what does he do? He says, "I repent in dust and ashes."
Jesus many years later, stands before some very religious people-leaders on the level
of todays District Superintendents, Bishops, and Popes. He says, "The people of
Nineveh will rise up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, because they
repented at the preaching of Jonah. But someone greater then Jonah is here and you refuse
Nineveh repents after hearing only seven words about God. I wonder how many words
weve heard about God? Weve heard the rest of the story, havent we? We
know that our God is compassionate and merciful. The Ninevites didnt have that piece
of information. But they repented. We now know that in Jesus Christ, God has forgiven us
our sins and cleansed from all unrighteousness. The Ninevites werent privy to that
knowledge. And they repented. We have discovered that we are in covenant with a God who so
loves us that not even hell or things present, nor things to come, will separate us from
the love that is in Jesus Christ. The Ninevites didnt know that, but they repented.
Yet, we havent claimed our birthright. Too often weve acted like paupers,
not family members of Gods kingdom. Weve played the character of Jonah on the
stage of our churches. Reluctant, resistant to change, and sharing a selected version of
the message that can transform our lives.
But hear the good news! Today is the day to change, to repent. In the story of Jonah,
everyone repents. The sailors repent, the seas repent, the fish repents, the people of
Nineveh repent, the King repents, the nobles repent, even the animals repent! Everyone
repents-except one. Jonah. He does not repent. He does not change his attitude from
judgment to grace. So we choose this morning where we want to be in the story. Like the
Ninevites, the King, the animals , the seas, the sailors, we can repent; we can turn over
every part of our lives that weve compromised. Everything that has kept us a
reluctant prophet to this world. We dont need to put on sackcloth or sit in a pile
ashes to show our sorrow. We just need to change our vision, adjust our words, and shape
our actions to more fully embody the good news that we own.
In the end, God peeks down from the cosmos and sees that the Ninevites are truly
changing their ways, and so true to Gods character, God has mercy on them and does
not bring the destruction that Jonah had predicted. Amen.