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God Wants to Save Whom?
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. You’ll 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 fish’s belly, shows us the importance of the kind of prayer that has been baptized in God’s 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, Jonah’s journey has been a real downer. If you follow the Hebrew language, the writer uses the word for "down" to describe Jonah’s 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. He’s no longer down, but up on the beach. He’s just been dropped off by a Moby Dick kind of fish. Can you see him? He’s still pulling seaweed from his beard when he hears that unmistakable voice.

"Oh Jonah?"
"Yes . . .?"
"It’s me again."
"I still need you to help me."
"Okay, okay. I’ll go where you want me to go, do what you want me to do, etc."

So Jonah finally arrives at Nineveh to preach. Let’s look at Jonah’s 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 you’d 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?" What’s the rest of the sermon? What are we guilty of? Where do we need to repent, the people must have wondered.

Jonah’s message is abrupt. These are the briefest words of prophecy in the entire Bible. We don’t 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 Jonah’s 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 prophecy.

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 doesn’t want to give them a hair’s breath of a chance to make amends. As far as he’s 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 wouldn’t 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 God’s 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; it’s the kind of word you use when you’re not too familiar with God. The way we speak of God when accepting best actor awards at the Grammys. Apparently, the people of Nineveh don’t even know Jonah’s God personally; they haven’t heard enough to even know of Yahweh, Israel’s 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 at once.

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 Job’s wealth and family, when Job sees a glimpse of God’s 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 today’s 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 to repent."

Nineveh repents after hearing only seven words about God. I wonder how many words we’ve heard about God? We’ve heard the rest of the story, haven’t we? We know that our God is compassionate and merciful. The Ninevites didn’t 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 weren’t 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 didn’t know that, but they repented.

Yet, we haven’t claimed our birthright. Too often we’ve acted like paupers, not family members of God’s kingdom. We’ve 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 we’ve compromised. Everything that has kept us a reluctant prophet to this world. We don’t 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 God’s character, God has mercy on them and does not bring the destruction that Jonah had predicted. Amen.