The Power of God for Salvation audio
Last week we saw how Jonah had been called by God to go and proclaim the gospel to Nineveh, to the Assyrians, the enemies of the people of God. We saw how he instead went in the opposite direction until God stopped him, and sent a great fish to transport him to the shores of Assyria.
Well, today we come to the next exciting instalment of the story. Jonah is now back on dry land, suitably chastised, and the word of the Lord comes to him again. “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” It’s the same message as before, but this time he’s learnt his lesson. This time he goes.
We’re told that Nineveh is an exceedingly large city, three days' walk across. That makes it sixty or so miles across. That would make it the size of Melbourne. Now in fact Nineveh proper at this time was probably not much more than 2 kilometres across, so it’s probable that he means Nineveh and the surrounding cities which together formed greater Nineveh, the region that was at the centre of Assyrian life. So let me suggest why this narrative might choose the larger city area.
It seems to me that as we read the narrative there’s a very striking thing that happens. Jonah enters this seemingly vast city, proclaiming God’s message to its people and what happens? He hasn’t even got a third of the way in and people begin to respond. He cries out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And what happens? The people of Nineveh believe him. In fact we’re told they believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. Now isn’t that a dramatic response to the preaching of God’s word? It’s spoken and people believe it. So what are we, the readers, meant to learn from this? Well, there are a couple of things I think.
First of all here are these pagans, hearing the word of God, perhaps for the first time, and what do they do? They believe it! They repent! When the news reaches the King, even he reacts. We’re told when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. He commands the whole city to show its remorse by wearing sackcloth and fasting, in the hope that God might relent and change his mind. Which is exactly what God does do of course.
Now think about what’s happening in Israel and Judah at this particular time. This is the same period in which prophets like Hosea and Amos and Micah were preaching to Israel and Judah, warning them of God’s judgement. And what was the response there, back home? General indifference! Unlike the people of Nineveh, the people of Israel and Judah did little about their behaviour. They were so sure of their identity as the people of God that they took no notice of the warnings they were given. Instead of repenting in sackcloth and ashes, they carried on with their unrighteous lifestyles; they continued their flawed religious practices, while the warnings of the prophets became stronger and stronger, until eventually God’s judgement fell on them, the way he’d said it would. That’s a warning for us isn’t it? To make sure that we listen to God’s word and constantly reform our lives and our worship according to the way God wants us to live and worship. Not to take for granted the fact that we’re part of God’s Church. Not to think that because we grew up as Christians or because we’ve been Christians for years that we can forget about holiness of life; to make sure that we’re open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, listening to his voice as he seeks to renew us.
A few years ago we had a Nigerian bishop speaking at CMS Summer Under The Son. His name’s Bishop Josiah Fearon. He was talking about the growth of the Church in his country. There in a land where Christians are in a minority, where to be a Christian can mean losing your livelihood, if not your life, the Church has grown by more than 10 million people in the past fifteen years. But here in Australia, where we have complete freedom to practise our beliefs, the Church is struggling to stay afloat. The last census figures show a further decline in the number of people professing Christianity from 60% to just over 50% while those professing no religion rose from 22% to 30%. If we looked at the number of people who actually attend church regularly of course the percentage would be considerably lower. Now I wonder how much of that’s because we take for granted so much of what we have.
The second thing I think we’re meant to see is just how powerful the gospel can be when it’s proclaimed fearlessly. We’re meant to see how people who don’t know God are nevertheless thirsting to hear God’s word to them.
Do you believe that? Do you believe what Paul writes in Romans 1? (Rom 1:16-17 NRSV) "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."" The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Jonah knew that. Look at what he says to God in ch 4. “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” He knew that if people were warned of the judgement to come, they’d repent, and that if they repented God would show them mercy. How did he know that? Because that’s what had happened time and time again to his own people. They’d disobeyed God, had felt God’s anger, they’d repented and God in his mercy had forgiven them. But he also knew it because he knew his Scriptures. What he says there in v2 is how God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 34: (Exo 34:6-7 NRSV) “The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” Jonah knew that God would use his words to bring repentance to these people. That was the only reason for sending him and he wasn’t happy about it. In fact he goes off in a huff and sits out on a hill and sulks.
Then God acts out this parable to teach Jonah another lesson. He makes a tree grow up miraculously to shade Jonah, and Jonah begins to feel a bit happier. But then the next day he sends a grub which eats into the tree and kills it, so Jonah is left out in the heat of the sun again. Well, now Jonah is really mad. He’s so angry in fact that he wishes he could die.
But God says, “Why are you angry about this bush? You didn’t plant it, or water it. It wasn’t even there 2 days ago. Yet you’re upset now that I’ve let it die. Can you see how you’ve got your priorities all wrong? Here you are, sitting on this hill, waiting to see if I’ll destroy all those people, 120,000 of them, and you’re upset about a mere tree! Get real! What’s of more value: one little bush or 120,000 people who are lost and blind?”
Just as an aside, what does that say to those people who are concerned about the rights of whales and dolphins, or battery chickens, but are happy to promote euthanasia for people who are no longer productive or of use to society?
But more importantly, what does it say to us who’ve heard the gospel and are even now enjoying at least some of the benefits of being part of God’s kingdom? Do we care that people are under God’s wrath? You see, that passage in Romans 1 continues with an exposition of the gospel, and it’s very much like the message that Jonah had to proclaim.
I haven’t really talked about what the gospel is, have I? I’ve just made the statement that Jonah’s message was a proclamation of the gospel. Some of you may be wondering whether this really is the gospel. Well, what is the gospel? What is the message we have to proclaim? Listen to what the book of Revelation tells us: (Rev 14:6-7 NRSV) “Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth--to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” Here’s the eternal gospel. ‘Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’ Sounds a lot like what Jonah had to say doesn’t it? And here’s what Romans 1 says as Paul begins to expound the gospel: (Rom 1:18 NRSV) "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." Now of course Paul goes on to fill out that message with the assurance of God’s mercy to those who have faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, but here’s where it begins: with the wrath of God poured out on all the ungodliness and wickedness of people. Do you believe that? Do you believe that people are under the judgment of God? Or is it too hard to take? Does it not fit with an image of a loving God? Does it not fit with our laissez faire culture where anything goes if it feels right to me?
Yes, God is a God of love. That’s shown clearly in this story of Jonah. It was God’s love that sent Jonah to warn the Assyrians of God’s judgment. But we mustn’t think that his love can override his righteousness, his desire for justice. If Jonah hadn’t gone, it appears like the Assyrians would have been destroyed along with their city. No. God’s love isn’t shown in removing the need for righteousness. Romans 2 & 3 makes that clear. God’s love is shown in providing the way of escape; in providing the means whereby even though we’re sinners, and under God’s judgement, we can be made righteous, through the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
But how are our friends and neighbours to know that unless we tell them? That’s what Paul says in Rom 10:14 "But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (NRSV)
So there are 2 questions for us that come out of today’s reading from Jonah. First, are you confident in the gospel? Do you believe that it really is the power of God for salvation? Can you tell others about Jesus Christ with confidence that as you speak the words God’s Holy Spirit will be working in the hearts and minds of your hearers to convince them? If the words of someone as reluctant as Jonah could bear such instantaneous and prolific fruit, maybe there’s hope for you and me.
Second, will you get around to telling others about Christ before it’s too late? Do you understand how critical this is for those who don’t know Christ? Will you go and warn them of God’s judgment and tell them of the free gift of salvation that God offers us in Jesus Christ?
As we saw last week, just like Jonah, we’re the ones God uses to warn people. We’re God’s ambassadors. So take courage in the fact that it’s his message that we have to proclaim and as they say in the classics: ‘Just do it!’