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Lessons from Jonah

Read this message transcript from the "Minor Prophets, Major Mission" message series

Brian Cropp: We’re continuing this series that we started last week called Minor Prophets, Major Mission. Probably the minor prophets are the least read section of your Bible, unless you’re on a “I’m going to read through the Bible in a year plan.” And if you start one of those, and you’re going to start one of those in Genesis on January 1, and you’re going to end at the end of Revelation on December 31st, you’ll get out of the minor prophets and finally into the New Testament around October. It’s a long time. So it makes sense, I’m gonna skip. I’ve got the whole prophet thing; I’m skipping these 12 books. I’m just going to go to Jesus, and it’s happier over there. There’s hugs in Matthew, and all that.

We’re going to start this morning, kind of toe in the water with the minor prophets, with probably the best known minor prophet, Jonah. It has a great story in Jonah; if it’s been a long time since you’ve read Jonah or you’re unfamiliar, Jonah is the guy you’ve probably heard of who got swallowed by a whale or a fish. We’re going to look at that in just a moment. It’s just four chapters; a lot happens in just the first chapter. There’s a lot that happens in the book of Jonah. You can read it this afternoon right before a nap. It’ll be great; it’s a very quick read. There are a couple of lessons that you and I can still get out of that account of what happened to Jonah. There’s a listening guide in your program; you can follow along there. 

The first and probably largest lesson out of the entire story, entire book of Jonah is that God wants to extend his grace and mercy to people far and near. At the very end of the book of Jonah in chapter 4, verse 11, we kind of hear this theme come home as God is speaking to Jonah and says, “Should I not pity Nineveh...” This is a city that God sent Jonah to go preach to. “ which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left--and also much cattle?” God is telling Jonah that he wants to extend his message of grace and mercy to some people who are pretty spiritually blind, and spiritually they don’t know their right hand from their left. And, we need to understand in this case what God is meaning by grace and mercy. 

A quick way to understand that for this morning--grace would be that God gives us what we don’t deserve. In just a little bit, we’re going to find out how much the Ninevites did not deserve God’s grace at all. And if we’re honest with ourselves, especially those of us who say that we are following Jesus Christ, we know that we don’t deserve God’s grace. We would like to make amends for that, but we don’t know how. We don’t deserve God’s grace. And yet, though we don’t deserve it, God sent to us his Holy Son, Jesus Christ, so that we would have the opportunity for reconciliation with him. The Bible says this in Romans 5:8 that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners…” (while we were still rebels against God) “...that Christ died for us.” 

Mercy is the other side of this coin. It would say that God doesn’t give us what we deserve. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin…” (the payment that we owe from our sin) “ death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” We deserve judgment because of our rebellion against God. We deserve his wrath; we deserve eternal punishment, and yet he doesn’t give us what we deserve. He gives us Jesus and a way back to him. So, God has this message of grace and mercy that he wants to give to people far and near. And to be honest with you, God didn’t need Jonah to go to Nineveh and say anything about his grace and mercy. God doesn’t need me to stand here this morning and tell you about God’s grace and mercy, and God doesn’t need you to go open your mouth and tell other people about his grace and mercy because God doesn’t need anything. However, he wants us, and he’s given us an opportunity to play a significant role in the communication of his message of grace and mercy. And, he wants to use us, his followers, in playing a part in accomplishing his mission on the earth. That’s another lesson that we can get out of the story of Jonah--that God wants us involved in this communication. 

In the very first two verses of the book of Jonah, we see God bring Jonah along in this call. He says, “Now the Word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, ‘Arise. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” It’s not often that you and I will get such a clear, black and white, clear as glass call from the Lord. But if you do, take it. Jonah doesn’t, and before we get down on Jonah for not heeding God’s call, for not obeying God, there are some understandable reasons why Jonah reacts the way he does.

The first one is that he is Jewish, and according to the Jewish law, you don’t associate with non-Jews. That’s just, no, you don’t do that. We are a separate people; we have a Promised Land. We’re in a land that’s separate from all the other nations. We’re not to marry outside of the Jewish people. We’re not supposed to do business out there. No, we are separate, and the Ninevites? No, not Jewish. I don’t want to go over there.

The second reason is that the Ninevites were citizens of a city called Nineveh that’s the capital city of a much larger nation called Assyria. And if you’re not up on your ancient cultural history, and why would you be, Assyria were mean people to put it in kindergarten terms. They’re mean; they were conquering lands right and left, and this is ancient conquering. This is burning villages and taking people as slaves and just horrible, horrible stuff. And, they are a threat to Israel; they are just to the north of where Israel is, and any day now, Israel is a little, tiny country. And, Assyria is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and someday they might take us over. Maybe I want them dead, Jonah might be thinking. Aside from that, they had a religious practice up there in Assyria of child sacrifice, which is a gross thing against God’s ways. These are the poster children of the exact people that Jonah would know do not deserve a message about God’s grace and his mercy.

And so, verse 3 says this, “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid the fare and went down to it to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the Lord.” Now, you and I are smart people, and we’re modern folks, and we understand that you can’t get away from the presence of the Lord like apparently Jonah thought that he could. We know that God is everywhere always all at the same time; you can’t get away from the presence of the Lord. Now, to give Jonah some credit, all of the other nations around Israel at the time had a variety of different deities that they worshipped, and a lot of those deities were localized--maybe to an object like your house or to a chair, maybe to a city, maybe to a nation. But, they were localized, and maybe Jonah thought, “I know the presence of God is said to reside in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. Maybe that’s where God is, and maybe, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s in all of Israel, and if I leave Israel, maybe he won’t be able to see me.” Maybe he thought that; I don’t know. 

Again, before we get too down on Jonah for his crazy thoughts, we act that way, too, around God, if we’re honest. There are times when we want stuff or we want to do stuff that we know is outside of what God would want. Or, we have questions; maybe we don’t know whether or not it’s outside of what God wants, but we’re not going to ask and find out! So, we just hope that God blinks from time to time, and he misses those things that we do. And we assume that God really is paying attention in moments like this morning, like when you’re getting ready for church, and that’s holy, and he’s watching you. And the words that you say around the house, he’s watching those words. Certainly whatever you do in this building, he’s really paying attention here, ‘cause it’s church! But once you get in your car and leave the parking lot, all bets are off. I’m not sure that God’s really paying attention there, or maybe he pays attention in certain moments--like your quiet time, your daily time with God reading the Bible and talking to him in prayer? You know, you start the prayer, “Dear Lord…” And that’s like picking up a phone call; you say “amen.” He doesn’t hear any more; the phone call is over. We act the exact same way even though we know that God is everywhere, always, all at the same time. We know that, and yet we act certain ways. 

Jonah may have been in that kind of moment, too, but Jonah’s understanding of God isn’t completely off. At the end of the story, he has a very clear understanding of God’s character and why God would ask him to do this. It’s the strangest chewing out you will ever read in your entire life. It’s, yep, at the end of Jonah it says, “O Lord…” This is Jonah talking, chewing out God, saying, “Is this not what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish, for I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster.” I don’t know that I’ve ever been complimented so highly while being chewed out at the exact same time. But, it seems like Jonah knows God’s character enough, and he knows he is gracious; and he knows that he is merciful. And, he knows that that is going to trip God up. God’s not going to have the strength to really do to the Assyrians what needs to be done, so Jonah was trying to play gatekeeper. He was trying to help God out and do what really needed to be done. 

That says something to me that if Jonah could do that, I might drift into the same place where I want to play gatekeeper for God. And it leaves me with this question: Will I pick and choose whom God’s going to love, or am I going to obey God and love people regardless of how I feel about them? Turns out that God has a very different perspective about who he wants to love and about all of reality. And, he lets us know in one of the major prophets, Isaiah, when he says that “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth…” And let’s admit that in Jonah’s day, the distance between the ground and the clouds was pretty far, and we have satellites and telescopes. And we know, it’s a long way between the ground and the heavens, right? So, higher than the heavens are from the earth, “ higher are my ways than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God has an entirely different perspective on people and on reality. Yes, he would say, “Yes, Jonah, you’re Jewish, and I’ve called all of the Jews to be separate from all the other nations so that I could showcase my kindness, my grace, my mercy that I want to extend to everybody. I did call you out, but I also made the Assyrians. And I want to extend to them the opportunity to be reconciled to me, too, so I want you to go and tell them about my grace and my mercy.” 

Now, before Jonah gets to Nineveh, I want to ask this question because we might be in the same position. Where are the Ninevites in your world? Do you have some folks who come to mind easily that they’re just unloveable. I’ve seen all the choices they’ve made, and I don’t think they’re ever going to take a step towards God. There’s no even reason to go talk to them because they’re too far gone. I can’t talk to them. Maybe these Ninevites in your life—you don’t have to go to another country to go find them. Maybe every Thanksgiving they sit around the table with you? Maybe you share a break room with them? Maybe they sleep at your house? Maybe? Maybe there was one person, one time, once who did something horrible to you? They did something; they said something to you. I don’t know what that was, but that one person’s actions have become representative of the character of an entire group of people, and now you won’t associate with any of those people because of what one person did. 

I don’t know what all of the Ninevites in your life might be but Jonah wanted his Ninevites dead. So he gets on a boat sailing away from Israel. This is a bold move for Jonah, because the ancient Jews were not sea-faring people. They were not strong swimmers. A lot of times...I haven’t met an ancient Jew; I’m just extrapolating that from some other moments in the Bible where they encounter large bodies of water and God parts the waters, so they can walk across on dry land. He doesn’t have them in boats and swim across. And most of Israel is inland; they’re agricultural. They’re not sea-faring, so he goes to Joppa and gets on a boat also sailed by non-Jews. So he’s stepping out there, and he’s sailing away. He’s desperate; Jonah is desperate, and he thinks, “I’ve gotten an end-run around God.” 

God has other plans, however, and he causes a large storm to come up and slow the boat down. Now one thing, I’m not a sailor myself. I would assume that sailors like smooth sailing. I think that I’ve heard that before; they would like to safely get from one port to the next, and storms are a problem. In that day and time, I don’t think they are completely wrong; they thought the storm had a spiritual component to it. And so, they’re trying to figure out who and why cheesed God or the gods off, and they start doing like a spiritual lottery game. I don’t know what it was; they were casting lots, and they discover Jonah’s at fault for doing, for cheesing God off. And Jonah goes, “Yep, it’s me! I did it!” Because he figures, “I’ve got another end-run I can run on God.”

This is what Jonah told them to do; it’s great. “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea, then the sea will quiet down for you for I know that it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” I’m not a strong swimmer; you throw me into that storm, I’m gonna die! Yes! I don’t know how bad off you have to be to choose killing yourself over obedience; clearly Jonah is not in a good place. He feels like I am at fault. If I die in the ocean, then God’s not mad at the sailors; the sea will calm down. They will be able to get where they need to go; it’s a win for them. I’m dead, so I can’t go and obey God and preach the message of grace and mercy to the Ninevites. Yay! And they all die; all of the Ninevites die--not Jonah’s finest moment. But, he feels like I’ve won. I’ve beat God. Turns out God is a better chess player than you and me and Jonah. This is what God does, “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” 

Didn’t see that coming. There’s no planning that’s going to allow for...ah, that’s a contingency I need to allow for. This is one of those moments in all of the Bible that kids love. They love hearing the story about Jonah--giant fish swallows a man; that’s hilarious. That’s awesome; this is the exact same moment that a lot of college-educated folks would then go “I don’t know about that! That seems a little crazy that a fish could…” It’s happened since, but still it’s one of those unbelievable moments of the Bible. Now I would like to step back for just a moment and say that if God is who the Bible says God is and he created everything that exists, here’s one of the many things that God put into creation that we call normal that just blows my mind. God took three gas atoms--2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen--crammed them together real tight and got a liquid. I don’t know; I don’t know. It’s normal. 

This is a miracle. It doesn’t happen all the time; fish don’t just eat people all the time, but that’s what happened. I think that God could call a fish out. If he can make gas turn into a liquid, he can call a fish out who can swallow a person, and the person could live in the fish for who knows how long. God’s in control of all creation, but here’s what I can gather that this is what it looked like inside the fish (black screen is shown and audience laughs). And if you’re floating around in a fish for three days and three nights and this is what you can see, I don’t know what else is in there with me, and that’s kind of creepy. There’s clearly the stomach acid from the fish, which I think medical people will say is going to bleach your skin a whiter shade of pale, but there might also be some seaweed floating in there, bits of fish, maybe bits of other people. I don’t know what’s in there. Maybe crickets with a conscience? I don’t know what all could be inside that fish, but Jonah finally gets a clue. And most of chapter two is him admitting that God is bigger than him and that God needs to be worshipped and that he’s so grateful that God didn’t actually allow him to die. He really did want to live apparently, and God needs to be obeyed, so… “After three days, the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land…” Another highlight moment for the kids--love it.

He goes to Nineveh; he goes straight to Nineveh a changed man physically, certainly because of the stomach acid, probably psychologically altered. And hopefully attitudinally, he has changed. I can only imagine if I was in Nineveh and a man who had survived three days inside a fish came up to me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a word from God for you.” I might take another ten seconds and listen. I think he had some extra stuff going on that made his message a little more compelling than it would have otherwise. 

Here’s a fun fact that we find out about the city of Nineveh in the fourth chapter is that we already know that it was 120,000 people inside, but it was three days walking across. Three days walking across--that’s a commitment to walk across in a large city, and aside from their brutality as a people, Nineveh was not some low-rent, out-of-the-way, hick town. This was the capitol city of the super power at the time. Their culture was fantastic; they had great architecture and gardens and all kinds of awesome things in there. And one guy walking through that, I don’t know if you can really have your message heard. It would be like God asking you to walk through New York City with one message and hope that, you know, that things turned around over there in New York. And, it wasn’t an attractive message that Jonah had; it wasn’t “God loves you exactly where you are, and he wants to meet you; and the ground at the foot of the cross is level and just hugs.” This is not the message that Jonah was asked to tell to the Ninevites; it was this: “Yet in forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Turn or burn! Get right or get left! In six weeks, you’re all toast unless you abandon these horrible, evil ways that you’re into and switch over to what God’s ways are! You’re goners!

Now, let’s just imagine that after we’re done here this morning we go get lunch, and then we go downtown to Fort Worth, and we do the exact same thing that Jonah did. I’m gonna guess it’s not going to have much of a reaction--possibly no reaction, possibly strange looks, maybe once or twice we’ll have some colorful comments shot back at us. But, I’m guessing it’s not going to be this earth-shaking event. However, God was preparing the hearts of the people of Nineveh before Jonah got there, and this is what happened. One day, three days across, and one day of preaching, this is what happened. “The people of Nineveh believed God.” It’s unbelievable. That’s more of a miracle to me than the fish part. “They called for a fast and put on sackcloth...” These are signs of grief and repentance. “...From the greatest of them, the king of Assyria, down to the least of them, and God at that time (true to his word) did not destroy the Ninevites.”

They lived. This is the part in all of the kids’ books where it ends. I’ve read to my kids, many times, many different authors’ versions of the story of Jonah, and this is where it ends. A hot-headed preacher got swallowed by a fish and forced to obey God, and nobody died. It’s a great story. This is not where the story of Jonah ends, however. It is a highlight moment, but we already know that at the end of all of this Jonah is mad at God that he still didn’t destroy the Ninevites. He waits the full six weeks, and nothing happens; and he is mad about it. And he chews God out with that string of compliments, and God comes back and rebukes him with that verse that we first looked at at the beginning of our time together this morning. He said, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” They don’t have my scripture, Jonah. They didn’t have the benefit of Abraham and Moses and David, but I made them; I love them, and I want them to experience life in my ways.

And this gives us, you and me, a very sharp picture about what it means to stay on mission with God. Staying on mission means proclaiming God’s message of reconciliation to people regardless of our personal feelings about those people. God loved you, and God loved me when we were completely unlovable, and we should extend that same message to whomever whenever we can.

The story of Jonah also says to us that even while we are doing God’s work our hearts can still grow hard towards people. The Gospel message is offensive. For  2,000 years of Christianity, we’ve tried to make it as attractive as possible, but at its core, it’s offensive. It’s offensive to human pride because it commands you, and who are you to tell me how I should live and what I should do? Rrrrr! We just get all of our feathers ruffled, but we are commanded to abandon our evil, sinful, rebellious ways. Do a hard 180 and start following in God’s ways. And to make that turn? That takes a lot of humility. 

And those of us who have walked with God, we’ve made that hard turn. Isn’t it also true that it’s a daily, if not moment-by-moment of I want to go back but I need to stay over here because God’s ways are better? This is death, and God’s ways are life. And, we need to keep walking in life and help as many people make that turn as possible. If we are on mission with God, we need to obey God and proclaim his message of grace and mercy to those around us.

I did a quick demographic study of the area closest to this building--1750 Beach Street. Here’s a lovely picture. That red circle--you can’t really see the building--but in there is our building. And, just a mile and a half east of us up the street--go to the next slide--is that circle. That is the Oakland exit-ish; the north side of that circle is Randoll Mill. The south side is Meadowbrook. Inside that circle--that’s about a mile in radius--and inside that circle, according the census data, is around 8,712 people. That’s what that other red circle says that you can’t read representing 4,304 homes. Of those 8,712 people, statistically 20% of them go to church on go to church on a regular basis; 80% of them don’t, or they go very infrequently. That number is around 7,000 people who are likely in that circle not actively trying to intentionally follow God’s ways. And, that’s just in our backyard.

I don’t know; you guys come from all over the Fort Worth area. Some of you come from not Fort Worth, way out west or south or wherever, and that’s great. We’re glad that all of you are there; this is just the backyard of this location. I don’t what the conditions are in your actual backyard, but there is a thing coming up. You heard Ben and Meghan talk to you about the Treasure Trove. That’s coming up this Saturday, so we already know that we have a fair amount of our young families who are members here at Hope Church who live in that circle. And, we’ve decided, well, we’re going to spend some money, and we’re going to put some targeted Facebook ads about the Treasure Trove into that circle to raise awareness for people in that circle about the opportunity coming up this Saturday.

We also put out door hangers into that circle to let people know about the Treasure Trove and some other invite cards. Some of you probably helped out with distributing some of those items, so that many people in there could find out about the Treasure Trove. Here’s the thing about the Treasure Trove; I have no idea how God could use a bunch of free baby stuff to help somebody experience and discover God’s ways, how they could actually have their heart opened to hear God’s message of reconciliation and mercy and grace. I don’t know how God can use a onesie to do that, but my God can use a onesie to do that. And so, maybe for you what you could do is you could also be inviting people to come with you to the Treasure Trove. We would like to see as many people as possible come to the Treasure Trove this Saturday.

Maybe it’s not that; maybe it doesn’t make sense for you. Maybe it’s invite folks to come to your summer group all summer. Maybe it’s just come back here on a Sunday that you’re in town and get a chance to be around us and experience life with other Christ-followers and find out Christians aren’t crazy and all of those good things--that the ways of God are better than the broken ways of sin and rebellion. And, we need to answer this question out of the story of Jonah--will I obey God and proclaim his Truth to those around me?

I want to invite the band back out. I’m going to pray for us in just a little bit, and then they are going to lead us in a time of responding to how God has been speaking to you this morning. And as they continue to set up, I want to talk to a specific group of folks who might be here this morning. If you have been sitting here this morning and you realize, I think I might be a Ninevite; I don’t know? I know that I’m not living God’s ways, and they’re broken and that’s maybe why I came to church this morning was to, I don’t know; I need some help. These ways are busted. I encourage you when I pray in just a little bit, just talk to God like you would talk to anyone else and say, “My ways are broken. I know that I have sinned. I know that I’ve rebelled against you.” You’re not telling him anything that he doesn’t already know. You’re just agreeing with him. And say, “I want to try these new ways, these ways of yours, and I know that comes through faith and believing in Christ Jesus that He paid the penalty for my rebellion so that I could have access to God.” And if you pray that this morning, just on a regular, average June Sunday, your eternal life can start today, and you can make that 180 degree turn and start walking in God’s ways. 

I encourage you to do that this morning, but whatever your next step is, I encourage you to take that this week. Please pray with me: Holy God, we are so thankful that you reached out to us when we were still rebels against you, and you made, you made the way back for us. You didn’t give us what we deserved, and instead, you gave us Jesus, Who we don’t deserve. We also pray that you would open our eyes to see those around us who are like the ancient Ninevites. They don’t know their right hand from their left spiritually. Please help us overcome our anxiety in helping people know about reconciliation in you. We pray that you would set up opportunities so that we could tell others about you in honest and authentic ways. For those here this morning who are deciding whether or not to abandon their broken ways to follow yours, we pray that you would help them become reasonably convinced to give your ways an honest try and see if it’s not better there in your ways. We thank you, God, for your grace and your mercy that you’ve extended to us, and it’s in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.