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January 21, 2018

Sermon Jonah 3:1-5  . . .“Bible places:  Nineveh”

“Bible places:  Nineveh”

Jonah 3:1-5

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

A little over a hundred years ago, author Jane Austen wrote a book called, Pride and Prejudice.  It tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth Bennet who comes to learn the importance of love over money, and what matters most of all.

The story begins as Mrs. Bennet tries to persuade her husband, Claude Bennet, to visit a young, wealthy, eligible bachelor named Charles Bingley, who just moved into the neighborhood.  After all, the Bennet’s did happen to have five unmarried daughters.  

And sure enough, Bingley takes a liking to their eldest daughter, Jane.

But while he seemed nice enough, his sisters were snobs, and so was his friend Mr. Darcy.  Then when they all meet up at a local ball, and Mr. Darcy lets everyone know just how boring it all is—including the Bennet’s second daughter, Elizabeth--that’s when things start to get interesting.

To make a long story short, (and it is quite a story!), in the end, Mr. Bingley marries Jane, and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy live happily ever after.

It’s a story about love and marriage, about pride and prejudice, about what matters most of all.

The Bible, it seems, is full of proud and prejudiced people.  Naaman the Syrian was proud.  That’s why he refused to wash seven times in the Jordan.  King Nebuchadnezzar was proud, till he saw the handwriting on the wall.  And Satan was the proudest one of all.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote:  “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!  For you have said in your heart, ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God…I will be like the Most High.’ Yet you shall be brought down to the lowest depths of the Pit.”

Even a prophet named Jonah was rather proud too.  Please turn in your Bible to page 982, and you’ll see what I mean.  I’ll start where it says, “Jonah flees the presence of the Lord.”  

Jonah chapter 1, verse 1:  “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me.’  But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.  So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”

Let’s step back for a moment to see what’s going on.

First, let’s ask, where’s Nineveh?

It was the capital of Assyria, and it lay about two hundred miles northwest Baghdad in modern-day Iraq.

And those Assyrians had a bad reputation.  As a matter of fact, they’ve gone down in history as being one of the cruelest and most heartless people of all.

Historians tell us they skinned prisoners alive, cut off their hands and feet, noses and ears, gouged out their eyes, pulled out their tongues and made mounds of human skulls just to inspire fear in the hearts of their enemies.  They were even known to chop off enemies’ heads and wear them as jewelry around their neck.

And Israel was one of their favorites.  Assyrian records mention the names of ten Hebrew kings who were terrified of them.  Archaeologists have even found a carving of the people of Israel starving, and King Hezekiah caged up like a bird.  In the words of the prophet Nahum, they were “a den of ravaging lions, feeding on the blood of the nations.”

And it was Jonah, little lonely Jonah, who was commanded, by the Lord, to share the gospel with them.  It would be as if God sent a Jew, in 1942, to Berlin, Germany to tell Adolf Hitler that if he repents, God will have mercy on him.  It’s just not going to happen.

So what did Jonah do?  What would you do?  He hopped in a boat and went the other way.

But Jonah, how could you?  You know God will be with you and you know what He’s called you to do.  Why run the other way?

Maybe he was afraid.  Maybe he knew it was a suicide mission.  Once he went in, there was no way he was coming out.

Or maybe Jonah thought the message was a little harsh—preach against Nineveh’s wickedness?  Who wants to hear that—fire and brimstone to a bunch of Assyrians?  They’ll laugh him off the streets! 

Or maybe he thought it was a lost cause.  I mean, think about it.  What could one man do in a city of six hundred thousand?

But none of those are the reasons the Bible gives.  The real reason was this—Jonah hated Nineveh.  If it were up to him, the whole world would be a whole lot better off if the almighty God just burned them off the face of the earth.  That’s why he hopped in a boat and went the other way.

But things didn’t go quite as well as he had planned.  As he made his way across the Mediterranean, the wind began to blow, the sea began to churn, and waves crashed over the boat.  The sailors reeled in the sails and secured the boom.  They even threw their cargo into the sea!

Look at chapter 1, verse 4:  “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.  Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god.  And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them.  But Jonah had gone down in the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.  So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper?  Arise, call out to your god!  Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Then what?  The Bible says they cast lots and, sure enough, they fell on Jonah.  

Now verse 11:  “Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?’  For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.  He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’”

And as they prayed, “O Lord, do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man,” they threw Jonah into the sea.

Deeper and deeper he sank, holding dearly to his last breath of air, until, suddenly, he felt a powerful rush of water.  And in the darkness, he realized what happened.  A huge sea creature had swallowed him whole.  

Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to sit inside a fish’s stomach.  It’s dark, you can’t move, seaweed strangles your neck, and salt water washes over your body. 

Even more, it stinks.  You are, after all, the next best thing to dead fish. 

Three days he lived inside that cold, dark, terrifying place. And all the while he waited and he hoped to die.

Finally, he heard the sound of waves breaking and in an instant, the fish threw him up on shore.

He must have been quite a sight.  His clothes were ripped to shreds, his skin was bleached, and his hair was white.  You don’t even want to know what he smelled like.

And what did old Jonah do?  This time he obeyed the word of the Lord.  In a city so large it took three days to see, Jonah went just one and proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

And what happened?  It was the most unlikely revival in all of history.  Just as soon as the people took one look at Jonah, they fell on their knees, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, and prayed to God for mercy.  Even the king, Adad-Nirari himself, rose up from his throne, took off his royal robes and sat down in the dust.  

Then what happened?

Wonder of wonders, and miracle of miracles, God turned and had compassion.

One day, or so the story goes, a man was appointed a mandarin, a high-ranking official in the government, a post that brought great power and freedom.

He was so excited, he could barely contain himself.  He told his friend, “Since I’ll be such a great man now, I must have a new robe made immediately, one that does justice to my new station in life.”

His friend replied, “I know the perfect tailor for you.  He’s an old wise man that knows how to give every customer a perfect fit.”

So off he went to see that tailor, who carefully took his measurements.  And as the old man put away his tape measure, he said, “There’s one more piece of information I need to know.  How long have you been a mandarin?”

The man asked in surprise, “What does that have to do with the fit of my robe?”

The tailor answered, “You see, a newly appointed mandarin is so impressed with his office that he holds his head up high and sticks out his chest, so I have to make the front of his robe longer than the back.  After a few years, when he’s levelheaded from the stings of experience, he looks straight ahead to see what’s coming and what must be done next, so I cut the front and the back the same length.  Later, after he’s been stooped by old age and the humility of a lifetime of experience, then I cut the robe so the back is longer than the front.  That’s why I must know long you’ve been a mandarin.”

And as he walked out of that tailor’s shop, he thought less of his robe, and more of why his friend had sent him to see that tailor.

So what does all this mean to teach us?  

First, don’t be a Jonah.  Don’t let pride or prejudice stand in your way.  That is, after all, what Peter wrote in his first epistle:  “Put away all pride from yourselves, for you are standing under the powerful hand of God.”

And second, if God tells you to do something, do it.  You can’t fight against Him.  There is no other way.

Where is Nineveh today?  It’s in Spooner, and Trego, and Shell Lake.  It’s in our schools, our businesses, and the places we meet.  It might even be your husband or your wife or your children.  Look around you, and that’s where you’ll find your Nineveh.

And the message is clear—God still loves Nineveh.  And though He sees all of its sin—nothing is hidden from His eyes—He never turns back His heart of love.

In the words of Paul to the Romans:  “God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”


Thank You, dear Father, for calling Jonah to preach repentance and mercy, and thank You for calling us too.  Help us, in humility and love, to share the good news of our Savior Jesus.  In His name we pray.  Amen


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