Mercy, Madness, and Mayhem

Scriptures: Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10

What is it we think about when people mention the story of Jonah? A lot of people think about the fish. I would suggest that you read the entire book. There are a lot of interesting things in there. Another one that people think about sometimes is the plant that grew and then died in one day. We tend to remember the stranger things, don’t we? I have to admit that one of the most interesting parts of the story for me is when the king requires the animals to repent, and wear sackcloth!

Yet it is very easy to hear these parts of the story and miss what is actually going on. For all the humorous things, there is a serious point. In this story, God is the hero – not Jonas. .This book teaches us lessons about who God is, what His plan for us is, and how gracious and merciful He can be.

Our first lesson is that God is a God of compassion and mercy. God originally told Jonah to go to the Ninevites because of their wickedness. They were known as some of the most vicious, evil, cruel people in the world at that time. Throughout the Bible we find prophets who have been commissioned by God to preach against various evils. God cannot stand sin, and desires the world to be rid of it.

However, God doesn’t want to punish us. He would much rather forgive people. In Jeremiah 18, God promises that if a prophet brings a message of doom to a nation, but that nation repents of its evil, then God will avert his anger. This is exactly what happens here in this story. The people repent, and God follows through on His promise.

We’re continually hearing about how bad this world is today. Every time you turn on the news, or open the paper, or read one of the online journals, you hear someone telling you about how bad the world is. We hear scientists telling us that the world is in imminent danger of collapse and ruin.

All my life, it’s been that way. In the 70’s, it was global cooling and we were going to have another ice age. In the 80’s and 90’s, it was global warming instead, and we were going to fry. Now it’s global climate change. And if it’s not that, then it’s economic ruin. Or it’s pollution. There was the ozone layer. There’s always something going on, and the world is about to be destroyed.

And these aren’t, often, Godly people telling us this, but they still have this sense. There are many godly people also telling us what a state the world is in. God has good reason to be angry with our world, our nation, perhaps even our city right now. But He doesn’t want us to perish. He wants us to live. And it’s up to the church – which includes every one of us here today – to tell the world that there is hope.

The second lesson we can learn from Jonah is that we can get in the way of God’s work. God had a job for Jonah to do. But Jonah ran the other way. Even when God finally convinced Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah still didn’t do his job properly.

We eventually find out that God’s desire was for the people of Nineveh to repent. But if you remember what the liturgist read in chapter 3, Jonah only preached destruction. ‘In forty days this city will be destroyed,’ he told them. He neglected to tell them that God was a God of compassion.

And he knew God wanted to forgive the city of Nineveh, because you can tell if you read chapter 4 and you see his reply to God, when God questioned him. For whatever reason, Jonah’s hate and bitterness won out, and Jonah put his own desires in front of God’s desire. It could have had tragic consequences.

Jonah isn’t alone in this. We can all put our own agendas in front of God’s. We allow our hurt to prevent us from following God’s clear call; or we do God’s work … as long as it suits or purposes. How often do we have mixed motives for the godly work we do? It’s very easy.

Take, for example, the preacher who preaches a sermon that will enhance his or her reputation, rather than the sermon that will challenge people in their walk with Christ. Or the rich business man who sponsors an orphan in Africa because of the tax advantages, not because he desires to help a person in poverty. Or those who give philanthropically to charities publicly, so they get the status improvement, and everybody knows just how good they are.

All of these acts are good things. We don’t want to not give to charity, we don’t want to not sponsor orphans who might need it, and we certainly don’t want to have bad sermons. But in these cases people have put themselves before God. I am sure we are all aware of the things we do or have done where God’s plan takes second place to our own. In Roman 12:1 it tells us that we are to be living sacrifices to God. We must defer to God in everything we do, not just the things that suit us the most.

The third lesson is that God will work in spite of us. This is the part of the story that I find the most incredible. Here’s Jonah, known as a prophet of God, withholding information from the people of Nineveh. He tells them they are about to be destroyed, but he doesn’t tell them the important bit, that they can repent and be saved.

And yet, who is it that figures this out? Based on the story in Scripture, pretty much everyone, as the Spirit moves through them. It says from the lowest of the people, they began to repent and put on sackcloth and rub ashes in their hair, which was a Middle Eastern way of mourning and saying you were wrong. It’s actually the roots of our Ash Wednesday observance during Lent.

And it went all the way up to the king. Here he is, the pagan king of Nineveh perceiving the plan of God. As I understand it, the king of Nineveh had a reputation for being the most brutal of all the nation’s warriors; enjoying cruelty and violence. It was everything that the Jewish nation were supposed to despise. (And certainly we see that Jonah did.) Yet the king figures out God’s purpose. The proud, macho warrior king put on sackcloth. The man who fought his way to the top of the heap in Nineveh left the throne and sat in the dust.

Now I have a question for you. How many of you raise, or have raised, cattle? Let me ask you, if the Department of Agriculture sent you a letter telling you to dress your herd in sackcloth and stop their feed, even your prime bull, what would you do? [People respond.] You would laugh at the letter. I suspect that you would ignore it. I had somebody tell me once about a 2200-pound bull they had, and I just can’t imagine putting anything on that animal.

All of the way through the book, God’s purposes are threatened by Jonah’s wish to do otherwise. God keeps reminding Jonah who is boss in this situation. And of course, God wins – no thanks to Jonah. In Exodus 33:18, God says to Moses “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” God makes it clear His plan here is for mercy, and He follows through on it.

But you know, we can relate a little bit to Jonah there. Haven’t you had people that it seems God has shown mercy to and you don’t understand why? How could God possibly show mercy to them? They have done this, or that. They have sinned so mightily. There’s no redemption possible. Yet God promises that Jesus’ blood covers all. All they need to do is repent, turn away from their sin, and believe in the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that he died to cleanse us of our sins and was raised again to give us new life, and they shall be saved.

G. W. Knight writes, “When a person works an eight-hour day and receives a fair day’s pay for his time, that is a wage. When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for his performance, that is a prize. When a person receives appropriate recognition for his long service or high achievements, that is an award. But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize, and deserves no award—yet receives such a gift anyway—that is a good picture of God’s unmerited favor. This is what we mean when we talk about the grace of God.”

I believe that God also has a plan for this nation of ours. He wants to save it. And He will do that, with or without us. I find it amazing how many people, out in the communities at large, have an understanding of God without having much contact with the church. You can see where God has been preparing them to hear the good news of the Gospel, and showering them with grace.

Yet many of the people I have spoken to had had bad experiences with Christians, and want nothing to do with the church. But God was working in their lives anyway, regardless of how badly His workers had done their jobs. But imagine, if we had done it well, where they would be now.

We have to recognize the fact that there are people out there who haven’t heard about God. There are people who have heard about Him, and need to be called to Him. And it’s our job to do it. You don’t have to be a preacher like Jonah.

In fact, in the latest newsletter and in the next newsletter, there is a two-part article that I’ve written on evangelism, because people have asked me about it. I suggest you read it, and if you have questions, you can feel free to contact me.

I’m not going to tell you that you should be witnessing more, or preaching more, or anything like that. I don’t know what your situation is. I don’t know the sort of ministry God has called you to. But I will ask two things of you, challenge you with two things.

First, that you will recognize that there are people around you who need to hear about Jesus and the hope we have in Him. How you tell them is between you and God, and the relationship you form. But recognize that they are there, and that you have a job to do, “to make disciples of all nations, teaching them all that I have commanded you,” as Jesus said. Pray that the Spirit will guide you in your endeavors for Him, and that your labors won’t be in vain.

And in fact, I believe that if you are walking with the Spirit and you are following the will of God, it will never be in vain. You might not see the harvest at this time, but you will plant the seed or water the plant that grows, and when the time is right, God will provide someone for the harvest. And if you have the opportunity to see the results and have someone turn to Christ or rededicate themselves to His service, then that is a wonderful thing to fill your heart with joy.

The second thing I would challenge you with is to put yourself on the altar. Don’t be like Jonah, and run after your own desires. Sacrifice your desires, your wishes, and anything that is contrary to the will of God, on his altar. God wants to work with you, not in spite of you! Is there anything that is preventing you from being the person God wants you to be? Then turn from it.

This is not necessarily an easy task. We are all set in our ways. We have our habits. We have our favorite sins. And sometimes we’re called by God to change that. I’ve had, in my own life, continuing problems with my ulcer, and the doctor laid the hammer down. I’m not longer allowed to eat tomatoes, peppers, spices – anything that makes food taste good. And I’m no longer allowed to have caffeine.

After 35+ years of being addicted to caffeine, it’s a challenge. I haven’t had the headaches that everyone warns me are going to come, at least yet. But there is a definite difference in the way you feel. And it’s tough. I need to change that for my own situation here, and that doesn’t even have to do with preaching God’s good word.

God’s word takes priority in sharing the Gospel. So how much more so should we change what we need to conform ourselves to God and His plan. I pray that as we enter this season of Thanksgiving, that you will see where God has placed you, that you will see what God has done in those around you, and that you will see the opportunities that God has for you, to bring His grace to others, that they too might give thanks to God, for the good news of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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