Go to Nineveh
Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’”
Growing up there were plenty of things that I did not want to do. It’s not that I was obstinate or stubborn. There might be some who would disagree, but I think it was primarily because I was painfully shy. Any new situation that I wasn’t familiar with would cause days of stress. I knew there were things that I needed to do, and yet the thought of doing them was often overwhelming. Meeting new people, entering new situations, talking in front of people. If someone had said as a 10- or 12-year-old, or even an 18-year old, that I’d be in front of a group of people speaking multiple times a week, I would have told them they were absolutely crazy. Yet, when God calls, sometimes He’s calling us to complete the task He’s assigned, and sometimes that call is for our own sake. To get us past a fear, a hang-up, or something else that’s holding us back. And likely in the end, in His infinite wisdom,
GOD’S CALLING ON OUR LIVES BOTH CONFIRMS OUR COMMITMENT TO HIM,
WHILE BRINGING THE GOOD NEWS TO THOSE WHO NEED TO HEAR IT.
The story of Jonah is one that we all know pretty well. At least the part about the prophet who doesn’t want to do what he’s being asked to, running away, and being swallowed by the great fish. What’s probably a little less well known is the rest of the story. The fact that Jonah’s experience leads him to heed God’s call and do the very thing he tried so hard to avoid. “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” He’s given another chance, and with that chance, he sees great success as the people of Nineveh repent of their wickedness and turn to the Lord. Maybe even less well known is the anger that Jonah then feels at the fact that God spared the Ninevites. Anger for which Jonah is harshly rebuked by God.
Jonah was a lot like me as a kid. Hesitant. Wary. Probably a little bit of an over-analyzer. Reluctant to jump into something new for fear of how it might go. Jonah didn’t choose to be a prophet. God chose him. And when that call came, he desperately wanted to avoid it. Our text for this morning focuses on Jonah’s second call, after the encounter with the great fish, when he heeds the Lord’s calling and shows the success a faithful servant can have when following the will of God. Even as he’s called to the very place he so desperately wanted to avoid.
I think that every single one of us has a place that we desperately want to avoid. That place that we just don’t want to go. That thing we’d rather not do. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have a Nineveh. That place, that thing, in our Christian calling that we try to avoid at all costs. For me as a youth it was knocking on doors. Probably a common fear, but for me it was almost debilitating. In scouts, we had to go door to door selling things to make money for the troop. But even harder than that was the time our high school Sunday School teacher had us go out and knock on doors in the church’s neighborhood and invite people to church. I vividly recall the uncertainty, and even fear, walking up to houses, hoping no one would answer the door so we could just leave the door knocker with our service times and be able to walk away without having to have an interaction. That same feeling came over me when my seminary professor announced we’d be canvassing neighborhoods as a requirement for an evangelism class. That experience went much better and I even have a few positive stories from that experience, but I still wonder at times if this calling God has placed on my life is meant as much for me to grow as it is to share the Good News of Christ with others.
It certainly was that for Jonah. And it is for each of us as we strive to figure out what our Nineveh is. And how we might respond to God’s call to go there. Because wherever it is for us, it’s a frightening place to go. The Nineveh, the one Jonah was sent to, was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. One of the most violent and cruel empires in the history of the world. And God determined that it was into this corrupt culture that Jonah needed to go. And not just go there, but to proclaim to that evil city that God was planning to destroy them. It’s not hard to see the parallels between Jonah’s mission and the one God sends us out on today. Just look around and it would seem everywhere the eye can see is filled with corruption, evil, and a fleeing from God and His ways. Even in this, we’re called, as Jonah was to speak the truth that God does not desire His people to live this way. Violence, debauchery, lying, and all other manner of evil that surrounds us is not God’s way. And we’re called not to ignore it. Not to run the other way. But to confront it head on. Just thinking about it brings back all that fear and anxiety of my youth.
If we’re to be like Jonah, we need to recognize that the mission is not one of a day, a week, or even a year. It’s a lifelong commitment to sharing the Gospel with people who more and more are opposed to hearing the message. “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days journey in breadth.” This was a challenge. Jonah didn’t have the luxury of a car or even a megaphone to proclaim this message far and wide. He didn’t have a television station that could beam the message into people’s homes. “Going into the city, going a day’s journey.” He had to go to the corners of the city, exposed to the danger of a people who didn’t want to hear what he had to say. It was a totally unpopular message, but “he called out, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!’” Over and over again Jonah proclaimed this message to the people, unsure of what it would mean for his very life and what the people of Nineveh might do to silence him.
What’s so amazing about this account is the very same thing that’s incredible about our own callings to preach the Law and the Gospel. We can’t know at the outset what the response and reaction is going to be. God knows, but we don’t. When the Lord’s message and not our own is preached, we’re told that His word will not return void. It has the power to work, and it will work in ways that at times we just can’t understand. Jonah could not have dreamed that the reaction of the Ninevites would be what it ended up being. Speaking the message given to him by God was all that it took. “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
What’s more is that the king of Nineveh knew that these outward acts would be fruitless without true repentance. So, he commands that “everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” What he didn’t understand at the time was the great grace of God. He says, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” When the Lord calls His people to repentance, he doesn’t desire the death of the sinner, bt to draw the sinner to eternal life. It’s easy for us to just write off those who we see as the epitome of evil, but God just won’t do it. It would be much easier, for us, if we were called only to bring the Gospel to those who were readily inclined to hear it. But God wants that message proclaimed to all.
And just as His grace is sufficient for everyone in Nineveh who turned from their wicked ways, its sufficient for all the Ninevehs He calls us to. And it’s sufficient for each of us. The Lord sent Jonah into the midst of Nineveh to bring them to repentance. And he sends His people today into the darkest and most rebellious places. To proclaim the message that He sent His very own son into the world. To secure salvation for all who repent and believe. Turning from our wicked ways to the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. This world and everyone in it is fallen and hurting. We’re no different than the city of Nineveh that Jonah was sent to. And we have a God who loves us just as much as he loved the people of that fallen city. Who desires His message of grace and mercy to be proclaimed and wants His people to hear it and turn from our own ways.
As much as we have heard and know this message, we need to be reminded every day. And once we’ve heard that message we then need to listen to hear what Nineveh God is calling us to. There are places to which you and I might not want to go and times that we’d rather not speak God’s Law, or even His precious Gospel message. But the Lord will keep calling, just as He did with Jonah. Calling us to places just as broken and hurting as that ancient city of Nineveh. Because he cares so deeply for each of His precious children. And His plan of salvation calls for each of us to heed His call to bring this message to many. So, figure out what your Nineveh is, and go there. Do the things you don’t want to do. Go where you don’t want to go. What’s the place where your comfort zone will be tested? Where will you experience a little bit of stress as you’re called to God’s service? These are the places you can be assured that God will be with you. Not allowing you to stumble or fall, but holding up your hands, being your voice, and strengthening your spirit as you do His will. “Arise, go to Nineveh.” Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.