Reluctant Prophet: Relentless God Of Grace

Jonah 3:1-5,10

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah is known to be the most reluctant prophet of God in history. His is a famous story of a man called to be prophet to a despicable people who runs away from God’s call, only to be relentlessly pursued by God by various means to get to this magnificent outcome of a city repenting of their evil behaviour; less pain, injustice, violence and suffering…..

Our text is the one paragraph summary of this great outcome. But is has a huge story around it….  Here is the short version….

God calls Jonah to go to a brutal, violent city of non-Jewish foreign people in a distant place. Jonah says, “No”. He goes in the very opposite direction geographically and in the heart. But the Lord will not let his mission to save a community or his reluctant prophet go.

Jonah catches a boat away from Nineveh and God. But God is now away! He sends a huge storm that catches Jonah and a fearful ship’s crew.

Jonah is asleep in his splendid uncaring, self-righteous isolation bubble. The pagan captain wakes him up and demands that Jonah get out of his self-bubble and put his faith in his God to do something good for others!

Jonah is momentarily awoken from his self-righteous disobedience to the mission call of God. He finally engages. He offers himself for death in place of the sailors. They reluctantly throw him into the sea as he commands.

The Lord provides a very large fish to save Jonah from certain death. Jonah prays his prayer in that saving belly. It is a prayer of a person who finally knows the Lord’s saving love.

For a while, Jonah is grateful and awake to his calling. He eventually goes to despicable city under protest and preaches the shortest ‘sermon’ in history without heart or conviction.

‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ (Jonah 3:4b)

Amazingly, these horrible pagans heed the warning and repent of their pride. The Lord saves a city from bloodshed, violence and pain.

Jonah remains unimpressed. He is very angry with the Lord, we hear (Jonah 4:1). He criticises the Lord for his grace on these horrible people and says that this whole mission was a waste of Jonah’s time. He says he would rather the Lord kill him than call him into his mission ever again!!

Striking stuff – like a hated Samaritan saving a beaten up Jewish person on the side of the road or a loving father pleading with angry oldest son to come in and join the banquet for his reckless younger brother who is now found.

We are meant to ponder Jonah’s self-righteousness….. and our own.

We are meant to ponder our attitude to those ‘Ninevites’ around us…. and marvel at the magnitude and extent of God’s grace for them and us.

I think of us as a church.

We are NOT reluctant prideful prophets. By God’s same relentless grace, given through his ultimate prophet – Jesus, we are congregation who have a long history of going to this ‘Nineveh’ and proclaiming his words of repentance and forgiveness in various ways with conviction in the heart.

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s we even had a mission event called, “Nineveh”! It was a way of going to this community based on Christian music. It was in the Tanunda Show Hall. I remember walking through the belly of a whale complete with water misters to get into the Tanunda Hall. Brilliant!

Then of course there was the bold and brave decision to purchase a whole section of land to get a mission presence in the main street by means of running a retail outlet; a shop we have called The Cottage. Brilliant.

Both ways of doing mission to our ‘Nineveh’ were entirely appropriate for the time. Same for the café and craft in Schaedel Haus Craft and Tea Rooms in the main street that ran for 11-12 years? Same for reaching out overseas by various means – Shoeboxes, working with ALWS on projects…..

And now, a new community that has formed – a church planted, if you like – Messy Church. Relationships, conversation, witness to dozens of local couples/families over years now. Bearing fruit of faith questions, searching for more for some of our ‘Ninevites’.

I think of the work of supporting, teaching and loving parents of young children through the Family Centre. Bearing good fruit among the Ninevites of Nuri.

I think of our ongoing partnership with Lutheran Care that has real outcomes of hope for real people. Same for partnership in our schools.

I think of the work of gathering men to hear and tell stories that matter in the hope that the gospel is received, and lives transformed in Shed Happens.

And countless caring conversations in shops, homes, parks, pubs, clubs and everywhere else – all with mission heart.

These are also entirely appropriate for this time. These are all signs of this congregation’s beating mission heart for our ‘Nineveh’. We have been up on deck among the pagan sailors in their fear and the Assyrians and their pagan ways and sacrificed ourselves in many ways for their safety and hope.

But what is Jonah’s warning to us?

The temptation that can sneak up on us is falling into a sleepy self-righteousness.

Jonah was running away from God’s call to go to Nineveh for a couple of main reasons:

  1. He disliked the people to whom he was called to go.
  2. He did not think going and sacrificing anything for them was worth it or necessary.

The Assyrians were not Jewish! They were unclean, heartless, ignorant Gentiles not worth the time or the mission. If there was ever a community of sinners totally undeserving of any morsel of grace from the Lord, Nineveh was it!

No. They should wake up to themselves and ‘get a haircut’ and get themselves sorted out. They deserve all they get. You live by the sword; you should die by the sword.

His faith in God was for him and his own people; his nation, Israel, his ‘church’.

That is the truthful warning for us now.

Changing things, learning new things, leaving some thing behind as we listen, adapt and working together for our community is just not worth it.

“People who don’t come to church deserve all they get. We try and run things for them, and they don’t come. They should help themselves. Why should we bother. Why can’t they just be like us? Who cares if they are not! I am OK”.

My friends, if there were ever words of self-justification before the Lord Jesus who gave his life for these Ninevites in our town, and for each of us, these are them.

Jonah cherishes these attitudes in his heart. Jonah was around in the reign of King Jeroboam II (786-746BC We hear in 1Kings 14:25 that unlike two other prophets at this time; Amos and Hosea, Jonah did not criticize the King’s aggressive military policy to ‘make Israel great’ but supported the King’s nationalistic patriotic plans. Of all people the Lord would send to Nineveh!!

Self-righteousness blinds you. Jonah is blinded to the grace of God for himself and them.

Jonah could not trust God’s calling or God’s logic or his grace intent for the Ninevites or HIMSELF. He does know the sheer grace of the Lord for him.

So Jonah runs, he avoids, he blames, he feels superior, he puts limits on grace, he sleeps in his comfortable superiority and self-righteousness and church pride. If he engages in anything it is from a position of power and superiority.

Friends, we are called to this Nineveh. Are we willing to trust our prophet, priest and King, Jesus for this time?

Do I believe we mostly know that this Nuriootpa Nineveh does not deserve God’s grace and that we don’t either. No one does. But in Jesus, we have it. We have his beautiful righteousness before a holy God but his dying and rising and living in us now.

He calls us to trust his logic, his intent and each other enough to listen, learn, adapt, change and move together into new ways of carrying his good news among people different to those ways we have in the past.

God changes his methods to suit to moment. God used six means to achieve his mission to save Nineveh. He used a storm, some worried pagans, a fish, a one line warning from an unconvinced man, a little tree, a little worm that killed the tree, leaving Jonah’s self-righteousness exposed.

The Lord does this for people. He will ensure that human beings are saved from more pain and suffering and that his people heed the warning of self-righteousness and fall on Jesus’ righteousness and truly live.

If the Lord uses different means for different moments, why can’t we? God’s mission is a mission to this Nineveh, and he has a church to work with – us.

Jonah prays from the deep dark sea:

I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’ (Jonah 2:9)