Jonah's Advice on Teaching the Nations: A Sermon based on Jonah 3
Today we’re continuing our walk through the book of Jonah. Each week we’ve been inviting Jonah and Jesus into a fireside chat. We’ve watched them talk to each other about the Great Commission. The first week, Jesus told us to make disciples of the nations, and Jonah showed us how not to do it. Jonah suggested that when we hear God’s call, its not wise to run in the complete opposite direction. Last week in Michelle’s reflected, Jesus invited us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jonah told us something about what it means to be baptized: The complete drowning of our old self. The drowning of our disobedience. The drowning of our running away from God. But Jonah also told us that from that place of drowning we rise to new life with God. And from that place of new life, God sends us back on mission.
Today, Jesus is telling us to teach what everything He’s commanded. What do you think Jonah has to say about this? Let’s go ask him. There he is. Jonah has emerged from his strange and dark baptism, and the fish has just vomited him onto the beach. Let’s go talk to him. As we approach, we see that Jonah is in conversation with God. Jonah is being commissioned to announce the Word of God to the nations. This calling is all about the power of God. This calling is about unleashing the uncontainable power of the Word of God. This calling is about handling a power that that is incomprehensible. Do you think Jonah knows all that?
Jonah, Chapter 3, begins by making sure that we understand that the Word of God is exactly what we’re dealing with. A second time the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah and says, “Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out to it the call that I speak to you.” But this time, God’s word to Jonah is just a little different. In chapter one, the Lord told Jonah to call out ‘against’ Nineveh a Word of Judgment. In chapter three, the Lord only tells Jonah to call to Nineveh. This one little difference, just a change in one little proposition in Hebrew, holds out the glimmer of hope for Nineveh. Whether or not Jonah notices this slight difference is certainly debatable. After all, the message that Jonah brings seems pretty hostile. Jonah journeys into the city, and calls out “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” But even that one word holds out a glimmer of hope for Nineveh. On the one hand, it is definitely a Word of Judgment. The same word is used in Genesis to describe how God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. But this word can be also be a word of change and transformation. In Jeremiah 13, God asks if a person can transform their appearance. Perhaps the Ninevites are grasping onto the hope that Nineveh might not be destroyed, but transformed.
That’s why in verse three, the narrator describe the city in this way: “And Nineveh was a great city of God’s…” Nineveh, like everything else in the world, is God’s possession. And God is appropriately concerned about every square inch of His creation. Even this city, this nation that would later destroy the nation of Israel, God calls His own. Even to this wicked city, God sends His word to bring transformation. Jesus reflects this exact heart of God when He calls for us to make disciples of all nations and to teach all to obey everything He has commanded. He is in the process of transforming the world, and he does so through His messengers. That’s why he calls us to bring His Word to all people. Jesus came not to condemn the World, but so that the world might be saved through Him.
Do you get excited when you think of bringing God’s Word to those who don’t know Him? Do you look for ways to be God’s messenger to those who are living in disobedience to the Word of God, to those who don’t really care anything about God. Do you get joy from announcing God’s Good News? Are you eager to teach the nations or your neighbour to obey everything that Jesus commanded? What does that stir up in you? Could it be passion? Joy? Guilt? Fear? Apathy? Reluctance? Are you tempted to ask; “what’s the use of telling someone about the Word of God, its not going to change anything anyway?”
When we tell someone about the Word of God, we aren’t just telling them a word for the wise, or a good thought, or a neat idea. When we announce the Word of God, we are doing something infinitely greater. In Romans, Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the Good News. Its God’s Power…” In 1 Corinthians Paul says, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Or in Isaiah 55, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” When we even whisper the Word of God, we are speaking something that contains immeasurable power. God’s Word, His message is imbued with the Divine Spirit and accomplishes far more than we can comprehend. Of course, we’ve all encountered people who have used the Word of God like a club. As a blunt instrument to bang over people’s heads. The Word of God isn’t a kind of club to hit people upside the head. The author of Hebrews says that the word of God is like a surgical instrument: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Followers of Jesus must train to be like surgeons. We must learn how to properly handle the Word. As surgeons in training, we study what the Bible says. We get to know God as He reveals Himself through His word. We learn what Jesus taught and we obey what he commanded. As soul surgeons, we conform our life to the Word of God. We learn to love the Word, and love the God revealed in His Word. To handle the Word of God, this spiritual scalpel, we study just as seriously as a surgeon studies for surgery. But study will only take us so far. We also live in relationship with God. We listen to this God. Just as Jonah was given a Word for the Ninevites, we, too, must listen for God’s Word. If we listen, the Spirit of God will speak to us. If we listen, God will send us with His Word.
And when we use the Word of God, when we share God’s message, when we use God’s scalpel, God may perform open heart surgery through our words. Through our words, God may heal a person’s soul or spirit, heart or mind. We might feel weak and fearful as Paul did, or we might even feel resentful, as Jonah did, but ultimately none of that matters, for when the Word of God speaks through us, it speaks with power.
That is certainly conveyed in what followed Jonah’s announcement. At face value, Jonah’s message to the Nineties is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. He’s in the same boat with Paul who said, “My speech and my words were not with plausible words of wisdom.” Jonah’s message to the people of Nineveh is just silly. All he says is “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” If you were to have an intervention with a friend about their behaviour, or if you were to write a letter to the editor about a matter of great significance, or, if you were spewed up by a whale and traveled four days to deliver a message, surely you’d say more than seven words. But that’s surely the point! When God acts through His Word, He is not dependent on the skill of the person speaking. When Jonah speaks God’s message, spiritual shockwaves ripple through Nineveh. The nation hears these seven words, is pierced by the Word, and places their trust in God. They repent of whatever needed repentance. They put on sackcloth. They fast. The word even reaches the king, and he takes off his royal robes and wraps himself with sackcloth, he pours ashes on himself. Then he writes the most urgent of proclamations: “Man and beast, cattle and sheep, shall taste nothing. They shall not graze and they shall not drink water. And man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth, and they shall call out to God with all their might…”
I have a question for those in the congregation who keep livestock or have animals. Imagine being convicted about the word of God. A deep soul conviction, where you feel pierced by the Word of God, and you have a profound sense that God is asking to change your ways. Can you imagine that your response would go so deep as to say, “not only will I put on sackcloth, but I’m going to put sackcloth over all my dairy cows?” Can you imagine having your sheep fast alongside you? Can you imagine instructing your dog to howl with you, as you beg God for mercy? The response of Nineveh, is a picture of the power of God’s Word. Jesus has appointed all of us to be like Jonah. When God speaks through his messengers, despite all our inadequacies, he brings about more than we could imagine. God’s word and message are endowed with the Power of God. When God’s message flow out of our mouth, we are in the grip of a power far beyond our imaginings. That’s what Jesus invites us into when he says, “Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
What’s the point of doing all this? Why do what Jesus says, and become a messenger for his Word. The whole point is that the person who hears the Word of God is then able to enter into relationship with God. When we become a messenger of God’s Word, we are inviting those who hear into a kind of dance. God makes the first move, will those who hear the message accept the invitation? Will they stay in step with God? We see exactly this happening in Jonah. God moves towards the people of Nineveh with His Word. The people respond. Scripture sums it up this way: “And God saw their acts, that they had turned back from their evil way, and God relented from the evil that He said to do to them, and he did not do it.”
In this passage, you can see a kind of dance between the God and Nineveh. God moves, they move, God moves, they move. When God moves you to speak a Word to someone, imagine He’s asking someone to dance, through you. He’s using you to call a person into relationship. Your job isn’t to convince them to say yes. Your job isn’t to yank them up out of their chair and onto the dance floor. God is simply handing you an invitation, an invitation to invite someone into His arms, and into relationship with Him. God might have you show them a dance step or two. God might invite you to interrupt someone dancing with some other god in their life. But when Jesus tells us to teach the nations everything he commanded, He’s inviting is to say “God would like this dance.” Then, the Spirit of God woos that person into His arms.
That’s a glimpse of our calling as God’s messengers. That’s a glimpse of the power of God’s message. Its a power that we learn, that we know, and that we love. So as we are living out Jesus’ Word to “teach all to obey everything He’s commanded” Think of it this way, through you the Spirit of God is asking for a dance.” And of course, all this means that you’re in the dance yourself.