June 17, 2010 David Balzer

Jonah 3: A big wake-up call

The surgeon sat down behind his desk. He flipped through the folder, double-checking the results of the CT scan. He took a deep breath, looked up and started, “There’s no need to do a fine needle biopsy to know it’s serious, we know the lump’s malignant … this is serious, this is VERY serious.

“It’s either a lymphoma or a muscular sarcoma. If it’s a lymphoma, your prognosis is quite good. Unfortunately, normally with a lump like yours, it’s a muscular sarcoma. And if that’s the case, there’s no treatment. You’ve got a maximum of six months to live.

How would you take news like that? Less than six months left to live. There’s nothing like a brush with to get your attention. It’s the biggest wake-up call there is.

This was the news a friend of mine received about a number of years ago. It started with a visit to his GP because of a lump he had in his pectoral muscle. This led to an ultrasound. The ultrasound led to a CT scan. Which in turn took him to the surgeon’s office.

Listen to what my friend wrote later about that meeting.

“As I left his office so many thoughts raced through my mind.  There was nothing new in being told I had a terminal illness – after all – we ALL have a terminal illness. We all die eventually.

The thought of my own didn’t worry me, but not being there for my family was an immediate concern.

I tried to pray, but I did not know what to pray. I had spent my life praying for people who had walked through such difficult times, but I was not experienced at praying for myself.

Questions raced through my mind.  How do I tell my wife?  My children?  We long to protect our loved-ones from pain, not to INFLICT it.  All I could hear were the words “muscular sarcoma” and “six months”.  Should I pray for a miracle cure?  After all, surely God was capable of such things.

It was a strange and unforgettable time as I paused on the hospital steps.  The reality of God’s presence in the midst of this was undeniable.  I was convinced that I was dying, and yet it was not the hope of some miraculous cure that sustained me.  The great confidence came from the doctrine of providence.  I was reminded that God was not just the creator of every cell in my body, but he sustained each one, the malignant and the benign.

God had not lost control and nor should I.  His providential care meant that nothing could separate me from his love.  His providential care meant that he was the God of my wife and my children.

My prayer was simple, “Lord, let me die well.”  My mind went to others I had seen die of cancer, how they had died in the Lord and died well.  I was reminded of what a strong testimony this is to the grace of God and prayed that should my ministry be in rather than in life, that it might still resound to God’s glory. I reminded myself of the importance of rejoicing in God’s sovereignty.”

That’s what my friend thought about as the dark shadow of loomed over him. God, in his wisdom, decided to heal him. After six months of chemo, he’s been in remission for more than two years. And everything looks clear.

There’s nothing like A BRUSH WITH DEATH to get your attention. To clarify your priorities. It’s the biggest wake-up call there is


A brush with death. And a wake up call. It’s what we see in the book of Jonah. TWICE. First, Jonah HIMSELF experienced it in Ch 2. In the middle of the sea. In a wild storm. Thrown overboard. Sinking like a stone. Gasping for breath.

And his thoughts finally turn to God. The only one who can help. He calls out to him, “Save me, God! Rescue me!”

And God does. A giant fish swallows him. And Jonah can hardly believe it. He’s still alive. He’s grateful, and he wants to head back to Jerusalem to off a sacrifice.

God causes the fish to VOMIT Jonah up. And that’s where we take up the story in Ch 3. Jonah’s on dry land, safe and sound. Perhaps just trying to get his bearings about what direction JERUSALEM is.

And the word of the LORD comes to Jonah A SECOND TIME. Same as before. V2. Almost exactly the same words as Chapter 1. Same destination, same JOB, same message.

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and PROCLAIM to it the message I give you.”

The only “proclaiming” he’s done SO FAR is calling out to God in prayer to save HIMSELF.

LAST time he heard this command Jonah ran away. And things didn’t turn out so well! What will he do THIS TIME? When the call comes to Jonah THE SECOND TIME?

Jonah may not be much of a prophet, and he may not be the sharpest tool in the shed  – trying to run away from the God who made everything – but he’s not THAT STUPID.

God obviously means business. So THIS time, v3, Jonah OBEYS the word of the LORD. His near death experience has given him A WAKE UP CALL. It’s made him realise how DUMB it is to run away from God.

The Ninevites

But Jonah’s not the ONLY one who has a near-death experience. The NINEVITES do TOO. A brush with death, and a wake up call.

Because when Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh, he gives them God’s message. And it’s pretty simple. And straight to the point. See it there in v4?

“Forty more days, and Nineveh will be destroyed”

It would have taken Jonah a month or two to travel to Nineveh. Plenty of time to work up a real BEAUTY of a sermon. Well-structured. Full of illustrations. Engaging. Powerful. Interesting. But the best he can do is-  “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be destroyed”.

It’s a message that’s nothing more, nothing less, than A DEATH SENTENCE. There’s no “TWO WAYS TO LIVE”. There’s no message of hope or forgiveness. No choice.

There’s no “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” No favourable odds. No radical surgery. No experimental drugs. “Forty more days, then judgment.”

What do you do with a message like that?

It’s the decision patients who are given only weeks to live have to make. When the doctor says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.” Do they just give up, and withdraw? Sit in a corner and feel sorry for themselves? And just fade away?

Or do they get out and ENJOY their time?

And HOW do you enjoy your time? Do you satisfy YOURSELF? Or do you do something BIGGER and BETTER? Leave a legacy behind?

Some people might dive right into SELFISHNESS. Live life to the full. Max out the credit card. Rob a bank. Party. Indulge in pleasures. Eat, drink and be merry.

Others might just gather their family and best friends around them, and just ENJOY them. Take everyone somewhere wonderful. Blow all the savings.

The historian Thucydides, records that in 430BC a terrible plague hit Athens. People were faced with death every day. They could die within days.

Their response? They committed EVERY HORRIBLE CRIME, and engaged in EVERY LUSTFUL PLEASURE they could. They believed that life was short, and they would never have to pay any penalty.

And perhaps that’s what we’d expect from the Ninevites.

But it didn’t happen like that. Because the message cuts them to the core.

Forty more days. Six weeks. Then, just like that – NOTHING. That’s was the MESSAGE they heard.

But it’s a brush with death that sends them a huge wake up call. It’s like the threat of death shone a bright light onto their lives. Showing up all the filth, and wickedness, and violence, and anger and rejection of God. All the shameful acts and thoughts and words. All the worthlessness, and futility, and selfishness and wasted opportunities.

Jonah’s message CONVICTED them. A message from God himself. They recognised their sin. And they did something about it. v5.

(Jonah 3:5 NIV)  The Ninevites BELIEVED GOD. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

Jonah barely gets the message out, and people are off and running. It’s a HUGE city. Three days journey to cover it. And Jonah barely makes it into the first day. “Forty more days, and Nineveh’s destroyed,” he says. Hardly an extensive media campaign. But the news spreads like wildfire. Bad news can BE like that.

Like police going door-to-door evacuating houses. “Quick! Grab your kids, your keys, and your pets! And get out of here! The bushfire will be here WITHIN THE HOUR. And you’ve got to leave NOW!” Short, sharp and to the point.

When the news is that desperate, it’s no wonder it travels so quickly. One person tells two, who tell four, who tell 8, who tell sixteen. Before long, it reaches the king. And he, too, is cut to the core. Look at v6.

(Jonah 3:6-9 NIV)  When the news reached THE KING of Nineveh, HE rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. {7} Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or BEAST, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. {8} But let man AND BEAST be covered with sackcloth.

Everyone’s to fast. Animals TOO. He even wants the ANIMALS wearing sackcloth! And the king’s humbled too. Like all the rest, he wears sackcloth. Mourning for his sin. From the TOP of society to the BOTTOM.

But more than that, PLEADING WITH GOD to change his mind. V8

Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. {9} Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

The very thing Jonah has been so reluctant to do. To CALL OUT. But it’s the FIRST thing the king wants people to do.

And do you see what he’s hoping for? Perhaps there’s a chance! Perhaps God MIGHT change his mind.

On the face it, it just looks like wishful thinking, doesn’t it. After all, there’s nothing but misery in that message. No hope. 100%. Definite. Destruction. “40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” But WHO KNOWS!

And yet, if you think about it, perhaps there IS some hope.

Because if God really DID send Jonah, like he says. If he’s gone to all the trouble of chasing Jonah, and giving him a message, and leading him all the way to Nineveh , then just perhaps, he’s expecting some response from them.

If he really WAS determined to destroy them, then why bother sending Jonah? Why not just ZAP ‘EM?

And so the king thinks, “Don’t just give up. EVERYONE – animals included – fast, weep, mourn, pray, repent. WHO KNOWS? Maybe, just maybe, God might show compassion, and turn from his anger.” We’ve got nothing to lose!

2. Repentance

Let’s look at their reaction. And LEARN some things from it.

The first thing to notice is that it was based on CONVICTION FROM GOD’S WORD. God spoke. And the people BELIEVED him.

You know, human beings are the only part of God’s creation who gets a choice in the matter. When God’s speaks to ANYTHING ELSE, it LISTENS.

God spoke, and light came out of darkness.

God spoke, and the waters above separated from the waters below.

God spoke, and mountains rose up from the ground.

God spoke, and stars burned.

God spoke, and birds flew, fish swam, fruit trees grew.

And when God spoke, the Ninevites believed God. The recognised him. Recognised his claim on the world. And they recognised his claim on THEM.

Their conviction came from God’s word.

And the second step in repentance. THEIR CONVICTION WAS SEEN IN SORROW. When you recognise God, and you see where you fit in to his world. You catch a glimpse of how far you are from being the sort of person he made you to be. And you see something of the disappointment and hurt he feels. And the only appropriate response to that is SORROW.

But sorry isn’t enough. The sorrow has to stir you to ACTION. Many people caught up in drug addiction, or sexual immorality, or pornography, or gambling are MISERABLE. There’s plenty of SORROW. But it’s often SELF-PITY.

But that’s a long way from repentance. Which is what we see HERE. How do we KNOW? Because, you see, TRUE SORROW leads to ACTION. That’s the third step.

Look at what the people do. There’s the EXTERNAL actions. The sackcloth and ashes. The fasting. Signs of grief and mourning.

But more than that, the king calls them to PRAY. To plead their case before God. To recognise that, of all the PEOPLE they’d sinned against, it was against GOD that they’d sinned the most. HE was the one they needed forgiveness from. Pardon.

And he was the only one who could GIVE it. The only one who could remove the shadow hanging over them. The shadow of death. HE was the one who controlled their destiny. And so they call out to HIM.

But they don’t just leave the ball in God’s court. The king calls them to GIVE UP their EVIL WAYS. To TURN from the violence. To turn over a new leaf. There’s INTERNAL change too.

That’s what GODLY sorrow does. TRUE repentance is seen in A CHANGED LIFE.

If YOU’RE stuck in some sin. And you don’t know where to turn. If you’ve repented again and again. But there’s no change. Let me ask, what ACTIONS have you done that SHOW your repentance?

Who have you asked to CHECK on you? A more mature Christian who you TELL about your temptation, and who you give permission to ASK you?

What changes have you made to your surroundings? If there’s a particular time or situation that makes it more difficult for you. Then CHANGE it. Do things DIFFERENTLY.

True repentance is seen in ACTION.

Which is what we see at Nineveh.

Well, what does GOD think of this? That’s what it’s all in aid of. It doesn’t matter what anyone ELSE thinks. God’s the one they need to convince.

Had they done enough? Were their actions extreme enough? Were their prayers earnest enough? Was their repentance complete enough?

3. Mercy

And Verse 10 tells us that God DOES take notice. He DOES see all their actions. He sees all the sackcloth, the fasting, the animals all walking around in hessian sacks. He hears all the prayers.

But what’s more important, he sees CHANGED HEARTS. Genuine, repentant, turned-around lives. And that’s something you can’t manufacture or pretend. Look at v10.

(Jonah 3:10 NIV)  When God SAW what they did and how they TURNED from their evil ways, he had COMPASSION and did NOT bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

The king had hoped that if the PEOPLE/ TURNED from their evil ways, then GOD might TURN from HIS anger.

And he did. His anger was replaced with compassion. His justice with forgiveness. His judgment with MERCY. WHICH IS WHAT HE’D WANTED TO DO ALL ALONG. The whole reason he called Jonah, and brought him all the way from Israel in the FIRST place.

It’s what he ALWAYS wants from people. That’s his DESIRE. 2 Peter 3:9: God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

He LONGS for people to recognise him. And so he gave us JESUS. And he gave us the BIBLE. So that we might HEAR God’s word. And be CONVICTED by it.

And then, that conviction might lead to SORROW. And that sorrow might lead to ACTION. A repentance. A turning around. A turning away from our old way of doing things. To doing things GOD’s way.

God wants us to repent like the Ninevites. Is that something YOU need to do?

And that’s not just something you do ONCE. But something you KEEP doing.

You see, the original audience for the book of Jonah was ISRAEL. It was written as a wake-up call to ISRAEL. People who’d grown COLD to God. Who’d heard all the warnings, read all the books. Listened to all the prophets. Repented and sacrificed again and again. But who’d wandered away.

The prophet Amos lived at the same time as Jonah and he gives us some idea of how wicked and corrupt Israel had become. Amos says that the Israelites were caught up in sexual immorality, they were abusing the poor and the widows, they denied justice to the oppressed. Greed and self-centredness could be seen everywhere.

And through the book of Jonah, God is saying, “ISRAEL, YOU NEED TO REPENT LIKE NINEVEH. Just like the king and his people. Whole-hearted, sorrowful, prayerful, complete, repentance – that’s what I’m after. If THEY can do it, how MUCH MORE can YOU do it?”

Nineveh didn’t KNOW the covenant God of Israel. They had none of the privileges Israel had. The king’s command was to pray. “WHO KNOWS? God MIGHT turn from his anger. We don’t really KNOW.”

But Israel DID know. They DID know that God was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love.

And WE know God’s character even BETTER. Better than Nineveh, and better than Israel. We’ve seen him most clearly in Jesus. In his life and in his death. We’ve seen the compassion and the love and the forgiveness and the mercy and the patience.

Do WE recognise our sin, like Nineveh? Are we CONVICTED, and SORROWFUL for our sin?

And does it lead to ACTION? Are there REAL CHANGES that SHOW the genuineness of our repentance?

Or is it all just WORDS, and STAYING WHERE WE ARE.

And the message of the book of Jonah gives us CONFIDENCE to ask God’s forgiveness. If God can forgive NINEVEH, then he’ll forgive anyone.

And that’s good news for us as we TELL that message to people. Because if God can turn NINEVEH around then he can reach ANYONE.

The good news about Jesus can change the high court judge, or the prostitute. The University academic or the bikie. The radical feminist or the broken, depressed, single mum.

NO-ONE is beyond God’s reach.

And, what’s more, God brought about repentance USING JONAH. If God can use JONAH to achieve his purposes, then he can used ANYONE. Even ME. Even YOU!

If you think about it, there are always plenty of opportunities to introduce your friends to God. Workmates, family, neighbours, acquaintances. LOOK for the opportunities. PRAY for them to happen. Pray for the courage to TAKE them.

Don’t be comfortable like Israel. Don’t take God’s mercy for granted like Israel. Let’s remember the mercy God’s shown US. And let’s pass it on.

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