Summary: God not only gave Jonah a second chance to live but a second chance to serve. He does the same in our lives!
How far would you go to find a fountain of youth? What would you give to forever have the energy level of a two-year old and the smooth skin of a baby’s bottom? In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the intrepid Dr. Jones slogged through a sewer, stepped over rats, outran a fire, did battle with the Nazis, and finessed his way through an ancient labyrinth to find a fountain of youth. Forced by a shadowy antiques collector, Indy was in search of the Holy Grail, a name some give to the cup used at Jesus’ Last Supper. The story line was that this cup would give immortality to anyone who drank from it. The Last Crusade is only a movie but it illustrates well how desperate mankind is to find something that will stave off death.
In today’s Independent Jonah adventure we’ll see that God doesn’t require such a Herculean effort to obtain eternal life. In fact eternal life is not only something God offers us for free, he brings it to us, as did Jonah to the Ninevites in an adventure we’ll call “Independent Jonah and the Life-giving Crusade.”
This is the third sermon in a four-part series on the life of the prophet Jonah. We’ve been calling Jonah “Independent” for his decision to split rather than serve when called to preach to the Ninevites, a fearsome enemy of the Israelites. God stopped Jonah in his tracks with a violent storm that caused the prophet to be tossed into the frothing sea. Independent should have drowned but God sent a large fish to swallow him and three days later spit him out on to dry land. By so doing God proved himself to be the God of second chances. Not only was Jonah given another chance to live, he was given another opportunity to serve, as the opening words of our text make clear: “1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1-3a).
What I love about God’s second call to Jonah is that he passed over Independent’s previous rebellion with gracious silence. God didn’t say: “Think you can handle the assignment Jonah or are you going to run off again like you did last time?” No, God illustrates what the Apostle Peter meant when he wrote: “…love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8b). God calls us to extend this same gracious silence to those who have sinned against us. If we “forgive” our spouse but constantly remind him or her of how gracious we were for overlooking their sin, we might as well drop the pretense and lambaste them for the hurt we’re refusing to let go of. At least then we wouldn’t be guilty of the sin of hypocrisy on top of our sinful refusal to forgive as God has forgiven us in Christ Jesus, completely.
Motivated by God’s forgiveness Jonah made the long journey to the great city of Nineveh. And Nineveh was indeed great. It had walls that were 100 ft. high and so wide that three chariots could drive abreast on a road built on top of it. The city was so large that it took the prophet three days to make the rounds through all the plazas and parks where people could gather to hear his sermon. Jonah wasted no time in proclaiming God’s message. He started in as soon as he arrived shouting: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4b).
I find it interesting that Jonah didn’t carry out a community survey to figure out where the best place would be to start his mission activity. He just did it. Now I’m not saying it’s wrong to analyze our community and carefully plan where we plant mission starts. I just wonder if we sometimes get so caught up in the planning, that we become hesitant to hit the pavement. The serious fisherman will also carefully plan his outings. He’ll make sure he has the right lures and find out when and where the fish are most apt to bite but finally the most important thing he does is throw his line in the water. It’s the only way he’ll catch fish. Friends, let’s make sure that we don’t use “proper planning” as an excuse to keep us from getting out there to share Jesus. Jonah didn’t have a fancy building from which he preached. He didn’t have slick brochures to hand out. What he did have (and so do we) was all he needed: God’s powerful Word.
But what about Jonah’s message itself? Surely there must have been more to it than the cry: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4b). Everyone knows that proper sermons are supposed to be at least 20 minutes long. So what did Jonah talk about the other 19 minutes and 50 seconds? Perhaps Jesus’ words in the gospel of Luke (11:29-32) give us some clues. There Jesus said that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, just as the Son of Man (Jesus) would be a sign to his generation. In what way was Jesus a sign to his generation? Well when the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign in addition to all the miracles he had already done to prove the claims he was making about himself, Jesus said that none would be given except the sign of Jonah. Jesus went on to explain: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Just as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would be powerful proof of who he was – the Son of God, so Jonah’s experience with the fish was a powerful sermon for the Ninevites. It illustrated who God is: a just yet forgiving God. It may even have been that the three days in the fish’s belly changed Jonah’s appearance so that he was a sign the Ninevites could literally see. If the fish’s stomach juices had caused Jonah to lose his hair and discolor him a bit people would have asked: “What happened to you?” If so, what a wonderful opening for Jonah. He could now easily tell a rapt audience how he had tried to run away from God but found it impossible. So if the Ninevites thought they could keep going in their sinful ways, they were mistaken. God was aware of their wickedness and he was about to punish them. But the God who made the heavens and earth is also a God of mercy. Jonah should know! He should have been destroyed for running away but instead was saved and given a second chance when he was swallowed by that fish and spit out onto dry land. God was now giving the Ninevites a second chance. They had exactly 40 days to repent.