Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
19 November 2017
Texts: Jonah 3
The Gospel according to Jonah
Ordinary Time

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Sermon: Jonah 3

Jonah was baptized into the death and life of the Big Fish which was a type of Christ.  The sea would have destroyed him but the fish delivered him.

Jonah died in the fish and was raised up in newness of life. In other words, he was raised from the dead and sent on mission to Nineveh in Assyria.

We have seen that the great fish was a type of Christ, but it was also a type of the great city of Nineveh. How? The Assyrians worshiped a fish-headed god. A fish-like creature was their national emblem. As Jonah spent three days in the belly of the great fish, so he will spend three days in the belly of the great city.

Our sermon for today comes from Jonah 3.

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.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 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. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

Over the past 15-20 years, urban renewal has been a trendy project in many cities across the US. According to business dictionary urban renewal is

The process where an urban neighborhood or area is improved and rehabilitated. The renewal process can include demolishing old or run-down buildings, constructing new, up-to-date housing, or adding in features like a theater or stadium…Urban renewal is often part of the gentrification process.
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The main purpose of Urban Renewal is to persuade wealthier (and often whiter) people to move into poorer areas of a city and invest locally with the hope of revitalizing property, industry, economy, and civility.

The jury is still out on the overall long-term effectiveness of urban renewal projects, but recent reports at the New York Times and PBS News Hour indicate that the urban renewal trend is reaching a dead end. (Although some disagree.)

Sadly, lower and middle class people have been priced-out of and further marginzalized from their neighborhoods price as a result of the influx of savvy techies, hipster artisans, real estate moguls. The promised urban renewal has proven to be pie in the sky.

I mention all that to set up a contrast. Man strives for urban renewal one way, but God strives for urban renewal another way. It’s called revival.

This is the story of true urban revival according to the word and Spirit of God.

Nineveh was an ancient city founded by a man named Nimrod, The Book of genesis tells us that “he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen 10:8-11).

In Jonah’s time Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire which was located in the Middle East –- near modern Baghdad in Iraq.

Curiously, in Jonah 3:3, the Hebrew reads that Nineveh was a great city to elohim, meaning to gods or to God. Either way, it was a strategic city in war between God and the serpent.

In its hey-day Nineveh was a “mega-polis” like New York City.

It had walls a hundred feet high and they were so wide that three chariots could run side by side around the top of them. (Talk about a super-highway!) Within the walls were gardens and cattle and people. It contain such luxuries as public squares, parks, botanical gardens, and even a zoo (ESV Study Bible).

Like any mega-city Nineveh was full of violence, deceit, theft, murder, prostitution, and witchcraft (according to Nahum 3:1-7 which was written 40 years after Jonah, thus showing Nineveh’s relapse after the revival).

To make things worse the Assyrians were mortal enemies of the Jewish people.

At one point even Jonah’s hometown (which was near Nazareth) had experienced Assyrian terrorism first-hand. So, Jonah had cultivated a deep-seated animosity towards the Assyrians.

It’s no wonder Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh!

Who would want to preach in a city full of religious nuts and political fanatics? Who would want to preach God’s word to terrorists or fundamentalists? Who would want to preach grace to those who deserve wrath?

Yet that is precisely what God sent Jonah to do.

The first time God sent him to Nineveh he said: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry to it, for their evil has come up before me.” (1:1)

But the second time God sent him to Nineveh he said: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry to it the cry that I tell you.” (3:1)

So when Jonah arrived at Nineveh he started preaching from day one. Just as he had called out to Yahweh from the belly of the great fish, so now he calls out to Nineveh from the belly of the great city.

Here is the message God gave Jonah to cry: “Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

So did God send Jonah to Nineveh as a prophet or as an evangelist?

A prophet is a hard-nosed. An evangelist is soft-hearted. A prophet might be sent to blast those nasty Ninevites and give ’em hell. An evangelist might be sent to bless the people and give them heaven.

I think Jonah went as a dooms-day prophet in his mind, but he was sent as a good news evangelist in God’s mind.

How can we know? Here’s a clue: The Hebrew word for overthrow — nehpaket [nēhpāḵēṯ] verb, niphal, participle active, feminine, singular, absolute — is deliberately ambiguous. It conveys a double-meaning. It can mean Nineveh is changing, turning over, and overthrowing. This is the Revolution.

Here’s another clue that Jonah was sent as an evangelist. God sent Jonah to give the people fair-warning. If God had really wanted to destroy them he would not have sent them a messenger — he would have destroyed them. But since he wanted to deliver them he sent them a messenger to call them to repentance.

Preaching seems like a strange means of grace to us, but it is actually God’s ordinary appointed means to seek and save the lost. God sends messengers as his ambassadors and makes his appeal through their preaching, and it pleases him to save all those who believe the foolishness of their preaching.

God sends preachers, because without them the world will perish.

As it is written: How then will sinners call on the Savior whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe him whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom 10:12-15)

Answer: They cannot. So God sends them preachers. Why? Because faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

When Jonah cried out forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown, this created a kind of Pascal’s Wager moment for them:

If what Jonah cried was true, and they refused to change and kept on doing what they were doing for the next forty days, then they would surely perish and suffer infinite loss.

If what Jonah cried was false, and they changed their ways for the next forty days, then they would only suffer finite loss.

Either way, they felt compelled to put their money where their mouth was, and bet with their lives. On balance it made more sense to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

So, from the greatest to the least, the oldest to the youngest, everyone in the city submitted themselves to God and clothed themselves in sackcloth — the garments of repentance.

They resisted the devil, and he fled from them. They drew near to God, and he drew near to them. Sinners washed their hands and purified their hearts. They fasted and wore sackcloth: they were wretched and they mourned and wept. They turned their laughter to weeping and their joy to gloom. Why?

They humbled themselves before the Lord in the hope that he would lift them up not tear them down.

They said: “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

In other words, they repented and believed the word of God, but they did not know how God would respond to them.

This corporate / communal repentance is so hard for Americans — even Bible Belt evangelicals — to grasp. We are so committed to me, myself, and I individualism, and to every man for himself personal responsibility, that we act like we don’t understand why everyone — including all the children and animals — needed to fast and wear sackcloth. But we actually do get it. And I can prove it to you with a couple of ordinary examples from your everyday life.

Instinctively, we know that as the parents go, so go the children. That’s why you dress your kids in your favorite team colors, and take your kids to your favorite restaurants, and read them your favorite stories, and play them to your favorite music. You want to cultivate family solidarity just like the ancients did.

This is also why you bring your children to worship, present them to the Lord for baptism, teach them the scriptures, and pray with them day and night.

Contra American culture, we know that we are all in this together.

The ancients thought communally and corporately.

If the evil of this city has ascended before the face of Yahweh, then everyone in the city needs to participate in this act of repentance — including all the children who do not yet know their right hand from their left hand. There were at least 120,000 of them in Ninevah.

So, if the adults fail to do the right thing, everyone will die. If the adults fail to repent, even their children will perish. Same thing goes for us.

But when God saw what their works – how they turned from their evil way from the inside out – he said “too little too late!” Right? Wrong.

God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

This is the power of the truth of the gospel of grace — the power of true repentance.

Now, why in the world was this message so powerful and effective among the Ninevites? It seems so frail and foolish, and (unlike this sermon) so short and simple.

So what made it so effective?

Was it Jonah’s winsome smile and charismatic personality? Perhaps he dressed well and had nice hair. Maybe he spoke the message with great eloquence and used many heart-warming illustrations. Is that it?

No! Remember Jonah went to Nineveh in weakness and in fear and much trembling. His speech and his message were not in plausible words of carnal wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

If it wasn’t the prophet, perhaps it was the City.

Was it Nineveh’s openness to spiritual things? Maybe they were seekers just trying to fill a god-shaped hole in their hearts – their wicked and sinful hearts. Is that it?

No! Jonah’s message was powerful and effective because God opened the hearts of the people to pay attention to what Jonah preached (Acts 16:9).

Until Jonah showed up Nineveh was dead in its sins, and held captive by the devil. But God granted the Ninevites repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth; and they came to their senses and escaped from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

And by God’s grace, as many and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed the preaching of Jonah. And the word of the Lord spread throughout the whole city (Acts 13:48-49).

At the end of the day, the grace of the message and the faith of the Ninevites rested in the power of God alone, not in themselves at all.

Salvation belongs to the Lord – to give or take away as he desires. (Jonah 2:10)

This was one of the greatest urban revivals experienced in human history.

Unlike the false man-made revivals so common in our time, this was a true Spirit-made revival.

We know it was a true revival because sinners turned away from their sins and trusted in the Lord God.

This urban revival must have been shocking to Jonah, and it might be surprising to some of us. But it was not shocking or surprising to God. It was satisfying to him.

As Jesus explained (in Luke 15): “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. And I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Now, if there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, can you imagine how much more joy there was in heaven over the thousands of sinners who repented at the preaching of Jonah?

“When God saw what their works, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” 

They repented and God relented.

They returned and God refreshed.

Where is Jesus in all this story? In case you haven’t seen Jesus already, let me show you.

Jesus is the true and better King, who is seated at the right hand of God, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. By decree of the King, “Repent and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that God may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21)

Now, if you believed that you only had 40 days to live before facing judgment and giving account for your life, what would you do? How would you live? What would you change – do differently or better? Why wait? Why not repent and start doing those things right now?

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:39-41)

We have already seen that those who cling to worthless idols and false saviors forfeit the grace that could be theirs. What idols are you clinging on to that keeps your from taking hold of grace? What secret sin, what pet sin, is so precious to you that you will not let it go for the sake of Christ?

If you repent and release it, God will relent from judgment and refresh your soul.

Just as it takes more than a fresh coat of paint, new buildings, and patched streets to cause urban renewal, so it takes more than saline eyes, a fresh make-up, a phony smile, and an everything-is-okay-mask to cause your personal revival. It takes repentance from the heart, real change from the inside out.