For those of you who would rather hear the whole Sunday School lesson as one 47 minute lecture, you can find it at my home church's web site. FWIW, I commend all the sermons there for your edification.
There is nothing wrong with making children’s songs up for the rudimentary doctrines of the faith, is there? Of course not. I think the danger is in whether or not we assign a doctrine as foundational and necessary as this one only to the children’s catechism and hymnal. Is this a doctrine that we know all the words for, but somehow they are only words to us?
Let’s open to the end of the book of Jonah, the end of Chapter 3, and then into chapter 4. Let me just put you in context quickly. The city of Nineveh is the enemy of Israel. It was in Assyria, and it was the center of worship for the idol Ishtar as well as a capital for their empire for a time. And the Assyrians were, of course, enemies of Israel – they worshipped Ishtar, after all, and not Yahweh.
So God calls Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah does what? He runs the other way. He catches a boat in the opposite direction, causes the ship to nearly sink, is cast overboard, and swallowed by a great fish. After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah gets spit out on dry land, and God tells him again, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”
And Jonah goes and declares the word of the Lord to the city, and that’s where we’ll pick up the text, Chapter 3, verse 6
6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 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, 8 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. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
Listen: if I was the king of Assyria, the things I could understand would be war and judgment -- because I am good at war, and I run a tight ship. What I say goes, and what I expect is that I'm going to do what I said I was going to do. We don't read the Five Disfunctions of a Team in my court -- I killed that guy because he was boring me to death with his blah blah blah about "trust". You know what I trust? I trust that when I tell my executioner here to cut your head off, he'll do it and not ask me about whether to use the big axe or the small one for your scrawny little MBA neck. And then everyone will trust me to do what I say.
But in that, the king of Assyria knows that God will do what He pleases. All the pomp of his court will not impress God anymore than the pomp of the house of David impressed him, the Assyrian king, when he came and plundered those so-called sons of Abraham. So if God is going to render judgment on Nineveh, what's the only course of action?
If I were the king of Assyria, I'd do what I expect the weak and puny kings around me to do when I come with my army and send in the messenger that I am here to clean house: I expect them to beg. If they want to keep anything at all, and not pay a dear price for resisting me, I expect that they treat me like I can do what I say I can do. So listen: you people remember that 5 Disfunctions guy? If you don't want to end up like him, beginning right now, do as I do and beg God to spare us. He's sent this messenger to us who says we have 40 days, and we have already lost 3 days because this guy walked from front to back, so close the businesses, close the market, and get out the sack cloth and ashes. And to show I'm serious, I'm going to do it too -- because if God is coming to judge us, the only thing we have to show is our plea for mercy. He can do whatever he pleases.
10 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.In case you didn’t understand this part, Jonah hated the Ninevites. They hated Israel. They were enemies of Israel, and made war on Israel. But when God said to Jonah, "you're my prophet -- go tell Nineveh that their time of judgment is at hand," what did Jonah do? You'd think that Jonah, having heard from God that Nineveh was up for review, would have gone to tell the Ninevites that their day is done. Ladies and Gentlemen: your day is over! You and Ishtar are about to meet the Holy and Living God, and He is not happy!
4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O YAHWEH, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
That's what I'd think if I heard the words from God, "Arise, go to Las Vegas, or Washington, or New York, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." Yes! Thank you, God! The battle belongs to the Lord! Let's go and make a footstool of your enemies, Lord!
But that's not what Jonah thinks. See: when God tells Jonah, "Go tell Nineveh that their evil deeds are on my list," Jonah goes to other way. And here in what we call Chapter 4, Jonah explicitly says it is because he knows God. It’s not that He knows God is Just, or that God is Holy, or that God is a Jealous God and can stand no other gods before Himself. Jonah says God has this thing that He does -- being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and ... steadfast in love. That’s what the ESV says – the NASB says “abundant in Lovingkindness”. Jonah ran away from what God told him to do, and away from the Ninevites, not because God is known to be triumphant over His enemies: he ran because Jonah didn't want them to hear or experience the steadfast love of God.
And let's be as clear as possible: he didn't preach to them the steadfast love of God, did he? "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" was what he preached, according to 3:4 -- only the judgment. But what he feared was that God would love them and show them love because that's what He does. That's who He is. The King of Nineveh declared a fast and repentance, and he even demanded the animals somehow participate (according to 3:8), and when God saw them repent, He spared their destruction.
Think about that: God loved these sinners. Jonah was angry because he knew God loves sinners. God loved them and spared them, even though eventually the Assyrians would again turn to persecuting Israel. Jonah disobeyed God because he knew God was going to show love to sinners.
Now, there’s a reason I chose this passage rather than the prodigal son, or 1 Cor 13, or John’s first letter, or John 3:16. I admit that I love the New Testament, and Paul who was wrote most of it – especially when you understand the Luke was Pauls’ disciple – and I empathize with Paul. Who is it that studies theology who doesn't want to someday be considered like Paul, the chief of sinners. But here’s the thing: I am probably more like Jonah.
I think my first real spiritual insight into myself after being saved was when I realized that I am almost exactly like Jonah.