Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Hopeless People - Jonah 3:1-10

Jonah 3:1-10

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city-- a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 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. 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. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." 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.

      My roommate in college wanted to be a missionary.    He wanted to go to some distant and exotic part of the world and preach the Gospel.

      We both had met missionaries and had heard them tell their stories.    My roommate and I had become good friends with a missionary to Pakistan.   We corresponded frequently with a missionary to Brazil.  One of our own classmates had gone to Peru.

     And my roommate had been inspired by these missionaries and had decided to go on the mission field and share the Gospel.

      So my roommate packed his bags after graduation and traveled to the distant land of

      Hawaii? I couldn't believe it.  “What kind of mission field was that,” I asked him.

      “Well,” he said, “somebody has got to do it.”   It might as well be him.

      Poor old Jonah finds out that the Lord is calling him to the mission field.  But it is not sunny Hawaii.  It's Nineveh.  Folks, going to Nineveh is like going to Iraq or Afghanistan.

      That is not the place a tourist would go. It is not the place that any person in his or her right mind would go.   But it is the place where God calls Jonah to go.

      The book of Jonah opens with the Lord speaking to Jonah, saying "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, for its wickedness has come up before me.

      Jonah, being both a man of devout faith and of devout reason, does the reasonable thing.  Nineveh is in the East.  Jonah therefore takes the westbound train.

      He heads for the sea and tries to go in the opposite direction from Nineveh.

     You see Nineveh was not the kind of place that would welcome a stranger.    Especially a stranger who was going to tell them to change their ways.  This was a cruel city in a cruel nation.  At one point in their history, the Assyrians would decapitate their enemies and mount the heads on poles at the city gates as a warning to anyone who entered the city.

    What a strange and bizarre welcome sign! Now who wants to go visit a city like that?  Jonah doesn't.  So he runs and goes the other way.

     Of course, what happens is that while he is at sea Jonah's boat is caught up in a storm!  Jonah is thrown overboard and a giant sea creature is sent by God to swallow Jonah.

     This fellow's having a bad time of it.  First he is told by God to go to the worst place on earth and tell the meanest people on earth to repent of their sins.   Then he is caught up in a terrible storm at sea and now he is stuck in the belly of a fish.

      It must have been frightening, dark and it must have smelled terrible.  But within that place, Jonah remembered God and praised God.   Jonah is then rescued and he goes onto Nineveh, and this is where we pick up the Old Testament lesson for today.   Jonah has been rescued and he goes onto Nineveh.

      Now, Jonah does not like the people of Nineveh.  He is, in a sense, a cultural racist.  We all know people like that.

      There are some people who are like that with blacks, or whites or Hispanics, or the poor, or Muslims, or the Jews, or the Arabs.  Jonah was like that with the people of Nineveh.  He despised them.  So it is perhaps with some pleasure that when he finally gets to Nineveh, he pronounces a message of judgment and destruction, announcing that in 40 days the city would be destroyed by God.

      Then the people of Nineveh do the most amazing thing.  They listen to the preacher!

      They listen to Jonah.  They repent.  They change their way of doing things.

      They change their lifestyles.

      The king himself issued a proclamation for everyone to pray and to repent.    "Who knows," said the king,   "Perhaps the Lord will change his mind and not destroy us." And in fact, that is just what happens.   The Lord spares Nineveh.

     For Nineveh to repent means that ANYBODY can repent.

     Anybody can turn to God.  Anybody can change a lifestyle.

     I suspect that most of us know someone that we consider to be hopeless.

     The parent who is an alcoholic.
                 The spouse who has had an affair.
                             The child who is a terror.
                                         The neighbor who is a thief.
                                                     The criminal  in the jail cell.

     But the message of Jonah is that there is not a single person who is hopeless.    Anyone can repent.

     When I worked in the Department of Corrections as a counselor before entering the ministry, I met a lot of prisoners.     Many of them talked about how they were going to charge their life when they got out of prison.

     But over time it seems they all came back to jail.    And it got to be rather depressing.   It felt hopeless.  But it was not hopeless.  I did meet one person who was one of the most violent, meanest people I have ever met.  He was a scum.  He was worthless.  He was hopeless.  And when the man began going to church and professing Christ as savior I immediately knew that it was just a con job.

      He was up to something.

      He was up to no good – I just knew it.

      But it has been 30 years.  And the man is still going to church.   He has not returned to jail, except to preach.  He is one of the gentlest people I know, and a true Christian in every way.

     In fact, while I was in Seminary, my home church invited this man to preach.  At the time he was still an inmate, but he was in a work release program and was allowed under certain conditions to preach in churches.  But the invitation for him to preach in my home church did not set well with everyone.

     One person went to the pastor’s wife and asked, “What if someone loses a purse or pocket book, and they blame Zeb and accuse him of stealing it?”

     The pastor’s wife reassured the church member.  “Oh don’t worry.  Zeb’s not in prison for stealing.  He’s in prison for killing a man.”

      To many people, this man Zeb was beyond redemption. To God, he was given Grace.

      To most people, Zeb was worthless.  To God, he was a child of God.

      To most reasonable folks, he was hopeless.  But God never thinks of anyone as beyond hope.  After all, look at Nineveh.

      If Nineveh can repent, anybody can repent.

      If that city could change, any city could change.  If those people could change for the better, then anyone can change for the better.

      Even the parent who is an alcoholic.
                  Even the spouse who has had an affair.
                              Even the child who is a terror.
                                                Even the neighbor who is a thief.       
                                                      Even the criminal in the jail cell.
      Even you and me.

      The book of Jonah has such a dramatic miracle and such a controversial   biblical event.  People get wrapped up in trying to defend the scientific possibility that a man can indeed be swallowed by a fish and survive that they miss the greatest miracle of all in that book.

      God has hope in us.  God has faith that we can repent.  God offers us that opportunity.

      The miracle in the book of Jonah has nothing to do with a giant fish swallowing the man Jonah.   It has to do with the fact that Nineveh changed. And if Nineveh can, repent, anybody can repent.

     Who knows what possibilities there are in those people we have come to know as hopeless?   Who knows what value there is in the person we have come to think of as worthless?

     When God gives you the opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to someone you have come to consider worth less and hopeless, don't run the other way, as Jonah tried to do.  Take the opportunity.  Who knows what will happen to that other person?   

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved
Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.