Jonah 3:1–10 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. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When Jonah’s warning 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 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. 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.” 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Sometimes I get sermon ideas and I’m pretty sure they’re bad so I run them past my wife to get her reaction. This week I said to her, “What do you think of this one? I pretend to be Jonah. I hold a mic in my hand. (I figured out that it was a bad idea already by this point because she kept saying, “You don’t ever hold a mic. It’s on your ear.” Stubbornly I pushed on saying, “But I could this time.”) So I hold a mic in my hand. I have a pillow up there so I can do a mic drop without wrecking the mic. (She’s rolling her eyes by this point and telling me it’s cheesy. But I still push on.) I hold the mic in my hand and I preach a five-word sermon just like Jonah. Deadly seriously say, ’40 more days and Aiken will be overthrown, Bourman out.’ I then walk off the stage, sit down, and I act like the sermon’s over. That was my idea. Well, sort of, really it wasn’t my idea at all. It was Jonah’s, but it wasn’t just his idea. It was his prophetic practice. It was what he did. And I thought maybe just maybe this church should have a real experience of that.
At any rate, Jonah did an ancient mic drop and there was nothing cheesy about it. It was terrifying. For its solemnity. For its sureness. For its death. “40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (v. 4) Jonah out. That’s the sermon that Jonah preached in its entirety. In Hebrew it’s just five words. Think of that. Jonah trudged probably in a caravan for well over a month to get to Nineveh. And for what? A five-word sermon. Just five little words. That should probably tell us something. And more than just that the Word of God is effective. It should tell us that for sure, but it should also clue us to what’s going on with this prophet. He’s not really into this thing. This is something the narrator has already begun hinting at. The narrator has told us that this time Jonah gets up and he does head to Nineveh. He gets up. Check one. He goes to Nineveh. Check two. But suspiciously the narrator never tells us right away whether or not Jonah preached exactly what God wanted. We do end up finally hearing him preach though and oddly it’s only a five-word sermon.
And, yes, that is odd. You’re not going to find other great examples of this in the Scriptures. You’re just not. Short sermons? Sure. But this short? Hmmmm. It should at least make us scratch our heads a little bit. How much? Well, let me tell you this. There is some speculation that Jonah had a connection to an ancient seminary called the company of the prophets. I’m willing to bet that if he had turned in this sermon to his professors there they would have told him to head back to the drawing board. That’s what my seminary professors would’ve done that to me. I’m dead serious. They would’ve looked at me with darts in their eyes. In fact, they would’ve not only sent it back to be redone, but they would’ve sat me down, told me to get serious, that souls were at stake, and to get down to properly dividing law and gospel. I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. 40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown is probably not the best example of preaching you’d ever hear.
There are other problems with it too beyond just that it’s short and not a great example of Christ-centered preaching. It’s that it’s uncaring. Brutally so. Did Jonah tell the people who he was? No. Did Jonah tell the people what they had done wrong? No. Did Jonah seem to care at all? No. There was nothing impassioned or loving or helpful about this warning at all. From the looks of it he showed up like some kind of prophetic Eeyore and corner by corner of the city very glumly preached, “In 40 days you’re all going to die.” Then he just walks off. Like that was the Lord’s last word on the issue. Like that’s how the Lord wanted himself represented. But let me tell you something about what happened despite this brutally short brutal message. Not a single person said, “Uh, guy who won’t tell us his name, what did we do wrong?” And not a single one of them piped up and said, “Hey haggard, glum looking prophet, we totally don’t deserve this. Why is the Lord going to rain down fire and brimstone on us? We don’t understand.”
And can I tell you this? Not everybody in ancient Nineveh was a member of ancient ISIS. There were almost certainly some with consciences. Some that ran upright businesses and tried to take care of their husbands. Some that played the ancient version of Rummy with friends and tried to help others when they were sick. Some that got their kids a good education and tried to be decent citizens. I mean this was a great, great city in the day. Nobody is all bad in a city more than four times the size of Aiken are they? Or are they? The Ninevites believed the latter. You know why? These people feared God. They saw God for who God was. They didn’t see him as Santa saying, “Yeah, there was that one guy you thought some nasty things about. No biggie. I’ll still give you presents this year.” And they didn’t treat him like he was an old grandpa who winks at sin and says, “I know how you slept with that girl in your 20’s. I know how the hormones rage. I get it.” Nor did they see him as some sort of spineless divinity who says, “Do whatever you want. Believe whatever you want. As long as you don’t hurt anybody I’m good.” No, God was feared.
And so not a one of them fought the verdict. I’m not sure that’s how it’d go down with us. I think there’d be a voice in my head saying Jonah’s either A) a wing nut or B) couldn’t possibly be talking about me. You know why? You know what I think our besetting modern sin is? We don’t fear God. We treat God like he’s a projection of our minds. He’s some Santa in the sky who’s good with us doing with our bodies whatever will make us happy. He’s some celestial grandpa who’s good with whatever I want to believe and whatever I want to do. He’s some heavenly life coach, who doesn’t give ten commands which show us our felonies, crimes and high treasons against the High King. Our spineless, go-with-the-flow divine therapist just gives 10 good suggestions. Because I love you let me be clear. If you think your body is so yours and you can do whatever you want it, go ahead and raise it from the dead too. Then you’ll figure out how yours your body really is. And if you think they’re just 10 suggestions go ahead and just imagine if you really want to say it just that way to the God who made the universe in your upcoming court day with him. And if you think that God’s just going to go ahead and let you define morality – well – Sodom and Gomorrah thought that too.
But Nineveh didn’t. Nineveh didn’t. “The Ninevites believed God.” (v. 5) They didn’t get all huffy and offended and say, “How dare God impugn us in the least!” In fact, when God came to them and said, “you’re going to be overthrown,” they thought, “That’s totally fair. I’ve done this and this and this. I’ve believed this and this and this. I’m totally only getting what I had coming.” They believed God. How much did they believe him? From the greatest to the least. From the king to the cow. From robe to sackcloth. From throne to ashes. That’s how much they believed God. They believed God so much that they wanted to wear on their bodies how they felt about themselves and their judgment. They believed God so much that they didn’t just want to wear it. They wanted to feel it. They wanted their mouths slaked with the thirst they knew they deserved. So they didn’t drink. And they wanted their stomachs to growl with the growl that God felt toward them. So they didn’t eat. That’s how much they believed God about themselves. You know what that’s called? Contrition. Contrition is terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin.
There was just one big problem. The Lord did manage to use Jonah’s impersonal, uncaring, glum, five-word sermon for so much good. So much good. The Ninevites had come to know themselves. Not who they wanted to be, but who they actually were as God saw them. And that was a great good. In fact, I should probably point out that this still is the greatest and largest ever conversion on that front ever in the history of the world. I’m not sure Paul, Peter, or even Jesus ever accomplished so much in a single sermon. Well over a 100,000 people came to see themselves as they were. This was amazing, amazing, amazing. There was just one massive, awful problem with Jonah’s sermon. It had turned the Ninevites away from themselves, but it had given them nowhere to turn to. It had convicted them that they were sinners, but it hadn’t told them where to find forgiveness. It had worked contrition, but it hadn’t given them a place to put their faith. Contrition is good, but never by itself. By itself it leads to despair – to the spiritual black hole of being convinced that you’re headed to a very bad place and you’re never coming back. Ever.
Contrition happens along God’s way, but it’s never his destination. So the law and condemnation is never God’s last word. It’s his starting word, his humbling word, his terrifying word; but it’s never his final word. The gospel is always and only that. You know who got that when Jonah didn’t? The king did. At least, sort of. In his edict to all of Nineveh he said, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (v. 9) You can see where Jonah left them with his preaching. Not knowing. They literally had no idea from Jonah what would happen when they turned away from themselves to God. They had no idea. The King seemed to. Why? I can’t tell you. Had he heard the story about a bad prophet getting mercy in a fish? Did he think to himself, “Why in the world would God send his prophet to us just to let us know we’re all going down in flames? Perhaps what God really wants is for us to turn to him.” I have no idea. What I do know is that the king pointed them to repentance. He told people to turn from themselves to God for compassion and for mercy.
And such is the mercy of God that that teensy, teensy bit of hope against hope kind of gospel was there and it was believed. It was barely there, but it was there and the Spirit must’ve worked with that. Because then it happened. “He (God) relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (v. 10) You know why that worked? Let me tell you what’s not happening here. This isn’t God thinking, “You’ve sackclothed and ashed this thing good enough. You’ve felt enough terror. That’s compensated me for your sin.” That’s not what’s happening here. God can, does, and will deny you anything that’s about you. If you come to him and say, “I’ve sackclothed and ashed this thing awesome, Lord, check it out.” He’ll deny it. Why? Because using sackcloth and ashes that way is sin. You know why? You know what the biggest sin is? The essence of sin is being turned in on yourself. You know how you do that in the most profound way? You try to save yourself. You forget about God’s Christ and you try to save yourself. “Lord, I’ve beat myself up enough now. I’ve made up for my sin.” Not going to work. Repentance is the exact opposite. It’s turning from you to God for his pure mercy.
And that works. You know why? Because while God can, does, and will deny you when you bring yourself, he cannot deny Christ when bring him. He cannot, does not, and will not deny Christ. When you hold up Christ to God, it’s never you that gets overthrown its always God’s anger. That is what Christians have always believed. Let me prove this with what I think is one of the best explanations of where repentances always lands in something called the Augsburg Confession. “Now, repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition… The other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors.” And that is the goal of repentance Repentance always arrives at and ends with Christ. This is why Peter when he preached one of the first Christian sermons ever preached repentance. And in that sermon he said repentance is like sweet tea on a summer day or a nice pool when it’s in the 90’s. No, he didn’t quite say it that way, but he did say repentance is “refreshing.” (Acts 3:19) Because it brings you to Christ and there your fear turns to faith. And there your terror turns to confidence. And there your sin turns to forgiveness.
And that is refreshing. It’s the taking off of the sackcloth of sin and putting on the kingly robe of Christ. It’s the leaving behind of the thirst that comes from trying to appease God’s anger and the sipping of the sweet tea of God’s forgiveness in Christ. That’s what God is after for you just as he was with the Ninevites. God always meant to end with relent. God never meant for his law or for his judgment to be his last word. He did mean for it to terrify you. He did mean it to turn you from you. He did mean to move you from despair to faith. So once he has you turning from yourself, he holds up his Christ before your eyes and draws you in. So you believe and you’re comforted. So you don’t have to hope against hope. So you don’t have to say, “Who knows? God may relent.” But so you can say, “I know. Christ was overthrown on the cross so I never will be.” And once you’re there – and only once you’re there – does he allow the mic to drop and the preaching to stop and his final word to be spoken over you – the word of life, forgiveness, and peace that he literally died to speak over you: Christ. Bourman out. Amen.