‘The Visit, Revival, God’s pursuit.’
Jonah 2:10- 3:10
Also Psalm 139, Luke 15:1-10.
Fourth Sunday after Trinity, July 5th 2020.
The Sermon on the audio file begins around the 3 minute mark.
Prayer: Lord, before your eyes, everything is uncovered and laid bare: speak your word – living and active, sharper than any double edged sword; let it penetrate our souls and spirits: Examine our thoughts, and by your Holy Spirit renew the attitudes of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Johnny Li of Nexus ministry, works in Far East Asia. He shares: “Your son asked me to come and visit you!” As I spoke these words to the elderly man in front of me, I could see the utter surprise and even confusion in his eyes. Suddenly the man grabbed me and quickly pulled me inside the small room.
My mind began to retrace my steps and all the events that had led to this: first, my meeting young Brother Wang in Hong Kong after his daring escape from China; then the challenging request from my pastor to take Bibles to the family of Brother Wang in China; then the daring and dangerous expedition that led me here.
Mrs. Wang quickly excused herself and I spent the next hour bringing greetings from Brother Wang as well as all the other believers from our small church in Hong Kong. Curious about the sudden disappearance of Mrs. Wang I enquired where she went. “She is in the room next door praying for our safety,” Brother Wang’s father replied.
After memorable fellowship, the final words of Brother Wang Sr. pierced my heart. “You must come again,” he pleaded.
I smiled politely but in my heart I knew I would not likely return. The trip was much too risky and dangerous for my liking. Being Chinese I knew that my destiny would be prison if I were caught. “You must come again and bring more Bibles,” old Brother Wang pleaded as if he could read my troubled mind. I gave the only correct answer I could think of. “I will pray about it.”
In a daze I walked to the train station and boarded the first train home to safety. My heart was torn because this was the country responsible for arresting my mother and causing me to grow up as an orphan. I decided I would not return!
Then I heard the unmistakable voice of the Holy Spirit, “Do you need a calling, Johnny?” “Lord what do you mean,” I asked? “You have seen the need. You have heard my voice. Why do you need a ‘calling’ to respond?” I knew I had no choice. The Lord had spoken. I knew this was the way for me.
This was thirty – five years ago and Johnny Li has been an immense blessing in assisting the fast-growing church in China. He’s been responsible for producing the first Chinese Children’s Bible in modern Chinese and has delivered thousands of Bibles and other Christian literature into China. Today he trains Chinese missionaries committed to take the Gospel to the Muslim world. (Story from the Open Doors organisation).
He did not plan to go back. He had strong feelings against it. But the Lord acted and that moment was a turning point for the lives of many. Jonah has been very resistant and rebellious. He had many strong feelings inside him. God gives him a second chance to continue in ministry. He changes… and many benefit.
‘’Go the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’’ He is recommissioned. The Calling isn’t changed because of his initial disobedience. Off you go.
Jonah’s flight was from the presence of the Lord. Now, Jonah ‘’obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.’’ So far, so good!
‘’Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown’’ 40 days – the threat is intended to produced repentance, time to change. If God had planned to destroy the city, to overthrow it, he could have done so without any advance warning..
We know little of Nineveh. Its name, its character – evil and violence – and its size. To the Lord God, its size, their ethnic or national identity does not matter. Yahweh’s message is all about their behavior. Striking. The Israelites were very reluctant to accept the prophetic condemnations of their behavior – just see Hosea and Amos – prophet contemporary to Jonah. The population of the city, they accept the message from Jonah is true, they react accordingly. They are willing to acknowledge they have violated God’s moral standards, and so they know they stand open to his wrath and need his mercy.
As the King calls for a city wide repentance and for days of fasting and prayer, he says ‘who knows, God may turn and relent’. The king’s words echo what the prophet Joel hoped, as he preached to Judah, 50-60 years before:
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent?”
It reminds us about genuine repentance: it is not merely outward show. It involves 1. Self evaluation; 2. Acknowledgement of sin; 3. Determination to change wrong behavior; 4. Faith in God’s compassion and forgiveness.
‘When God saw what they did, and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented.’’ God recognizes what they have done. It is not fake. Nineveh turned from their evil ways. The Hebrew word used, is the most common one used for repentance, the kind of repentance the Lord called for from Israel and Judah. Years later, God says through Jeremiah:
“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.’’ (Jer 18:6-8).
‘’As incredible as it seemed to Jonah, Nineveh had turned from their wickedness and been spared.’’ (Daniel Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God, p 111).
2. Revival in the city.
Amazing short sermon – 5 words in Hebrew – ‘’Forty days more and Nineveh – overthrown.’’ If only more sermons were as short and as powerful! 5 words. We can sometimes underestimate can’t we how God can use a choice word, or a brief conversation to change a life, to change our life.
The 5 words summarises the main message, and content of Jonah. The word for ‘overthrown’ in Hebrew can mean two things: ‘flattened by judgment’. Or it can mean ‘turned upside down’ and refer to an astonishing changed of heart and life. It reminds us of the accusation made in Thessalonica against the Christians in Acts 17. They are dragged before the city authorities: ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down has come here also …’’
Max Lucado wonderfully writes: ‘’Though his odour – his smell – wasn’t appealing, his message was and the Ninevites repented. God relented as Jonah knew he would.’’
The world’s cities are threatened by subversion, terrorism and social instability. Can I imagine these cities being changed, turned upside down by a prophetic word? By the word of God? Can I imagine large numbers of people in these – or any cities – believing n God (v5) and calling out loudly to God (v8) and even the political leadership changing? When Peter preaches on Pentecost, people are cut to the heart, ‘God’s words can have a transforming effect on people, causing them to repent from their sins. If God tells you to speak to others – take courage, you might be surprised at how many accept your words and repent.’ (Lucado, The Devotional Bible, p.1099).
The nearest I have seen this. In 1999. I was leading a small missionary team working in Western Ukraine, with a Baptist minister and Gypsy Pentecostals. Great mix. I was delayed in getting to the team, due to visa issues. So when I arrived, I saw the plan. It was based in a village. We had a big tent. People were invited during the day, word spread through the village, then someone, different each night, normally a minister, would get up and preach, and ask people to come forward and commit their lives to Jesus. Now, I had been in overseas missions for a couple of years, been to missionary school, knew what we had been doing and I thought – this is so old style, won’t work. The first night I was there. Dozens went forward commit their lives to Christ. As they did during the week. We were meant to be a team, there for 3 weeks helping them plant a church. After week 1, there was a church of 80 people and we now had to swop, in our remaining weeks, to discipleship teaching daily!
A missiologist wrote ‘’The extraordinary city wide repentance in Nineveh = the world capital of evil … seems to contrast … with the hard heartedness of Jonah the prophet of the true God.’’ Our great cities are in need of God. In 1770, 5% of the world’s pop lived in cities. C19th was the Great Century for Missions, many cities were evangelized. By 1900, the 5 largest cities were London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Chicago – all were strong resource centres for Christian mission. In 1900, 14% of the world lived in cities. Between 1900 and 2000, the number of mega cities – ie cities over 1 m – multiplied 20 times to 402. In the same time, the number of people living in urban places, had gone up 10 times and keeps increasing. By 2050 it is estimated that 80% of the world’s pop will be city based. Yet the Christian impact on cities has fallen. One organization we are linked with is Illyricum Movement which seeks to plant churches in Tirana but also outside. I asked Edi Demo what is the size of Tirana and how many Christians across the city – he said Tirana has 1.2 million, and 5000 Christians.
Can we devote more of our resources to the cities of our world, where Christianity is so small? Can we consider our personal giving, to support missionaries, or mission agencies, within some of the darknest most needy cities? By resources, we can think money, but what of our time, to intercede faithfully, or to spend part of our holiday time to go serve on an overseas mission team, or work with a church in such a city as Tirana. As God says in the last line of this book – ‘And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people.’’ Should we not be concerned?
3. God’s Pursuit
Psalm 23: We read at the start of our lockdown. ‘Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever.’’ One of the themes of this Book about God’s pursuit of Jonah’s heart, and not just a pursuit of Nineveh. We look at Jonah, God – we saw – acted sovereignly in different ways to make his presence felt in the different situations Jonah faced. The aim – not just to get him on the road marked ‘Nineveh’ – but to bring him to a clearer, deeper knowledge of who God is, and the depth and openness of God. That God really is – gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (4:2). That God is who he said he was.
Jonah’s experience has shown that God is omnipresent. He spoke in Israel, he moved a storm in the Mediterranean, he heard prayers in the belly of a fish, he speaks to Jonah on a beach, and talks to him outside a city, in what today is modern day Mosul in Northern Iraq. God is inside, outside, before, after, above, below, west, east, in the darkness, in the light – as Psalm 139 declares and as Jonah has experienced already! God is all this.
But God also chases us. Luke 15, lost sheep, lost coin. 2 people who lost something of value. They spent time and effort in finding what was lost. The two celebrated what was lost. He tells the parables –he tells it to the grumbling Pharisess and teachers of the law. The meaning – Jesus is going to keep on going out looking for those who are lost. He repeats it later. ‘’the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.’’
Jesus saw his mission – part of God’s relentless pursuit through history – Jesus came on a search and rescue mission, he would search so relentlessly and so passionately, that it would lead to a ca cross, through death and out the other side. The poem ‘Hound of Heaven’ by Francis Thompson explores the ways peop;le try to evade God and his pursuit of them – they attempt to hide from him in time, in space, in nature, in pleasure, in sleep – yet it is shown to be pointless, for none are beyond God’s reach.
God pursues Jonah, he pursues the people of Nineveh. God asks Jonah: ‘And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people. God never gives up pursuing us and what is good for us, God has his heart fixed on Nineveh and he is pursuing them and what is good for them.
God’s pursuit can encourage us in our personal witness and mission as a church. It is easily to become discouraged – praying for someone for months, it seems to make no difference, they won’t attend Alpha. Easy to become discouraged when someone we have been encouraging in their walk of discipleship, falls or fails. Or when we are nurturing relationships in a small group or in a community, and how suddenly it all comes crashing down due to one careless word. At these points, we remember God has never given up pursuing us – like he didn’t on Jonah – he never gave up pursuing us and what is good for us, nor will he give up pursuing those we have been called to serve and what is good for them.
In faith, by grace, through the strength of the Spirit, we can persist in pursuit.
I mentioned the Hound of Heaven. In the introduction to one of editions, there is a conversation between a professor and a student.
‘What does God mean by the Hound?’
He means God
But is it not a rather irreverent way for Thompson to e talking about God, calling him a hound? What does he mean by comparing God to a hound?
Well, he means the pursuit of God.
Oh I see, Thompson is pursing God, is he?
Oh no, He is rather running away from God.’
Well then, God is pursuing Thompson, is that it?
‘Yes, that is it?’
‘But see, here, according to Thompson’s belief, God is everywhere isn’t he?
‘Well, then, how can God be going after Thompson? Is it a physical pursuit?
No, it is a moral pursuit?
A moral pursuit! What’s that? What’s God after?
‘’He is after Thompson’s love. ‘’
God was after Thompson’s love. God was after Jonah’s love. He was after Nineveh’s love. God is after your love, and mine, God is after every love. (from Tim Carter, Being Sent: Jonah’s Mission, God’s Mission, Our Mission, pp190-191)).
God has a mission. And so Jonah went to Nineveh. God has a mission, and so God, in Jesus, came to earth. God has a mission, and so we go into the world.
Max Lucado: ‘The Book of Jonah is more than a fascinating account of one man’s futile attempt to run away from God. It is the story of God’s love for even the most unlovable despicable people we can imagine – and of our responsibilities to tell the Good News’ for God still so loves the world, and he still let’s us to go…’ (Lucado, ibid, p.1096)
Revival in Nineveh
‘’But to Jonah, this all seemed very wrong, and he became angry.’’
Shall we pray.
‘Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all. God of love and pursuit, I thank you that you never give up on me. I give you my soul, my life, my all this day. Amen.
Note on the audio of sermon: the sermon begins at the 3 minute mark approximately.