Jonah (4) — The Greatest Revival in History

            This morning, we continue in our study of the book of Jonah.  But first, I wanted to share with you a meme that Sueanne found on Facebook this past week.  I thought you might enjoy that.

            Three weeks ago, we saw that Jonah was a man called by God to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire, to preach.  As I told you, the people of Nineveh were so horribly wicked, it’s hard to even describe.  They did terrible things to their prisoners of war.  They would rape the women.  They would murder the children.  They would take the men and skin them alive, then they would cut off their heads and build pyramids with their skulls to say, “We were here, and we conquered this city.” 

            And it’s amazing that God would tell Jonah to go preach to those people.  And because of how Jonah felt about them, it’s not surprising that instead of catching the next camel to Nineveh, instead, Jonah hopped on a boat going the opposite direction and he said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with those horrible people.” 

            We then saw how God hurled this huge storm on the sea.  The boat was about to break up, when Jonah finally said, “It’s my fault.  I’m running away from God.  Throw me overboard.”  And, with great reluctance, the sailors did throw him overboard, and the scripture says that God provided a great fish that swallowed Jonah.  He spent three days and three nights in the belly of that fish. 

            Last week, we looked at Jonah’s prayer of repentance and his promise to obey God.  The last verse of chapter 2 says, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2:10).  That’s a vivid picture that I’m not going to try to describe for you this morning.

            Incidentally, I heard about a Sunday school teacher who was telling her students the story of Jonah.  When she was done, she said, “Now boys and girls, what did we learn from this story?”  And one little girl raised her hand and she said, “We learn that people make whales sick.”  Which may be true, but I hope that we learn something much more important – that when Jonah disobeyed God, God extended his grace and allowed Jonah an opportunity to repent.

            And that’s where we pick up with our story this morning.  If you were here for the first lesson in this series, you may recall that I said that it’s important for us to remember that Jonah is not the hero of this story. God is!  At the beginning of this book, Jonah is running away from God; at the end of the book, he’s arguing with God.  In between he’s praying and he’s preaching, but Jonah is not the hero.

            This is not the story of Jonah.  This is the story of God and his grace.  Grace is a gift given to those who don’t deserve it and sometimes don’t even appreciate it.

            And, as I pointed out, God is a lot more gracious than I am.  God saves people that I wouldn’t save if I were God.  He blesses people I wouldn’t bless if I were God.   He uses people in his service that I wouldn’t use if I were God.  And now, in chapter 3, we’re going to see the demonstration of God’s grace to a group of people who didn’t deserve it.

            Chapter 3 begins with these words, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” (Jonah 3:1).  If you like to make notes in your Bible, you may want to underline those words “the second time”.  The Hebrew word that’s used there is the word sheniy [shay-nee].  The word of the Lord came to Jonah sheniy, a second time. 

            This man did not deserve, in any way, a second chance.  Jonah basically thumbed his nose at God and said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”  But Jonah got a second chance from God. 

            Now, there are a lot of people I know who won’t give people a second chance.  “You do something to offend me, and I’m going to write you off.  I’m done with you.”  That’s the way a lot of us are, but our God is a God of second chances, and so he came to Jonah sheniy, a second time. 

            And the wonderful news is that God is giving some of you sheniy.  There are perhaps some of you here this morning who have never surrendered your lives to God, but right now, God is giving you one more opportunity.  Or perhaps some of you are like Jonah, you used to be close to God, but you’ve been disobedient.   And perhaps, like Jonah, you realize that God hasn’t tossed you aside and he’s giving you one more chance to come back to him and do what he has called you to do.

            There are people here this morning like me, who do not deserve the grace of God.  But the word of the Lord has come to you sheniy, a second time. 

            We mess up and we think that we’ve become useless to God.  And there are so many people who feel like God has given up on them. They’ve blown it, they’ve messed up and they think that God doesn’t want them anymore. And nothing could be further from the truth!  God says to you and to me, “Yes, you’ve messed up, but the important is whether or not you’ve learned something from your mistakes.  I want you to take that lesson and continue to serve me!”

            But there’s something else that I need to say.  Jonah got a second chance.  And you may have a second chance here this morning.  But not everyone gets a second chance.  I know that when preachers preach on this, we like to say, “Our God is the God of the second chance.”  But not everyone in the Bible got a second chance.

            Ask Ananias and Sapphira.  Or Lot’s wife.  Or King Saul who was removed from his kingship for his sinful rebellion.

            The fact that God gave Jonah a second chance doesn’t mean that we will always be given a second chance when we disobey. And I think we need to hear that because there might be somebody here who hears Jonah’s story and you say to yourself, “Well, it doesn’t matter whether I obey God the first time because I’ll always get a second chance.”  Not necessarily.  Don’t take God’s grace for granted.  But Jonah did get a second chance.

            In verse 2, God said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2).  The Hebrew text begins with two words – the word qum (koom) and the word lekh (lake).  And what these words together mean is, they mean “get up and go”.  Not just go, but go immediately.  Go now.  Go urgently.  Get up and go. 

            Whenever God comes to you sheniy, a second time, and he gives you another chance, you need to qum lekh.  You need to get up and go.  You need to say, “Yes, Lord.  I’m going right now.”  And you need go immediately, because if you don’t go right now, you may not get another opportunity. 

            There may some of you here this morning who recognize there is something that God wants you to do, that God wants you to reach out to someone, or to apologize to someone, or to give something away, or to repent of some sin, or to make something right.  Qum lekh.  Get up and go now.  Do it immediately.  Don’t let the sun go down before you do everything you can to obey what God wants you to do. 

            God said to Jonah, “Go now.  Go immediately.  Pick up everything and go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim the message that I give to you.” 

            There are several things that I want to point out before we move on.

1.         God doesn’t hold grudges.

            Jonah failed God in the past but that’s now been forgotten.  The slate is wiped clean and Jonah truly gets to start all over again.

            I heard someone say that that God is kinda like an etch-a-sketch.  Anybody here remember what an etch-a-sketch is?  It’s this little box where you turn these little knobs and you can write things on it or draw on it, and if you mess up, you just turn it upside down, shake it and it erases everything.  Etch-a-sketch, it’s what they use in Arkansas for computers. 

            But that’s what God does for us.  You mess up and God is willing to clear the slate and wipe it all clean.  And when he does that, he doesn’t hold a grudge.  He is a God who “abundantly pardons” sinners when they come to him.  God demonstrated his grace by giving Jonah a second chance.  But the flip side is also true.

2.         God doesn’t lower his standards

            You’ll notice that God didn’t let Jonah off the hook.  When Jonah repented, God didn’t say,“Okay, Jonah, I forgive you.  Don’t worry about going to Nineveh.”  That’s not how it works. God will forgive us, but he still expects us to do what he’s told us to do.  God gives Jonah a second chance to do what he should have done the first time.  

3.         God doesn’t give up on us

            If all God cared about was Nineveh, he could have found someone else to go preach to them.  But God wanted Jonah to confront the sin that was in his own heart and to see something of the great love inside God’s heart.

            You see, God didn’t need Jonah, but Jonah desperately needed God.  And we can say more generally that God doesn’t need us but we desperately need him.  It takes a while for some of us to grasp that truth.

            And then, in verse 3, Jonah finally got it right.  “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” (Jonah 3:3).   Jonah obeyed God.  In the past, he didn’t.  But this time he did.  And, like Jonah, when God calls us again, we need to qum lekh, go immediately, go now.  “Yes, God.  You want me to do it, I’ll do it.  You tell me to speak, I’ll speak.  You tell me to give, I’ll give.  You tell me to love, I’ll love.  You tell me to do whatever you want me to do, and my answer is yes.”  Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord. 

            Which leads me to another important principle.  Small obedience is always better than great intentions. Sometimes we ignore doing the small things because we intend to do something great “someday.”  We dream about what we’re going to do when we have more time or more money or when we aren’t so busy or when the kids are out of school or when we get a promotion or when we get a better job or when we retire.  We have all these big plans that we dream about.

            And there’s nothing wrong with big plans, but small obedience beats big plans every time.  And, if we’re not careful, we can spend so much time dreaming about what we’re going to do tomorrow that we neglect to do the things we need to do today.

            So Jonah set out for Nineveh.  Verse 3 tells us that “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in breadth.” (Jonah 3:3).  Nineveh was a great city, but they weren’t great because they were a bunch of wonderful people.  Remember, they were horrible people.  But they were great in influence.  They were great in power.  And what is probably meant here is that Nineveh was great in size. 

            We’re told that it was a 3-day journey around Nineveh.  Scholars aren’t sure whether that means it took three days to walk all the way around it, or it simply took three days to walk through every part of it.  Like modern cities today, “greater Nineveh” included a number of nearby towns. If you take the whole area into consideration, Nineveh was probably home to about 600,000 people, which would have been a huge city in that day.

            So, God said to Jonah, “Go now.  Go immediately to these people that you despise.  Do something that you don’t want to do.  Go and proclaim the message that I am going to give to you.”  And, this time, Jonah went. 

            Verse 4 tells us, “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (Jonah 3:4).   That’s it. There was probably more to his message, but this was the gist of it.  It’s only eight words in English; only five words in Hebrew. 

            “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”   Which is a pretty depressing message.  It’s not a message of “God loves Nineveh”.  Just a message of impending judgment and nothing more. 

            And you wouldn’t think it would have much chance of success.  I can just imagine one of the angels having a conversation with God.

            “So what’s your plan for reaching Nineveh?”

            “We’re sending Jonah.” 

            “And who else?” 

            “Nobody else, just Jonah.”

            “What’s he going to do?”

            “He’s gonna walk around and preach an eight-word sermon.”

            “What’s the eight-word sermon?”

            “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

            “What’s your Plan B?”

            “There is no Plan B. This is it.”

            Let’s be honest — most of us would have been very skeptical.  “It’s not going to do any good to preach to those people.  They’re not going to listen.  They’re interested in other things.  They’re too wicked.  Their hearts are hardened.”  But what we fail to remember is that when the message comes from God, it has the power to change lives.

            And that’s one of the things that I have to keep reminding myself as a preacher.  I don’t have the power to change people’s lives.  I can’t do it.  But God’s Word can.  Because it is “the power of God to salvation to those who believe” (Romans 1:16).  And what a difference God’s Word made in Nineveh!

            Now, there’s something very interesting about Jonah’s message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  The NIV says that Nineveh will be “overturned”.   The Hebrew word that’s used there is actually a word that has a double meaning.  It can either mean overturned in the sense of destroyed, annihilated, which is how we usually think of it.

            But it can also mean overturned, as in the sense of “turned”, “to be turned from their ways.”  For example, God turned the hearts of the Egyptians in Psalm 105.  God turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing in Deuteronomy 23.  And so, I think there may actually be a message behind the message.  One that says, “Nineveh, In forty days, you can either be turned (by having a change of heart) or you can be overturned (destroyed).  Which one is it going to be?”

            Forty days.  The time was ticking.  We need to remember that God doesn’t always extend second chances.  God’s mercy is a limited time offer.  You don’t have forever to get things right with God.  You don’t even have a promise of tomorrow.  The mercy of God is a limited time offer.  For the people of Nineveh, he told them what that limit was, “Forty days and you’ll be destroyed, or forty days and you’ll be changed.  Which one will it be?”

            And here’s their response.  Beginning in verse 5, “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.”

 (Jonah 3:5-9).

            Notice what happened when Jonah preached:


1.         The Ninevites believed God

            It doesn’t say they believed Jonah, although that was also true.  But what’s important is that they believed God.  There may be times when you don’t believe what I tell you, and that’s OK, but make sure you always believe God.

2.         They repented, fasted, and put on sackcloth.

            Although I’m sure he had never heard these words, it’s as if the king of Nineveh had been reading Isaiah 55:6-7:  “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”  The king of Nineveh acts as if he’s known that passage all his life.

            And what follows is the greatest revival in history.  The whole city repented.  And the repentance here is genuine.  That is not just a “Yes, we’re sorry for what we’ve done!” but it is a call to give up their evil ways and to turn from their violence.  Genuine repentance will always result in a change of life.   

            Everyone in Nineveh believed God and repented.  Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the world.  As great a preacher as Paul was, there never was an entire city that responded to his message.  As powerful as Peter, James and John were in proclaiming God’s Word, they never saw anything like this.

            Think about it. A whole pagan city believed in God. It’s like saying, everybody in Fayetteville repented and got right with God.  Or everybody in San Francisco turned to the Lord.  Or everybody in Las Vegas got on their knees.

            It’s incredible.  And yet it happened.  The greatest revival in history happened because of a sermon preached by a prophet who didn’t even want to be there, who was hoping for their destruction, and who hated the people he was preaching to.

            What are the chances of that happening? Without God, the chances are zero.  This didn’t happen because of Jonah. He didn’t even want to be there.  But God can accomplish some amazing things through his word.

            And behind all of what happened was something that Jonah didn’t understandNineveh was ripe for the harvest.  Nobody seemed to know it.  Jonah certainly didn’t know it.  Probably even Nineveh didn’t know it.  But God knew it.

            Nineveh was an unlikely place for a spiritual awakening.  From the outside it appeared to be a city completely given over to paganism. But God was working behind the scenes, preparing the people for this very moment.

            And once they repented, God was very quick to respond.  And again, we see God’s grace:  “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.” (Jonah 3:10). 

            From the very beginning, it was God’s intention to show mercy once the people turned from their evil ways.  God threatened judgment (which they richly deserved) knowing that he would gladly pardon them once they turned to him.

            But let me say it again — no one could have predicted this in advance. Three days before Jonah showed up, it was business as usual in Nineveh.  And on that day Jonah showed up, I would imagine the king woke up in his palace ready to do whatever was on his schedule, little knowing that by the end of the day he would be in sackcloth and ashes, calling his people to prayer and repentance.

            When I say “no one knew could have predicted it,” I mean no one but God.  As we look around at our community and our country, have we stopped believing that God can reach the unreachable? 

            Who would have thought that we would ever see the day in America when sin is so elevated, righteousness so ridiculed, that Jesus and the Word of God would be so scoffed at?  Who would have thought that homosexuality would become the norm and marriage and the family would be in such a crisis?  Who would have thought that the day would come when every kind of thought and every kind of behavior is tolerated except Christian thought and Christian behavior?  Do we sometimes look around us and see how bad things are and say to ourselves, “It’s like Nineveh around here.  It’s hopeless”? 

            We can’t ever forget that our God has the ability to reach the unreachable.  As long as God has a group of his people willing to live for him and proclaim his message, there will always be hope.  The story of Jonah let us know that there was hope for Nineveh.  God was able to save Nineveh.

            But, perhaps the more important question is this — can God save Jonah?  What’s going to become of this reluctant prophet who doesn’t love the world the same way that God does?  Stay tuned.  Next week, there’s one more chapter in Jonah’s amazing story.

            But, as we consider the application of this lesson, as I said, it’s so easy to look around at Spring Lake or the rest of our country, even the world, and say, “Those people are heathens who are far from God and they need to be destroyed because there’s absolutely no way they’d ever come to God, so we are more than ready to share the message, “Forty days and then you’ll be overthrown.”

            But thanks be to God that we have a God who is willing to show grace.  And as evidence of that, all we have to do is, like Jonah, take a look at how God has extended his grace to all of us.  That grace is extended even this morning by giving us all sheniy – a second chance, an opportunity to make things right.

            For some of you, there may be some things that you’ve been holding onto.  Perhaps some selfishness.  Perhaps some materialistic tendencies.  Perhaps some anger and refusal to forgive.  Perhaps a lack of love and compassion.  Perhaps some immorality.  But this morning, God is giving you sheniy, a second chance.

            There may even be some of you here this morning that most people would consider you like the people of Nineveh, you are so far from God and so hard-hearted.  But they can’t see that God has been working on your heart.  Inside, you know you’re ready to believe God and repent.

            Right now, God is giving you sheniy, a second chance.  Unlike the people of Ninevah, you may not have 40 days.  You may not even have tomorrow.  But right now, you have a second chance to make things right with God – to believe God, to repent of your sin and rebellion and to take hold of the grace of Almighty God.  It’s time for you to quym lekh, to get up and go.

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