Jonah - Week 3: "Jonah Obeys"
This week we are continuing the sermon series that we've been working on together for the past few weeks--it's the third installment, to be precise, of a series on the book of Jonah.
I believe that the very heart of this book is about understanding and doing the will of God, which is not an easy task. I asked this question last week, but it bears repeating. How many of you here have struggled sometimes to understand to do the will of God? Maybe you just struggled trying to figure out what God is up to... I feel you.
When we last left Jonah, he was being regurgitated on to the beach by a whale or a large fish. And when I say regurgitated I mean regurgitated. He was slimed. Covered in goop.
And all of this happened after he was told by God to go prophesy to the city of Nineveh to tell the people there to repent. Instead of doing God's will, he got in a boat heading the other direction, and the boat is nearly sunk by a storm.
The sailors draw straws to see which person on the boat ticked off one of the gods, and Jonah draws the short straw. He tells them that he serves the God who made heaven and earth and the only way they are going to calm the storm is to throw him over board. This is how much Jonah didn't want to do what God wanted him to do. He was trying to get as far away from God and God's will as he could get--even if it meant sinking to the depths, the realm of the dead.
But God makes a large fish or a whale swallow him, which sort of spoils Jonah's plans, and Jonah finds himself in the worst situation anyone could have ever found themselves in, and he finally gets honest with God and repents of trying to do things his own way.
And then God makes the whale vomit Jonah on to the beach.
The first line of the third chapter of the book of Jonah reads like this: "The word of the Lord came to Jonah---a SECOND time."
Today we are going to be focusing on this one very important truth. If you remember nothing else I say today, I hope you'll walk out of here remembering this:
When it comes to God's will--it's never too late for a second chance.
I think each of us has had moments in our life when we felt like we blew it. When we felt like we had a shot to do the right thing, the important thing, the best thing... and we blew it.
I remember years ago I was working as a chaplain in a hospital when I was called to bring a Bible to a patient who had requested one. When I arrived at the room, I was informed by a nurse that full contact precautions were required. I had to put on a cap to cover my head, a mask, gloves, full gown and also things to cover my shoes.
I walked into that room terrified. I had no idea what was wrong with the patient. I also didn't know if the precautions were for me or for him. I worried that he had MERSA or something. I held that Bible out at arms length when I walked in, and handed it to him.
I could tell by his face that he wanted me to stay and to talk. But I moonwalked out of that room as fast as I could, trying not look at the hurt on his face.
To this day, I regretted doing that. I wish I'd done something different.
Like I said, we all know what it's like to wish we had a second chance to do something over again. So many of us who are gathered here today probably can think about times in our life where we let people down, made the wrong decision, said something we wish we could take back, or just did something dumb that we didn't think about at the time.
But then there are times when we get that second chance. When we needed another shot and we got it. Think of a time in your life, when you needed a second chance and you received it. Maybe you were able to make something right in a relationship gone wrong. Or your did something that you regretted and you had the chance to do it all over again.
What did that feel like? What did it feel like to get that grace-filled, second chance?
In Jonah chapter 3, Jonah hears from God... again. Those first words, like I said are so powerful. Let's read the chapter together:
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.”
In Hebrew the phrase "word of the Lord" is translated "the dabar of Yahweh," which is sometimes connected to the idea of a "word event." I kind of like that to be honest because one way of understanding God more fully is as an event--THE event of all events.
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.
So here's something interesting that I learned in my reading for this sermon. In some of the rabbinical teachings--known as Midrash--some Jewish scholars believed that a certain amount of time elapsed from when Jonah was spat up on the beach and when he gets this second chance.
In some teachings, scholars thought that Jonah had given up. He'd hung up his prophet gear and decided that his prophet days were over. He was no longer worthy, he didn't think that he would ever have the chance to be used by God again. He'd had his shot, he blew it, he got punished and vomited on the beach, and it was over.
So when he experiences the event of God's word a second time--he doesn't hesitate, he goes.
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.”
Interestingly, the numbers three and forty show up again--Nineveh takes three days to walk across according to the text. Jonah declares that in forty days everything is going to be over for the Ninevites. These numbers are not only connected to the story of the people of Israel, but also to the Gospel.
There's a reason why when the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign to show that he is the Son of God that he tells them the only sign they are going to get is the sign of the prophet Jonah.
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.
This whole story is full of second chances. In this case even the foreigners who Jonah believed were beyond redemption get a second chance.
I heard once that if you don't believe that God would save even the most foul humans, then you don't believe God is powerful enough to save your own soul.
What this passage teaches throughout is simply that: When it comes to God's will--it's never too late for a second chance. It doesn't matter who you are, what you've done, where you've been... it's never too late for a second chance.
Where do you find yourself in this story?
It's what we tend to do, isn't it? We read a story and we identify with a character or a group of characters, perhaps. So where do you find yourself?
Are you the washed up/spit up/used up prophet?
Do you find yourself in a place in your life where you say or think things like, "There's no way God could use me... now way." or "I had my chance and I blew it..." or "I am not worthy of another chance... you have no idea what I've done."
Let's say the rabbis who wrote about this centuries ago were right. Think about Jonah sitting at home, thinking about the chance he had to do something great for God. But he blew that chance. He ended up in the belly of a whale and then was vomited on the beach. You don't fully come back from that. You might do other things, but the great thing you knew you were supposed to do.... that's over.
Or maybe you identify with the Never-Had-A-Chance Ninevites. You feel like an outsider to this. You don't think that if there is a God that God would every really love someone like you. You might say things like, "I have never been religious..." or "I don't know what I believe..." You've heard of what it means to have faith, to know Jesus, to be someone who embraces a life lived for God, but you don't have any idea how that could be you.
It's never too late for a second chance. It's never too late to respond to God's call whether it's the first time you are hearing it or the second... or maybe even the seventy-second. It's never too late.
One of my favorite Biblical characters is the Apostle Peter--mostly because I identify with his impetuous behavior and the way he always shot off his mouth. But he was the one disciple that wasn't afraid to step forward and do something even if it was the wrong thing from time to time.
But what I truly love about Peter is that he did something so unthinkable and unspeakable when it came to Jesus... you would think he would never get another chance to make it right. He swore to Jesus that come what may, he would never abandon him. He would die with Jesus if the Jewish leaders and Romans tried to take him.
On the night that he was taken Jesus told Peter that before the next morning he would deny him three times.
And when faced with very real possibility that he might be taken, beaten and killed, Peter swore on three difference occasions that he didn't know Jesus, and in one of the accounts it actually says that Jesus locked eyes with Peter as the morning broke and his last denial was being spoken.
It says in the text that Peter went out and wept bitterly. His heart is broken. His mind is haunted by the deep and heartbroken gaze of his teacher, his friend, his master...
Then Jesus is killed in a horrible way. And it's all over. Peter finds himself sitting by the sea of Galilee with some of the disciples and he decides that it's time to go back to fishing. He had his shot. There's no way he's going to get another one. It's time to hang up the disciple gear and just go back to casting nets.
Only the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples that morning and helps them miraculously catch an incredible catch of fish--and then Peter finds himself sitting on the shore by a fire with Jesus. And Jesus does something amazing.
He asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Peter says "yes, I love you--but probably not enough."
Jesus says, 'Feed my sheep.'
He asks Peter again, "Do you love me?" Peter says "yes, I love you--but I know its not enough."
Jesus says, "Feed by lambs."
He asks Peter a third time, "Do you love me?" Peter is frustrated by now "yes, I love you--but you know I am not good enough to love you like I should."
Jesus says, "Feed my sheep."
Peter denies Jesus three times, and Jesus restores him three times. Peter thought "there is no way I am ever going to get a chance to make things right." But Jesus made it right for him.
Peter is the Patron Saint of Second Chances. And wouldn't you know it that just a couple of months after that moment on the beach Peter finds himself standing before the same Jewish leaders that condemned Jesus to die and they tell him to stop preaching in the name of Jesus.
And Peter says, "Listen, boys. You do what you have to do. But there is no way that we are going to stop talking about what we have seen and heard."
Wherever you found yourself in the story of Jonah--wherever you happen to be right now in this moment. If you feel like you blew it, like you aren't worthy---hear the event of God's word today for you...
When it comes to God's will--It's never too late for a second chance.