Today is the day to celebrate freedom, right? It’s the fourth of July. Today the whole country celebrates the freedoms freedom from a foreign government, freedom to tax ourselves and decide how that money is used, freedom to worship God in our own way, freedom to pursue a better life, and the list goes on..
These freedoms are a gift of God, not to be abused and not to be taken for granted, but as Christians we celebrate an even greater freedom – not just today, but every time we meet together to hear God’s Word. The freedom we celebrate is the freedom not to bear the guilt of our sin as we stand before God, the freedom to not die forever in hell but to enjoy God’s grace forever, the freedom to not be afraid of what this world can do to us, and the freedom to share this freedom with others.
This freedom comes to us not because we have fought for it or have earned it, but because of God’s grace. Jesus fought for and earned this freedom and he gives it to you, only because of God’s grace – his undeserved love. This grace is even for you.
We will see God’s grace as Jonah brings God’s message to the people of Ninevah. We will see that God’s grace is for the people of Ninevah, and many will stop there thinking that Ninevah is the main focus, but it is not. Jonah is the focus. It is even more important that we see God’s grace is even for Jonah because we are more like Jonah than we are like the people of Ninevah. So if God’s grace is even for Jonah then God’s grace is even for us.
As our Old Testament lesson begins, we hear that Jonah obeyed God’s command to go and preach to the people of Ninevah. Wonderful! That’s great! Jonah obeyed God even though the people of Ninevah were the bitter enemies of Israel. Would you have obeyed God? Let’s not forget that this is the second time God commanded Jonah to preach to Ninevah.
The first time God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, he got on a boat going the other way. It wasn’t until Jonah experienced God’s fierce storm, was thrown into the sea, almost drowned, was swallowed by a fish, stayed there three days, and felt the indignity of being vomited up that Jonah finally agreed to do what God wanted him to do.
It reminds me of a cartoon I saw once where the fish had just spit Jonah onto dry land. Jonah is dripping wet with seaweed hanging off of him and the fish is swimming away in the background. Jonah has his cell phone up to his ear and over the cell phone God says to him, “Can you hear me now?”
Isn’t it true, just like Jonah, that God has to drag us through one painful ordeal after another until finally he has our attention, finally, we start listening to him?
Jonah obeys God and goes to Ninevah. Now Ninevah was a large city – “a visit required three days”, as the NIV translates that phrase. Here is an indication on how long it should have taken Jonah to walk down all the major roads in Ninevah and deliver God’s message. We hear that Jonah started his first day of delivering God’s message, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” When you hear the word “overturned” think of a dinning room table all set with food and china and silverware being lifted at one edge and turned over – what a mess, then imagine God doing that with a city, like he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Ninevah knew this wasn’t just a change in leadership, but a violent upheaval as the result of their sin.
We only hear about the first day of Jonah’s preaching and then immediately we hear about the repentance and faith of the Ninevites. One can imagine the commotion Jonah’s preaching must have caused as person after person heard the condemning words of God’s law and were cut to the heart. All Jonah had to do was get things started and the message quickly spread throughout the city and eventually reached the king.
Even the king repented and called for repentance throughout the city. They put on sackcloth – a cloth used to carry grain and other food. Perhaps not as bad as making your clothes out of paper bags from Schutz’s, but you get the idea. They fasted and didn’t even feed their animals. Can you imagine the noise from all those hungry animals? I think some of you can.
Greatest of all, they showed their sorrow over their sin by turning away from their sin and then they trusted God’s grace to save them. The words of the king, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” are more than just wishful thinking. He has proof that God cares about Ninevah in the very fact that God sent Jonah to preach to it.
Doesn’t Ninevah do what is right? Aren’t they a good example of repentance? This is why I said Ninevah was not the main focus. Yes, we see God’s grace as he reaches out to these people who are the enemy of God’s chosen people of Israel, but they are a contrast to Jonah who refuses to repent. The repentance of Ninevah makes the unrepentant Jonah even more of an abomination.
What do I mean? Look at what happened. God saw that Ninevah had repented of their evil and so God did not bring about their destruction. It was one of the greatest miracles of all of Scripture that God turned the hearts of a whole city, and yet, how did Jonah respond? “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”
You can see that Jonah’s attitude toward Ninevah has not changed from the first time God called him. Even though he knows about God’s grace in Israel’s history, even though he knows God’s grace from his own personal experience in the fish, he does not want God’s grace to be given to these people.
They were enemies of Israel. He certainly knew that anything good for Ninevah would be bad for Israel. Perhaps he also believed his own life would change if Ninevah became part of God’s family of believers. Perhaps he is afraid that they will be better “Israelites” than the Israelites. Perhaps he thought they didn’t deserve God’s grace.
What about you? Are you excited to share God’s grace with others or are you jealous of God’s grace. Are other people inferior and perhaps not worthy of God’s grace? Are you uninterested in sharing God’s grace because you know that some of the things we are used to around here would change? Are you simply “comfortable” with the way things are?
Perhaps you haven’t given it much thought at all, and that too is sin. To not do anything is no better or worse than Jonah running to Tarshish. When we confess our sins at the beginning of the worship service we confess that we have done what is evil “and failed to do what is good.” To not speak when we should, that is sin.
We desperately need God’s grace and God’s grace is even for us just as it was for Jonah. God was not done with Jonah. God came to Jonah to call him to repentance just as he calls us to repentance. “The LORD replied [to Jonah], ‘Have you any right to be angry?’” God was not going to let his prophet fall from faith through his unrepentance, but God came to him with these words and after these words, with an object lesson designed just for Jonah.
May we cherish all those times God calls us to repentance. As we come to repentance we have the assurance of forgiveness.
Just like Jonah, Jesus came to a people who were his enemies – us. He preached the Good News to them. He did more than that. He died to make God’s grace more that just words. Unlike Jonah he did it willingly. He did not need to be coerced or convinced. He came because he loved us and he truly wants us to repent and be saved. Unlike Jonah, he rejoices when we repent.
You are free. In Christ you have all the freedom that really matters, all by God’s grace.