A Call to the World

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Jonah 3:1-10

Have you ever heard of a man in the Bible called Jonah? His remarkable story has some very important things to teach us.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When the news 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. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything: do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3, niv

A common theme running through the story of the Old Testament prophet Jonah is the idea of calling. The opening chapter of the book tells about a call Jonah received from the Lord commissioning him to go to Nineveh and preach God’s word to the citizens of that city. But Jonah did not obey God. Instead, he tried to run away. Maybe you remember what happened next; it’s one of the best-known stories from the Bible. Jonah was cast into the sea where a great fish specially prepared by God swallowed him whole and thus preserved his life.

In Chapter 2, there is another kind of call as Jonah prays from the belly of the fish for God to save his life. God heard Jonah’s call out of the depths and saved him.

Chapter 3 tells how the Lord re-commissions Jonah, thereby giving him a second chance to obey and deliver his message to Nineveh. This time Jonah did what he was told, albeit very reluctantly. So up to this point in the story there have been three distinct calls: a call from God to Jonah, from Jonah to God, and from God through Jonah to the world.

THE OBJECT OF GOD’S CALL

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you,” God said to Jonah. The events narrated in Jonah probably took place sometime around the mid-eighth century b.c. Nineveh was then one of the leading cities of the world and the capital of Assyria, the most powerful empire in the near East. Ancient writers describe the city of Nineveh in tones of awe, noting its size, the strength of its walls and its gates, and the splendor of its palaces and temples. Perhaps the most telling detail testifying to Nineveh’s significance is recorded in the Bible here in Jonah 3:2, where God himself calls Nineveh a “great city.” It is one thing for people to be impressed with a place, but when God calls a city great, it must be impressive indeed!

So this great city of Nineveh was the place where God sent his servant Jonah to speak his word, to declare his name (and therefore his nature and character), and to explain his will. God cares about the city. Think about that. God has a word for the whole world to hear. He has something to say to the citadels of human culture and power. He wants to be known and acknowledged everywhere, including those places, the cities of our world, where human society is most proudly organized against him.

God does not only speak to the church, to people who are actively paying attention to him. His word is not addressed only to reverent audiences who have gathered to worship him. God also speaks to Nineveh. God’s demands for all people to acknowledge him as God and for all communities to practice righteousness and justice must be broadcast far and wide.

So God’s call comes to the great cities of our world: to Washington and Moscow, and Tokyo, London and Paris; to New York and New Delhi; to Nairobi, Cairo and Karachi; to Johannesburg and St. Petersburg; Manila and Mexico City; Lagos and Los Angeles; to Seoul and Sidney, and Shanghai and Singapore, to Santiago and San Francisco; to Berlin, Birmingham, Beijing, Bombay and Buenos Aires. These and every other city on earth belong to God, and so deeply is he concerned about what is happening in them that he sends his servants with his word to all the world’s cities to make his name and his will known.

God’s call to the city should dispel the common misconception that he is concerned only about the personal life of individuals, and that his main business in the world is saving people one by one and taking them to be with him in heaven when they die. Now it is true, wonderfully true, that God is a personal God and that he knows us each by name and cares for us as individuals. It is also true that the single most important thing you can do is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and so be saved.

But that is not all there is to Christian faith, to biblical faith, nor to the concerns and agenda of God. He is not just a private God. He is the God of the whole earth. He is not interested only in individuals. He also cares about cities, states, cultures, entire nations and peoples. God is the God of everything. Abraham Kuyper was a gifted pastor and theologian who also served as prime minister of the Netherlands during the early years of this century. He once said this: “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine. This belongs to me.’”

THE SUBJECT OF GOD’S CALL

When Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, he entered the city and began to publicly proclaim the message God had sent him to deliver. This is what it was: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (rsv). It was a message of God’s wrath and judgment, announcing the destruction that was soon to fall upon the city and its inhabitants. This was not an arbitrary or capricious reaction on God’s part. In his original commission, the Lord had told Jonah he was to preach against Nineveh, “because its wickedness has come up before me” (1:2).

What sort of wickedness called forth the judgment of God upon a whole city and nation? We are given a hint later in Jonah 3 in the words of the proclamation of the king of Nineveh calling his people to repent. He urged them to “give up their evil ways and their violence” (v. 8). The single most pronounced characteristic of the empire of Assyria was its cruelty, a fact well attested by history and archeology, and this was the particular sin for which God held that nation accountable.

If we had a fuller catalog of Nineveh’s sins, the list would have been very modern sounding, including things like: aggression against weaker states, war crimes and atrocities, torture by police and military officials, economic oppression of the rich against the poor, corruption of justice and bribe taking, murder and extortion, persecution of minorities, infanticide, genocide, ethnic cleansing. Those were all the sins of Nineveh, and they are all sins that God sees and by which he is deeply offended. God the creator has made people in his own image, and his holy wrath is aroused whenever and wherever his creatures are brutalized or mistreated.

I said before that Jonah helps to refute the misconception that God is only a private God of individuals. It also challenges the error that God is mostly interested in religion. Many people think that God’s concerns are limited to religious activities, and that his presence in the world is confined to holy places. They assume that God really cares about things like sermons, hymns, prayers, liturgies and sacrifices, but that he is not really interested at all in business or economics, politics, medicine, the arts and entertainment. Such people view God as a sort of pious old gentleman who is somewhat behind the times, an old-fashioned figure who maintains a keen interest in theology but does not know anything about things like corporate mergers or genetic research, or the national budget. People think of God as being present and active in church, but not in the office or the school, or the factory or shop, not in the sports arena or the theater or concert hall, not in the halls of Congress or the houses of Parliament.

The disastrous result of imagining that God has his own narrow area of interest and that he does not really pay attention to much else outside of it is that religious faith can then be divorced from public and private morality. A lot of people think that as long as they offer God the proper sacrifices and say the right words in the right places and do the ritual acts they think God requires – pay lip service to God and nod in his direction occasionally – that then they are free to ignore him the rest of the time.

But God is everywhere. He cares about everything. He holds not just individuals but whole societies accountable for all that they do. Isn’t it significant that his vengeance was pronounced against Nineveh because of social, not religious sins? It may be that God somewhat excused the idolatry of Assyria on the grounds that they had not yet had an opportunity of learning about him. But he would not excuse this society for the cruelty and violence it practiced against its enemies, and also against the poor, the weak and the defenseless within it. These were all things that people through their own consciences should know are evil. And for this God has determined to destroy Nineveh.

The same thing is true today. God is the God who is over all, who watches all, who knows all, who judges all. Some day all will realize that. Some day every person and every nation will know that at every point it is God with whom they have to do and to whom they must answer for every word and deed, and the only thing that will matter will be whether those words and deeds have pleased God or offended him.

THE RESPONSE TO GOD’S CALL

What Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh was bad news, not good news. As far as we know, the message he delivered was the simple announcement of impending doom, unmixed with any hope or offer of escape. Yet there was something else there. After all, why should God have sent him to warn the city at all if there wasn’t at least a hint of an alternative to judgment and death? At least the warning to Nineveh implied a chance of avoiding destruction.

And the people of Nineveh took that chance. They responded immediately and in an amazing way. The Bible says simply, they “believed God.” In this case, all they had to believe was that God would indeed destroy them for their sin as he had declared through Jonah the prophet. But they thought that at least they could repent and see if there was a chance for them to be saved.

Repentance in the Bible has a special meaning. It does not mean just to feel sorry for what you have done or to express remorse. Repentance in the Bible means to turn and change, to change your mind about God and yourself and the truth, and to change your life. It means to turn your life around, turning away from sin and back toward God. It means to set out in a new direction, setting your back to things like wickedness or injustice, or violence, or cruelty, and setting your face toward God and the good. The people of Nineveh did this without a lot of hope, but then they discovered just how kind God is. For God forgave them. The amazing thing, the Bible says, is that when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. Even when God speaks of coming judgment and destruction, his warnings are always conditional and his deepest desire is to see us believe in him, change, and be saved.

Do you realize that? If you have been living in ways that are offensive to God, then you must know this cannot go on. God will judge these things and they will destroy you, not only eternally but even here and now. But at the same time, it is never too late to turn from death to life, from sin to the Lord of love. Whether you do that or not all comes down to this basic issue: Do you believe God?