The Third Sunday of Lent - Reflection

‘Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God’.  Jonah 3:4-5.

Brothers and sisters, Its 1917, World War One has been raging for 3 years. But now the Germans have pulled back and the British think they have got them on the run. An offensive is planned, and in 24 hours men and boys will go over the top. So begins the recent film called simply ‘1917’. But, aerial reconnaissance has observed that the German army is not in retreat. Rather the German army has made a strategic withdrawal where they are waiting to overwhelm the British with artillery. Two young British lance corporals, William Schofield and Tom Blake, are ordered to carry a message calling off the scheduled attack that would jeopardise the lives of 1,600 men. This message would literally save the soldiers. It’s a cracking film and well worth a watch, and its also reminiscent of the true story of Jonah which we have been studying in Lent. Thousands of people will die in Nineveh if God’s message doesn’t get through; but unlike the British soldiers, Jonah doesn’t follow orders. Over the last 2 weeks, we have seen the disobedient Jonah run in the opposite direction, and then by God’s grace saved from death, and given a second chance. Will Jonah take this second chance to do the right thing, or has he learnt nothing?

As we look at Jonah, and then at Nineveh, notice three things both times. First, God’s word is spoken; second, there is a response; and third, there is the attitude of that response. Let’s begin with God’s people; let’s begin with Jonah. First, God’s word is spoken, v1: ‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ Chapter 3 begins where the whole story began, with God caring about a pagan city. Jonah has previously demonstrated that he doesn’t care about the people of Nineveh. Nineveh can be judged as far as he is concerned. But Jonah has realised now that he is just as disobedient. Jonah has seen himself as a sinner and has cried out to God and been saved. Will this new more humble prophet listen to God this time? Second there is a response, v3: ‘So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh,  according to the word of the Lord’. Jonah hears the word of the Lord and responds correctly this time. Jonah travels to Nineveh, and like the soldiers in the ‘1917’ film, Jonah is sent with a message. And like the soldiers in the film, Jonah doesn’t get to make up the message himself. He was told in v2 by God: ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ Jonah is not free to choose for himself what he would say. And equally when we go to speak to our friends and neighbours about God, we are not free to make up our own message. God has given us His word - His message for all people - and we are limited to spreading that word. What we do get to decide, like Jonah, is our response. Third, Jonah gets to decide something else, not just if he goes, but also his attitude as he goes. Jonah’s attitude is somewhat half hearted. The city takes three days to cross, but Jonah only goes one day in. He begins to cross it, but does’t even get to the middle! And what eloquent word does He give: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’? That’s it! Jonah is hardly making an effort. If Jonah’s preaching is successful, that success will surely not be down to his amazing sermon. But then again how similar is that to us. How often do we shy away from speaking about God, and then when we do, we whisper it in a corner, and what we say is hardly inspiring.

Let’s go through the next few verses a little quicker with the same three points and see what happens. First, God’s word is spoken, v4: ‘Jonah cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’’ As we’ve seen, not a great sermon, but Jonah’s sermon has two positive points: It's simple, and it’s easy to understand. Likewise, when you speak to your friends and loved ones about Jesus, make sure it is simple and easy to understand. Second, there is a response, v5: ‘And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.’ Nineveh responds perfectly! Nineveh got the reluctant Jonah and repented. Israel, and indeed the whole world gets Jesus, the most amazing preacher ever, but sadly too often we do not turn back to God. Third, the attitude of the response is absolutely spot on as we’ve seen. No half-hearted mumbling like Jonah. No grumbling apology and then looking to get on with life as normal as soon as possible! No, Nineveh, from the poorest peasant to the king himself respond genuinely and completely. And, just as when Jonah repented God responded with grace, so when Nineveh repents, God responds by grace, v10: ‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.’ It doesn’t matter who you are, if you repent and turn to God, the God of grace will respond and forgive you.

Well, finally, what does any of this have to do with us? Surely it’s this? God wants all people to turn to Him. God wants the people of Chorley - just as much as He wanted the people of Nineveh - to be saved from judgment by turning to Him. And the way God chose to do that, is the same God chose to do it in chapter 3: by the preaching of His word, through His people, to the people of the city. Chorley needs to hear God’s word, and God chooses to use Christians to take God’s word to God’s world. This morning we are like Jonah with a message which can save a city. So, let’s go out and speak and in so doing, bring God’s salvation to our town. Amen (from Rev. Mike).