Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Sign of Jonah

Salvation is a popular term these days. People might not be flocking to Christian salvation but everyone is offering salvation of some kind. It's the theme tune of advertising. Everyone has the magic elixir that will save you from misery, aging, emptiness... Look inside, ouside, anywhere...
As we come to Jonah 2, we lean upon those who have gone before us. I want to follow Jesus' preaching of himself from this book. Jesus considered the whole Bible to be about himself.. and so if we're not finding him then we're sub-Christian in our study. What we find should not be acceptable to a Muslim or a Jew. Before we learn the meaning we need to catch up on the story. At the end of Act 1 we found the sailors caught up into God's story of saving grace, and Jonah was dead in the middle of the Med.

We find him in 1v17. We find him swallowed up in God's grace – the death wish rebel rescued by the LORD, in the form of a big fish. Most people, when they think of Jonah think of this big fish. The danger is that we get so obsessed with the fish that we fail to see who sent the fish: the LORD, the saviour. The prophet couldn't save himself, and he didn't want to. But God rescued him. Grace was inescapable for this rebel. And in the stench of the fish stomach Jonah writes a Psalm, what else was there to do? Briefly let's see what he was singing about.

Once more Jonah knows his God. V2. The LORD. The God of covenant promises. The God who had bound himself to his people. And he sees – v2, v5, v6, that his situation was helpless. He was v2: in distress. He was v5: closed in, with weeds around his dead. v6: barred in forever.
Jonah is out of control. He can't save himself. And it seems at last he knows it. This is more than can be said for many of us when God saves us... but as we look back with the eyes of faith it becomes clear that He was saving us. And so, v6, Jonah sees. “you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD, my God.” God saves. And we can take no credit for it. The LORD appoints a fish to save Jonah. God always does the saving. A fish for Jonah, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for us. Salvation to helpless sinners, by something beyond us.

But what does it mean to be saved? Salvation is equated with access to God's Holy Temple – v4 v7. He is confident that he will see God's holy temple, and that his prayers reach that place. The temple is what? The place where God is. Salvation is about seeing God. God is our gospel.

Some imagine being a Christian is good because you avoid hell. Some imagine being a Christian is good because it means an eternal escape from pain and suffering. Neither of these reasons is good enough. John Piper asks the key question in his book, God is the gospel. Simply, would you be happy in heaven if Jesus was not there? Eternal life is good because it's forever with Jesus. He is the centre of John's vision of heaven. Notice that the book of Revelation isn't weird stuff, the first verse of the book says it's the revelation of Jesus. And in every vision Jesus is the central figure.

Eternal life is Jesus forever. And that's why idolatry is so evil. V8-9, Idolatry forsakes salvation. It says, I wont worship God but something else. Idolatry is the human disease. The rot in our hearts leading us to bow to anything and everything else. Jeremiah called it the double-sin of abandoning the life the LORD gives, to bow down to the dirt that cannot bring life. Vain idols. Worthless idols. That's all our heroes area. They cannot rescue us. And as Jonah sees he turns to thanksgiving, and a glorious admission: “salvation belongs to the LORD!”

Jonah's track record is based on the philosophy that says, Jonah-saves! Now he sees that it is God who saves. And not just 'God' but the LORD, the covenant promise keeper... the LORD, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. He still has some big issues, but he's made a little progress.

And with that he is vomitted out onto the land. It's a disgusting image. The stomach-acid-bleached vomit-fragranced prophet. Once dead, now resurrected. And Jesus says that's a fair parallel to these events – using them as an image of his own death and resurrection, calling that the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12v38-42). Jonah's death and resurrection points us forward to Jesus' death and resurrection.... And then, Jesus does the same with what happens next, the preaching of Jonah in Nineveh (Luke 11v29-32)... the preaching of Jonah pointing forward to Jesus' preaching.

God re-comissions Jonah in 3v1. But this time, v3 is different: he goes!! He does “according to the word of the LORD”!! Something has changed radically for Jonah! Problems remain (we'll see in Jonah 4) but for now, grace has exploded into his life.

Once dead now intoxiated by the grace of God. On arrival in the great city of Nineveh he finally starts to preach, v4. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” - five words in the original Hebrew.

He didn't want to do it. We might think he didn't want to preach judgement. In fact he was glad to proclaim judgement on them (as we'll see in Jonah 4). The shock is what happens next... V5. “And the people of Nineveh believed God – not Jonah – but God - They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least.” They give up on their riches and their food. Like the sailors, they give up in themselves.. and once again Jonah is leaving a trail of grace, v6... from the King to the poorest Ninevite.

The law of the city becomes repentance, v9. They don't know if God will save them. They lack self-assurance. “who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” They cannot trust even in their own repentance. Their only hope is if God acts beyond them to save them. It was like that for everyone til the cross. Men and women trusting in God's word. Now we trust in his word, and see the specific outworking of his saving grace at the cross. A sure testimony that God will save those who look to it. And, v10. God saves!

The biggest revival ever – at least 120,000 people according to Jonah 4.. possibly that's just the children, so maybe this is the salvation of five hundred thousand people from the five words (in the Hebrew) of the reluctant prophet. And today the Christians of Iraq are mostly found on the plains of Nineveh. That day, sending shockwaves through history, because salvation belongs to the Lord.

They weren't looking for salvation. And Jonah didn't want them to be saved. But if God decides to save them saving is what he will do. Which is great news. God is in the business of saving.
Jesus preached this story. He called it the sign of Jonah, and he proclaimed it against people who were refusing to repent. They demanded proofs and signs, they wanted belief on their own terms. They put conditions on God. But Jesus was not going to play their games.

It's easy for us to do the same isn't it? We want to assert our free will, our cleverness to work it out, our superious spirituality. Or we trust in a prayer we prayed... a Christian family.. status as a leader. Or we put conditions on our ongoing belief... academic success, the fulfillment of our dreams, of money or family or healing. We see it in our friends, “I'd believe if...”

But salvation belongs to the Lord. He wont be manipulated or controlled by us. And Nineveh is cited as an example to humble and convict us of our sin. The evil of evil cities repented at the death, resurrection of preaching of the prophet. Now God has down us so much more... the death and resurrection of Jesus, preached in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It's The Spiderman Principle: “with great revelation comes great responsibility”. We're without excuse. No ifs, no buts. We're accountable and we need to believe. We need to take God at his word. And hold to that. Consider what God has revealed. Four things....

The Cross – Punishment for sin
The Sailors. Jonah. Nineveh. All of them doing great evil. The Sailors trusted in idols – in gods that were not real instead of their Maker. God acts graciously towards all of them... Shouldn't he have punished them for their sin? That would have been just, but the other way is to punish Jesus in our place. And he does that! Inviting us to come and 'see and savour' Jesus forever.
Charles Simeon said that nominal Christianity is happy to prove that The Cross matters. But the true Christian loves the cross. Revels in it. Boasts in it. Delights in it. And shudders at the thought of boasting in anything else. The cross is not just the basics. It is everything. The blood in the veins of our Christianity.

The Resurrection – New Life!
Richard Dawkins neglects this entirely in his reasons why God exists and yet it is our chief ground of evidence! The one event on which Christianity stands and falls. No resurrection, no hope and Christians are just pitiful fools. But – if the resurrection happens then it not only proves that Jesus defeated death but brings us into resurrection life. We've been seeing that, I hope, in Ephesians. That just as Christ died, rose and ascended and was seated... so the same things happen to us. In Christ we reign in life by grace. That's why the resurrection is so vital – without it we're still dead in our sin. By the resurrection we come to new Spirit-led life!

The Proclamation – God is verbal
The first and last things God does in the book of Jonah is speak. There are some around who want to say that words aren't necessary, but words are God's way of working. What happens when God speaks? Universes get created – in Genesis 1. And when God speaks to sinners then another creation miracle occurs. The same words that spoke the world into being, speak to raise us from the dead to new life. Without words there would have been no repentance for the sailors or for Nineveh. None of which is to say those words should be delivered carelessly, unkindly or rudely. That said – God's man in Nineveh has rotten motives, and is thoroughly godless as we'll see this evening. Yet his five words save half-a-million people. Because it's not about them believing Jonah – but 3v5, they believed God.

Repentance – Metanoia – Turn Around
The people of Nineveh repented. The greek word means a total turn around. Starting with a change of mind, but then the mind changes the affections of the heart, and the action of our hands. A change of worship – from idols to God. What does it mean to repent. Before we repent we're “starving for the greatness and glory of God” - we didn't realise it because we thought idols could satisfy us. But when we hear the gospel spoken, and repent everything changes. Grace exploded into Jonah's life at the point of death, and turned him into a grace preacher. We'll discover this evening that Jonah was still desperately struggling with that grace, but nonetheless God used him to save the people of evil Nineveh. They all repented. The Lord saves. He's the God of promise who invites sinners into his presence. I bring nothing to the table – he did it all through the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus.