“You’ll never run into a stratum in God that is hard. You’ll always find God gracious, at all times and toward all peoples forever. You’ll never run into any meanness in God, never any resentment or rancor or ill will, for there is none there. God has no ill will toward any being. God is a God of utter kindness and cordiality and good will and benevolence. And yet all of these work in perfect harmony with God’s justice and God’s judgment.”
~ A. W. Tozer, The Radical Cross
Tonight we will be introduced to the Ninevites. This story opened with a mention of their name but since then we haven’t really heard anything about Nineveh. We were taken the opposite direction. So, as far as you and I know, we don’t really know anything about this place called Nineveh because we’ve been focusing on Jonah and his situation on the boat and in the whale. Today we meet the Ninevites. That is precisely what the telling of this story is highlighting. Chapter 1:1 opens with God saying, “Go to Nineveh.” Then we get distracted by Jonah’s attempt to thwart that plan. So in chapter 3 we get, exactly, the same mandate, “Go to Nineveh.”
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.
So, the author is saying…”Just in case you, or Jonah, have forgotten the original direction of this story, we are heading to Nineveh, that great city!” Tonight I want to take a trip to Nineveh with you. I want to introduce you to the that great city, and as we go there I want to explore this word great. You might have noticed that the concept of greatness is brought up a whole bunch in this story. First, Jonah is told to go the the great city, then God sends a great storm, the sailor’s exhibit great fear (exceedingly great fear), God sends a great fish and now we are retold of this city greatness. In fact, twice we read of the greatness of this city. God says, “Go to that great city”, and then the narrator says, “Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city.” Just like the sailor’s fear, the author is drawing attention to the greatness of the city. God is teaching us something by the over use of this word great. I believe that this story reveals to us that sin is great, but his grace is greater. Tonight there will be 2 points to my message. (1) Sin is great. (2) God’s grace is greater.
When I read stories like this one, I can not help but imagine the story unfolding like a movie. I think in terms of cinema. I love to watch movies. I want us to imagine these next few scenes like an epic movie. We have been with Jonah through quiet an ordeal now. There has been some significant character development in this short story, and so if you were watching this in a theater you should begin to like Jonah. You should relate to him. You should feel connected to him and now you are about to walk with Jonah through the great and terrible city of Nineveh.
If I were Martin Scorsese or Mel Gibson I would try to paint this picture for you as Jonah walks though this city that would make you feel uncomfortably afraid. For instance, Gibson achieves that in his film Apocalypto. It’s a movie about ancient indians. The main character (Jaguar Paw) is captured by the Mayans and as he is lead into the Mayan camp he sees all these really weird and strange tribal people. They have bones stuck all over theirs face, and ears and noses with tattooed and painted faces. If you have seen that movie you know what I’m talking about. As you enter that city with Jaguar Paw you feel uncomfortable yet amazed by all that is happening. Huge mayan pyramids. Weird dancing and praying. Paint is rubbed all over his body by these creepy temple servants. For me that was a really creepy scene.
As you identify with the main character you feel trapped, and surrounded by savages as you are lead up – to top of their temple – and handed over to the high priest who is preforming human sacrifices. A river of blood is flowing down the pyramid. Your next. Gibson does a phenomenal job as he draws you in to this ancient, violent and grotesque culture.
Or… if you haven’t seen that movie, maybe you can imagine a gangster film. Certainly you can imagine how would feel if you were thrust into the dark underworld of a infamous gang. There you are surrounded by cold hearted and clearly psychopathic men wearing wife beater tank tops playing carelessly with loaded weapons and giving you the stink eye. It should be thrilling. If my wife were watching that with me, this would be the scene were she starts to sit up on the couch and squeeze the color from my hand.
That is the picture in my mind as we enter into Nineveh with Jonah. These people are fierce and violent people. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. In the seventh and eighth centuries BC, Assyria was the great world power. Nahum, the prophet, who also spoke against Nineveh, called it the city of blood.
Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder—no end to the prey! The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies! And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms. (Nahum 3:1-4 ESV)
Wow. What a wrap sheet. Full of fraud & lies, robbery. Their violence was unbelievable. They were famous for their brutality and their cruelty. Historical research has revealed that Nineveh would routinely put entire countries on brutal death marches and they were famous for the particular knack they had for skinning their enemies alive. They would literally skin them alive, tie them to a pole and leave them to die a slow, painful and gruesome death. They were experts at brutality and torture. Nahum expressed it clearly. There were hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies! And whoring! Countless whoring. That word alone might make some of us cringe, and Nahum stresses the ugliness of the word. He says it forcefully – whoring! It is a culture of sexual deviants mixed with witchcraft and deadly charms.
So – American Evangelical – meet Nineveh. You might feel the need to pull out your little bottle of hand sanitizer and wash out your ears after all that you have just heard. They are the most despised, hated, and feared people on the planet. And if you were walking through this city, for 3 days, with Jonah I am certain that you would begin to feel the walls closing in on you and would loose your mind in fear. “Welcome to Nineveh. You can check in anytime you want, but you can never leave!”
So Nineveh is a great city and their sin is great! God probably could not have picked a more sinful place to send Jonah. Wait a minute! Check that. That last statement might not be true. God actually said a very similar thing about Israel in the book of Isaiah.
They are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with the children of foreigners. Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made… the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet… (Isaiah 2:6-8, 3:16 ESV)
Sin in Nineveh is great! Sin in Israel is great! Sin is great! Now, I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this, but it’s important for me to say to you that you and I are not much different than Nineveh or Israel in these Biblical accounts. Please bear with me. I’m not saying that because all sin is offensive to God therefore your sin, which might just be lying, or cheating on your taxes, or ducking certain responsibilities, is therefore equal to skinning people alive and whoring around like Charlie Sheen. I’m not saying that. Honestly, statements like that sometimes repulse me because there is definitely a difference between me stealing a paper clip from the office and me cheating on my spouse or murdering the next guy who cuts me off. So I am not saying that. I am not saying that all sin is equal therefore you are just like Nineveh. What I am saying, and I believe the entire Bible is saying, is that you and I are not much different than the people of Nineveh because we are murderers, and we are adulterous and we are filthy rotten lying thieving blood thirsty sinners.
God says to Israel in the first chapter of Isaiah that he will not even listen to their prayers because of the blood that’s on their hands.
When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Isaiah 1:15-17
Incidentally Israel is the smallest nation. They don’t have a lot of blood on their hands. They’re not on a conquest to the destroying the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Philistines. But – God says they have bloody hands. Why? They are guilty by association and they are guilty by the way they treat the poor, the fatherless and the widow. They are guilty for ignoring the responsibility that God had given them to be a holy people and a light to the nations. And so they may not be skinning people alive, but their hand are covered in blood, and for that God will not hear they prayers.
You see this entire story of Jonah is really teaching a certain thing through a clear and ironic contrast. The narrator is contrasting 3 kinds of repentance in this story. Jonah repents from the belly of the fish. We will see later on in the weeks to come that his repentance was not a genuine kind of repentance. And then God contrasts for Jonah Nineveh’s repentance. They have a very genuine kind of repentance. Thirdly, God repents, or relents from the destruction that he promised. So because of this clear and ironic contrast the Bible is also speaking to us right now. Are we, the Church, a repentant people?
In order for you and I to be repentant we must first recognize that we need to repent. And so I would miss – we would miss – an extremely important point if we didn’t pause for a moment and consider how we need to repent for sins that are just as heinous as Nineveh’s. Indeed, I believe that Christ commanded us to partake of the Lord’s Supper as often as we gather because we need to confess our sins as often as we gather. And if we do not see our sin as being like Nineveh’s, then we are at a huge risk of down playing our own wickedness and thus downplaying are need for repentance – AND our need for grace. Sin is great, but grace is greater – and the more we minimize our sin the more we minimize his grace. The more we see our sin as great, the more his grace can be greater.
We need to discuss this. And I don’t want to confess personal sin at this point.
Instead I want us to think in terms of the church. How is the church doing? Are we a repentant people? Or are we like Jonah, self-righteous, downplaying our own wickedness and up-playing everyone else’s. And when we do that are we not guilty? Do we not have blood on our hands?
How are we, American Evangelical Christians, in need of deep genuine repentance?
Tonight we need to learn that sin is great, but where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Sin is great, and your sins are great too. But God’s grace is greater. It is deep deep deep.
Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold, threaten the soul with infinite loss;
grace that is greater, yes, grace untold, points to the refuge, the mighty cross.
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin!
~ Hymn: “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”
The depths of God’s grace is particularly showcased in this story as God gives forgiveness and grace to these awful and wicked Ninevites. God told Jonah go to Nineveh to “call out against it with the message that I tell you.” When God preaches, that sermon does not need to be long. It does not need illustrations or scholarly quotes. This message that God gives to Jonah is only 5 words long in Hebrew. It is the briefest message in the entire Bible.
Incidentally, I’ll can tell you that most of what I have heard from God has been powerfully brief. You know we sometimes talk about hearing God’s voice – You might hear someone say, “Well God told me such-n-such.” And I don’t know what that looks like for everybody but do I know what it looks like for me and most of the time it’s usually one sentence. One little phrase that when I hear it I just know that it’s from God. And it’s always powerful. It’s never a long conversation. I don’t carry on long conversations with God. I seem to do most of the talking until he hits me with a little one liner. A zinger. And it’s usually enough to shut me up and cause me to think. God’s messages don’t have to be long. He spoke the Universe into existence with his words and turned the hearts of these sick and twisted murders with only 5. That’s powerful.
Here is the message, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Here is the gist that message, “In 40 days you’re going to die. God is sick of it. He’s finished with your violence. You’ve got 40 days.” Now what really surprises me is their response. “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” They believed the message. “Yep, God is probably mad at us. And, we deserve to wiped out.” So, the only response they have is to pray, and fast, and repent. I imagine they might be thinking, “Well, if he is giving us 40 days, that must be for a reason. Maybe there is time to change his mind. Maybe, if we fast, pray, repent – who knows, maybe he will turn from his anger so that we will not perish.”
You know, they got something right there didn’t they. Just like the sailors in chapter one who told Jonah, “Call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” It’s almost as if there is a point being made here. In fact if we look ahead to the end of the story we will learn that Jonah did not want to come and preach to Nineveh because he knew that God would forgive and save them. So yes there is a point being made here. God is a gracious and forgiving God. Slow to anger. Abounding in Love. And it seems that everyone in this story is counting on that. Everyone from the pagan sailors to the monstrous Assyrians.
I would argue that everyone in the world has no choice but to count on that. You have no other hope. You have nothing else that you can count on for your salvation. God is gracious but he is also just and a just God must punish sin. God can not just let sin slide. He can not just give us a free pass. Sin must be paid for. Otherwise God would not be loving, he would be a pushover. He would not be just, he would be unfair. And so God’s word is a message of justice. It is a message of judgment. “Forty days, and you’re done.”
How would you respond to such a message of judgment? The only way you can respond is to cry out to God, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” That is what Nineveh did. And that is what God did. He had mercy on the sinner. Maybe you need to hear that tonight. Maybe you need to hear the gospel. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus paid for your sins and that your sins can be washed away – they can be completely removed. Not because God is a push over, but because some else has already paid for them. In Christ, God sent a different kind of word. It was not a 5 word sermon on judgment, instead – God’s word took on flesh.
…The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:14-16 ESV)
In Jesus, because he has paid the penalty for your sin, you have grace upon grace. Your sin is great, his grace is greater. If you are a sinner without the grace of God, let me encourage you to call out for the grace that is yours for the asking. The sailors did it. The Ninevites did it? Wont you?
The bridge of grace will bear your weight, brother. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yea, tens of thousands have gone over it. Some have been the chief of sinners and some have come at the very last of their days but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them trusting to the same support. It will bear me over as it has for them. ~ Spurgeon
And it will bear the weight of your sin too. Your sin is great but his grace is greater. Now for the rest of us – who have already called out for that grace. You may recognize these verses. You may even give a nod and a hearty amen that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. But the question that this story is asking you is – do you really get it? The Gospel is just as much for believers as it is for unbelievers. We say we believe the gospel, but I say we barely believe it because we hardly get it. The depths of God grace is very deep and I believe we have but skimmed its surface.
If you do not agree, then you only prove my point. Jonah understood the grace of God, yes. But at the same time he doesn’t understand it at all. God’s grace is great. But grace is only great when we understand that our sin is great. And Christians have sins that are just as great as the sins of unbelievers. Maybe ours are even greater. If we get that – if we truly get that, then our prayer should be like that of A.W. Tozer.
“O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, so that I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, ‘Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away.’ Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long.” ― A.W. Tozer
I believe that we need to be thrown into the ocean and the depths of God’s grace in order to be fully saturate – so that it can penetrate every pore of our being – so that we would fully understand just how much grace we’ve are daily being given. Unfortunately, I believe that most of us have learned to minimize our own wickedness – our own sinfulness – at the cost of minimizing his grace. When we consider the greatness of our sin we can then experience the greatness of his grace, and more we grasp his grace, the more gracious we will be as a people called by his name. We need to long for longing and thirst for thirsting. We need to be painfully conscious of our need for further grace.