I don’t know about you, but when I’m driving, I hate turning around. If I’ve gone the wrong way, I absolutely hate the idea of having to pull over to the side of the road and do a 180. My policy when I’m driving is, “Always go forwards. Never go backwards.” If I take a wrong turn, I just keep driving, because I figure, “I’ll eventually get on the road I’m meant to be on, and I’ll eventually get to where I wanna go.” But the last thing I wanna do if I’ve made a wrong turn is turn around.
Now I’ve gotta admit, that’s got me into a bit of trouble in the past. It’s caused a little bit of tension in my relationships. A couple weeks ago, I was in the car with my brother-in-law Nick, I was helping him move a mattress. And I went to take a turn but I got cut off, and then Nick said those dreadful words, “Aw bro, you missed the turn, you gotta turn around.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, I’d rather die. I’m going to spare you the details of what happened next, but let me just say, we did get to our destination in the end, but I think Nick’s words at the end of it all were something along the lines of, “You’re a madman, Jayesh.”
I don’t know exactly why I hate turning around so much; maybe it’s because turning around is like admitting I’ve been completely wrong, like I’m an incompetent navigator, like everything I’ve worked for in getting to where I am needs to be reversed. It’s subtly humiliating. Whatever the reasons, I am terrible at turning around.
Now that might seem like a relatively minor character flaw, but it can actually be quite serious. You see, sometimes in life, and not just when you’re driving, you gotta turn around, you gotta do a 180. There are times in our lives when for whatever reason, we find ourselves on a road that is headed for disaster and destruction. And if you’re someone on that road, and you’re not good at turning around, then you’re in serious trouble.
Now there’s an archaic word in our English translations of the Bible that is used to describe turning around: it’s the word “repent”. It means to stop going in the direction you are going in, and start going in a completely new direction, in heart and action. And Christians, of all people, ought to be experts at repentance. We ought to be the ones who have mastered the art of turning around. You see, repentance is not just something you do when you first become a Christian, it’s something you need to do for your whole Christian life. Becoming a Christian is only the start of repentance; we need to be continually turning to God, and turning away from our sin. When Martin Luther, the famous 16th Century Christian Reformer, when he nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door that launched the breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church, guess what his very first thesis was? All of life is REPENTANCE.
And so, it is a tragedy when people who call themselves Christians are bad at repenting. It is a tragedy when people who carry the name of Christ are slow to recognise they’ve done anything wrong, slow to admit they’ve done something wrong, slow to say sorry and make amends, and slow to start walking in the opposite direction. And it’s even more of a tragedy when Christians don’t even do those things at all. And so a question we need to be asking ourselves today is, how are we, as a church, going with repentance? Are we people who are corporately and individually known for our repentance, known for our ability to turn around? Or have we dropped the ball?
In the Bible passage we’re looking at this week, we’re going to see that Jonah is someone who is not very good at repentance. We’re in a three-week series on Jonah at the moment, this is week 2, and I’ve called the series The Portrait of a Pathetic Prophet, because as I said last week, the book of Jonah doesn’t paint Jonah in positive terms; it paints him in negative terms. In the book of Jonah, Jonah is portrayed as a pathetic prophet who doesn’t fear God, who doesn’t repent, and who doesn’t love the lost.
Last week we looked at how Jonah didn’t fear God, and we saw that when God tells him to go to Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrian Empire that destroyed Jonah’s hometown, he catches a boat ride in the opposite direction with a bunch of pagan sailors instead. And the irony was that the sailors have more fear of God than Jonah does. God sends a great storm that almost sinks the ship, and the sailors are the ones praying; meanwhile, Jonah’s fast asleep below deck. Eventually, the sailors remorsefully and regretfully chuck Jonah overboard to stop the storm. Fortunately, Jonah doesn’t drown; God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah, and he survives in the fish for three days and three nights.
This week, we’ll be looking at the second and third chapters of Jonah; we’ll look Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of the fish in chapter 2, and then we’ll look at Jonah preaching in Nineveh in chapter 3. And just like we compared Jonah to the sailors last week, this week we’ll be comparing Jonah to the Ninevites, and we’ll see more incredible irony: Jonah, the prophet of YHWH, is less repentant than the Ninevites.
So first up, Jonah’s prayer . Now when you first read this prayer, you think to yourself, this is a good, pious prayer. You think to yourself, “Good old Jonah, he’s had a change of heart, he’s finally praying to God, unlike in chapter 1 where he was pretty much refusing to pray when the ship was going down.” In fact, if you look closely , you notice that at multiple points Jonah even uses some of the lines from the Psalms in his prayer. So Jonah is a guy who knows his Bible well; he knows it so well, that even when he’s stuck in the belly of a fish, he can still quote the Psalms off the top of his head. So it seems as though Jonah is a pious, repentant prophet. But when you dig a bit deeper at Jonah’s prayer, you notice that there’s something quite fishy about it.
There’s something missing from this prayer. At no point does he say sorry. There’s no SORRY FOR DISOBEYING. No SORRY FOR RUNNING AWAY. Nothing. You’d think something as simple as that would be the bare minimum of what Jonah would pray, right? But have a look. In the first half of the prayer, Jonah describes how he’s drowning (v1-6), and then at the last minute he finally looks to God’s holy temple for assistance (v4). So he acknowledges he’s as good as dead and that he needs God to bail him out. And it seems like he is grateful for God responding to him, and getting him out of the jam he was in. But look closely. Nowhere in Jonah’s prayer does he acknowledge that he’s done anything wrong. Nowhere in Jonah’s prayer does he mention the fact that he’s rebelled against God and deliberately disobeyed him, nowhere does he mention that he’s remorseful for what he’s done. Nowhere.
In fact, there’s something subtly egocentric about Jonah’s prayer. At the end of it, Jonah puts himself on a pedestal above everyone else, and he toots his own horn. Check out verses 8 and 9.
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.'”Jonah’s essentially saying, “Those silly twits who worship idols, like the sailors in chapter 1, and the Ninevites, they’ve missed out on God’s love. But good old grateful me, I do the right thing. Once I get out of this fish, I’m going to sacrifice to God, I’mgoing to keep my vows to God, me, me, me.” And then what happens? It’s almost poetic. God makes the fish vomit Jonah out. It’s not a triumphant exit from the fish, it’s not as though Jonah heroically kills the fish from the inside and cuts his way out. No, it’s almost as though the fish is SICK OF JONAH and his self-absorbed prayer. And it vomits Jonah out on the beach.
JONAH‘S PATHETIC ATTEMPT IN NINEVEH.
Now to his credit, Jonah then makes his way to Nineveh . He physically repents – he does a 180, he goes in the opposite direction he was going in. But it soon becomes apparent that Jonah’s repentance is not a heartfelt repentance.
We’re told in verse 3 that Nineveh is a very large city; so large that it takes THREE DAYS to go through it. So how long does Jonah spend in Nineveh preaching? Well, we’re not told explicitly. But the author goes out of their way to tell us in verse 4 that Jonah only goes ONE DAY’S journey into Nineveh (you can see it in the ESV better than the NIV). It’s not conclusive, but it makes you think, is Jonah really trying his hardest here?
And then you look at what’s Jonah preaching, second part of verse 4. Turns out, it’s the worst sermon in history! 40 days and you’ll be destroyed. That’s his sermon. That’s like me getting up here one Sunday and saying, “Right, today’s sermon is pretty simple: you’re all going to hell. Let’s pray. Oh and please hang around after the service for morning tea.” This is a terrible, terrible sermon. There’s no indication in the text that Jonah has explained to the Ninevites what they’re doing wrong, or what they need to do, or which God they’ve made angry. There’s nothing.
But that’s not all. Does Jonah do the sensible and strategic thing and go to the king of Nineveh? I mean, he’s the boss, and if you can convince him of something, you can probably convince the whole city, right? Nope, verse 6. The king just happens to hear that Jonah is preaching in his city.
Do you see? Jonah may have done a geographical 180 in coming to Nineveh, but his heart is still as far away from the city as it was in chapter 1. Jonah hasn’t really repented because HIS HEART ISN’T IN IT.
But look at the Ninevites. This is incredible. Jonah dips his toe in Nineveh, he gives a pathetic sermon, he doesn’t tell the king, yet look how the Ninevites respond. They all repent! Verse 5.
5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth (clothes that you wear for mourning).And this is even before the king tells them to do anything. The king hears the news, verse 6, he gets off his throne, he completely humbles himself, he dresses in sackcloth like everyone else, and he covers himself in dust. And then, verses 7 and 8, he orders everyone to call urgently on God and to give up their evil ways and violence.
These verses are dripping with incredible irony. Because as we’ve just read, unlike the Ninevites, Jonah doesn’t call on God for help until the very last minute. Unlike the Ninevites, Jonah doesn’t even admit his own evil; in fact, he boasts about his sacrifices and vows.
Can you see what’s going on here? The author of Jonah is contrasting Jonah to the Ninevites, and you as the reader are meant to see how unrepentant Jonah is, and how repentant Nineveh is by comparison. Now why is the author doing that?
He’s doing that because this book is written for unrepentant Israel. This book is an indictment against Israel, against God’s own people who aren’t repentant. Last week we saw how Assyria, the empire that Nineveh was a part of, it came down and destroyed the Northern part of Israel, Jonah’s hometown. But do you know why God let that happen? He let that happen, in fact, he orchestrated it, because Israel wouldn’t repent. They were worshipping idols, they were committing detestable practices, like sacrificing their own children in fire, and God was sending them prophet after prophet to warn them, “If you don’t repent, you’re going to be destroyed.” And what does Israel do? They kill the prophets! And so God destroys them. Assyria comes down in 722 BC and wipes them out. And now, the only part of Israel that has survived is the southern kingdom of Judah, and what do you think they do? They commit the same sins as the Northern kingdom Israel did. And they don’t repent.
Now you, as a Jew living in the kingdom of Judah, you’re meant to read the book of Jonah and think to yourself, how crazy is this? Our sworn enemies, the wicked Ninevites, the Assyrians, they’re better at repenting than we are. They get one whisper of prophecy, one hint that judgment is coming, and they’re all on their knees begging for forgiveness and dressing their animals in sackcloth. What do we do when our own prophets warn us about what our God is about to do to us? Hmmm. WE KILL THEM. Yikes. We should really think about getting better at repenting.
So do you see what the author of Jonah is trying to do? He’s showing the Jews a portrait of a pathetic prophet who doesn’t repent because he’s trying to show them a portrait of themselves. And he’s trying to help them to see their need for repentance. But do you think they learned their lesson? Do you think the Jews read the book of Jonah and decided to repent?
The short answer is no.
Fast-forward to the year AD 30. Israel’s now ruled by the ROMANS, and there’s a group called the Pharisees, they’re a Jewish religious sect; the rest of the Jews kind of look up to them, and the Pharisees believe, ok, we’ve worshipped idols in the past, and we’re paying the price for it now, but if we try really hard to obey God’s laws, he’ll give us our land back. Seems noble. Here’s the problem. Like Jonah, and like their forefathers, they’re not truly repentant. They’re repentant on the outside it seems, but they’ve just whitewashed all their wicked practices with religious activities. And so, when John the Baptist comes, the last prophet of Israel, what do you think he’s preaching? Repent. Turn around. WITH YOUR HEARTS AND WITH YOUR DEEDS. When Jesus, the Son of God, comes after him, what do you think he’s preaching? Repent. The same message.
So how do you think the Pharisees, the super religious Jews, have responded to that message? How do you think they respond to Jesus? Well, we get the answer in Matthew 12. They go to Jesus and they ask him for a sign or a miracle. Why? Because they don’t think Jesus is legit, they don’t think he’s the Messiah, but more importantly, they don’t want to repent. And what does Jesus say? Verse 39. A wicked and adulterous generation ask for a sign. Jesus has had it with these Jews. They’re as stubborn as pack-mules, and they’ve been like this for hundreds of years. Check out what he says in verse 41. He says, “The NINEVITES were better at repenting than you lot.”
41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.The Ninevites immediately repented after listening to a pathetic sermon from Jonah, no questions asked. And now here’s the Jewish Pharisees, God’s people, with the Son of God himself telling them to repent, and they refuse. They ask for a miracle as proof. And Jesus says to them, Verse 39 and 40.
But [no sign] will be given [to this wicked generation] except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.What’s Jesus saying? Give me some artistic liberty here – he’s essentially saying:
You wanna miracle? You wanna sign? You wanna sign that I’m the Messiah, that I’m the Son of God? I’ll give you a sign: after you kill me, like you do all the prophets God sends to you, I’m going to spend three days IN DEATH, just like Jonah. And then, just like Jonah came out of his watery tomb after three days, I will come out of the tomb after three days. And everyone will know that God has raised his Messiah from the dead, the Messiah that you killed. That’ll be your sign.So now we know why Jonah was written. It’s not some cute little story about a man who gets eaten by a fish and survives. It’s an indictment against Israel, God’s own people, who don’t repent.
Now what does any of this have to do with us?
Well, first of all, if you’re not a Christian here today, this story is a great reminder that IF YOU DO REPENT… then your repentance will be met with God’s mercy and kindness. Just like the Ninevites. All the Ninevites got was a proclamation of judgment,and yet, they thought to themselves, maybe, just maybe, if we turn to God and stop doing the wicked things we’re doing, maybe he will be merciful to us.
Today, you don’t have to guess whether God will be merciful to you. You can be certain that he will. You have a guarantee of God’s mercy, because Jesus fully and completely paid for our sins when he died on the cross. And so, no matter what you’ve done, you will be forgiven and accepted by when you turn around and ask for it.
Now if you’re a Christian here today, THAT WAS YOUR STARTING POINT. That’s the starting point for EVERY CHRISTIAN. But this story teaches us a unique lesson. As Christians, we’re not immune from doing the wrong thing. And so, as I said at the beginning, we should be experts at repentance. Our whole lives need to be marked by repentance. We need to be really good at recognising when we’ve done something wrong, turning around, turning back to God, making amends, and going in the opposite direction. And the story of Jonah teaches us, if the Ninevites were that good at repenting at the words of Jonah, how much better should we be at repenting since we have the words of Jesus?
So if you call yourself a Christian, here’s some questions for you. How good are you at repenting? Is your life characterised by repentance? Or have you fallen out of the habit? Are you self-aware enough to know when you’ve done something wrong? Or do you, like Jonah, have no clue? When someone points out to you that you’ve hurt them, are you quick to apologise and quick to make amends? Or do you need to be strongly persuaded that you are in the wrong? Do your friends and family know you as someone who is humble and good at saying sorry, or do they know you as someone who can never admit weakness? Are you good at repenting from the heart, deeply and truly? Or do you try to cover over your faults with religious pride and activities, like the Pharisees did?
Now those are sobering questions. And I don’t think I fare too well myself when I’m answering them. As I was writing this sermon, I started thinking to myself, how have I gone with repentance over the course of my life? How have I gone with recognising my sin and turning from it and saying sorry? I think I’ve come to the realisation, I’m a terrible repenter. I’m not just bad at turning around when I’m driving. I’m bad at turning around full stop. I’m slow to recognise my sin. I’m slow to stop sinning. I’m bad at saying sorry. And the thought that enters my head as I think about all these things is, why is God so patient and merciful and compassionate to me?
And you know what comforts me in those moments? Looking at people like Jonah. Who’s a pathetic prophet, and a pathetic preacher, and a pathetic repenter. Just like me. And yet God still loves him and cares for him and looks after him. Because you know what? It’s not the quality of your repentance that ultimately matters. Yes, we need to get better at repenting as Christians. But what ultimately matters is not how good you are at turning around, what matters is who you turn to. And if you turn toJesus, in whatever capacity, you will be met with open arms.