God’s Merciful Love
I think one of the worst ways to be awakened from a deep sleep is by a fire alarm in the middle of the night. And when I was in college, it seemed to happen a lot. Even regular dorm fire drills happened later at night. Because of course everyone knows that college kids aren’t usually in their dorm rooms at 7 or 8 pm. If you want to do an event, meeting, or even a fire drill in a dorm, don’t plan on starting until 11 pm or so. Otherwise the kids might not be there. And it seemed like we were regularly pulling on clothes and shoes and trudging out of the building because of a fire alarm – either a scheduled drill, which we usually found out about and tried to say up for, or a false alarm because of college student shenanigans, or someone accidentally triggering one. At one point, we figured out that too much steam coming out of the showers could trigger one. What do you do when you’re in a building and a fire alarm goes off? Or if one of the smoke detectors in your house goes off?
Psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Grosz points to research that shows we usually don’t respond when a fire alarm rings. Instead of leaving the building immediately, we stand around and wait for more clues. But then even with more information, we still won’t make a move – and sometimes that proves deadly. In 1985, 56 people were killed when a fire broke out in the stands of a soccer match in England. Close examination of television footage later showed that fans did not react immediately and continued to watch both the fire and the game, failing to move towards the exits.
Research has also shown that when we do move, we follow old habits. We don’t trust emergency exits. We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered. After a fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky left 177 people dead, forensic experts confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving, and so they died in a queue.
The psychiatrist concludes, “After 25 years as a psychoanalyst, I can’t say that this surprises me. We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation. We don’t want to use an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency … We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one.
The point of a fire drill is to make the appropriate response to the alarm almost automatic. But in some cases, because alarms do sometimes go off accidentally, we often ignore them. We take a “wait and see” approach. And that can cost us. Turn with me to Jonah 3:1-4.
God repeats his initial call to Jonah, using almost the exact same words. The only thing he left out of this second call to go to Nineveh was the great evil of the people of Nineveh. Jonah knows now that God has seen their evil and is determined to offer them the opportunity to repent. And Jonah’s hatred and fear of the Assyrians and his initial refusal to do what God wanted him to do cannot thwart God’s plan, God’s will. The Assyrians WILL have the opportunity to repent of their great evil. And remember, they were evil. The Assyrian Empire, whose capital city was Nineveh, was growing rapidly through conquest, and the Assyrians were experts at humiliating, torturing, and enslaving the peoples they conquered. Historians tell us that they are among the most violent and bloodthirsty civilizations, if you can call it that, ever to exist. And they were coming for Israel.
But God is giving them the opportunity to repent and live differently. So God paused his pursuit of the Assyrians to pursue his disobedient prophet Jonah. And in the process, Jonah comes face to face with the death he deserves, and with the salvation and mercy that he didn’t deserve. Jonah experiences firsthand the merciful love of God. Jonah experiences God as a God defined by grace. And grace, for the follower of Christ, is simply undeserved favor. Grace is God offering forgiveness and redemption to those who don’t deserve it and who have no hope of earning it. Grace is God looking at your bank account, which doesn’t have enough money to buy a 20 year old Ford Fiesta, and saying, “Here are the keys to your new Ferrari. Enjoy it.” Jonah has experienced that grace, and now he will be God’s instrument in offering the same grace to the evil people of Nineveh.
And this time, when God speaks, Jonah gets up and goes to Nineveh. Immediately. Nineveh. God calls it “that great city.” Why do you think God calls Nineveh “great”? I mean, we as human beings have our own standards of measurement and comparison, but once we bring God into the equation, our greatness diminishes by comparison. The prophet Isaiah says, “It is he (God) who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers” (Is. 40:22). I mean, in comparison to the greatness and beauty and grandeur of God, is anything we as human beings do really “great?” Great enough for God to call it great? And yet God calls Nineveh “that great city.” Why? I mean, he isn’t referring to them as great people. He’s already said back in Jonah 1 that “their evil has come up before me.” So why does God call Nineveh great? Because he’s conveying to Jonah the importance of the people of Nineveh to him. He’s telling Jonah that the people of Nineveh are important to HIM, even if they aren’t to Jonah. That’s the point of the whole book, isn’t it? That the people of Nineveh is important TO GOD, even if they aren’t to Jonah.
Jonah was more than happy for God to be merciful and forgiving to his own people, the people of Israel. He was even okay with gentiles – people from outside Israel – people like, say, the sailors he wound up spending some time with on the Mediterranean Sea when he was trying to run from God – Jonah was okay with them experiencing God’s grace and mercy. He basically sacrifices himself for their good. He doesn’t want ALL non Israelites to suffer God’s judgment. Just the Assyrians. Just Israel’s most dangerous, most abusive, evil enemy.
We’re happy to receive the mercy of God ourselves, and to have the people we love receive his mercy too. We like it when others who don’t know God find mercy and grace and forgiveness. But our enemies? The people we don’t like? The people who have said or done hurtful things to us? The people who root for, as we Ohioans call them – “That Team Up North?” No, we don’t want them to get the chance to repent. For them, we want judgment.
Now, it is important to understand here that someone can rightly experience judgment and justice here on earth and still experience God’s forgiveness and grace. Those who commit horrible crimes can and should pay for their crimes as sentenced in court. And you aren’t required to maintain a relationship with an abusive person. You probably aren’t the right person to shower them with God’s grace UNTIL they have repented and turned away from their sin. But you can still pray for God to touch them, to heal their brokenness, and forgive them. The judgment and justice people receive in this world is temporal and finite. The judgment and justice of God is eternal and unrelenting. Better to face the former, if your behavior has earned it, than that latter, even if you think you’ve been a pretty good person.
Jonah, the prophet of God, has experienced both the judgment and the mercy of God in the Mediterranean. He has been allowed to see some of the Nineveh, the evil, in his own heart, and to see some of himself in Nineveh. So this time, Jonah gets up, and instead of running in the opposite direction, he does what God is asking him to do. He goes to Nineveh, in the heart of the evil that is Assyria, and he proclaims God’s judgment over them. And what happens? Look at Vv. 5-9.
Jonah’s biggest fear and the Ninevites biggest blessing all in one. The people repent. And its almost comical the way it happens. Nineveh is a massive city. Archaeologist have uncovered the city. What they’ve found consisted of over 7 miles of perimeter walls. It would have been over 55 miles if you counted the smaller towns and villages outside the city. The writer tells us that it would take someone 3 days to cover the whole metropolitan area from end to end. And Jonah walks one day in – he isn’t even halfway into the city yet – and speaks 8 words, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!,” – its only five words in Hebrew, and the people repent.
Overthrown. It’s a word that, in Hebrew, has two meanings. It can mean to be overthrown by force and destroyed, or it can mean turned in a different direction. The people of Nineveh will either repent, turn from their sin, and be transformed, or they will be destroyed in judgment. Either way, Jonah’s prophecy can’t miss. Just as Jonah had his defining moment on the ocean floor, wrapped in seaweed, drowning, his life slipping away, before he was snatched up by a fish, so now the people of Nineveh have their defining moment. They will either repent, or perish. The fire alarm is going off, and the people respond. How do you respond when the fire alarm goes off? Jonah slept through his for a while, in the hold of a ship as it was tossed around by the storm.
When Dave Boon first saw the avalanche that swept his car over a guardrail on Interstate 40 in Denver, Colorado, it was only “a puff of powder, 10 yards ahead” of his two-door Honda Accord. After that brief warning, a snowy burst of wind knocked the car out of control. “Not even a second later,” Boon said, “a freight train hit us” – what he later learned to be a roaring boxcar blast of tons of mountain snow.
He was traveling with his wife, June, and a 13-year-old boy named Gary Martinez on their way to a youth group ski trip. According to Martinez, the three of them had been discussing the possibility of an avalanche before they were struck. They lived in Colorado. They’d traveled these roads before. They knew the warning signs were serious. “It was before we turned the corner,” he said, “and we were talking about avalanches and how there was so much snow and stuff. Then we turned the corner and saw some white powder, and it slammed us into the guardrail.”
The wall of snow knocked the car up over the rail and sent it crashing and rolling hundreds of feet down a steep mountain slope. In the middle of the descent, the car struck a tree and was knocked out of the avalanche’s grasp. It came to a stop upside down and pointing back uphill.
Fortunately, Boon and his wife were well trained. After clearing an airway and freeing himself from the seatbelt, Boon was able to exit the car along with Martinez, then cut his wife free from her restraints. Despite several bumps, bruises, and scrapes, none of the three required hospitalization.
For Boon, the experience was a reminder that warnings and hints of danger need to be respected. “The signs say, ‘Avalanche Area, No Stopping,’” he said. “We’ve driven by there hundreds of times…. We have skied avalanche chutes, worn (emergency) beepers, always carried an avalanche shovel. We’ve seen avalanches. But in our wildest dreams, we never imagined getting hit in a car by one.” How do you respond when the fire alarm goes off?
The people of Nineveh got out of the building. They repented. Even before word reached the king of the prophet who smelled like fish guts and his message of impending doom, the people responded well. They called a fast, and they put on sackcloth. Might seem weird to us, but in their culture, this was what you did when you were in a period of mourning and repentance. Fasting was a way of humbling yourself before God, seeking his mercy in spite of your sin. And putting on sackcloth was a way of showing your humility and repentance. And when word gets to the king of everything that is happening – he joins them. He gets off his throne, he takes off his royal robes, and he too joins in the fast and in wearing sackcloth. And he decrees that the animals are to do the same. Believe it or not, that was actually common practice in that culture. The animals too had to participate in times of mourning.
Later in Jonah we discover that Nineveh had about 120,000 residents at this time. Plus all their animals, both pets and livestock for food and for labor. Cattle and sheep and goats and pigs and poultry and dogs and camels and donkeys and horses. All fasting along with their owners. But they didn’t know that. They just knew they hadn’t been fed. Now, I don’t know about you, but when we get home late and so feed the animals late, they’re letting us know. The sheep actually start complaining about being hungry about 3 hours before feeding time. And if we get out to the barn late in the morning, the horses let us know. Quickly. It isn’t a welcoming nicker that greets us when we walk into the barn then. It’s a full blown whinny and usually some stomping feet. Imagine the number of animals it would take to keep 120,000 people working and fed on a daily basis. And now the animals are fasting too. They aren’t being fed. For how long? The Bible doesn’t say. Was it a day? A week? The full forty days? We don’t know. But as someone who has raised lots of animals, I can promise you this … this city wasn’t quiet. The animals at least were persistently and consistently complaining. The whole community was involved, from the king to the livestock. When we truly repent, social distinctions are put away, just as the king set aside the royal robes that set him apart from the rest and joined the rest in wearing sackcloth. If all 120,000 Ninevites stood before you, you wouldn’t have been able to point out the king. Before God, we’re all, from the greatest to the least in the eyes on this world, on equal footing.
What is repentance, anyway? Look again at Vv. 7-8. The fasting and sackcloth aren’t repentance. They’re SIGNS of repentance. No, repentance is a change of heart and a change of mind that leads to a change in behavior. The king asked his people for REAL repentance. Not JUST the sackcloth and fasting. They also need to turn from their evil and violence. Repentance isn’t JUST a change of mind and heart, it’s a change in BEHAVIOR. A change in the way you live. And it isn’t just a one time thing. Following Christ starts with an initial repentance, and then ongoing repentance as the Holy Spirit continues to work in your life, revealing things to you about you that he wants to work on. That continued repentance means you allow him to continue to work, instead of running away.
So what happens next? Look at V. 10. The people have cried out to God in repentance. We cry out for help when we know we’re helpless, and it is so hard for us as American followers of Christ to admit that we’re helpless. But the truth is, we all are. We are helpless in fighting against the sin in our lives, and until we admit it, and cry out, as Jonah eventually did and the Ninevites eagerly did, we’ll keep flirting with drowning. Funny isn’t it, that what Jonah, the prophet of God, did only grudgingly from the ocean floor and caught up in seaweed, the evil Assyrians in Nineveh did eagerly and earnestly as soon as Jonah opened his mouth. Why are we as the people of God so hard hearted? We, whose hearts should be soft and pliable, like clay in a potter’s hand.
And when the people cry out to God in their helplessness, God has compassion on them IN THEIR HELPLESSNESS and relents. The hearts of the people are overturned, not in judgment, but in repentance. They turn their hearts toward God.
In an issue of CT magazine Pastor Jeremy Treat writes:
My high-school basketball coach was a classic, old-school screamer who motivated with fear and shame. His voice was powerful, but I heard it only when I did something wrong. If I turned the ball over on offense or blew my assignment on defense, practice would stop, and the shaming would begin. Red in the cheeks and foaming at the mouth, he would scream until I had to wipe the spit off the side of my face. I never really knew him outside of basketball practice, but I know he was an angry man.
Many people have a similar view of God. They believe he’s a grumpy old man who has to get his way, and that when he doesn’t, he will shame, guilt, and scare people to get them in line. Although most wouldn’t say it out loud, deep down many believers think of God as “the God who is out to get me.” That God is waiting for us to mess up so he can meet his divine quota for punishing sin. Perhaps this comes from a particular teaching or from a bad experience with a church or a Christian, but either way, this is how many functionally view God.
When we open the Bible, we encounter a very different God. The God who delights. The God who sings. The God who saves. “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zeph. 3:17). God’s rejoicing in us today gives us hope for tomorrow (Isa. 65:17-19).
So, it’s time for a heart check. Do you need to repent for the first time, crying out to God in helplessness? Or do you, follower of Christ, like Jonah, need to continue to repent, as the Holy Spirit reveals to you the next thing he wants you to work on. Oh, I’ve been there. Just this past week God opened my eyes again to some things I need to see and admit, things that he wants to work on. I’ve been in the mouth of the fish. It isn’t fun, but my friends, it sets you free. Do you need to be set free, or experience your freedom more deeply? God is not waiting to catch you to stomp on you and destroy you. God is a God of mercy, and God’s merciful love is there, waiting for you and I to cry out to be set free. Let us pray.