“Time Enough To Turn Around”

Jonah 3:1-10

Sermon by Rev Tim Woodard, February 16th 2014 

A boy was watching his father, a pastor, write a sermon.  “How do you know what to say?” he asked. “Why, God tells me,” the father answered.  The boy replied, “Oh, then why do you keep crossing things out?”  I pray this little story I found will answer the question so many people ask me regarding “how do I write my sermons?”  

Pray with me Please.

As adults, each of us / all of us, are expected to know the difference between right and wrong.  Even our laws are written with that clarity.  “Ignorance of the law is not an acceptable excuse for not obeying the law.”  Has anyone here ever tried to explain to a traffic officer that they didn’t know they were required to come to a full stop, before making a turn at any stop sign?  Well, if that ever happens to you, know it doesn’t work very well.  No, as adults we are expected to know and understand the laws of our society.

What about moral laws?  That is to say the laws that God has put before us. Now, I pray that you are not one of those Christians that think that they can just ask for forgiveness every single day with no consequences.  I mean, if you know that God does not want you to covet anything of your neighbors, but every morning you sneak off with something of your neighbor’s, well that just isn’t acceptable in God’s eyes. And if you ask for forgiveness knowing you are going to do the same tomorrow, well God does not forgive that type of insincerity. 

Sometimes moral laws do not go hand in hand with social laws.  That is where the concept of knowing the difference between right and wrong gets fuzzy.  Take a traffic law as an example.  Our God is not going to judge you for not coming to a full stop at a stop sign; right?  Perhaps not, but what if you are really careless and your not stopping causes an accident, involving another car, and someone is injured? Starts to get a bit more complex, doesn’t it?  Of course this is a very simplistic example.  Life is often more complex then this.

We could spend a considerable bit of time exploring the complexities of the law, both social laws and moral or Godly laws.  But let’s get to the heart of it.  When you stand before a judge in our country it is the “spirit of the law” that often sways a judge one way or another.   That is to say that the judge will show you no mercy, if you have fragrantly violated the full intent or spirit of the law.  Traffic laws are written to protect us and everyone else that uses the highways and streets in our local communities and our larger roads and highways.  If you clearly are showing no respect for the safety of others, most judges will fine and punish you to the full extent of the law.  However, if you show remorse for your action and it was more a case of isolated carelessness the judge may then show mercy, letting you off lightly. 

With these thoughts in mind let us consider our scripture lesson from the book of Jonah.  I wish we had enough time to review the entire story of Jonah.  His journey is fascinating as he runs from God’s calling and ultimately ends up in the belly of a whale.  With this said we now shall move forward to today’s lesson… where Jonah is to deliver a message from God to the people of Nineveh.

Having taught Bible study classes for most of my career I find it good to consider the questions that come up.  Hear this short story I found on the web last week; it tells how a little girl answers the question of doubt put forth by her teacher. 

A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales and how she had heard in Sunday School about how a whale had swallowed Jonah.  The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.  The little girl remained steadfast in her position and reiterated that indeed, a whale had swallowed Jonah.  Irritated, the teacher again stated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.  The little girl said, “I’m not sure how it happened, but when I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.”  The teacher replied smugly, “What if Jonah isn’t in heaven?”  The little girl replied, “Then you ask him.”

No, I don’t know how this story came about… but it sure has a great message worthy of our time, so let’s get back to the story of Jonah.

Finally answering the voice of God that first asked of him to: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah, responding to God’s second request of him to go forth to Nineveh, delivers this message.  Jonah cried out to the people of Nineveh, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Clearly this is not a message of good news.  This message is a strong condemnation upon the people of Nineveh for their wrongful ways.

Since it is God’s voice that has sent Jonah to Nineveh we must assume that God’s displeasure is that the people of Nineveh have sinned greatly.  They have grievously ignored the moral laws set forth by God.  And God has sent Jonah to condemn or to perhaps warn the people of Nineveh of their ultimate destruction.  One can only wonder, as to how many times the people were warned before Jonah came to them?  How many times were you warned before you got that first speeding ticket?

This is not a case of a speeding ticket of course.  It is a more grievous situation then a few points on ones driving record.  This is a warning of complete ruin and destruction.  This is a warning from God of ultimate condemnation.  It is a most perilous occasion to be sure.  Faced with a similar situation how might we respond? That is the ultimate question.  This whole passage can either be taken, as a story of the journey of Jonah and the people of Nineveh, or it can be a lesson that passes to us something we can learn from; something we can learn from to better understand the “Spirit” of God in our midst.

It is an intriguing story to be sure.  Not just the part of Jonah’s journey, which we did not read today, the part where he runs from his “Calling” from God.  Nor, the part where his flight puts into jeopardy the lives of the mariners, on the vessel headed for Tarshish, as he flees from God’s call.  Certainly the story of how a great fish swallows him after he is thrown overboard and how Jonah prays to God and through God’s grace the great fish, a whale perhaps, spewed Jonah onto dry land.  And it is a fascinating story when he accepts God’s call to deliver the message to the people of Nineveh.  If we conclude it is just a story to be enjoyed then we must at least see how, as it proceeds, the story tells of a people who repent and humble themselves before the Lord our God.  We see how there is indeed, time enough, for them to turn around from their wrongful ways and repent their sinfulness and because of the forgiving nature, the saving grace if you will… of God, they are able to begin again. In the end, God did not overthrow the people of Nineveh.  Because of their willingness to change God gave them another chance.

When we see this passage as a lesson we can begin to appreciate the truthfulness that it contains.  We can begin to appreciate the fullness of God’s grace. We can begin to take heed of the warning it contains as we come to grasp that God, our God is a forgiving God and a wise counselor and a mighty teacher all at the same time.

Look to your own life.  Is it a perfect life?  I can answer for you.  None of us here have a perfect life.  Not in the sense that there is nothing that can be improved upon.  I am not referring to the circumstances of our lives.  We all have situations. We all have problems that we must deal with, one way or another.  No, that is not what I mean by imperfect.  What I mean is that there is imperfection in how we respond to the realities of our lives.

 It is no accomplishment to respond to life in a positive way when all is well. Even though there are many who cannot even do that.  I am hopeful that most of us here can deal with a perfect spring day with the temperatures in the high seventies, with the sun beating down upon us, and a gentle breeze upon our face.  It is when the temperature drops suddenly very low and you can’t get warm enough.  On that day the wind cuts into you like a knife… chilling you to the bone.  On the same day your car breaks down and the furnace malfunctions leaving your home exposed to the harsh cold.  On the heels of which your credit is over drawn and your boss is breathing down your neck to complete a task that you have barely grasped let alone completed.  That’s the day that your response to life really counts.

On such a day, God spoke to the people of Nineveh and said: “Don’t respond to life the way you have in the past or you are doomed.  I won’t tolerate it anymore.” Now what?  Overwhelmed and defeated do we turn to our old ways and break every social and moral law it takes to get things back on track?  Tell yet another lie to the boss about the overdue project?  Do we use a bit more of the company’s money to handle our personal bank accounts?  Rather then wait our turn to be towed to the service station do we lie and cut off the needs of another, who perhaps needs help more urgently then we ourselves?

No, on that most difficult day we must turn our attention to the deep moral fiber we are all made of.  We must humbly accept our plight.  That is the first step and it is a most difficult one to be sure.  There is always time enough to turn around, go the other way.  That is the ultimate lesson from this passage from the book of Jonah.

 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  He then put forth this, his decree: “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”  This was not easy for anyone, including the mighty King of Nineveh.  Neither will this be easy for many of us to do.  Old ways, old habits are hard to break.  But either we turn our lives toward the moral goodness of God; or the condemnation that was put upon the people of Nineveh will become our own.

The Psalmist said unto all who would listen: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from the Lord.  God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.  On God rests my deliverance and my honor; God is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me, my refuge is in the Lord my God.” 

And I say unto you “Turn away from wrong doings and trust in God.  Do what is right and God shall bring you forth from the pit of any and all hopelessness.” 

Amen.

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