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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Obey the Word in the presence of the LORD
Text:Jonah 1:1-3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps. 47:1,2 Ps. 86:4 Ps. 87:1,3,4 Ps. 40:3 Ps. 47:3 Read: 2 Kings 14:23-29. Jonah 1 Text: Jonah 1:1-3
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the month of September, the Jews will celebrate a day known as Yom Kippur.  That is, the Day of Atonement.  This is a holy Feast Day from the Old Testament.    It was the day when the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle blood before the Ark of the Covenant.  It was also the day when the high priest would place his hands on the head of a live goat, and so put the sins of the people on this goat and then send it away into the wilderness.  It was a day of reconciliation, when God would once more come close to His people.

The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is still celebrated by the Jews today.  They do not offer sacrifices on that day:  they teach that sacrifices will resume when Messiah comes.  But they do have a set way of celebrating Yom Kippur.  And for centuries, in the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement, they read the book of Jonah from beginning to end.

So what has the book of Jonah got to do with Atonement, of being made right before God?  I came across an explanation of the link between Jonah and Atonement as explained by a Christian Jew who introduces himself as Rabbi Baruch.  He explained it as follows:

Why is the book of Jonah read on Yom Kippur?  In order to answer this question one must understand an important point concerning atonement.  Atonement is not offered to people who want to continue in their sin, but to those who are seeking not only forgiveness but also a desire to change.  . . . The [LORD] is seeking people who are grieved over their sins, want to be forgiven, and then serve God according to His will for their lives.  How does the book of Jonah relate to this?  Jonah, just like you and me, had a call on his life.  He knew he was a prophet and willing to speak to his people, but when he heard from God that he needed to speak to the enemies of Israel, the Assyrians (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria), Jonah refused to do this.

. . .  This is what the Day of Atonement is all about.  A day set aside which we as a people are together before God confessing our sinfulness and seek His forgiveness not just to avoid the punishment, but so that we can do His will for our life.  Repentance without a desire to embrace God’s plan for your life and walk in obedience to His word is not at all Biblical repentance.

So according to Rabbi Baruch and other explanations I have read, the Book of Jonah is read on the Day of Atonement because, as the Jews confess, “we are all like Jonah.”  Jonah did not want any connection with the calling the LORD had given to him, and so he did not want any connection with the LORD Himself.  And when we are not interested in doing or even knowing what God has in plan for our life, we are really saying to Him, “I don’t want to be in your presence; I don’t want you to be a part of my life.”  And yet God called Jonah, and God calls each of us, back into His presence.  He offers us His forgiveness.  He reminds us that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 3:9)  And through the One who is greater than Jonah, He is calling us to a new life of thankful obedience before Him.

This morning I wish to have the first of a number of sermons on the book of Jonah.  As we focus on the first few verses of this book, I have chosen my theme as follows:

Obey the Word in the presence of the Lord

1.    The word relayed

2.    The word disobeyed

1. The Word relayed.

“Now the Word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying…”  The book of Jonah begins with a familiar phrase, one we find over 100 times in the Old Testament.  In a way, it is a rather abrupt beginning to the book.  But the fact that the book of Jonah begins like this also tells us a lot. 

First of  all, Jonah must have been a prophet.  He was also recognized asf a true prophet, a man of God.  And as God’s prophet he was singled out to be the bearer of the Word of the LORD.  Jonah was not a Jephthah or a Gideon who were busily concerned with their own affairs before being conscripted into God’s special services.  At the time that he was called to go to Nineveh, he was known to the people of Israel, and most likely of Judah also, to be a prophet of the LORD.

The other thing we can learn here is that Jonah was the son of Amittai.  He was a true, historical person, who lived in a certain time of Israel’s history.  And from 2 Kings 14, which we read together, we can learn that Jonah came from a little town called Gath Hepher.  For those of you who are a bit familiar with the geography of Israel, Gath Hepher was about 25km west of the Sea of Galilee, not so far away from a town that another great Prophet came from 700 years later, the town of Nazareth.

Now Jonah was a prophet in the days of King Jereboam II.  Jereboam II was of the family of Jehu.  Jehu, was the man who killed the wicked family of Ahab and destroyed the Baal worship of Jezebel.  For that the LORD blessed Jehu and promised him that “your sons shall sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.”  But it says in 2 Kings 10:31 that Jehu took no heed to walk in the law of the LORD God of Israel with all his heart.  Then in verse 32 of 2 Kings 10 we read that “In those days [of Jehu] the LORD began to cut off parts of Israel; and Hazael conquered them in all the territory of Israel.”  Jehu’s son Jehoahaz also did evil in the sight of the LORD.  2 Kings 13:22,23 says, “And Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz.  But the LORD was gracious to them, had compassion on them, and regarded them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not yet destroy them or cast them from His presence.”

And after Jehoahaz came Joash.  And after Joash came Jereboam II.  And with all these kings we read that God had compassion on His people, but the kings and the nation of Israel continued to do evil in the presence of the LORD, worshipping Him in the manner they decided, and not as God had told them.

In the days of Jereboam II, there was a prophet, Amos.  He was called by the LORD to warn the people of Israel to repent and obey the Word of the LORD.  If they would not repent, God would bring judgment upon them.  More specifically, He said in Amos 5:27, “Therefore I will send you into captivity beyond Damascus,’ Says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.”  God was warning Israel that He would allow enemies from the North, specifically the Assyrians, the armies of Ninevh, to attack them and carry them off.  Not a popular word from the LORD!

And then, in the days of Jereboam II and in the time of the prophet Amos, the Word of the LORD came to another prophet, to Jonah son of Amittai.  And what a prophecy he had for the nation of Israel!  It would have made him the most popular prophet of his day, the man of God that would have drawn a crowd.  “Thus says the LORD.  I have seen your affliction, that it is very bitter.  And so I will restore to you the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of Arabah.”  (from 2 Kings 24:25,26.)  Although Israel was wicked and had refused to listen to God’s prophets for 150 years, God gave to Jonah a message of hope.  A word of grace, a word of promise.  And it came to pass. 

And so in the days of Jonah and Jereboam II we have a time of great wealth and power.  Of population and territorial expansion, commercial growth and flourishing industrial activity.  They had not enjoyed such peace and prosperity since the days of Solomon.  But at the same time Israel was in a state of social, moral and religious decay.  Israel knows exactly what to do.  Israel knows exactly how God wants to be served.  They have had the Word of God relayed to them for years on end.  But they will not listen to the Word of the LORD.  “We are the chosen ones!  See how God has blessed us!  God has not dealt thus with any other nation!”

Meanwhile, 1000km to the north, in Assyria and the city of Nineveh, things were not going so well.  Nineveh was an ancient city on the banks of the Tigris River.  It was first built soon after the Flood by that mighty hunter, Nimrod, of the sons of Ham.  Nineveh was a great city, huge for those times.  It could house 175,000 people and had 1500 towers spaced along the city walls, rising up to 60 metres in the air.  Nineveh was a great and proud nation, believing itself to be the centre of the universe.  But Nineveh had fallen on hard times.  The great king Shalmanesser, to whom Jehu paid tribute, was dead, and Tiglath Pileser was not yet king.  The king of Nineveh and Assyria was most likely Assur-dan III, and in those days Nineveh was virtually on its knees.  Historians call this time in Nineveh as being of “unparalleled turmoil.”  States around them rebelled and the Assyrian army was not able to go to war and defeat them.  There was plague and famine repeatedly in the city of Nineveh, until the empire was left impoverished and in total disorder.

So here is Israel:  Enjoying the sunshine, experiencing the blessings of the LORD.  And to the North is Israel’s enemy Assyria, whom Amos predicts will defeat Israel:  in a state of depression and turmoil.  Assyria is on its knees!  Would this not be the ideal time for God to hear those prayers of the Psalms and squash His enemies the Assyrians, defeating them once for all?

And then the Word of the LORD came to Jonah.  One wonders what was going through Jonah’s mind.  The last great prophecy he received as recorded in the Bible was one of blessing.  But there was no repentance, no genuine turning to the LORD.  What could the LORD want him to do now?

We don’t know how the Word of the LORD came to Jonah.  In a dream, by an audible voice or some other form.  But we do know that the Word of the LORD was relayed to Jonah.  And we know that Jonah knew exactly what was expected of him.

Jonah, ARISE!

Jonah, GO!   . . . to Nineveh.

Jonah, CRY OUT against Nineveh for her wickedness has come up before me. 

Why?  Why is Jonah called to arise and go and preach to . . . Nineveh?  Here is the nation of Israel.  Well off and comfortable, but in a state of moral and religious decline.  Jonah would have his hands full joining Amos and Hosea who would soon be preaching judgment against Israel because the wickedness of Israel had come up before the LORD.  Why go to that great city Nineveh?

“Because,” says the LORD, “their wickedness has come up before me.”

Yes, Nineveh was wicked.  The book of Nahum, which is a prophecy against Nineveh mentions the sins of plotting evil against the LORD (Nahum 1:1), cruelty and plundering in war (2:12-13; 3:1,19), prostitution and witchcraft (3:4) and greedy business practices.  But what was new?  Other nations were also wicked!  And God did not send His prophets to those other nations to call them to repent.  Rather, when their iniquity was complete, He just wiped them out!

When God said to Jonah that Nineveh’s “wickedness has come up before Me”, he had said something similar concerning Sodom in Genesis 18:20 – “And the LORD said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me.”  God did not send Abraham down to Sodom to call the people to repent.  Indeed, the two angels that went to Sodom only came to demonstrate the justice of God’s judgment and to save Lot before destroying Sodom.

But when God commands Jonah to arise and go to Nineveh, Jonah knows that God is willing to give Nineveh the chance to repent.  He is giving them the chance to repent of their sin so that their sin might be atoned for, or covered, and so that they might not receive the curse but the blessing of God.

Jonah knew full well that God sending him to Nineveh was a demonstration of the LORD’S grace to Israel’s enemy.  Not only that, but it was a sign of God’s displeasure and anger against Israel.  And if the proud, heathen nation of Nineveh should repent of their sin, that would surely come as an open rebuke to Israel.  If the wayward foreigner eagerly received the Word of the LORD and acted appropriately, should not the people of God have done the same by obeying?

God had not forgotten His covenant with Israel.  He had not forgotten His promise that “if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.”  But that privilege carried with it a responsibility.  God’s people Israel were to set apart God’s Name before the surrounding nations.  The nations were to see that Israel was different, and worshiped the LORD God as He had commanded them to.  God had spoken to Abraham saying, “In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”  So Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, drawing them in to worship the One True God.

Israel did not do that.  They refused to back down from the sin of Jereboam son of Nebat.  They kept worshiping the Golden Calves.  They refused to be reconciled with the tribe of Judah and go up to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.  The Word of the LORD had been relayed to them over and over again.  But they would not listen.  They would not obey.  They would not come into the presence of the Lord in repentance and seek the true blood of atonement. 

At the beginning of this sermon I quoted from Rabbi Baruch who said, “The [LORD] is seeking people who are grieved over their sins, want to be forgiven, and then serve God according to His will for their lives.”  When God sent Jonah to cry out over the sins of Nineveh, God’s finger turned and was pointed right back at the nation of Israel.  And yes, it is pointed right back at each one of us.  What is your relationship with the LORD like?  The [LORD] is seeking people who are grieved over their sins, want to be forgiven, and then serve God according to His will for their lives.  And when we are not interested in doing or even knowing what God has in plan for our life, we are really saying to Him, “I don’t want to be in your presence; I don’t want you to be a part of my life.” 

But here is the Good news!  When God sent Jonah to Nineveh, he was not giving up on His people.  He was not giving up on Nineveh.  He did not give up on Jonah.  And by the way, He’s not ready to give up on you!  Matthew 12 tells us that from a town close to Gath Hepher, from the town of Nazareth, one greater than Jonah appeared.  Today we do not simply hear a message of judgment from the prophet Jonah, but we hear Christ calling, urging:  “Come, follow Me.” 

2. The Word disobeyed.

I would like you to have another look at Jonah 1:2,3.  In verse 2, the Lord commands Jonah to arise!  and Go! to Nineveh!  And he must Cry out! because of Nineveh’s wickedness that came up before Him, or, as it literally says in the Hebrew language, the wickedness that was before His face, in His presence.

And then comes verse 3.  Jonah arose.  But He did not arise to go to Nineveh as commanded.  Rather, He arose  to flee.  To Tarshish.  And in case you were not paying too much attention, verse 3 tells us three times that He went – not to Nineveh but – to Tarshish. 

Tarshish!  The city at the end of the world!  Tarshish!  The land where you could buy gold, silver, ivory apes and monkeys.  (2 Chron. 9:21)  Where was Tarshish?  There are some who believe that these ships went right around the southern tip to the East coast of Africa!  More traditionally, Tarshish is thought to be located on the Western coast of Spain and a was town where other ships came from even further abroad.  Wherever Tarshish was, the point is that while Jonah was commanded to go 1000 km North East overland to Nineveh, he got up to flee West, overseas, to Tarshish.  Jonah the land lubber pays an absolute fortune to buy a fare on a ship to sail to the end of the world.  Even if Tarshish was in Western Spain, it was a voyage that would take a good year to complete.

And why was he doing it?  The author of the book of Jonah wants you to understand that as well.  He was doing it to flee from the presence of the LORD.

Here is Jonah.  In defiant, deliberate, disobedience.  God tells him to go to Nineveh.  But Jonah gets up.  He walks a 100km to Joppa.  And every step he took, he knew what he was doing.  He gets to Joppa, a town that does not belong to Israel.  He goes down to the harbour and he does something he’s likely never done before in his life.  He buys a ticket to Tarshish.  And then he goes down.  Down into the boat.  Away from the presence of the LORD.

May I remind you at this point of time that Jonah was a prophet, a true prophet of the LORD?  May I point out that Jonah fully understood the Word of the LORD?  May I point out that Jonah 4 demonstrates that Jonah knew full well what type of a God he was serving?  And may I also point out that I believe that we can assume that Jonah knew the truth of Psalm 139 –

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?

. . . If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

Jonah gets down into the bottom of the boat to flee from the presence of the LORD.  But  I do not think there is something wrong with Jonah’s theology, with his understanding of the omnipresence of God.  If the wickedness of Nineveh is before the presence of the Lord, then Jonah can not expect to be hidden from the all-seeing eye of God when he is curled up and skulking in the bottom of a merchant ship. 

Rather, Jonah is leaving the presence of the LORD in much the same way as Cain did.  In Genesis 4:16 we read that “Cain went out from the presence of the LORD and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”

Cain was driven out from the presence of the LORD, but Jonah is going willingly.  Jonah looks at what God expects him to do: go to Nineveh to speak out against the wickedness in it.  Jonah is not too embarrassed to tell Nineveh that for them the end of the world is nigh.  Jonah is not afraid of what the men of Nineveh might do to him.  Jonah is not worried because it might not happen and prove him to be a false prophet.  Jonah disobeys God’s Word because he does not want to consider the consequences of what might happen if his preaching had an effect!  For why would God bother with Nineveh unless He wanted to save them?  And if God wanted to save them, it would happen.  And if God shows His favour to Nineveh . . . what would that mean for His covenant people Israel.

And so Jonah weighs it all up in his mind.  And he gets up . . . to flee . . . to Tarshish.  Jonah is not simply trying to hide from God.  He is handing in his resignation.  He is quitting.  He is leaving.  He will not do what God wants.  He will not obey.  He will not go to Nineveh.  “I will not go.  I will not obey.  I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.  Period.  Full stop.  End of the story.  And that’s the last word.  Seriously.”

And when the Jews read the Book of Jonah on their Day of Atonement, their day of repentance and reconciliation with God, they do it to confess, “We are like Jonah.”  And could not we all say the same?

Abraham Kuyper once wrote, “Our heart is continually inclined to rebel against the Lord our God. So ready to rebel, that, O, so gladly, were it but for a single day, we would take from His hands the reigns of His supreme rule, imagining that we would manage things far better and direct them far more effectively than God.”

If I was Jonah, I probably would have wanted to get my Laser gun out, point it at Nineveh, pull the trigger, and poof! they are gone!  The ramifications of a stubborn and rebellious Israel and a contrite and repentant Assyria is just too scary to contemplate.  And today, selfish me would love to set the world right like I think it should be.  Selfish me would love to obliterate from the face of the earth whatever is opposing or upsetting you and me.  Selfish me would love to preach that God wants to bless your goals, your wants, your dreams.  Selfish me would love to tell you to follow your heart wherever it might take you and God be with you. 

But that is not the Word of the LORD.  God’s Word to Israel and God’s Word to you and to me is that He decides how we are to live.  That He chooses the paths in which we should walk.  That He wants us to live in His presence, and to come and follow Him.

And yet God will ensure that Nineveh will hear the Gospel.  Yes, first from Jonah himself.  And there will be repentance.  But God wants Nineveh and all Assyria and indeed the whole world to repent fully and turn to Him.

Most of you know the story of Jonah.  Most of you know that eventually Jonah does get up and he does go to Nineveh.  Most of you also know that Nineveh will repent and that God will spare that great city.

But Nineveh needed one greater than Jonah.  Nineveh needed another Prophet from Galilee.  One who would say, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.”  (John 4:34)  Nineveh needed the One of whom Psalm 40 spoke, “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come;  In the scroll of the book it is written of Me.  I delight to do Your will, O God, and Your law is within my heart.’”

And I can’t wait to tell you more about that in a few weeks time.  I can’t wait to tell you how Jesus’ death on the Cross also brought reconcilliation and atonement to Nineveh, to Assyria.  I can’t wait to tell you how at Pentecost there were also people  from Assyria there.  I can’t wait to tell you how the church in Assyria grew and became one of the greatest missionary sending churches the world has ever seen.  The men and women of Assyria heard the word.  And they obeyed.  And so tens of thousands, yes hundreds of thousands have come with joy to stand in the presence of the LORD.

I think it is appropriate that the Jews link the Book of Jonah with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  For the book of Jonah is a book of justice and mercy, of repentance and restoration.  Deep down, or not so deep down, we are all like Jonah.  When God sends us one way, if we don’t like what we see, we turn and try to run the other way.  But for us, the book of Jonah directs us not at the Day of Atonement, but the One who has made atonement.  “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on HIM the iniquity of us all!

Jesus did not come to speak a word of judgment but to call us to a new life in Him.  “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”  (John 3:17)  Come to God, listen to the Word of the Lord, the call of the Gospel, and enjoy a life in His presence always!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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