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Death To Self-Interest

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 18, 2004

Selected highlights from this sermon

After getting a second chance, Jonah finally traveled to Nineveh.  He obeyed, and God taught him about compassion.  Jonah had suspected that God would show mercy on Nineveh, and his suspicions were realized.  The people repented, and God stayed His wrath.  Jonah was infuriated! 

Do we mimic the attitude of Jonah?  Are we obeying God without desiring to obey?  Are we angry at God because He continues to be merciful toward our enemies?  Let us give up our criticism and bitterness toward God. 

Some people find it difficult to swallow the story of Jonah (laughter), but Jesus evidently believed it, and if Jesus believed it, that’s good enough for me.

One of the things that we see very early on in the story of Jonah, and you may turn to it in your Bibles, is that Jonah was very stubborn. He was a very stubborn prophet, and you and I are stubborn prophets. But we read this in Jonah 3: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying, ‘Arise and go to Nineveh.’”

God is the God of second chances. God is the God of new beginnings. There are some people who will not give you a second chance as they look at you through their own homemade microscope. But God is the God who gives people a second chance, and so the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah, and you’ll notice in verse 3 it says, “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh.” It does not say “but.” If it had said “so” back in chapter 1, verse 3 - “So Jonah rose to go to Nineveh” - the whole story would have been different, but back there Jonah had a “but.” He was willing to stand against God. And then it says in verse 4, “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea,” and now Jonah is finally willing to give in to God, having spent 72 hours in the belly of a fish.

Sometimes we give the impression that Jonah was spewed out by the fish in the suburbs of Nineveh, and then what he did was he arrived in the city and he was wearing very smelly clothes – very smelly clothes as a matter of fact – and we think that he had some seaweed still wrapped around his head, and his body was white because of all of the gastric juices that he had encountered in the creative learning center. But actually that’s not the way it happened because if you look at a map you’ll notice that Nineveh is as least 400 miles from any place in the Mediterranean, and so it may have been 3 weeks or a month later that Jonah arrived in Nineveh to preach his very short message.

Now Nineveh was this great city and Jonah was intensely nationalistic and filled with hate toward those people because he knew that Nineveh had a reputation for violence. And he also knew that the Ninevites might come against Israel as they had plundered many other countries. And so because of this intense nationalism he greatly resented the fact that God was going to possibly be gracious to these evil people who really deserved judgment. They didn’t even deserve a chance judgment.

It would be like you being asked to go speak to the terrorists, who are blowing up cars and blowing up American troops, and preach to them and say that there is going to be judgment, and then God converts them and makes them stronger than ever. Wow! And so Jonah resents it.

There were 120,000 children in the city of Nineveh, but Jonah did not care about those children. And there are more than 120,000 children in Chicago. And the question that we have to ask, particularly in the next message in this series, is do we care about those children?

What God does now is He gives Jonah a lesson in compassion, and Jonah is going to deeply resent that. He didn’t mind if grace and compassion were given towards him, or towards those who he deemed to be the people of God. That was understandable because they were worthy of that kind of compassion and concern, but he deeply resented the possibility that God might be gracious to the wicked, evil and sinful Ninevites. So how does God get him to say yes? We’re not sure if He ever really got him to say yes. I guess I should change that and say, “How does God try to get Jonah to say yes?” First of all, it’s by where he was sent. The Bible says that he goes back to Nineveh. It says, “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth.” Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’”

You’ll notice that when he was running from God, he was running from God because of Nineveh. God now brings him back to Nineveh, the very issue from which he was running, the reason why he was running. God said, “Jonah, you can’t be in my stream of blessing unless you go back in your detour to where we began. I am directing you to where you should have gone in the first place.” Listen, when God gives us a second chance, he brings us back to those issues that caused us to run from Him in the first place, and it is those issues that we need to deal with. Whether it is resentment or anger or disappointment or situations, God says, “If you want to be in my blessing you go back to where you were supposed to be.” And so Jonah arises and goes to Nineveh.

Three times the Bible says that Nineveh was an exceedingly great city. It was great geographically. It was a three-day walk through it. People say, “Well, that’s not possible because the inner city was actually quite small.” It had a wall of a circumference of about 9 miles, but we’re told that the wall was nearly 100 feet high and 50 feet wide on top so that you could have several chariots going on the wall at the same time. Those walls were huge fortifications. When it says that it was a 3-day journey maybe what we should understand is that that includes all of the outlying area because there was a further wall, and beyond that there were various towns and various settlements. And maybe that’s what took three days to walk through. But Jonah goes one-day’s journey and he begins to preach.

Yes, it was great geographically. It was also great culturally, by the way. In fact, archeologists tell us that there was a library in Nineveh at that time with clay tablets – thousands of them - so that they had culture and they had advancements and they had education. It was great culturally.

It was also great in terms of its wickedness. I will not in a public setting give you the details of everything that they did, but the Ninevites impaled children. They skinned people alive, and a host of other things that we don’t want to hear about. They were really cruel. They majored in cruelty and in evil and in violence. Now those are the Ninevites, the Assyrians of many, many generations ago. And as I like to point out, this has no relationship to the Assyrians that we know, the Assyrians who are here today worshiping with us. But these were the people to whom Jonah was sent, and you look at this business of being sent there and you find out that God did an incredible miracle, as we shall see in a moment because there were certain limitations. We’d have never expected God to do this. Think about it for a moment.

First of all, think about the limitations of method. Jonah came to the city and he didn’t have advance personnel. He didn’t have cottage prayer meetings before he arrived. He didn’t have television. He didn’t have radio. He didn’t have newspapers to pick up the story so that others could hear about what God was doing. He didn’t even have a flannel graph board, as far as I know. He simply went there and began to preach, and maybe it’s the way in which he looked. Maybe it’s because of what the Ninevites were going through. There are some stories there that they were at a very pivotal point in their history, and they began to respond to this message.

Not only was there a limitation in terms of the method, but the message itself! “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah, where is grace here? Where is something about God’s forgiveness? Where is something about God’s compassion? If he told them about that, the text doesn’t tell us. The main part of his message must have been that one statement, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” So you have the limitations of a message.

You also have the limitations of the messenger. Jonah did not want to preach this message, and he hoped to God that Nineveh would be overthrown. That’s the way in which he preached. He preached with anger, shall we say? And he needed a course in anger management, which God tries to give him in the next chapter. But he resents this idea that maybe they will repent and God will be merciful. So God tries to grind down his stubbornness, first of all, by where he was sent – the very place he did not want to go. His feet took him where his heart was not.

Secondly, God ground him down (if we can use that expression) by what he saw. Oh, he did not want to see this. You’ll notice it says in verse 5, “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
Fasting! Who told them to fast? They somehow knew that if they were going to get in touch with God they wanted to show their desperation, and so they fasted there.

Here at Moody Church we have a day of fasting twice a year, and it’s hard to get people to fast for a whole day. Feasting! Well, that’s a different story. When we call a feast we have people show up who we thought died during the days of Ironside. I mean everybody’s here when we have a feast, but when we have a fast the attendance is a little lower. We have more people in the Supper Room than we do in the Upper Room. We’ve noticed that.

And then these people put on sackcloth. Sackcloth, my friend, was goat’s hair. Now just think about that. That was prickly. It was terribly uncomfortable. What they were saying was, “We want to show our desperation in God’s presence and we even rid ourselves of creature comforts so that we can call on God and God knows how serious we really are. In fact, it says in verse 6 that the word reached the king of Nineveh. We don’t know whether or not this was like the mayor or if it was the king of the whole Assyrian Empire. Verse 6 says, “And he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Could you imagine Mayor Daley going to Grant Park and sitting in ashes, and then giving the city of Chicago a proclamation?

Now I’ve been to many of these prayer breakfasts, and so forth, where there is a proclamation from the president, from the governor and from the mayor. And if I may be a little bit facetious, it reads something like this. “Whereas prayer is not a bad idea, and whereas there is some religion in our previous history, and whereas we are into tolerance, and whereas we are a relatively free country, we exhort anybody who wants to, to say a prayer today.” Something like that!

Notice this proclamation. Wow! Verses 7 through 9 say, “And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we may not perish.’”

Now there’s a proclamation. You know, when God sends revival, everybody is on the same level – the mayor, the king, those who are in positions of authority, the president. They all bow in the presence of God. They all acknowledge their sinfulness, and here we have this universal revival taking place in Nineveh. And we read it and we say, “Could this really have happened?” I mean they even put sackcloth on the animals. The animals were supposed to have repented.

I remember a dog in our neighborhood that should have repented. And we had a cat or two that I tried to get to repent. I wasn’t very successful. Do you know the difference between dog theology and cat theology? A dog says, “You feed me, therefore you must be God.” A cat says, “You feed me, therefore I am God.” (laughter) Isn’t that true?

You see, these people realized that their sin was affecting even the animal kingdom. And the animals, I’m sure, didn’t know what was going on because they never understood Jonah, and they never understood the message. But the people said, “We are so desperate that we are putting sackcloth on animals and we are forcing them to fast so that we might turn to God.”

You know it’s interesting that this is not recorded in any of the various annals of Assyrian history, and so some people have said, “Could this have happened?” Maybe it was a temporary repentance. Maybe their repentance ended when their fear ended. We don’t know. We don’t know the depth of their repentance, though, as we’ll see in a moment, Jesus Christ did acknowledge this as a great moment in history. But the people repented and because they repented we read in verse 10 that when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil way, He relented of the disaster that He said He would do to them and He did not do it, which was exactly what Jonah thought might happen.

How was God trying to get him to say yes? By dragging him to a place where he didn’t want to be. And maybe you are there today. Maybe your vocation, maybe your situation is exactly the place where you do not want to be. And then secondly, God says, “I’m going to have you see something that you do not want to see. You do not want to see this city repent because you’re so full of resentment when God blesses those whom you think He should not bless.” And then God says, “I’m going to get you to say yes, or at least work on you by the way in which you feel.”

And that’s really next time’s message, but you’ll notice it says in chapter 4, verse 1, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry.” Do you know what the Hebrew text says? It says, “And it was a very great evil to Jonah.” That’s the literal translation. He was steamed, and he said, “That’s just what I thought. A terrible thing happened. I preached and everybody repented. What an awful thing. And because they repented You are not going to bring them the judgment that they so richly deserve. They deserve nothing but judgment and here You display nothing but grace. What kind of God is this?” He goes on to say, “You are compassionate and You are loving and that’s what I feared.”

You know it’s interesting that in the text we find the Ninevites certainly repented. And God repented. You know when it says in verse 19 that when the Lord saw what they did and how they turned from their evil way God relented. By the way, when it says they turned from their violence, the Hebrew word is hamas. You’ll probably recognize that as a terrorist group today. Well when they turned from their terrorism God relented. The word actually is that He repented. Now that does not mean that God repents in the way in which we repent. What is means is that Jonah’s message was a conditional message. When he said, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” he should have added, “unless your repent.”

And so God says, “Okay, you are repenting. I will not bring the calamity that I promised you because it was a conditional message.” But isn’t it interesting that the Ninevites repent, and God even had a (quote) form of repentance, but the one man who will not repent, who will not bring himself to the end of self-interest and self-advantage and self-protection is Jonah, and he remains stubborn.

There are some lessons that I think this passage of Scripture teaches us. First of all, our attitude should follow our obedience. It was good that Jonah went. It was much better that he go to Nineveh than that he stay home. We can be assured of that. It was good that Jonah went, but his heart wasn’t there. He said, like the little boy who was told to sit in a corner, “I’m sitting down but in my heart I’m standing up.” In other words, “if this is what I have to do I will do it, but I will grin and bear it and I will consider it my duty because after all, God can do such things as create a fish and put me in difficult circumstances, so here I am.” But his heart was out of sync with God.

My wife and I have on a number of occasions been in Weimar, the seat of the great German enlightenment, and there is a statue there of Goethe in Weimar. And in that statue Goethe is looking at the university but his feet are taking him to the tavern. Part of Goethe’s problem was that he could never decide where his loyalties were, and in that case his feet were going to his real loyalty, namely the tavern.

In the very same way it’s possible for us to serve God and say, “Yes, I’m serving God out of obedience. If this is what God wants, if this is what He has for me I will do it,” but your heart is out of sync with God because you have not been willing to embrace God’s will as something good and perfect and acceptable. And you chafe against it and you fight against it, and God says, “I want you to say yes.”

Let’s consider right now this morning that there are many of you listening to this message that are in the right place. God wanted you in this sanctuary today but I need to ask if your heart is right with God. It’s possible, you see, for you to be in the right place geographically, and your heart be out of sync with the Almighty. Jesus spoke of the Pharisees. He said, “They honor me with their lips. They are saying the right thing. They come to the right Temple. They even bring the right gifts, but their hearts are somewhere else. Their affections lie elsewhere. And what God is trying to say to us today is, “Don’t you understand that I want your heart and your vocation and my calling to line up? Why all this self-protection, this self-serving rebellion?” So that’s the first lesson.

The second lesson is that God is bigger than our expectations. Who would have ever expected that Nineveh would repent? Who would have ever believed that there is this city that would turn to God just because they heard a message of judgment? No one would have ever predicted that Nineveh was going to have this awesome revival, would they? And Jonah was full of deep resentment because of it.

Let me ask you this question? Are you resentful because God is generous? Are you resentful because God sometimes blesses your enemies and God keeps blessing them and giving them health and giving them money, and God just seems to be lavishing upon them? And here you are. You’re trying to serve God and look at what other people have, and why does God have all of this disparity in terms of the way in which He runs His world? And down deep inside you are resentful, because God is merciful and compassionate and patient with people that you and I know He ought to just wipe out. Right?

Let me ask you something else. Did Jonah need more grace than the people of Nineveh? At the end of the day, no, because at the end of the day not one of us deserves what God gives us. Comparing ourselves to others and thinking we are worthy of grace is an oxymoron. Nobody is worthy of grace. If you are worthy of it, it can’t be grace. It is the unworthy who come before God. It is those who have absolutely no claim whatever on their Maker, those who bring nothing to the table except their great need, coming in humility and brokenness to receive. It is they who receive mercy. It is not the people who deserve anything that receive it. And so what you see here in the text is that God is bigger than our expectations. There are people that perhaps you know whom you’ve given up on. You no longer pray for them. You no longer believe that God can do anything in their lives but you don’t know. I think of what the king says. “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from His fierce anger so that we may not perish.” Who knows what God may do with those who are wicked? Who knows what God may do with those of us who think we are wicked and who deserve something? Who knows what God may do? He is bigger than our own expectations.

There’s a final lesson and that is that we are responsible for our own repentance. Jesus had a divine commentary on this event. He said this in Matthew 12:41: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

If we were to read the passage we’d discover that Jesus uses the word greater three times. He certainly is greater than Jonah. His message is much greater than that of Jonah. The people of Nineveh heard only a message of judgment, and if you want to know something of what that judgment eventually became, you should read the book of Nahum, because that shows that eventually God did judge Nineveh over 100 years later because they went back to their violent ways.

And so Jesus Christ’s message is greater than that of Jonah. Jesus preached a message of love and compassion. He said, “I came not to condemn the world but that the world through Me might be saved.” It’s a message of love. It’s a message of grace. It’s a message of wonderful inclusion to those who humble themselves to come and to receive it.

The city of Nineveh will rise up and condemn the city of Chicago some day. The city of Chicago has had the opportunity to believe on Jesus. You can buy Bibles (no matter what translation they are) in any one of the bookstores in the city of Chicago. You can turn on the radio and you can hear messages. You can turn on the television and sometimes even there hear the Gospel if you are listening to the right person. And you can seek God. We have churches that are open, and in Nineveh they didn’t have any of that. The city of Nineveh responded to only one preacher. The city of Chicago has heard dozens of preachers and has dozens of churches and they, with greater opportunity, have not repented. I think that Jesus would say that the people of Nineveh shall rise up and condemn this city, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah and behold a greater time with greater opportunities and greater grace is here.

And now I’m speaking to you. Who knows how many people there are here today who have never received Jesus Christ as Savior? You’ve never responded to the Jesus who is much greater than Jonah. You’ve never opened your life to Him and said, “Lord Jesus, I want You to be my Savior, and I trust You as my righteousness, and I’m trusting You for my forgiveness.” I mean personally and not just generally to know Him on that kind of a level, and to respond to Him.

Do you know what the Bible says? It says, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” because we live in a day when God’s arms are open to everybody, and you have not fallen so far but that God can receive you. God received the Ninevites. After all, despite their violence and their wickedness and their huge sins, they were received. How much more under this era of grace in Jesus can we all be received? Perhaps the men of Nineveh shall rise up and condemn you some day because they repented in the Day of Judgment and possibly you haven’t.

So I have to ask you as I conclude, has God brought you to the point where you are willing to say yes? I say that to those of you who do not know Christ as Savior, but as well to those of you who do. What is there that holds you from finally giving up the fight and the manipulation and the criticism of God to finally say, “Okay God, it’s over?”

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we want to thank You for this story, a story that reveals the human heart, a story that is such a beautiful contrast between your compassion and one man’s petty anger at Your will and purpose. Teach us from it, oh God, we pray today, and may Your grace be evident in the lives of all who would repent and all who would submit, and all who would be broken in Your presence and say, “Yes, Lord.”

And now you talk to God. If He has talked to you, you talk to Him too. What is it that you need to say to Him today?

Father, do not deal with us at this moment as a church. Deal with us as individuals. At this moment we are not thinking of the city. We are thinking of ourselves. Grant, oh God, that sense of submission and yieldedness to Your matchless and undeserved grace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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