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Who Knows?

Sermon passage: (Jonah 2:1-3:10) Spoken on: May 17, 2020
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev Enoch Keong
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Jonah & Nahum


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About Rev Enoch Keong: Rev. Keong is currently serving as a pastor in the youth, young adult and young families ministries in Jubilee Church.

Title: Who Knows?
Date: 17 May 2020
Preacher: Rev Enoch Keong

We will be taking a long and strange journey together this morning. Don’t worry, I don’t mean that we are in for a long sermon. But to follow Jonah in his story, we will have to start with him in the waters, somewhere to the south of his home town, probably not very far from Joppa, till we finally end up together with him at the city center of Nineveh. It would be something like 900 kilometers had the journey been one that was travelled overland. But Jonah’s journey was an underwater cruise trip, so, into the waters we go.

We see Jonah tossed and turned by the waves, and then deeper and deeper he goes down. But suddenly, his eyes are wide opened, as if peering out at somewhere afar. Soon we hear him praying in the belly of the big fish, saying, “‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.”

The first half of this verse is easy to understand. Jonah just told us that it is God who casts him into the sea, and that it’s God’s waves and billow that makes him unable to breath (2:3). In other words, it is painful realization on Jonah part, for it is God’s own water that is suffocating and killing his prophet.

The second half of the verse, “yet I shall again look upon your holy temple” is harder to understand. Jonah, ran from God. Jonah, tried to dump his God. Then, while gasping for breath in the waters, he did not think of his family, or bubble tea, but God’s temple. Why is it so? And when he prays, he uses wordings and phrasings found in a number of psalms. Since he is able to quote from a selection of psalms, does it mean that Prophet Jonah have been faithfully praying the Book of Psalms? It does appear that Jonah who ditched God is in fact a devoted worshipper. There is something incongruous here. But this incongruity helps us see that faith is something that is by nature complex. Faith in God is never pure obedience or pure rebellion. It’s almost always less pure than that. We see it in Prophet Jonah. Question, would we do better than the prophet when it comes to purity of faith? If not, then what happens to Jonah is instructive for us.

Jonah experiences grace. He is provided a free underwater cruise trip by the God he dumped. That is good news, isn’t it?

Jonah must have thought so. Hence he prays to God a psalm of thanksgiving while being locked in the belly of the fish. Yes, we heard it correctly, he did not say sorry to God for what he had done. Instead he says, “Thank you, LORD!” He says ‘’Thank you, LORD’ because he now knows, by sitting somewhere in a sea creature, that those who pay regard to vain idols have surely got it wrong (2:8); and that it is Yahweh, only Yahweh, who reaches out to mankind with steadfast love, or hesed, as in original Hebrew language.

We say that Jonah is somewhere in the sea creature, because although we read in chapter 2 verse 1 that Jonah prays from the belly of the fish, the word ‘belly’ need not mean the stomach with digestive juices. The same word is used elsewhere in the bible to describe the ‘womb’ (Gen 25:23) or the ‘heart’ (Ps 40:8) or ¬- we might not like this one - the ‘entrails’ (2 Sam 20:10). Anyway, he survived the trip.

What we know for sure about Jonah is that it is because of God’s hesed that he says, “thank you LORD” while trapped in the fish, not knowing about what will happen next. So I supposed this is how the bible intends it to be, that God’s hesed to us, or in English, God’s enduring love toward us or God’s loyalty to us, is supposed to elicit this kind of trust in God. That while we do not yet know what tomorrow holds, we trust that God can and will do good to us as long as it is his will to do so. Jonah makes the same point with full confidence by saying, “Salvation belongs to the LORD! (2.10)”.

Friends, would we consider ourselves being simpleminded to trust God the way that Jonah trusts Yahweh? Or, on the flip side, would we doubt ourselves being qualified candidates to even do so, because our faith, we know, is actually more complex yet much less impressive compared to Jonah?

Allow me to say, the text is not inviting nor entertaining any such questions. Rather, it is inviting us to throw away such thoughts and to trust in God.

Let us supply two reasons for doing so. First, in case we are not aware, as Christian we are already doing it all this while. If not for COVID-19, we will still be celebrating Holy Communion on every first Sunday of the month and during special Christian festivals. When we celebrate the Holy Communion, we remember the death of our Lord and Savior until he comes again, and we give thanks for it. But, I don’t think we can be 100% sure about our reason for giving thanks to God, as in that Jesus will be coming again, but we trust in God and we exercise faith.

Such is in fact the case for the entire Christian pilgrimage. The bible tells us that we are saved, but we are actually still in the world and have never seen the heavenly home promised to us. We are in this sense like Jonah in the fish belly, safe but not totally saved. But we celebrate the resurrection and give thanks to God week after week, because we trust in God and we exercise faith.

Now we see that as Christian we are in the habit of giving thanks for something yet to be seen.

Second, as the author of Jonah wants us to grasp with the story of the big fish and the story in the next chapter, God’s goodness is mysterious, surprising and generous. What tomorrow holds? Who knows? What will God do when we cry out to him? Who knows? Yet to trust and to give thanks is the godly way, says Jonah.

The circuit breaker does feel a little like being in the fish belly, doesn’t it? Even if we do get to run out of the house every day, our faces are partially wrapped up whenever we are out, and we end up not breathing as freely. We feel trapped to some extent. And while our government is bleeding the national reserve, we may be starting to bleed our own reserves as well. We do not know what tomorrow holds.

The church wants to play our part in such times. Our Sunday school for example, is doing an hour of zoom activities with our children on every weekday afternoon, while still continuing with the usual Sunday school programs on Sundays. This affords parents some space to breathe more freely. It is one way that the church is trying to be of help.

And if there are financial or other areas of need, the church is inviting members to give your zone pastor a call, and we will want to help to the extent that we are able to. The church wishes to be of help and service to our members.

Still, there’s one other thing we are reminded by Jonah this morning, that is to look to our God who hears prayers, whom salvation belongs and who is able to lead us into a new beginning in his time.

For Jonah, God did lead him into a new beginning after the 3-day voyage, and issues to him a second time the call to preach to the city that would involve a 3-day trip on foot.

Ready to continue with him for this leg of the journey?

I however need to warn us, for Jonah, this leg is actually the tougher part of the journey compared to being carried around by the fish. I am not sure if we will end up finding it likewise for ourselves.

The Ninevites are well known for grisly tortures of captives, they actually took pride in it. One of their kings, Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C.), is well known for depicting tortures of enemies on large wall panels. One example is enough to tell it all, here’s an Assyrian soldier grasping the hand a captured enemy whose other hand and both feet have been chopped off and littered on the ground. The poor man as we can see, is still alive! Assyrians often leave one hand of their victims attached while other limbs are dismembered. What for? So that they can shake that hand before the person dies.

Chapter 3 verse 4 says Jonah went a day’s journey and began preaching, and do we realize that he disappeared from that point onwards for the rest of the chapter? We don’t find this in the bible, but I wonder if it is because the prophet saw such gruesome portrayals on the walls as he walks in the city, and one day of seeing those images is already too much for him to stomach, and so he shouted just one sentence after a day’s journey and dashed out of that accursed place.

Jonah’s sentence is short, harsh sounding and ambiguous, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The ambiguity is in the word overthrown, which is in Hebrew, hapak. The word has a range of meaning that includes: destruction; or change, such as changing from sadness to gladness; or turn over/turn around, which can be referring to the act of repentance. Jonah isn’t very clear as to what he meant by his words, whether Nineveh will be destroyed or will repent in 40 days’ time.

But what is actually more important is the time frame of 40 days given to the Ninevites. In other words, this cruel bunch of people is given time, and they have to decide on what to do with the time given.

Some very strange happenings followed, the whole city entered into repentance. And the reason behind it is plain to us Christians. God who did the miracle of sending a big fish to convert a man, is here doing a greater miracle of grace in converting the hearts of a multitudes, leading them to repentance.

But the Ninevites entering into repentance isn’t the end of the story. As the king of Nineveh himself says, who knows if God would actually relent and turn from his fierce anger because of their repentance?

God did relent. But why?

Because, God is not just as Jonah had confessed, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. (1:9)” He is also God who created humankind. Therefore, to Jonah, to us who are called to trust him, and to the Ninevites whom Jonah deem undeserving and who know him not, he reaches out to one and all with hesed, his enduring love. God, with enduring love, desires people in all times and in all places to be reconciled to him. And for that to happen, God is ok to appear as inconsistent at times when it comes to seeing justice being done. “He would rather be known as a God who forgives and is just… He changes his mind precisely because his will to change and save the world is unchangeable, and the world is continually turning away from him. If he did not turn in compassion, who would be saved?” [1] Well said, this commentator and I quote.

And there’s one other thing that this story help us see how much God values reconciliation. If all that we are saying actually took place in history, then it would have been sometime around the period when Jeroboam II was the king of Israel. Israel fell to Assyria 20 years after Jeroboam II died. In other words, the repentance at Nineveh that led God to relent from his fierce anger was but short-lived, yet God would rather have it then not. The same may be said of Jonah reconciliation with God in these 2 chapters. In the final chapter of the book, Jonah again got angry and argued with God, and we are not even told the argument was finally resolved, but the reconciliation herein God would rather have it then not.

God, our God, desires people in all times and in all places to be reconciled to him.

Sharing God?! The theme we based on as we meditate on the 4 Minor Prophets. Does this morning’s meditation suggest to us something to share about our God? I hope we have gathered two aspects: A God who meet us in our prayers, no matter how far we think we are being driven away from him, no matter how hopeless we consider our situation to be. And, a God who longs to forgive and to save, even if the persons seem undeserving.

And I hope we have also identified 2 target audiences to carry our message to. First, is we ourselves, if we doubt God in either of these 2 areas, this morning should be the time to sort it out with him. Second, would be to anyone whom we know that need to hear such messages from the bible, even if the person seems undeserving. But I believe we are more likely to meet people whom we find unfamiliar rather than undeserving.

May God help us.

[1] James Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (The NIV Application Commentary Book 13), Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2004.p.99