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In college I majored in history and minored in political science. Thinking back to my college days I remember how during the height of the Gulf War our professor in International Politics told us to take out our syllabus for the course and tear it up. This professor thought it would be beneficial for us to learn more about the reasons that war was being fought and learn about the history of the political unrest that existed and still exists today in the Middle East. During one lecture I remember the professor offering this insight, “In order to achieve national unity there often is a need for an enemy.” Thinking back to that reflection, as we explore our Old Testament lesson from Jonah, it is important to recognize that even in Biblical times enemies were needed in order to achieve unity.
Most countries considered Nineveh to be their foremost enemy. Nineveh was northeast of Israel. In this setting God comes to Jonah saying, “Go to Nineveh and preach.” What does Jonah do? He hops a ship in the opposite direction, getting as much water between him and Nineveh as possible. There was no saying, “Here I am Lord, send me,” business. No, Jonah traveled as fast as he could away from Nineveh. Among the reasons Jonah did not want to travel to Nineveh was due to their reputation of cruelty. Even God said, “Go cry out against Nineveh because their wickedness has come before me.” Yet that was not the primary reason Jonah initially refused to go. The result of Jonah’s refusal is a story we are all familiar with since Sunday school. Jonah gets on a boat trying to travel as far away from God and Nineveh as possible. Jonah is cast overboard in a storm and a great fish promptly eats him.
After three days and nights of severe indigestion, the big fish “spits out Jonah on the dry land,” (2:10) on the very shore where Jonah had first left! While we may think the greatest miracle of this story is Jonah surviving this ordeal of being swallowed by a whale, the greatest miracle is the revival that takes place in this evil city of Nineveh when Jonah finally arrives and shares God’s message within the city. The revival that takes place in Nineveh clearly demonstrates that God desires to forgive those who truly repent and turn to him for guidance. Jonah knew this: in fact Jonah wanted desperately to avoid preaching God’s message there because of that very reason. Jonah like many of us wanted to see people punished for their sin. Jonah later explained that he refused to go to Nineveh and preach because he was afraid his preaching might change them. Though the chances of anybody getting through to the Ninevites was slim, for all Jonah knew the Ninevites might listen and repent and God might forgive them and there would be no enemies for his people to fight against. Jonah is probably the most reluctant prophet of the Old Testament, proving that a true revival does not come from the skill of the messenger, but from God alone.
One of the great needs of the church today is a revival; a spiritual awakening that will transform our church and society. What does it take for a revival to happen? First, revival comes when God’s truth is proclaimed. Jonah did not preach a revival sermon. There was no altar call or singing of Just As I Am! Jonah did not want these foreign people to repent; he wanted God to destroy them. Jonah goes to the edge of town, delivers his one sentence, eight-word sermon, packs his bags and prepares to head home. In his sermon there are no tear jerking illustrations, no poems, no humor none of the tricks of the trade we preachers love to use on Sundays, just these following words, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Yet what amazing powers those words had among the people. God wants us to be faithful in sharing His love and truth. If we are obedient in sharing God’s truth, God will take care of the results. God will create change. It does not matter if we are not trained theologians: Jonah’s message had merely eight words. If we are willing to share what Jesus Christ has done in our life, then God can use us to bring about revival.
Secondly, revival comes when the message of God is believed. As Jonah feared, the people not only heard God’s message but they also believed it! And the response to one of the shortest sermons ever is one of the greatest of all Scripture. The people of Nineveh repented. They started fasting; they put on sackcloth from the oldest to the youngest. They rolled in ashes all demonstrating their grief over their sin. Even the king, who heard the sermon, only second hand, joined in this repentance. Later, Jesus used the repentance of the Ninevites as a standard by which to measure us from today’s gospel lesson from Luke. It is not simply enough to hear God’s message; we must also accept God’s truth and respond in faith. This is what the people of Nineveh did, and it changed their lives and their city. Is God perhaps speaking to us today? Is there something in our life that needs change? Whatever this may be, God can assist us if we open ourselves to His leading in our lives.
Finally, revival comes when we apply God’s wisdom into our lives. There is an ancient legend of a king who loved chess. He challenged visitors to a game, and was usually victorious. One day a traveling sage visited the kingdom and was challenged to a game. To entice him to play, the king offered to give the sage whatever reward he asked if he won. When the king was defeated, to honor his word he asked the sage what prize he would like. The sage asked for one grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chessboard, and then doubled on each following square. The request seemed modest, and the king ordered a bag of rice to be brought. One grain was placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. But it quickly became apparent the terms of the request were impossible to meet. Keep in mind that there are 64 small squares on a chessboard. However there are many different sized squares on the chessboard that actually equal 204 total squares. By the 21st square more than a million grains of rice would be required. By the 31st square the total would go over one billion with more than half of the chessboard still left to go.
I share this illustration because small things have a big impact when they are added together. It is important that we seek God’s wisdom for every decision we make, regardless of how small it seems to us. When we add to our wisdom and understanding, it grows stronger and stronger. We must remember all things are possible for those who believe in God. Indeed there is a need for revival within all of us. As our closing hymn shares in the third stanza:
I need thee ev’ry hour, teach me thy will,
And thy rich promises in me fulfill.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
January 28, 2018