In what ways is it easier to be a Christian in Ireland than in Vietnam? In Ireland we can meet together as often as we want, to pray, worship and encourage each other; in Vietnam many Christians have to meet in secret. In Ireland we can have a work/life balance that gives us the opportunities to practice spiritual disciplines; many Christians in Vietnam have to work massive hours in sweatshops or as subsistence farmers. In Ireland we can share our faith without fear of being harassed; Vietnam is now rated eighteenth among countries that persecute Christians.
In what ways is it easier to become a Christian in Ireland than in Vietnam? Ireland is a secular democracy that encourages freedom of information. In Ireland there is free access to Bibles and information about the gospel. Not many families in Ireland will cut you off if you are born again. In Ireland you are unlikely to end up in prison for your faith. Not so in Vietnam.
Given all the advantages, for the sharing the gospel and enjoying the church, in Ireland compared to Vietnam it would seem obvious that the church would growing and healthy here and stagnant and struggling there. In fact, the opposite is true. Why? There are a number of reasons. One of these reasons is the superficial nature of our repentance. This chapter is all about repentance.
1. Jonah’s warning
‘Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah.’ These words are an exact repetition of the opening words of the book. He is right back where he started. God is so patient with his disobedient people! Jonah had tried to foil God’s plan, without success. As we will see in the next chapter, even at this stage Jonah’s repentance is fairly shallow. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” At last, Jonah obeys God’s call and goes to the city.
Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. On the first day Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The verb translated ‘overturned’ is ambiguous, it can mean ‘overturn’ but it can also mean ‘to turn around’. Indeed that is what happens—in the face of God’s warning that he will ‘overturn’ the city they are turned around, turning from their evil ways in repentance. Repentance is a key theme here.
What compassion God has on Nineveh that he would send to them someone with such a message - this notoriously evil city, whose wickedness has come up before the Lord! God could have simply destroyed them without any advance notice but he sends someone to warn them. He sent Jonah to warn them in order that they might repent. You too have been warned. God has given us plenty of opportunity to repent. You sit here this morning with an open Bible that speaks of one greater than Jonah. Through his word Jesus invites us to repent and live. If you are not yet born again then what a great amount of opportunities you have spurned. You are without excuse. But it is not just those who have yet to become Christians that need to hear the call to repentance – those who are born again need to be reminded to live a life of repentance.
2. Nineveh’s repentance
I wonder what the reaction of Jonah’s people of Israel was when they first heard this story. Their history had been tainted by many terrible acts of corporate sinfulness. Yet never in their history was had there been such a corporate act of repentance as we see here in Nineveh. Surely the people of Nineveh are putting God’s people to shame and showing them such deep sorrow for sin.
Look at how the people of Nineveh respond to God’s warning. They believe God, taking his warning seriously (verse 5). They mourned for their sin, declaring a fast and putting on sackcloth.
Look at how the king of Nineveh responds to God’s warning. He rose from his throne, took off his robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. He knows his responsibility as king of that wicked place. He issues a decree and in it he urges the people to call urgently (or mightily) to God. They are wholly depending on God. They know that only an act of his God’s grace can save them from the disaster that they deserve. In the decree we see the realisation that more than gestures of repentance are required, ‘Let them give up their evil ways and their violence’—true repentance always involves a change in the way we live!
And notice that the king does not presume upon God—‘Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’ While grace is always promised to those who truly repent we should not treat grace lightly. We should not be presumptuous. We should realise that we are asking for what we do not deserve.
What about the depth of our repentance? Have we experienced the godly sorrow that leads to repentance? I don’t want you to be sad. I want you to be happy. But in the face of our moral and spiritual failings the path to joy is through godly sorrow. According to the Book of Common Prayer we are to ‘weep and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions.’ Some of us our sad when we sin because our pride is wounded that we have failed again; that is not the sorrow God looks for. The Christian should be sad because we have let down and wounded the most loving of all fathers. While some of us are too glib to feel sorrow for our sin, others allow themselves to be swallowed up with feelings of guilt. We must not stay sad about our sin, we must then move on to rejoicing in the fact that God delights to forgive.
3. God’s mercy
Jeremiah 18:7-10, which we written after Jonah’s time, appears to provide the pattern of God’s interaction with the nations:
‘If at any time I announce that a nation of kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.’
Well God has warned them, they have repented, and God does relent from sending the disaster he had planned. ‘When God saw that they did and how they had turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened’ (10)–the Lord is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents in sending calamity (4:2).
There is a principle is the Bible that teaches that the greater our opportunity the greater our guilt if we do not grasp that opportunity. Jesus points the people of his day to the repentance of Nineveh and says, ‘the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here’ (Matthew 12:41). The risen Jesus, who has validated his message by emerging from the grave (rather than the belly of a fish), still speaks through his word today, so if you continue to refuse to be born again the people of Nineveh will rise up and judge you too on the day of judgement. You really are without excuse. Christians from Vietnam may also arise at the judgement and condemn you. For turning to Christ was more difficult for them than you, yet they repented while you hardened your heart to God’s call to repent.
And if you are born again, then you need not fear, for no one will be allowed condemn you at the judgement. But the Christians in Vietnam might rise and challenge us now. ‘You have it so easy,’ they might say, ‘we had it so hard.’ ‘You can meet freely whenever you wish yet we have to meet in secret.’ ‘You have time and opportunity to grow in grace through prayer, but you allow so many things take your time.’ ‘You have such freedom to speak of Jesus but some of us are put in prison.’ ‘You have material wealth and are spiritually poor.’ ‘We delight to make sacrifices, but your faith costs you nothing.’
God calls every person in this room to whole-hearted and life-transforming repentance.