God Changes Our Communities

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Epiphany 3
SCRIPTURE: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
Jonah 3: 5 (NIV)

GOD CALLS JONAH

Last week, we talked about how God changes our lives. We used the story of Samuel who was called by God when he was just an eleven year old boy. The reason why God called Samuel was because, unlike many of the other people of his day, Samuel was able to hear the voice of God and see God’s visions. Samuel’s acceptance of God’s call began a change in his life that transformed a shy eleven year or boy into the most powerful spiritual and political leader of the day.

Part of what happened when Samuel was changed is that the community around him was also transformed. It had been unfaithful in following the required religious observances. Under Samuel those spiritual rites were restored. Israel had been under the domination of the Philistines. Under Samuel the Philistines were defeated and the Ark of the Covenant was brought home. When Samuel was first called by God as a boy, the political structures of Israel had become corrupt. Under Samuel’s leadership a monarchy was established that was intended to follow the will of God; grant it that some kings did better than others. Because Samuel was changed, his community was transformed around him.

That’s what we’re going to explore today, how the power of God can change the communities in which we live. To look at that, we’re going to share the story of Jonah who was called to prophecy to the great city of Nineveh and how that city was transformed in the process.

Let’s start with a bit or background because we need to understand the context of the story of we are to understand the story. The story of Jonah is well known to most Christians. Like Samuel he was called by God. What God called him to do was to go to Nineveh and cry out against it. Nineveh was the most powerful city of its day, situated on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Iraq on the ground that is now occupied by the modern city of Mosul. From where Jonah was in Joppa it was an journey of about 550 miles which was a substantial distance in those days.

Jonah, however, had no intention of going to Nineveh which was known for its wickedness. In fact, the thought of heading to Nineveh rather unnerved him so much so that rather than heading straight to Nineveh, he boarded a ship and went in the exact opposite direction to the city of Tarshish which is located near the Straits of Gibraltar, 2,500 miles away at the very other end of the Mediterranean Sea. Clearly, Jonah wanted absolutely nothing to do with Nineveh.

But if you know the story, God would have none of it. Do you remember how it took four tries last week for God to get through to Samuel? God isn’t going to be quite so patient with Jonah. All it will take is one big piece of convincing on God’s part. To make a long story short, Jonah fell overboard and was swallowed up by a fish. He spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish contemplating the costs of disobeying God. Jonah finally came to him senses and realized that it’s not a good idea to go against God’s wishes. When he repented, the fish headed to the shore and spit out him on dry ground. And what did Jonah then do? Lesson learned, he got up and made his way to Nineveh. We pick up the story in Jonah 3:1-5 (NIV):

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

THE WICKEDNESS OF NINEVEH

There are a whole lot of lessons that we can take out of this short story. The first one is that when God wants to change a community, God usually starts with an individual. Last week it was Samuel. This week it’s Jonah. I suppose that God could have sent an angel or a host of angels to fill Nineveh with the fear of God. But God didn’t do that. God sent Jonah.

Was Jonah thrilled about it? No, he wasn’t. In fact, he turned tail and hopped a ship in the other direction just as fast as he could. But God would not be dissuaded and God sent him anyway. Have you ever wondered why Jonah was initially so reluctant to go to Nineveh? It doesn’t tell us in the Bible but it does offer some hints. I think that, first of all, Jonah didn’t want to go because of Nineveh’s reputation. It was a very wicked city. It was filled with greed, corruption and sexual immorality. Not only is it declared wicked in the Old Testament, such Greek literary giants as Herodotus and even Aristotle chronicle the depth of its depravity. So why would Jonah want to venture into that? It would be like jumping into a lion’s den or standing on the road in front of a semi. What the point? You know that it’s probably not going to end well.

But what would this world be like if everyone decided not to do what God called them because they though they’d fail? Just this past week our American cousins celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Clearly, God called Martin Luther King to great task. He was called to prophecy against the racial injustice that permeated North America in the 1960’s. For him, it must have felt like Jonah’s Nineveh. He had to know that there was a segment of the population that would eat him alive. But against those great odds he followed God’s call and died for it. But his death was not in vain for, while things are certainly not perfect, there have been significant changes because of his prophecy and his faithful example.

The point is that God called Jonah to prophecy to that city and God was not going to be denied. There is a reason why God called Jonah to preach in Nineveh. Clearly, it was because God thought that Jonah was the right man. Sure it took a bit of convincing for Jonah to travel to Nineveh to complete his task but he did it and the results show us that God was right. Jonah may not have thought so but God knew that Jonah was the perfect person to do his work and share his prophecy.

Jonah was afraid that the city of Nineveh was just too wicked, that as soon as he started to preach, they would stone him or something. Maybe the other side of it is that Jonah lacked the confidence that he needed to answer God’s call immediately. After all, who was going to listen to him? He was nobody from Joppa. The Ninevites didn’t know who he was. They’d never heard of him. And besides Nineveh and Jerusalem had not been on good terms with each other for generations. Why would they listen to Jonah who was from that enemy nation to the south west?  

What Jonah had to realize is that it was not up to him to figure out how to get the Ninevites to listen to him. His job was to do what God called him to do which was to prophecy. Figuring out how to get the Ninevites to listen was God’s job. Too often, we take on too much responsibility for things that we can’t control. We think we’re responsible for things that only God can look after. When we do that, no wonder we get frustrated and disillusioned and disappointed. At some point we need to figure that out and when we do, only then can we move forward trusting God to enable us to do what he calls us to and also trusting God to do that which we can’t do. It is vital to our ministry and our sanity to keep those two things straight.

GOD’S CONCERN FOR COMMUNITIES

We also learn from the story of Jonah that God is not only concerned with individuals. God is equally concerned with communities. And try to get your mind around this because people don’t always get this right. Clearly, God is concerned with individuals. We see that all over the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. God was concerned with Samuel. God was concerned with Jonah. God was concerned with Isaac, with Rebekah, with King David, with Esther, Jeremiah and Solomon. God was concerned for these people individually. God addressed their needs personally.

Isaiah 43:1 teaches us that God knows us individually by name. Luke 12:7 tells us that God know the number of hairs on our heads. Psalm 139:16 tells us that before are born, God knows the number of days of our lives. In Matthew 18:14, Jesus tells us that God does not want anyone to perish but that all should come to him and be saved.

God cares about individuals. He cares about you and he cares about me personally and individually. That’s why we, as the church, have a mission to share the good news of Jesus so that people will come a saving faith in him and not only live a better live in this world but also live eternally in the next.

We have a word for that. It’s called evangelism. Evangelism is our ministry to individuals so that they can come to faith and be transformed by the amazing power of God and the Holy Spirit working within them. That is vital to the mission and ministry of the church.

But it’s not the whole thing because God is also concerned with our communities, the way that individuals interact together with each other before God. God not only wants people to be saved. God wants communities to be saved. This is what Jonah and most of the other prophets were all about. God spoke through them and railed against the injustices that were being perpetrated against the people by those in positions of power and authority. Through the prophets God called the people to turn from their sinful ways and live together with peace and justice.

That’s why God called Jonah to prophecy against Nineveh. It is because that great city had turned its back on God’s precepts. The people were not living as they should either individually or as a community. That reality caused God to be greatly concerned.

There’s word for this too. When God calls individuals to come to him, it’s called evangelism. When God calls communities to come to him, it’s called social justice. God’s desire is not only that individuals live for him but also that communities live for him. Let’s be clear. God hates sin and God hates injustice. God does not tolerate the sin of individuals. And neither does God tolerate communities that do not live together the way that God calls us to live. Evangelism and social justice are the two pillars of mission upon which the church stands. They are equal they are balanced and, to be a faithful church, God calls us to do both.

NINEVEH REPENTS

Jonah reluctantly went to Nineveh and prophesied that because of the wickedness of that great city, God would destroy the city in forty days. That’s a pretty powerful prophecy because Nineveh was a very great city. The response of the city is quite interesting and perhaps unexpected. Jonah 3:5 says this: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” Everyone, from the lowliest servant to the king of the city, entered into a fast, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. This is important because fasting and sackcloth and ashes are signs of repentance. They are the things that the people of that day did to demonstrate their regret for what they had done and their desire to change their behavior to get in line with God’s commandments for them.

But I want you to note something important. Verse 5 tells us that the Ninevites believed who? Does it say that they believed Jonah? No, it says that they believed God. And that goes together with what we said earlier. Jonah’s role was to share the prophecy that God had given to him. His role was not to make the people of Nineveh listen. That was God’s job and God did just that. The people heard God’s word, spoken by Jonah and God’s Spirit moved their hearts to repent and to turn from their wicked ways.

What was the result? We find out in Jonah 3:10 (NIV) which says, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Because the community repented and changed its ways, God did not destroy the city as God said he would. That’s good news because it reminds us that what we do and how we respond to God’s word makes a difference. We do not have to live in condemnation. We can live together with justice and with peace. We can make the changes that are necessary so that our communities will function the way that God intended them to function. We are not victims of our circumstances. Like the Ninevites, we can make choices about how live together.

To do that, however, we might want to follow the example of the Ninevites. Maybe it’s time to look at some fasting. Maybe it’s time to bring out the sackcloth and sit in some ashes. Think about that for a moment. What in our communities needs some sackcloth and ashes? Of what do we need to repent? What needs to change in our communities so that they can become more godly?

Is there homelessness in our communities? There shouldn’t be. We have plenty of resources to ensure that everyone has adequate housing. Maybe that deserves a bit of sackcloth on our part. Is there hunger in our communities? There shouldn’t be. There is plenty of food to go around if we had to will to distribute it equitably. Maybe that deserves some fasting on our part. Is there racism in our communities? There shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of the colour of their skin, the language they speak or the faith that they follow. Maybe we should sit down in some ashes for a while and think about that.

Not only did Nineveh have to change. In some ways, so do we. I was glad to see that one of those changes happen in our community this week. Windsor police will now be carrying Naloxone which is the drug used to treat people who have overdosed on opiates. It should be not surprise to anyone that there is an opiate crisis in our community. The number of opiate related deaths in Canada for 2020 has not yet been released but estimates are that it could be as many as 6,000 people. We do know that, with the rise of Covid-19 as a factor in our communities, that opiate deaths increased 50% from where they were in the first three months of 2020. That’s unacceptable, it’s lamentable and it’s also avoidable. I was glad that Windsor has made that change and that other emergency services are going to join in this endeavour. This is a very positive thing and a sign that there are those in our community who are willing to listen and respond to God’s call for us to work for social justice.

The final thing I want to note today is that not only did Jonah change as an individual and Nineveh change as a community, something else also changed. Did you pick that up? The past part of verse 10 says that God did not bring on Nineveh the destruction he had threatened. God changed his mind. Because of the people’s repentance, God did not do what God was going to do. God allowed Nineveh to remain so that it could change its ways and follow God.

This reminds us that our God is a God who responds to what we do in this life. God is not the eternal clock maker who created everything and then walked away and just the clock operate as it was built to do. God is also not a God who controls everything and makes us to be puppets on a string. God allows us, through free will, to make choices and decision that are right and good and just. And when we do that, when we get it right, God responds in a positive way to what we do.

God cares about us individually. God cares about our communities. And God transforms both so that they can be of his glory, his grace and his love both now and eternally.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

God of the Universe, who made the Sun and stars and moon. You cause the ocean tides to rise and fall. The changing of the seasons is in your hands. The wind blows as you direct. How great and awesome you are. How magnificent is the Creation of your making. How full is your love for us.

Heavenly Father, for Christians who have walked the road of faith before us and shown us the way to go, we thank you. May we travel in the footsteps of Jesus even as they did that, one day, our children may look back at our lives and call us faithful.

We give thanks for those in positions of leadership in our country and in our church. Grant them wisdom and faithful insight that your name may be lifted up and your standards maintained. It is so easy for us to divide ourselves along political lines and political parties but encourage us to keep all of our political leaders in prayer for them need it even as we to too.

There are many who are sick. Some of us have conditions that are noticeable and apparent. Others have illnesses of the heart that are less easily seen. Make us well and whole in your sight. In mercy, grant them your healing touch.

We also pray for our American neighbours who seem to be so divided along partisan grounds and ideologies. We pray for two things. First, that you would help to heal that nation and second that you would prevent us from going down a similar path in our country. We pray for unity even in the midst of diversity. We pray for the healing of relationships, the healing of communites and the healing of nations.

O God, help us to hear you today. Help us to read the seriousness of the times in which we live. Divert our attentions from interests that divide and misdirect our commitment. With the devotion of Christ’s earliest disciples, may we dare to leave all to follow you. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

January 24, 2021 / Epiphany 3

SCRIPTURE

Psalm 62:5 -12; Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

CALL TO WORSHIP

The greatness of the Lord is experienced in the tenderness of God

The power of the Lord is known in the gentleness of God.

Come, we will worship the One who give us refuge.

Let us worship the One who protects and saves us.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

The world is our God’s and the fullness thereof. The mountains and the valley together call out to you who created all things and nurtures all creation in the your arms of love. We await your presence in our worship. We wait with patience for your Spirit to move and breathe into our inner most beings, transforming us into images of your grace. Remind us that our hope in you is not in vain. You are our protector and defender. Upon our faith, we can stand firm. Come Lord Jesus come to enliven the ministry to which we have been called. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

Your call is heard and your mission is clear. We are your people called to share your Gospel message with a hurting world. Protect us, O God, from the fears that would hinder our ministry. Defend us from the uncertainties that prevent us from boldly being all that we can be. When we stand upon your scales of justice, we discover the times when our feet and hands have been immobilized by the hardness of our hearts. We call upon you to forgive us for those times when we have failed you and one another. Amen.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

Despite our failures, we have a God who reaches down and lifts us up above our sinfulness. Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we can be forgiven through the power of his blood. In him we have new life as the resurrection people of God.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

From the tallest tree to the tiniest crumb, all of the Creation is yours, O God. In our offerings, we honour your creative hand and bold imagination. Enable us to give as to you freely as you have given to us. Nothing that we can offer will ever match your generosity, so we humbly bring what we can asking you to provide the increase. Amen.

COMMISSIONING

As Spirit filled followers of Jesus Christ, we have a mission to fulfill. May the Spirit give us the boldness to share the Gospel message and the sensitivity to understand the needs of others.

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