The God of Second Chances
Prayer for Illumination:
Compassionate God, may the authority of Your Spirit bring understanding into our confused minds and truth into our troubled hearts, so that we may be transformed and serve Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I was growing up in Korea during the 1970s and 80s, we were thoroughly taught from kindergarten to love and be loyal to our country. At the entrance of the school, we were to show respect for the Korean flag by reciting the pledge and saluting it.
Not only did we have to sing the Korean anthem every morning, but in our history class, we were constantly educated on the tragic history of the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War.
On top of that, many movies and TV dramas have repeatedly reminded us of how cruel and wicked Japan was to our ancestors. Because of that, honestly, I grew up not liking Japan very much.
The history of a country influences the attitude of the people towards the enemy country. These unfavorable or even hostile feelings can be still seen among Arab countries, or US and Islamic countries, and among many politically or religiously divided countries. And today’s Bible character also didn’t like the people for whom he was sent because of these issues.
Many people know Jonah’s story as a children’s story with adventures and exaggeration. But Jonah is not merely a children’s story or just a big fish tale. To understand today’s story better, let’s briefly look at the historical background first.
Nineveh, the city to which God sent Jonah, was the capital of Assyria. Assyria was a ruthless empire that threatened tiny Israel. Their brutality and savagery were widely known.
So, when the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me,” instead of going east to the city of Nineveh, Jonah headed for the west, the city of Tarshish.
He jumped on the first boat going in the opposite direction and he hid below deck, hoping that somehow God wouldn’t take notice.
Jonah was trying to get as far away from the LORD, and His bizarre instructions, as he could get. Go to Nineveh? The capital of the Assyrian Empire, the destroyer of Israel? It was unthinkable.
The rest of the story you know. God sent a storm. The sailors were more pious than Jonah but they eventually reluctantly threw Jonah overboard. The sea calmed down at once, and God appointed a big fish to swallow Jonah.
Deep down in the sea, inside the great fish belly, Jonah praised God and confessed, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” And God commanded the great fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
That’s where we enter today’s story. "The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
This time, still covered in seawater and fish vomit, Jonah obeys, half-heartedly, half-hoping that no one in Nineveh would listen and God would destroy the city with His mighty wrath. He walks into the city and preaches the shortest sermon ever recorded: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Normally, this kind of message would not get much of a reception. It would not today and it did not then. Imagine this happened at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver or the Willowbrook Shopping Centre. Do you think people will respond to the message positively? People will probably ignore or ridicule him or even call the police to take him away.
However, the response to the eight-word message was dramatic. Immediately, the people of Nineveh believed in God and His warning and declared a fast.
Imagine the picture: all the people from the king to children, and all the cows and sheep fasting with sackcloth tied to their backs. They were transformed from one of the fierce occupiers to the helpless supplicant.
And when God saw what they did - when He saw them giving up their wicked behavior, He had compassion and did not bring destruction upon them as he had said He would. The whole city was spared.
We would think Jonah would be ecstatic because he has brought about a mass conversion that Billy Graham could only aspire to. He should be thrilled.
But Jonah was mad. In response to God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites, Jonah complained. “Ah, LORD, is this not what I said would happen? That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place. Because I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah's successful preaching campaign had nothing to do with Jonah's ability or the Ninevites’ worthiness. Salvation is a pure gift and is given only by God’s grace. The same God who gave Jonah a second chance gave the Ninevites a second chance. This is a God we know most fully in Jesus Christ.
The book of Jonah tells us God’s inconceivable mercy, grace, and love towards all people, even the least deserving. The most essential truth is that our Almighty God seeks to bring every human being to repentance and forgive those who truly repent.
With whom can you relate in this story? Are you like Jonah who has gentle prejudice towards certain persons or groups of people? You sing ‘God of mercy, God of grace’, but deep down in your heart, you have hidden your own ‘Ninevite’.
It can be a long-time business partner who betrayed you. It can be your ex-supervisor who didn’t promote you. It can be your family member who abused you. Or a friend who humiliated you. Or war criminals, serial killers, child molesters?
Maybe you think, it will be nice if God transforms him or her and saves them but even if HE doesn’t, it’s okay because they don’t deserve God’s great mercy.
OR are you like the Ninevite who didn’t deserve God’s grace, but is saved now because of His great mercy, because He has given you a second and a third chance?
The unexpected twist of God’s salvation of the Ninevites is used by Jesus to condemn the hardened hearts of the Jews and ultimately us.
Luke 11, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation… The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”
When Jonah was preaching, it wasn’t even a sincere message. He was more like a curse. He didn’t even tell them to repent and believe in God.
Jonah only said, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It was rather the king of Nineveh who issued the people to fast and repent.
But Jesus the Messiah Himself came, lived with them, taught them, preached the message of salvation, and healed the sick - incomparably more than what Jonah did to the Ninevites.
But the priests, the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, and many others didn’t repent. Even the king of the enemy country, the whole Ninevites fasted and repented. How many more signs do you need?
It is so difficult to change a person. I know many of our church members pray ceaselessly because of the stubbornness of their loved ones. You’ve probably tried everything to persuade them to come to church. You want to see the miracle that happened in Nineveh happen to your loved ones.
But at the same time, each of us here was once as stubborn as those who do not listen to your inviting words and as undeserving as those who hurt you. We are here today only by God’s amazing grace.
We are here in the sanctuary, worshipping God, not because we’ve been good or better than them but because Yahweh, our God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Because He has given us a second chance, a third chance.
After I graduated from high school, I studied at the Bible College in a small town in Alberta for a year. There I met a girl from Japan and her name was Makiko.
Even though Makiko was so sweet and kind, I had a hard time accepting her as my friend because of the history of our two countries. One day, we had communion during our Sunday worship. I saw her taking the bread and wine very humbly. And she was crying asking God for forgiveness and thanking God for His grace.
It was an eye-opening experience. I realized how narrow-minded I was. I was discriminating and judging her just because of her nationality. And here she was kneeling before God and praying earnestly. How dare I judge God’s beloved daughter.
How dare I judge who deserves God’s grace and who doesn’t? Salvation belongs to our God. Salvation comes from the Lord.
Our God, who calls us, forgives us, and gives us a second chance. He wants to give a second chance to everyone. No one is so far gone that God’s Spirit cannot bring them to repentance.
Friends, through Jonah’s adventure, we are reminded that God’s grace is much greater than we can imagine. Just like He saved us, God will save the most stubborn and the seemingly most undeserving people.
The world wants more powerful messages, more fascinating signs, and miracles. But what we can share is the power of the Cross. Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save us, who was resurrected on the third day, who conquered sin and death is the greatest and unchanging sign.
Believe in the power of God’s saving grace. Repent and let the Spirit of God transform you into Christ’s likeness day by day. And then Share the power of the Cross wholeheartedly with those who need God’s second chances.
Let us pray.
Our Father, thank you for the story of Jonah. Through it, we look at our hearts. We are sometimes like this stubborn prophet. Father, grant that we may feel like You feel, and have compassion on the people who need a second chance. Help us proclaim the message of the cross with truth and love in our community. In Jesus’ name. Amen.