Louis hated Hiro. He wanted to kill Hiro. Hiro picked on Louis. Sometimes he would knock Louis to the ground with his steel belt buckle. Sometimes he'd hit Louis with his bamboo sword. The other prison guards were brutes, yet in Louis' mind were gentlemen compared to Hiro. Hiro found personal satisfaction in causing his prisoners unnecessary pain.
Louis Zamperini spent two years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War Two. As the war ended Hiro Watanabe, realizing he would be arrested for his crimes, fled. He was a class A war criminal. When Louis returned home to the states he said he'd 'rather be dead than return' to Japan. Four years later Louis experienced God's mercy in his life. He returned to Japan to meet his former tormenters, now in prison themselves. In the prison Louis surprised them by throwing his arms around them, forgiving them and sharing God's offer of mercy with them. But Hiro wasn't there.
Forty eight years later when Louis was visiting Japan a journalist said he'd tracked down Hiro. Hiro refused to see Louis, so Louis sent him this letter:
"Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war's end.
The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love has replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, "Forgive your enemies and pray for them."
As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison… I asked them about you, and was told that you probably had committed [suicide], which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian."
Louis had wanted to kill Hiro, but now Louis sought Hiro out to forgive him. It's a remarkable story of mercy, of not giving someone what they deserve. As we come to Jonah 3 we're going to see God's remarkable mercy on display. Let's pray we would see God's mercy afresh.
Jonah is an account of God's remarkable mercy. Last week we saw how God showed mercy to Jonah. Jonah had defied God. He didn't deserve it but God provided a whale to rescue him from the storm, and after three days he was spat out by the whale. Jonah shares his lesson in Jonah 2:9: "Salvation comes from the Lord." Salvation has come to Jonah, and this week we see God's mercy come to Nineveh. And Nineveh needed it. In 1:1 we're told its wickedness had come before God. It was a city containing the class A war criminals of it's day. In Jonah's eyes it would be like Berlin in 1945 or the capital of Islamic State today. So how will God's salvation come to the most unlikely city? It comes with a proclamation.
My first point this evening is, Jonah Proclaims (1-4). To proclaim is to declare a message. That's what god re-comissions Jonah for at the start of chapter three. Comes with me to 3:1 (page 653):
'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.'
It's total mercy that God's word comes a second time to Jonah. It's total mercy that he chooses to use this most stubborn prophet! This is a replay of chapter one. The word comes. Last time Jonah ran in the opposite direction. In verse three we see mercy moves him to obedience:
'Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned."
God gave Jonah a message and Jonah proclaimed it. God's offer of mercy is made known through Jonah's proclamation. Unless they turn from rebellion judgment will come. Skip forward to the early church in Acts and we find God's offer is mercy is made through the proclamation of the apostles, and the church. We are not prophets or apostles, but today God's mercy is still offered to through God's people proclaiming his mercy.
God's plan for Nineveh was for Jonah to speak of his mercy. God's plan for Gateshead is for his people to speak of his mercy. It may well be that this Christmas the best people to reach your next door neighbours, your work mates and your family is you. Louis Zamperini came back from the war struggling with his experiences. He turned to alchohol for comfort. He spent his back pay on get rich schemes that failed. His wife was on the verge of walking out on him. Humanly speaking it seemed a big ask to see him come to faith. Yet in the end it was his next door neighbour who was kept asking them to church and speaking of Jesus who enabled Zamperini to hear about God's mercy. Proclamation in many ways feels unspectacular, but that's the way God offers his mercy.
We see that like Louis Zamperini the Ninevites hear God's message and repent. So second point is the Ninevites Repent (5-9). Let's pick up the action in verse five:
'The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.'
Never mind being swallowed by a fish. Here's an even bigger miracle. Grumpy Jonah speaks the message God gave him, and he Ninevites believe God! When Jonah speaks God's word, God's voice is heard by the Nivevites, and they believe it!
Again we are not prophets like Jonah; God does not speak to us directly. Yet we have God's message in the Bible. So when we speak God's word, God's voice is heard. Again, it may seem that proclaiming God's word feels so unspectacular but that is how God speaks! If we think about that for a second, we should be heartened. If you find yourself chatting to a friend at work about the gospel, and in your answer, you include scripture, God's voice is heard! If you find yourself teaching the Bible to the Explorers on a Sunday morning. They may look sleepy. They may look unmoved, but God's voice is being heard! That was Louis Zamperini's experience as he went to hear Billy Graham proclaim Jesus from the Bible. He left understanding that God had spoken to him. It may seem unspectacular but that is the way God offers his mercy.
We can see the Ninevites believed God because it was evident in their behavior. They fasted and put on sack cloth. Fasting reminded them that their deepest hunger was God. Wearing sackcloth and sitting in the dust was a picture of being in ruin without God's mercy. We see in verse 6 that even the king joins in:
'When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Niveveh:
"By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."
Not only does the king wear sackcloth but so do his cattle! It shows their repentance. But what exactly is repentance?
A few years ago I was swimming at Gateshead baths. A few times I nearly collided with another swimmer. After one near miss the woman stopped swimming. She stood up in the pool and pointed at the sign. "It's anti clockwise! You're swimming in the wrong direction!" Needless to say I was humbled! I duly changed my lane, and fell in behind her!
Now I was swimming in the wrong direction because of my ignorance. It caused the woman's anger. But, in our rebellion, we choose to go the opposite direction to God. And it will lead to an extraordinary collision. One in which we will lose. No one can stand his judgment. God is rightly angry at our rebellion. Sin is not letting God be God. So repentance is letting God call the shots in our lives. To repent is to change lanes: to give up our evil ways and go God's way instead.
It's worth noting here that repentance is internal before it is external. But internal repentance will show itself externally. For Louis Zamperini it meant a decision to break with his old lifestyle. On that first day he poured each bottle of alcohol down the kitchen sink.
But it also meant working at his marriage in a new way; starting to pray and read the Bible; finding honest work to support his family and in time even forgiving his former torturers.
If you're not yet following Jesus repentance will mean letting Jesus call the shots in your life. It may come at a cost, but remember what Jesus wants is the very best for you. Living for Jesus may be hard, but it is always better for us than going our rebellious way. If you're already following Jesus, we need to remember that repentance isn't a one off thing; it's a life's work. That why every Sunday we pause and ask which, 'evil ways' do need to turn from. We too need to remember, especially with our besetting sins, that Jesus' way is always better than our way.
It's also worth noting that the Ninevites don't earn God's mercy through their actions. Mercy by nature is always undeserved. And that's what they're hoping for as the call out to God. How will God answer their calls?
In verse 10 we see God relents, and that's my final point: God relents (v10). Come with me to verse 10:
'When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.'
Jonah proclaims, the Ninevites repent and God relents. Despite the Ninevite's wickedness coming up before God there is mercy. The class A war criminals of Nineveh repented and God did not give them what they deserved. Genuine repentance is met with God's mercy.
It's reminder that God's plan is show unworthy and undeserving people mercy. He showed it to Jonah. He showed it to the Ninevites. If you're trusting in Jesus he's shown it to you, and if you're not trusting Jesus yet he wants to show it to you too! Jonah gives us a clue of God's plans. God's plans were not just to show mercy to Israel but to the whole world. Many years later Jesus would remind the Israelites of those plans. In doing so he held up the repentant Ninevites as an example to follow.
Jesus was speaking to some of the religious people of his day, they say, "we want a miraculous sign from you." It's as if they say, "Do a trick and we'll believe in you!" This is what Jesus says in Matthew 12:39 (page 690):
'He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 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 one greater than Jonah is here.'
The pagan Ninevites responded to Jonah's preaching, yet the religious Israelites refused to respond to Jesus' preaching! And Jesus was greater than Jonah! Tim Keller, the American minister, says Jesus is the perfect Jonah. He willingly left heaven to proclaim a message of God's mercy to a rebellious world. Both Jesus and Jonah find themselves in storms. Both are sacrificed into the storm to save others. Jonah is thrown into the water to save the sailors. Jesus is thrown into the depths of God's judgment at the cross so God can pour out his mercy on us.
So Jesus says to the Jews one sign will be given them: the sign of Jonah. You see Jonah's experiences mirror Jesus': Jonah descended to the depths in the fish; Jesus descended to death on the cross. Three days and nights both of them were in places of death, yet God did not leave either man in depths. Jonah rose from the waters to preach to Nineveh; Jesus rose from the grave to preach a message of repentance and faith. The sign of Jonah points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What is our response to Jesus the true Jonah? The Ninevites repented at Jonah's preaching. Now Jesus has come and the resurrection shows him to be not just a prophet, but God's king and he says to us, "The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15)
It's an eternal tragedy to reject God's mercy. Jesus offers us forgiveness on a cosmic scale. We've seen that genuine repentance is met with God's mercy. Jesus' death guarantees mercy. His resurrection commands repentance. So the question for you tonight is this: will you meet God's mercy with repentance?