Welcome to the third week of our series exploring the book of Jonah, focussing especially on what it might have to say to us about conversion. Firstly a reminder of why we’re having this series. Our vision is for there to be a new congregation in Priorslee. This will mostly be made up of local people who will have come to faith in Jesus and will have decided to follow him. This vision will only come into reality if people become Christians, if they convert to Christianity. In fact, the only way that the church anywhere grows, whether it is starting from scratch or is building on foundations hundreds of years old is by people becoming Christians, if people convert to Christianity. Given this it seems to me that it is important for us to have a good understanding of conversion and we’ve been using the story of Jonah to help us to develop that understanding.
In the first week we thought about the Sailors in the story and they helped us to see how a true change in belief leads to a change in what we do. Last week we considered the Fish and how its example might inspire us to get rid of things in our lives that are in the way of us following Jesus faithfully. Now, this is the third week of a sermon series on Jonah, and I’ve barely mentioned him. You might be wondering when we’re going to get to the title character. Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait one more week for that, next week we will look at Jonah himself. This week, however we will look at the story of the Ninevites, and the particular place of penitence in conversion. It is clear from the story that penitence, recognising that they had done wrong and being sorry about it, was a major part of the conversion of the people of that city.
In the spring of last year I spent a fortnight in South Sudan. I was part of a team running a conference to train church leaders in running a small group discipleship programme called Rooted in Jesus. The conference was in the diocese of Nzara, in the south of the country. In what, at the time, was the newest sovereign state on earth, born of years of civil war, in an area that had experienced at first hand the evils of the Lord’s Resistance Army until very recently. There was little infrastructure or organised medical care and the church had been wiped out in some places. In one exercise, exploring what the parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep can teach us about God’s heart for the lost, we asked participants to think of things they had lost, and how they felt about it. Normally this exercise elicits stories of everyday lost items and the relief felt at finding them. In this area typical examples of stories that were shared were of brothers and sons having been taken off into the forest by the LRA who had never returned or had been found dead. If there ever any people in the world who could rightly have felt themselves to be more sinned against than sinning, it was these humble saints.
During Rooted in Jesus conferences we encourage people to share testimonies of the work God has done in their lives. At these conferences there were many stories of healing and of freedom and wholeness that people had received from God. However, there was another characteristic of many of these stories that really struck me. There was an honesty and clarity about the depth of the sinfulness that people had been released from. From the woman who stood up and very calmly shared how she used to be a prostitute, but had come of faith and been forgiven and released from this slavery to the man who detailed his alcoholism, drug dependency, and wife abuse before coming to know Jesus, there was a clear sight and willingness to share how low they had been, so that they could give all the credit to God for rescuing them from these things.
One of my reflections on this was that I have rarely seen this in the church in the UK. I have rarely experienced people being willing to describe the mire that they were bogged down in when Jesus broke through into their lives. I’m not sure what the root cause of this is. I suspect that it is a mixture of a few things. Firstly there is a tendency towards a theology of “cheap grace” in which we have so emphasised the way in which God’s grace is freely available to us that we sometimes forget how costly it was to Jesus. Secondly is the fact that we do not consider adequately the weightiness of sin. We just do not realise how offensive our sin was and is to God. We don’t think that we were ever that bad really, and for someone to suggest that our lives were or are sinful or wicked is an unwarranted attack on our sovereign selves. Thirdly we live in a culture that has largely done away with the concept of shame and guilt. We even have a television programme called, “Shameless”.
In some senses it is an age old issue. People have rarely wanted to hear that they are sinful and need saving. We search for places to begin our conversations with people, to build relationships with them, to walk with them. We show Jesus’ love and live in Jesus’ way to be the salt and light of the Kingdom of God in our communities. We do all these good and lovely things but, in the end, for people to be saved from the consequence of their sin, which is death, they have to repent. If they are to repent they have to recognise sinfulness. They will not be able to recognise this unless it is described and pointed out. The trouble is that Christians have a really bad track record when it comes to this. We have a terrible reputation of going round finger pointing and cutting people off from community and being generally unpleasant. Jesus himself warned us about this when he told his followers not to try and take the speck out of someone else’s eye when they had a plank in their own.
So, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. We know that sin is real issue that needs dealing with in people’s lives. We also know that if we go round directly pointing out what we think is wrong in other people’s lives then it is usually counter productive. So what are we to do, practically?
I wonder if the people of Nzara might be our teachers in this. I wonder if we need to get better, not at pointing out other peoples’ sin, but at sharing our own sinful pasts and the story of what it feels like to be free of them. I wonder if we need to get better at humbling ourselves, saying sorry, and being penitent when we sin against others. By describing the sin in our pasts, and recognising the sin in our present, and dealing with them properly, perhaps we will enable those around us to recognise their own sin, and be freed from it. Part of the process of dealing with sin properly is the practice of acts of penitence.
Acts of penitence are about us showing our sorrow for our sin. They are not done to make restitution. Whilst it might be right for us to all that we can to undo the harm we have done to another person by our sin, we cannot undo the harm we have done to our relationship with God. There is no restitution that we can make, which is why Jesus made it for us in his death and resurrection. Acts of penitence are not done to earn or pay for our forgiveness. Again, this does not need to be done, Jesus has already paid our ransom and purchased our freedom.
Quite early on in their lives my children learned to say sorry when they did something wrong. They then had to learn another lesson: that saying sorry wasn’t enough. If they continued to repeatedly do something they’d been told not to do, then we stopped believing them when they said sorry. We started to teach them that they need to show that they were sorry, and not just by turning on the waterworks. If they were serious about being sorry then their behaviour had to change. They had to actually start turning their bedroom lights off when they came downstairs in the morning!
The Ninevites seemed to have understood this. They did things that showed that they were sorry, they put on the clothes of mourning. They were grieving over what they had been doing, and the consequences that Jonah had told them about. They were mourning over their deathly ways. They decided and said that they were going to change their behaviour, stop being wicked and give up violence. They were convincing enough for God to decide to forgive them and to decide not to punish them (more of this conversion in the last week of the series)
I wonder what the equivalents are in our own lives. Are there things as individuals or as a church we need to show that we are sorry for? How can we do that in ways that make sense to the people we have sinned against? When people come to faith, do we have ways of helping them to express their sorrow for their sins? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I believe that they are important ones for us to engage with if we are to see people converted to a deep and fruitful life of faith.
You see, despite all the dramatics, it does seem that the penitence and conversion of Nineveh was short lived. Zephaniah, some decades later, writes of how God is going to lay Nineveh waste because of its violence against God’s people. At a similar time the prophet Nahum writes a book that consists almost entirely of a Judge’s sentencing speech against Nineveh for its ongoing deceit, violence, and immorality. It is clear from this evidence that Nineveh itself soon reverted to its old ways, though of course we can say nothing of the individuals involved.
I have experienced profound grief when I have seen people who have come to faith turn away from it again. Imagine how much grief was in Father’s heart seeing a whole city begin to turn away again. A city that would go on to inflict pain and violence on others again. It’s heartbreaking but it should not surprise us. In the parable that we heard read earlier, Jesus describes how young faith can be strangled by weeds or scorched by the sun. Jesus saw this happen in his own ministry. He saw people turn away at hard teaching, he saw his friends desert him at his hour of need, he was rejected by the people from his own home town. It is important for us to remember this in all ministry, and especially in mission, for our own sanity and health. There are things that we can do to warn and protect young Christians but in the end it is not down to us, it is down to God.
Despite these warnings, I do believe that in the end God’s word is often one of promise and hope in what seem to be the darkest circumstances. I believe that we have a God of resurrection and restoration who is trustworthy. Therefore, I would like to close with a word of hope from God’s messenger, Isaiah, about Assyria, the country of which Nineveh was a part:
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”