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Jonah 3.7-10. Fasting, humility and repentance

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Last week in the fifth of our series on Jonah we saw how Jonah finally obeyed God and went to Nineveh and proclaimed Gods message of coming destruction, and how there was an amazing response.
Jona 3:5 The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
These pagan people believed in Elohim and they declared a fast and put on sackcloth. And then the king followed suit.
6 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.
And we wondered last week whether his response was genuine conviction of sin, or merely political manoeuvering to keep up with what was happening in the public square- as we saw with President Mubarak in Egypt over the last few weeks. So lets see what the king did next.
Jona 3:7 Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
"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.
 rq`B*h^ hm*h@B=h^w+ <d`a*h* rm)al@ wyl*d)g+W El#M#h^ <u^F^m hw}n+yn]B= rm#aY{w~ qu@z+Y~w~
 .WTv=y]-la^ <y]m^W Wur+y]-la^ hm*Wam= Wmu&f=y]-la^ /aX)h^w+ Jona 3:7 
Now this was an astonishing proclamation. Note that the decree is made in the name of the king and his nobles- Hebrew says 'his great ones'- although we don't know to what extent he had consulted them. And the decree was for an enforced fast- not just for the human population of Nineveh, but also all the animals, both flocks & herds- sheep & cattle. And it was not just a fast from food, but from water.
Now there are various kinds of fast we could go on today. The most common and the easiest in a sense, is a short fast from food- maybe for one or two meals or for one or two days- but making sure you drink plenty of water. And this would be a voluntary fast- because we want to draw close to God, or we are praying for someone to be healed or delivered, or we are seeking guidance over an issue- or because we feel God has just called us to fast for a particular length of time. And a number of you may have been involved in such a fast.
Then there is the fast imposed, or initiated, from outside. So in the past we have called for Days of Prayer and Fasting at St Georges for Steve & Juliet, for Lisa Monks, and on generally to seek God's guidance. Or there is the Lenten Fast where many people engage in some form of fast during Lent. Or some churches or individuals establish weekly fasts- and encourage themselves or others to fast once a week just to keep in spiritual shape.
So in the OT the Israelites were called to observe an annual fast on the Day of Atonement in Lev 23:27, while in Joel 2:15 the people are called to sanctify a fast and gather together in a solemn assembly.  
And in 1756 King George the Second called a day of solemn prayer and fasting because of a threatened French invasion – which John Wesley records as being a glorious day when the churches were full – and their prayers were answered.
But all of these would normally be fasting from food but not water. You can fast from food for up to 40 days and not suffer harm, but if you fasted from water from more than 3 days you would die- barring a miracle.
Yet in the Bible there are a few occurrences of what we might call an absolute fast- from water as well as food. Paul seems to have engaged in an absolute fast for 3 days after he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. And Queen Esther instructed the Jews to hold a 3 day absolute fast as she prepared to ask the king to spare the Jewish race. We also read of Moses and Elijah fasting from food and water for 40 days- but that must have been a supernatural or miraculous fast- which we should not attempt- unless God has clearly guided us in that way.
But nowhere else in the Bible was an absolute fast called for all the people plus all the animals- as here in Nineveh. So why was such a serious fast called in this case?....... they were scared.... they really took seriously what Jonah had proclaimed- unconditional destruction in 40 days with no hope of a way out. They really believed that God had spoken to them and they had absolutely no hope unless God changed his mind.
Now it is hard for us to imagine such a state of mind today, when the fear of the Lord has largely departed from these shores, but this was the state of mind in times of revival in the past- when the presence of the Holy Spirit brought such conviction of sin to whole congregations and whole communities that they cried out to God in desperation to save them from hell and destruction- because they now saw how heinous their sin was in the sight of a holy God. And revival swept Northern Ireland and Scotland in the 1850s, Wales in 1904, and the Hebridees in the 1950s when conviction of sin led to deep repentance and the transformation of society- for a period.
So the king of Nineveh saw total imposed fasting of every living creature as the only way to make God change his mind and avert their destruction- just as David fasted when his infant son was seriously ill, praying that God would heal him, even though God had told him he would die.
And the book of Revelation gives us similar pictures of a future time when people will cry out for mercy when the judgements of God become real to them. And I mentioned a few weeks ago how journalist Peter Hitchens became a Christian after he had looked at a mediaeval painting of the Last Judgement and began to wonder whether he would one day be judged.
Now the final thing to note about this verse is that this imposed fast was apparently unnecessary- because the previous verses have shown us that the people had already started fasting and put on sackcloth- so in a sense the king was only making official what was already happening among the people. And maybe that helps us to understand fasting better. Fasting is primarily the heart's response to God, rather than the will's response to human authority. We will fast- you and I- not because the Vicar or the Bishop or the Queen tells us to- but because we are convicted by the Holy Spirit that this is what we should do. Now if that coincides with a general call to fast that is great – and if we are obeying a call from human authority to fast- and then discover the true meaning of fasting that is great. But if fasting remains only external we have lost its meaning.
Fasting here was purely about affecting God- it was an extreme measure to get God to change his mind. But note that it didnt just involve fasting.
Jona 3:8 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.
 vya Wbv%y`w+ hq`z+j*B= <yhOa$-la# War+q+y]w+ hm*h@B=h^w+ <d`a*h* <yQ]c^ WSK^t=y]w+
 .<h#yP@k^B= rv#a& sm*j*h#-/mW hu*r`h* w{Kr+D~m Jona 3:8 
Firstly every person and every animal had to be covered with sackcloth- obviously an external sign imposed from the outside. But then Hebrew says: 'let them call upon God with energy, with vigour, and let them turn away, each man, from their evil ways and from the violence which is in their hands'. So this is primarily a call to repentance. When conviction of sin came, when threat of destruction came, the response was fasting, & humbling themselves in sackcloth- which meant giving up all the normal human concerns about having a nice appearance and good meals. And these things are so important to todays society- aren't they? We spend so much time watching cookery programmes and so much money on buying the latest fashionable clothes. And yet when the fear of God comes they don't matter- all that matters is getting right with God.
So there was fasting, humbling themselves, then crying out to God in prayer, and finally repentance- which is the most important thing.
Doesn't this remind you of 2 Chron. 7:14?
2Chr 7:14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
This was not just a fitting response in Nineveh- God called for the same response among his chosen people – that when God's judgement is about to fall upon a place, then humility and urgent prayer, and sincere repentance can bring healing to a land. This verse has been quoted and prayed over in so many prayer meetings over the past 30 years- and yet still our land is moving further and further away from God and becoming more hostile to Christian believers. Is there more that we should be doing to take this verse seriously – to fast, to pray, to humble ourselves, to repent, in order to see Gods healing of our land?
So lets look at this idea of repentance. Hebrew word here is shub= turn away, give up, let go of, your evil ways. Repentance is not just saying sorry and confessing our sins- it has to go much further than that. We have to so see our sins as God sees them, that we hate them as he hates them, and therefore we want to stop doing them. So we will choose to turn away from them. True Repentance can not be imposed from outside- which is maybe why this revival in Nineveh was so short lived. Maybe it only lasted until the 40 days were over- and then they went back to their evil ways. Cos if someone tells us to be good- we might try hard for a while- but unless we really want to change- unless we are really convicted that what we are doing is wrong, then we will not see lasting change.
Are there things that God is showing us that we need to repent of? We wont stop doing them without Gods help, but if He is convicting us then we need to turn away from our wicked ways.
Jona 3:9  Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."
 .db@an{ aOw+ w{Pa^ /orj&m@ bv*w+ <yhOa$h* <j^n]w+ bWvy` u~d}oy-ym Jona 3:9 
Hebrew says Who knows: God may turn, or repent, and have compassion, or be sorry, and turn from his fierce anger and we might not perish.
So the king hopes that the repentance or turning of the people will bring about a repentance or turning on behalf of God. And that seems to have happened.
 So what does this tell us about God?....... that he is responsive to our prayers and our humbling ourselves, to our fasting and our repentance. And yet wasn't that Gods purpose all along? He sent Jonah to this wicked people not because he wanted to destroy them but because he wanted them to repent- and so he could save them. And so God's purpose of salvation was fulfilled by a message of judgement.
And that has been true throughout history from the time of Jesus- whose first sermon was- 'Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand'. God's judgement has been preached, people have been convicted of their sin, and as a result they have repented of their sin and put their trust in Jesus to save them from their sin. That is how I became a Christian at the age of 13- and maybe some of you also. If we just preach Gods love and not his judgement people will not realise that they need to be saved and what they need to be saved from.
So in this passage we see Gods judgement and mercy balanced together in such a way that the people of Nineveh were saved. Not because God just let them off their wickedness- as some people today say God should do- but because he saw their genuine response of humility and repentance. And today also God is drawn to humility and repentance.
Jame 4:7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.
10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
And finally
Jona 3:10 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.
 hu*r`h*-lu^ <yhOa$h* <j#N`Y]w~ hu*r`h* <K*r+D~m Wbv*-yK <h#yc@u&m^-ta# <yhOa$h* ar+Y~w~
 .hc*u* aOw+ <h#l*-tocu&l^ rB#D]-rv#a& Jona 3:10 
Hebrew says: And God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways, and God had compassion with regard to the evil which he said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
So because they turned from their evil ways, God also turned from the evil he was going to do to them. Now that is hard for us to grasp. Does God bring evil onto people? Well only in the sense that he punishes evil with evil. God does punish sin – that is a reality we must come to terms with. That punishment will either be in eternity- or it may be in this life by suffering the consequences of our actions. God does not initiate evil- but when we as free agents choose to do evil, then God's response is for us an evil. But when we recognise our evil and respond in confession and repentance, then God turns away from the path of judgement and opens for us his path of mercy and forgiveness.
If mankind had not sinned then neither judgement nor mercy would have been required, but because of our sin God has to employ both- but his preference is mercy. So he constantly gives us warnings- like he gave to Nineveh- in order that we might repent and be forgiven and walk in his mercy and grace.
So how does this apply to us? Have we considered Gods call to fast- to avert judgement on our nation, to ask for healing or guidance-or above all to seek his face and draw closer to him.
Is God convicting us of things we need to repent of? Are we ready to obey his prompting?

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