Read Jonah 1:1-2. We are here introduced to the Cast and the Call of this narrative. Here are the three main characters in one of the most provocative, seductive, and haunting tales in the Bible – Nineveh a doomed city, God the offended Creator and Sustainer of our lives, even amid our rebellion against his gospel. And finally, his prophet Jonah – God’s most unlikely special agent. Following this list, we should also mention some of the other ‘bit parts’ in this drama, enacted by the Sailors, the Storm, the cast lots, the Great Fish, the Shady Vine and the Troublesome Worm. All highly suggestive walk-on roles we cannot safely overlook or ignore, without missing something. We begin with the city that most concerned God – the troublesome power-centre that awakened all the actions that follow.

NINEVEH – This was a vast metropolitan city, the Capital of the emerging Assyrian Empire that would later invade and imperil Israel centuries later. A by-word for decadence, terror, and hateful violence, this city was not much different from most of the world’s large population centres all over our planet, where we live in the mid 21st Century. Places of huge diversity, self-centred idolatry, godless indifference, and pitiless cruelty. It isn’t described here. There is no photo-montage of its wonders, or tourist travel brochure, or a list of it’s top-ten destinations among its outstanding sights to visit as a camera-toting, adventurous traveller. Things are too urgent for mundane sight-seeing. So God did not say to Jonah, ‘Go into all the world and take pictures!’, he said, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it!’ This is what we could call ‘The Jonah Challenge’.

For this was a city in jeopardy. Like your city and mine, it is in danger. How great is that danger? In London we are regularly reminded that the world has changed since September 11th 2001, just in case we ever tried to forget it. Special stunts are regularly staged involving men in bright yellow and green ‘Teletubby’ outfits preparing for a gas attack or outbreak of chemical warfare with weapons of mass destruction. Evacuation plans are outlined for the shocking event of a ‘dirty bomb’ going off in the Capital. Every Public Holiday, warnings are posted alerting us to news of possible terrorist attacks. 7.5 million Londoners regularly feel waves or twinges of fear. But the real danger is all but forgotten.

We all stand in a greater danger than any threat posed by Al-Qaeda, resurgent militant Islam, angry bombers, WMD, or potential nuclear attack. Why? Because for both Nineveh and London, ‘its wickedness has gone up before God’ (v.2b), a factor we readily either ignore at our peril, or simply forget as an exaggerated diagnosis of our nation’s most dangerous plight.

Think of some of the threats facing people in our nation and its capital. Ask the Lord to awaken you to a sense of urgency about the Gospel and its witness as the best solution for the people we meet.