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Going To Ninevah-Even When You Don’t Want To Go

Jonah 1:1-7

I opened the letter. I read it. And I cried.

This is what it said: “Dear Dr. Edington: It is with great sadness that I must tell you that I no longer wish to be a member of your church. Although you do many, many good deeds, I cannot help but see and feel the prejudice which exists among some of the members of our church with whom I have had contact. Perhaps it is time to educate them for I cannot tolerate it any longer, especially in God’s house. I am currently visiting other churches where my people are. I’ve said my humble words. Thank you for your excellent preaching. Keep it up! Sincerely.” I read those words and I cried. And I thought to myself: “Please, Dear Lord, not this church, not my church, not my people. She thanks me for my excellent preaching. If what she says is true, then maybe my preaching has been in vain.”

Billy Graham, in the twilight years of his incredible work for the Lord in our time, had an interview with Diane Sawyer on TV the other night. I might have missed it had not Jimmy Hewitt called me to tell me to tune in. Maybe the most remarkable moment of a most remarkable interview with a most remarkable man occurred near the end when Diane Sawyer asked: “If you could eliminate one of the world’s problems, which one would you choose?” Dr. Graham replied: “The racial issue because that is dividing the whole world. If I could wave a wand and make that evil disappear, I would try to do that.”

Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, in his new book, Our Journey Home, says that “the home is the cradle of all values.” Because that is true, he goes on to list ten principles which ought to be taught in every home. One of the ten is this: “All of our children must be taught to reject the insidious virus of racism.”

In other words, what our former church member and Billy Graham and Gary Bauer are trying to tell us is that this land will never be healed and our families will remain under fire until we face and overcome the sinful sickness of racial prejudice in our lives. That’s what I want to discuss with you today and I think of this matter in terms of Jonah…

In my office, there is a beautiful piece of crystal sculpture in the shape of a whale and etched in the middle of this crystal whale is the figure of Jonah. When my wife’s mother gave me this exquisite sculpture she said: “When you begin to feel that you’ve got troubles, just look at Jonah in the whale.” Well, she was right. It always works. For Jonah did have troubles, big troubles. God had called him to go to Nineveh, but Jonah didn’t want to go. You see, there was no love lost between the people of Israel and the people of Nineveh. It was a racial thing. So when God said: “Jonah, go to Nineveh and minister to the people there,” Jonah said: “absolutely not”—and then he hopped a ship and headed in the opposite direction as far and as fast as he could go. Just so God comes to us today and says: “I want you to go to the Ninevehs of your time. I want you to go to the cities of America and minister to the people there. I want you to destroy the racial barriers separating people. I want you to make my people one in Christ Jesus.” God’s call to Jonah is God’s call to us. Today I want us to look at the reservations about the call, the reason for the call, and the response to that call.

First, the reservations about the call.

God calls us to go to the Ninevehs of our time, and like Jonah we take the ship to Tarshish. We don’t want to go to Nineveh. We plead, just as Jonah must have, that we really don’t know much about those people in Nineveh.

But is that true? I daresay that most of us are aware of the fact that 70% of the homes in America, the land of the free, the country that claims to be indivisible, are not open to or affordable by minorities. We know that African American unemployment is twice as high now as it was ten years ago, that the average African American male in America will live a life that is seven years shorter than the average Anglo, that 40% of those minorities who live in our inner cities have inadequate medical care. I think we know these things, perhaps not the numbers, but the reality. We know about Nineveh.

Or do we? How much do we know about our fellow Americans whose skin happens to be black? We know about the athletes, like Henry Aaron and Michael Jordan and O. J. Simpson. But what else do we know? Do you know, for example, that the first man to fall in the American Revolution, fighting for our freedom, was a black man named Crispus Attucks; that two black soldiers, Peter Salem and Salem Poor, were the heroes at Bunker Hill; that George Washington often spoke glowingly of the contributions of black soldiers to the war effort; that in the Civil War 22 black soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor; that the most decorated outfit in World War I was the all-black Eighth Infantry and the all-black 92nd Infantry held the same distinction in World War II; that almost half of our combat forces in VietNam were comprised of African Americans?

The VietNam Memorial in Washington, called “the wailing wall of a generation”, is a moving memorial to those who gave their lives in the service of this nation in VietNam. Everyone ought to visit that memorial, but I think everyone also ought to visit Northeast High School in Philadelphia. Why? Well, some years ago Northeast High School was the most prominent school in Philadelphia. Then “white flight” began and the white people built Edison High for the children and left Northeast High to the blacks. The whites took with them all of the school’s banners, songs, trophies, and traditions, leaving the blacks with a deteriorating school and small teaching staff. But Northeast High in Philadelphia deserves a special place in the hearts and the history of the American people because more graduates from Northeast High died in the VietNam War than from any other high school in America. We need to be remembering that.

Do you know that 10,000 patents in America are held by African Americans? The transmitter you talk into on your telephone was invented by a black American. The shoes you are wearing right now were put together by a machine invented by a black man. The first open heart surgery was performed by an African American surgeon. Our fellow Americans, whose skin happens to be black are responsible for the development of ice cream, potato chips, traffic lights, player pianos, gas masks, sugar refineries, blood plasma, and the list goes on. Do you know the works of black poets like Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson and Maya Angelou, black writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Larraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, black musicians like W. C. Handy and William Warfield and Marian Anderson? My own preaching has been indelibly influenced by great black preaching, but I wonder if you have ever experienced the preaching of S. M. Lockridge and E. V. Hill and James Forbes.

Consider this, if you will, an all-too-brief celebration of the colossal contributions African Americans have made to the history and welfare of our land. And I tell you, my friends, it will be the sorriest of tragedies if, having begun the blending of minority Americans into the mainstream of our nation’s life, our generation fails to finish the task. God says to us: “Go to Nineveh—even if you don’t want to go!”

Now, the reasons for the call.

The Word of God is written so clearly that it cannot be missed. The Bible declares that “God is no respecter of persons.” This Book says that Jesus Christ dwells in the heart of every believer. This Book declares that the New Testament Church had no barriers. This Book affirms that Christ broke down every wall of separation. This Book describes the multitudes worshipping before God’s heavenly throne of Jesus as being every kindred, tribe, and people. Heaven will not be segregated! That’s the witness of this Book.

There are 31,700 verses in Scripture. Only seven of those verses mention the color of a person’s skin—and all seven are in the Old Testament. Job says: “My skin is black upon me.” One of the young women in the Song of Solomon says: “I am black and comely”—and we thought the phrase “Black is beautiful” came out of the 1960’s. David is described as being very ruddy, and so is Esau. Those are the kinds of references the Bible makes to people’s color. And there is nothing, but nothing, anywhere in all of this Book to support that any race is superior to any other race. In fact, this Bible says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek (that eliminates all national and birth distinctions), there is neither circumcised nor uncircumcised (that eliminates all religious divisions); there is neither barbarian nor Sythian (that eliminates all cultural and social divisions); there is neither slave nor free (that eliminates all economic demarcations); for we are all made one in Christ Jesus.” That is the clear testimony of this Bible, the Word of Almighty God.
So we really can’t say: “Lord, I don’t want to go to Nineveh.” We don’t take a vote about the will of God. God isn’t particularly interested in whether we want to do His will or not. If you doubt that, look at Jonah. God says: “Go to Nineveh.” That ends the debate and the discussion. The only proper response is instant immediate, unquestioning obedience. God says: “Go to Nineveh—even if you don’t want to go!”

Now here is the response to the call.

Some years ago, Langston Hughes wrote this remarkable little poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore and run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or sugar over like something syrupy sweet?
May it just sags like a heavy load,
Or does it explode?

We know the answer. When the people of Nineveh pray and wait…and talk and wait…and negotiate and wait…and march and wait— and still the dream of freedom and dignity is deferred, it is any wonder that violence explodes. It is not right. It’s wrong to plant bombs, and to burn and loot buildings, to wound and kill people in acts of vengeance and violence. But we can’t say that we don’t know why it happens.

So how to meet it? By hiring more policemen and arming ourselves to the teeth. No! Violence and only begets more violence. Instead we meet it with the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—a Gospel of love not hate, a Gospel of courage not fear, acceptance not rejection, unity not bigotry. You see, when we open ourselves up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ it will change our hearts. And if our hearts are changed then God can use us to change our city and our nation, perhaps even our world. But it has to start in our family—in our family at home and in our family at church. Let me offer you three practical suggestions:

Number One: Help your children and your grandchildren understand the faith and the freedom upon which this nation has been built. Please see to it that your children and your grandchildren, even at a young age, become familiar with the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Better yet, sit down and read to your children and your grandchildren Martin Luther King’s “Letter From The Birmingham Jail.” It literally overflows with the transforming love and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me say it as plainly as I can: if we do not wrap ourselves in the Christian flag then we shall live to see the stars fall out of the American flag!

Number Two: Help your children and your grandchildren to have friends of another color. Through the television ministry of this church I have a new friend. His name is Fred Hickman. He is the sports anchor for the CNN network. He happens to be an African American, but he says “What’s important is that I am an American—and what’s even more important is that I am a Christian.” He said to me this last Thursday that the most painful thing he has to bear is not the racial epithets or overt discrimination he occasionally encounters, but the exclusionary things he runs into even from Christians—not including him in everyday activities, not inviting him to dinner, not treating him as they treat their other friends. That’s what really hurts. My friends, please help your children to have friends of another color. Let me say it as plainly as I can. People who dress in bedsheets and foment terror and hatred and build walls of separation between people are an abomination to the Lord!

Number Three: Help me to help Christ build here a church which loves all the children of the world because they are all precious in His sight. Help me to help Christ build here a church which is a foretaste of heaven—a place where people of every race, kindred, tribe and circumstance gather to worship at the throne of God’s grace. Let me say it as plainly as I can: we may lose other members along the way—I hope not, I pray not—but if we do, please let us not lose them because they felt here the sinful sting of prejudice!


This coming Wednesday, this nation shall inaugurate a new President. He will then deliver his Inaugural Address. Sometimes these addresses make history; sometimes they don’t. There is a way, I believe, for the one this week to make history. There are, of course, many problems in our nation and in our world which the new President will want to address. But somewhere in the course of that speech I want very badly to hear him say something like this: “For too long, for far too long, our nation has been weighed down with the woes of centuries of racial hostility. America, lay this burden down! America, finish the task! America, make the dream of freedom come true for all! America, let us be one in Christ Jesus!” In his way and in his words, I want him to say it. But then, I want us to live it.

I want us in our families to always remember that the Bible from its first pages to its last, tells us that all people are created in the image of God and all are precious in His sight, and therefore, all must be equally precious in our sight as well. I want us in our families always to remember that while it is true that God has created His people in a veritable rainbow of colors, we are all just alike on the inside. I want us to always remember that no matter the tint of our skin or the tilt of our soul we all hurt and hope and dream and sin and laugh and cry just alike. I want us always to remember that true freedom exists for each of us only when true freedom exists for all of us. I want us in our family at home and in our family at church always to work and to struggle and to pray for all we are worth to finish the great unfinished American Revolution. I want us always not just to open the doors of our church to all people, but to open our hearts to them as well. I want us always to be willing to go to Nineveh in the name and in the love of Jesus Christ.

That’s what I want.
I believe that that’s what God wants, too!

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