Saturday, January 21, 2006

Third Sunday after The Ephiphany, January 22, 2006, Jonah 3:1-10


Epiphany 3, 2006
St. John's Lutheran Church, Howard, SD

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth.  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey.  And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God.  They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.  The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything.  Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.  Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  Who knows?  God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish." When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.  (Jonah 3:1-10, ESV)

Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Get ready to hear the shortest sermon on record… don't get your hopes up; it's not the one I'm preaching right now.  It's the one found here in the book of Jonah.  It's right in the middle of Chapter three, which is our Old Testament lesson for today.  And it must be an important reading because it's the only time that the book of Jonah is read during the whole church year. 

You all know the story of Jonah the reluctant prophet.  The guy who ran away from God and got swallowed by a big fish for his efforts.  "The word of the Lord came to Jonah," is how the story starts.  Jonah was a prophet; his job was to take the Word of God to the people God told him to go to.  And God gave him the task of taking that Word to Nineveh.  Now Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh.  It wasn't a very nice town; in fact it was very evil.  The Bible doesn't tell us exactly what they were doing that was so bad; it just says that their "wickedness" had come up before God.  But there's more to it than that.  You see Nineveh was the enemy.  They had threatened the people of Israel before.  They had a reputation of going around and sacking cities and killing all the people that lived in them.  Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh because they were the enemy.  In the old days Nebraska Cornhusker fans would understand this like going to Norman and preaching about the Big Red.  Jonah didn't want to go and he was willing to do just about anything to avoid it.  So he went to the coast and chartered a boat for the farthest place he could think of "Tarshish." We don't really know where Tarshish is but there is good reason to believe it's Spain, which as far as the Jonah was concerned was the end of the world.  The most important part of Tarshish's location for Jonah was that it was in the opposite direction of Nineveh.  So that's where he headed.  But, God of course, was determined in his plan for Nineveh so he sent a storm and a fish.  Jonah gets thrown overboard and into the fish's belly, where he spends three very long days.

Finally, after he should have died, Jonah got spit up on the shore.  And God said to Jonah a second time, "Go to Nineveh and proclaim to it what I asked you to proclaim." And Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord.  You've gotta love the bible here for it's understatement.  After being chased down by a storm and spending days in the fish; Of course he went to Nineveh.  He knew he couldn't run again.  Who knew what God had in mind if he decided to run again?  So Jonah went to Nineveh, but he was still the reluctant prophet.  And this is where that short sermon comes in.  Jonah preached as little as he could preach.  Apparently just enough to satisfy what God told him to say.  "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." At first you might be tempted to think that that's just the content of his message.  But if you look you'll see that those are very the words he used.  It was eight simple words (actually only five in Hebrew, עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת ), but a complete sermon.  Jonah, it seems, still wasn't very anxious to do what God had asked him to do.  Kinda like the child who's supposed to go up and clean his room, and shoves everything under the bed.  The room looks clean but it isn't.  Jonah delivers the message, but only in the most minimal way he can deliver it.  But, God's Word always has its way.  In spite of Jonah, the people of Nineveh believe what he says.  The Ninevites believed God.  It's important to notice that they believe God, not Jonah.  They take the message they hear as if it to be from God.  They believe in God, and repent of their sin.  You see, repentance always follows faith.  And not only do they believe, they put their money where their mouth is. Everyone, even the sheep and cattle, fast and sit in sackcloth and ashes as a way to show God that they are truly repentant.  And God changes his course of action against them.  God's threat was taken seriously the people of Nineveh have faith in God to forgive them,  and he doesn't have to carry it out His threat, because the people had changed.

And Jonah, well he gets mad.  "I knew it!" He said.  "That's why I didn't want to come here.  I knew you'd wimp out and not destroy the city.  And if any city needs to be destroyed it's this one.  These people are not your people, they're Gentiles, they're Ninevites!  Aren't they outside you plan?  No!  You, God, are 'gracious and compassionate.'  You let them off too easy."  Jonah, it seems had a lot yet to learn, and the book leaves us hanging and never tells us if he did.

And so what about that short sermon?  "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned."  Well, I don't think I can ever use it here, but it is good message.  You see, it has law and gospel in it.  Nineveh is going to be "overturned."  Jonah says.  Well, what he means is that Nineveh is on the fire and brimstone schedule, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.  "Annihilate" is probably a word that better describes what God had in mind than just "overturn."  It fit pretty well in Jonah's way of thinking, too.  God was planning the total destruction of Nineveh because of her "wickedness."

You do know that we all fit into that category.  Our wickedness comes up before God on a daily basis.  No, we aren't out there destroying cities and killing the inhabitants.  We aren't out there committing great big huge sins.  But the truth is that we too are wicked in God's eyes.  We can't even keep any one of God's laws perfectly let alone all ten.  Jesus clearly tells us that it's not just a matter of doing and not doing what the commandments say.  It's a matter of the heart.  He said that you don't have to kill someone to be guilty of murder.  All you have to do is call them a 'fool' or think bad things about them.  He says that you don't have to have an affair to commit adultery.  It happens when your eyes wander.  And in case you think that that's not the wickedness that Jesus is talking, about he says that people who break the least of the commandments aren't worthy of the kingdom of God.  Sin begins in the heart.  The bible says, "the wages of sin is death." The wages of sin is overturning, annihilation. 

We could easily be found standing in Jonah's shoes saying, "I'm not as bad as they are.  After all I'm a member of a church and there are lots of people who don't belong anywhere.  Surely God looks at them differently than he does me.  And what about the members of our church who never come?  They've got to be further down on the favor scale that I am.  Maybe they deserve punishment, but not me.  I've always got my checkbook out whenever the church needs money."  Jonah too, expected God to be gracious to him.  He was thankful when God saved him from the fish; it didn't bite him in half.  It didn't swim to the bottom of the sea and stay there.  Let's face it that's what Jonah deserved.  He had been given as specific task to do; there was no doubt about it.  He was running away from God.  God could have struck him dead.  But God was gracious to him and let him live.  Jonah's problem isn't a lack of thankfulness for what God had done; it was a failure to see that God's grace is for other people too.  The people in Nineveh needed God's word.  They needed to hear God's plans for them, but Jonah didn't want them to have it.  He wanted to keep it for himself, and the people who he saw as the people of God.  That simply wasn't God's plan.

There was Gospel in Jonah's message, in spite of Jonah's wish.  "Forty more days…" he said.  There was yet a chance for the people of Nineveh to repent.  There was time before the destruction to get things right with God again.  Just the fact that God sent Jonah in the first place was an act of God's grace.  He could have destroyed them with out any warning at all.  God's plan for the Ninevites wasn't destruction but restoration.  God is 'gracious and compassionate' as Jonah said.  He didn't kill Jonah.  He didn't destroy Nineveh when they repented, either.

Well so, what's this text really all about?  It's not about Jonah getting swallowed and spit up by a big fish.  It's not about how wicked the people Nineveh were.  And it's not even about us and our sin.  It's really about God, His grace, His forgiveness, and His Word.  He is gracious and compassionate.  St.  Peter wrote: He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  2 Peter 3:9  God doesn't want people to live in sin and guilt, He takes care of it by sending Jesus to be our Savior, to bring us forgiveness of sins, just like He forgave the people of Nineveh.

That message about God's grace is the message of Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to us in our Nineveh, even though we were the enemies of God and deserved punishment, overturning and annihilation.  Jesus wasn't reluctant, like Jonah, to come to us; he did it of his own free will, because it was part of God's plan to save the whole world.  Jesus preached an equally simple message.  "Repent the Kingdom of God is here!" Now is the time to act.  Now is the time to repent and set things right with God.  God could have just destroyed the world without warning, but instead he sent Jesus to save you and me.  That punishment that we deserved, that overturning and annihilation, Jesus Christ took it on himself on the cross.  He was overturned and killed instead of us.  He died and spent his three days, not in the belly of a fish, but in the darkness of death.  And God changed his planned action against us.  Jesus died instead.  Just like the fish spit Jonah on the shore, Jesus broke free from death.  And we are free from the punishment of our sin.

God's Word had its effect on the people of Nineveh.  They repented of their sins.  They turned from their evil.  God was gracious to them.  God is gracious to us.  He has forgiven us, because of Jesus.  We hear God's Word that tells us to turn to Him for forgiveness.  And so we do and so He forgives.  The power for the people of Nineveh was in the Word of God, that great little sermon from the reluctant prophet.  The power us today is also in the Word of God.  It says confess because I forgive.

Think about what it means to have the Word of God in this place.  You can come here Sunday after Sunday and hear about the forgiveness won for you by Jesus.  You can come here and see that forgiveness given to God's people in Baptism, and Holy Communion.  And remember that that Word of forgiveness isn't just for you, it's for the whole world, even the Ninevites. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Rev. Jonathan C. Watt
St. John's Lutheran Church
Howard, South Dakota

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