January 25 2015 Sermon
Jonah 3:1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to aNineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now aNineveh was an exceedingly great city,1 three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 aAnd the people of Nineveh believed God. bThey called for a fast and cput on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 6 The word reached1 the king of Nineveh, and ahe arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, band sat in ashes.
7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, a”By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor bbeast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water,
8 but let man and abeast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. bLet everyone turn from his evil way and from cthe violence that is in his hands.
9 aWho knows? God may turn and relent band turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did, ahow they turned from their evil way, aGod relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jon 3:1 ESV)
A Sunday School teacher asked her class, “What can we learn from Jonah?” One young girl, twirling her hair, thinking hard, suddenly blurted out, “When whales swallow people, they get real sick!”
That’s how the story ends the first time God tells Jonah, “Go to Nineveh.” Today, Nineveh is an archaeological site in Iraq. Back then, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a ferocious empire. One of Nineveh’s kings bragged, “My hand reached for riches of the nations, like one grasping a nest. I’ve ransacked the whole world, like one gathering abandoned eggs. Not one flapped a wing, not one dared chirp, not one peep” (Is 10:14, author’s paraphrase).
The name Jonah means “dove.” Jonah knew that God was sending him to try to de-feather the eagle’s nest! “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has [piled] up before me” (1:2).
Jonah rose up and jumped on the first boat sailing for Tarshish, Spain. That was the end of the earth, in the opposite direction!
So the Lord unleashed a maelstrom. Jonah was tossed into the sea. Splash, gasp, gurgle. Jonah’s down, down, drowning. But God sends the great fish to swallow Jonah whole. On the third day, the fish vomits up the prophet onto dry land.
That’s where our text from Jonah 3 starts. “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.’?” What does Jonah do the second time? “Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord” (vv 1–3).
Why did Jonah go to Nineveh? At first glance, he sure learned his lesson. Jonah doesn’t want to be fish food! If so, then Jonah was driven by God’s Law. What the Lord commands must be obeyed. Jonah fears God.
But then I wonder. Did Jonah see? “God gives me a second chance. The first time I ran. I was dead drowning, until God sent the fish. I owe the Lord my life! And where? The fish could have swum straight up the Tigris River and spit me up in downtown Nineveh. But God brought me safely home. He’s not forcing me. The Lord gives me a second chance!”
In Jonah 2, Jonah beautifully gives God thanks already from inside the fish’s belly! Jonah sings of the “hope of steadfast love” because “salvation belongs to the Lord” (2:8–9). Jonah is driven by the Gospel: by the Good News that the Lord forgives. The Lord gives new life; that’s why Jonah goes. Not because he fears God. Jonah goes because the Lord loves him.
Why did Jonah go to Nineveh? Was it fear of fish? Or was it because God creates faith in a second chance?!
Why do you go? You know those people whom God has put into your life. Some of them hurt. They need to hear Jesus cares. Others are Assyrians hurting others, maybe even hurting you. They need to be warned of their sin. When God has put that person on your heart, why do you go?
God does demand that you speak up. You can be driven by God’s Law, by your fear of God. But there’s more. God desires! “God our Savior . . . desires all people to be saved,” as Paul wrote to Timothy. God puts his desire also in your heart. God promises to use you, just like Jonah, to lead others “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3–4). You are driven by the Gospel, by the Good News that God loves you, the Good News that God loves the ones to whom he sends you.
That silly Sunday School story was told to a group of pastors. One pastor told the punch line, “People make whales really sick.” Another pastor joked, “That’s funny, I always thought the point of Jonah’s story is you can’t keep a good man down!”
Jonah went to Nineveh not because he thought, “I’m a good guy.” He painfully knew, “I was the bad guy, running from God!” And Jonah joyfully believed, “God loves me anyway. The Lord forgives me, gives me new life. He’s the God of second chances!”
“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” (v 3). See this Gotham, more powerful than today’s Washington DC, more grand and gutsy than New York City.
“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’?” (v 4). His word gives an exact picture: “overturned.” Jonah preaches, “The foundation, deeply dug under every building, will be overthrown. Your grand city will be rooted up, thrown high into the air, flipped over. Feel the rubble rain down—your proud capital, you bully, Assyria! You can kill the messenger. But this message comes from God! You’ll get what you’ve given. Just forty days more! Nineveh shall be flipped up and flopped down.” Startling words!
Still more startling: the words’ results! “The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast” (v 5). They quit all food, not a drop to drink, begging Jonah’s God, “Have mercy!” And they “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (v 5). The cheapest, itchy burlap cloth, good for nothing but a sack, they put on as a shirt. That sackcloth felt on the skin like their guilt inside, “clawing” at the heart.
The Assyrian Empire subjugated the world with cruelty beyond compare. Still today, you can see their bragging artwork. They depict the kings of all the nations, each in their native dress. The Assyrians show these conquered kings paraded into slavery, the long line shackled, each connected to the next by a fishhook through the lips. The Assyrians boast of flaying children in the sight of their enslaved parents. They show Nineveh’s king gouging out his captives’ eyes with his spear.
This Nineveh now fasts in sackcloth. Why? At first glance, it looks as if God’s prophet threw them into a panic. The Assyrians learned a sudden fear of God!
But why did they listen to Jonah? I’d expect them to ignore him, to smash the little “Dove.” Listen to Jonah. He preaches no Good News. No word of forgiveness. No hope of God’s love. But Nineveh did not believe Jonah. Jonah fumes, “?‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed . . .” Jonah? No! “The people of Nineveh believed God” (vv 4–5).
Nineveh sees, “Who is this God who sends the prophet, who makes Jonah fearless? Who is this God, who dares threaten us with our sin? God is right! But look at this: God sent Jonah! God did not smash us. But Jonah’s God gives us forty days. We have time, a second chance, a hope for mercy!”
Assyria’s ferocious king hears of Jonah, of Nineveh’s panic. He is cut to the heart! He issues the royal decree. “Everyone must call urgently on God. Turn from your wicked ways. Stop your violence. Who knows? God may yet relent. With compassion, God may yet turn from his burning anger so that we do not die” (author’s paraphrase).
Why did Nineveh listen? Was it fear of rubble? Or was it because God creates hope for mercy?
I love Rom 6:23, where Paul summarizes the whole Bible. In one sentence he tells the bad news and the good. First, Paul tells how every sin pays out. “For the wages of sin is death.” Every day I experience how my sin keeps killing those I hurt. My sin keeps on killing me. But the Bible brings Good News beyond what this dying world knows. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is the way God was dealing with Jonah and Nineveh already way back in the Old Testament. God already saw Jesus hanging on the cross for them, for you, for me. Already for them, and surely now for us, Jesus’ death has taken the wages of our sin, has paid instead for us to live forever. Because of Jesus, God gives to me and you not what we sinners deserve. God gives us the gift of Jesus! He is life.
Nineveh believed God’s Law, the bad news. Yes, the only wages sin ever pays out is death, our deserved destruction. But Nineveh also trusted the Gospel, God’s Good News. The gift God freely gives for Jesus’ sake is life, forgiveness, his own love.
Why do you speak? Is it fear of trouble? Or because God creates love for Jesus!
Jonah speaks to us not as an old whale of a tale. God invites you: “Forgiveness, life, love, the free gift of Jesus, his death and resurrection, I have given to you.
“And more! I send you. You are set free to share my life, my love with . . .” With whom? Who is your Assyrian, someone who needs the Word of God, but by all logic will surely never listen?
“What difference are my words to Sam?” “As if Sally is going to listen to me!” Your words and mine change no one, that’s true. Neither did Jonah’s words. God promises, “I will give to you my words!”
We Lutherans especially should remember the power of God’s Word. Our catechism tells the truth: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” That’s the only way anyone believes. The Holy Spirit calls and convinces us with the Good News that Jesus, by his cross and empty tomb, has won for us the whole new life with God.
Jonah’s words could not change Nineveh. But Jonah spoke, and that awful empire heard God. Deeper than the city’s foundations, the Holy Spirit “overturned” Nineveh’s dirty heart!
The same God lives today. We speak God’s Law, and he hammers sin. Still more, we speak God’s Gospel—Christ, nailed to the cross for all of our sins—and he forgives that sin. See! The hardest hearts, the Holy Spirit will flip upside down.
Jonah is not some fish story. Of all the prophets in the Bible, Jesus compares himself to only one. In Matthew 12, Jesus promised, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so I shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up on Judgment Day. . . . They turned to God. They changed when Jonah spoke God’s message. They believed! Now look! The One greater than Jonah stands here now” (Mt 12:40–41, author’s paraphrase).
That explains everything.
The One Greater Than Jonah Is the Reason
for All of God’s Surprising Turns
over and above the Famous Fish Story.
Let’s pray to him! A whale of a tale?! Dear Lord, even with your own body swallowed up by the grave, you loved me! Jesus, help me to believe. Even with my own mouth, speak your love through me! Living Lord, help me so to do! Amen.