3 Epiphany Proper B3
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Jonah 3:1-5; 10 Sermon
January 25, 2009
GOD WORKS IN SPITE OF US
TEXT (vs. 5 & 10): ďThe Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 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.Ē
This morning, Iím going to create a hypothetical situation for you. Letís say that you are sitting here in church like you are this morning, when all of a sudden someone walks in the door that you know. That in itself is not so unusual, because it has happened before. This is usually a good thing, because if a visitor is acquainted with someone in the congregation, they feel just a bit more comfortable and relaxed. And of course it makes you feel good too, because you are able to share your worship experience with someone you already know. You can introduce this person to others in the congregation, get them a cup of coffee, and create a nice social atmosphere.
But letís add a new twist to this. Letís say that the person who walks in is one of your biggest adversaries. This person has betrayed you, gossiped about you, hurt you, and in every way could be considered your enemy. Your past encounters with this person could be compared to throwing two tomcats into a feed bag. Now how do you feel? Would you be just as excited about them showing up to visit our church? What would you do?
Our building is small, so you really canít hide anywhere or get lost in the crowd. You canít really ignore them either without being painfully obvious about it. Would you just get up and walk out the door? Would you sit at home sulking and say, ďWell if that person is in our church, Iím not coming back?Ē Would you be upset with God if you knew that you would be spending an eternity with that person? Would you feel that heaven just wasnít big enough for the both of you? Would you ever be able to come to the altar with this person and receive the Lordís Supper together?
The situation Iíve described hasnít happened here; at least it hasnít happened yet. But you and I both know that this situation could happen. It is within the realm of possibility. There are those people out there whom we consider adversaries who have caused grief in our lives. Many of those people live in this area.
Our church doors arenít locked. We donít have a bouncer posted there to weed out who can and cannot come in. We donít require someone to fill out an application before they can come and visit us. In fact, we diligently work and pray for people to come and experience what we have here. So what happens when the person who does respond is someone weíd rather not be around?
As you ponder that situation, Iíll give it to you from a different perspective, which is from my own personal perspective. There are those people in my life who I can honestly say that I really wouldnít want to see sitting in the seats in front of me. There are people in my life that I consider adversaries of mine, who have sinned against me and who have done evil and destructive things to me. How in the world could I ever even begin to minister to them in my capacity? How could I do what Iíve been called here to do?
I might be tempted to turn around and walk out the door, vowing to never return while that particular person was here. I could sit at home and feel sorry for myself. I could think of several individuals right off the bat that would unnerve me if I were to see them sitting here in front of me.
This morning, Iíd like you to think about this hypothetical situation as we look at our text for this morning, which is our Old Testament lesson from the book of Jonah. The section of Jonah we read is what I would call the heart and core of the book. It describes what Jonah did amongst the Ninevites, and how they responded to him. Even though thatís probably the most important part of the book, thatís not the beginning, or is it the ending of the story.
Nineveh was not a very nice place, nor were the people very nice people. The beginning of the book describes what God had in mind. Chapter 1 verses 1-2 read: ďThe word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.Ē
Jonah was given a specific mission. The Ninevites were a completely heathen and ungodly people who were heading down the fast-track to perdition. Moreover, they were enemies of the Jews. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had destroyed the Jews in the 8th century B.C. The Bible says that it was also a very large city, and it would take three days to go through all of it on foot. Using our terms of reference, it was about a third the size of Lincoln; but it was stretched out over quite a distance. And of course this involved a large number of people.
God tells Jonah to go minister to these Ninevites, these enemies of Israel. God had a plan for the Assyrians, part of which is to punish the Israelites for their unfaithfulness.
But Jonah wants no part of this plan. These were enemies of his and his people, and he reckons that they deserve to be annihilated and sent straight to hell. God had given them forty days to repent and get their act together, otherwise this is exactly what would happen to them.
Now Jonah doesnít appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed, because he went and did something he should have known wouldnít work. The last place he wanted to be was in Nineveh amongst his enemies, so he decides heís going to go AWOL by trying to run away from God and neglect his responsibilities. With this purpose firmly set in his mind, he goes to the harbor and finds a ship heading for Tarshish, which is in the exact opposite direction of where he was supposed to be going. He books passage, boards the ship, and away he goes.
The story is a familiar one. God knows whatís going on. So he causes a huge storm to break out on the sea. Jonah winds up getting tossed overboard, and is swallowed by a huge fish. The sea suddenly gets calm, and all is well aboard the ship, which is now minus one AWOL passenger.
Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish, where he promises to do what the Lord had asked him to do. So the fish vomits Jonah up onto the shore, and off he goes to Nineveh where he was supposed to be in the first place. Everything was happening as it should have been, right?
Wrong! Jonah goes to Nineveh all right, but when he gets there, he journeys into the city only a short distance. Remember that it took three daysí journey to get through the city! Verse 4 of our text says: ďOn the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ĎForty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.íĒ
From what is recorded, Jonah was trying to do no more than the bare minimum in order to comply with what God had told him to do. He said as little as possible. He wanted to be able to tell God, ďWell God, I did what you told me to do, and they havenít changed.Ē In his heart, he still wanted God to rain down judgment on the Ninevites, and send them all to hell. His half-hearted attempt here in conjunction with what happens afterward seems to bear this out.
But first we need to see what happened in Nineveh as a result of Jonahís preaching. Verse 5 says: ďThe Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.Ē And verse 10 continues: ďWhen 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.Ē
Jonah didnít react well at all to what had happened. If we go now to chapter 4 verses 1-3 we read: ďBut Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ĎO LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.íĒ
Jonah is mad at God for saving the Ninevites! Heís acting like a spoiled little child who didnít get his own way. So he goes out of the city, sits under a tree, pouting and feeling sorry for himself. Jonah still felt like God should be punishing them and sending them to hell. But instead, they repent and are saved!
In this account, we see three very important things brought forth with unmistakable clarity. First, we see the depth of human sin and depravity. Second, we see the depth of Godís love and saving grace. And third, we see just how powerful Godís Word is, and how the Holy Spirit works through that word to convert hearts. These three aspects all fit together to form quite a picture indeed.
The depth of human sin can be seen in three areas. The unfaithful Israelites invited Godís judgment upon themselves. They had rejected God, and had turned to their own ways. For this, God allowed the Ninevites to conquer them.
The second area we see the depth of human sin is in the heathen Ninevites themselves. God threatened to annihilate them in forty days if they did not repent of their sinful ways and turn to him.
And the third area we see the depth of human sin is in Jonah himself. So many negative things become manifested in Jonah. Thereís laziness, selfishness, pride, stubbornness, anger and hatred to name a few. With his sinful attitude, Jonah was really no better than the Ninevites he detested so much, or the Israelites who had felt the hand of Godís judgment. He had disobeyed God and went his own way.
This brings about the second important thing we see in this text, which is the depth of Godís love and saving grace. Jonah was angry that his enemies were going to be recipients of this love and grace. Remember in verse 2 of chapter 4 we find Jonah saying to God, ďI knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.Ē So Jonah wasnít really afraid of his enemies; he was upset because God felt they had souls worth saving. God stresses this point when he tells Jonah in chapter 4 verse 11: ďÖShould I not be concerned about that great city?Ē
The third important thing we see is how powerful Godís Word is. Jonah didnít have to say very much at all; in fact in verse 4 our text records him saying just one sentence: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." We donít know what else he might have said, but we know he said what mattered. Godís Word, even though it was spoken by a stubborn sinful man like Jonah brought about the repentance and conversion of that entire city.
This morning I began with a hypothetical situation. I asked you how you would react if your worst adversary walked through the door for worship. I know I would have some difficulty, and I know you would have difficulty as well. The reason is because weíre all like Jonah in one way or another. We enjoy being the recipients of Godís grace, and we look forward to heaven. But when it comes to our adversaries receiving that same grace, we tend to get selfish. We want Godís forgiveness, but we think our enemies are not deserving of it. We can overlook our sins, but not the sins of others. And weíre not too sure if we want our enemies in heaven for all eternity.
But we need to remember that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, including those people that have caused us trouble or who we donít like very well. We are saved by Godís grace through faith in Jesus our Saviour. Through him all of our sins are forgiven. That message is as true for everybody else as it is for us. The salvation by grace through faith concept is something that must be given away, and not just kept to ourselves. Jesus is everybodyís Saviour, and not just our Saviour, or the Saviour for those whom we think are deserving of it.
In Romans chapter 12 we find some great advice in dealing with our adversaries, advice that would have done Jonah a lot of good. Verses 16-21 read: ďLive in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ĎIt is mine to avenge; I will repay,í says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Ē
So how would you react if your worst enemy were to walk through our church door and sat down next to you? What would you do? Would you welcome them? Would you be happy to see them? Would you be willing to extend the hand of fellowship to them? Would you want them as members? Would you want to see them every week? Would you want to spend an eternity with them in heaven?
I know these are tough questions, and should the situation present itself, it wouldnít be an easy one. But this is something we need to sort out in our own lives.
Our church door is open to everybody regardless of who that might be. We pray continually that our congregation would be a light to the world, a beacon of the Gospel, and a witness to the love of Jesus that has saved us from sin and guaranteed us an eternal reward.
Therefore let it be resolved amongst us that the Gospel message is for everybody, and that Christís love compels us in all that we say and do, regardless of who the person is, or what they may have done. Sometimes that might involve having to love those we feel are unlovable, or accepting those who have rejected us, or sinned against us. Whatever we have to do, may we faithfully carry out Christís mission both individually and as a congregation; and may he use each of us for his service in whatever way he sees fit.