Monday, January 26, 2009

Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5,10, for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, "God's Constant Mercy"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from the book of Jonah 3:1-5,10. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our sermon text begins after Jonah’s famous three day ordeal in the belly of the great fish or whale, a sign that Jesus said foreshadowed His own three day death and burial. Jonah was spit out on the land and called a second time to the task from which he had run. He wasn’t going to escape the work that God had laid for him. Jonah was a reluctant worker, but he learned to obey after his experience with the fish. God’s command was greater than his fear or unwillingness to do his task. He obeyed after the Lord commanded him a second time to go to Nineveh. We also ought to act according to God’s will and word, and not undertake anything without God’s Word.

So why was Jonah so reluctant in his task? A brief word about the city of Nineveh. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, a people known for their cruelty and brutality in warfare. Their reputation sprung terror in the hearts of all the surrounding nations, including the divided kingdom of Israel—the northern half of Israel eventually being swallowed up by Assyrian conquerors. These were Jonah’s mission prospects. A city of people renowned for their wickedness and their cruelty, and worshippers of an array of idols. The prophet Nahum later described Nineveh as a “bloody city, all full of lies and plunder” (Nah. 3:1). Yet neither were they uncultured barbarians. They had a wealth of fine art and culture, and part of their legacy to archaeologists was a huge library of ancient clay tablets. They were an educated and advanced society, but relentlessly cruel. Can you see why Jonah was more than a little shy to go to them?

For many years, some had doubted whether Nineveh really existed, so thoroughly was it destroyed in the centuries after Jonah. All trace of the city had been lost for more than two millennia, until in the 1840’s, French archaeologists rediscovered it near the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq; a huge site rich with artifacts still being uncovered today. So it was to these people that the reluctant prophet Jonah went. God’s command was greater than his fear or reluctance to go. The story of Jonah reveals his selfishness and unwillingness to go, and even his self-righteous indignation when God spared the city.

Do we unconsciously set parameters in our own minds, for who we should and shouldn’t witness to? Are we only looking for the wealthy, or the educated, or those who look like, dress like, or think like us? Or are there some people who we would begrudge God’s mercy? May that never be! Fear, self-righteousness, reluctance are all things that would stop us from telling God’s Word to someone, when there’s an opportunity but it seems awkward or difficult. Maybe they are stubbornly resistant to God’s word and commandments, and it’s a warning of the law that they need to hear. Like saying the time is short to get right with God. Or that God doesn’t condone that lifestyle, and they might be missing out on the blessings of living according to God’s Word. Or maybe their heart is open, but they’re broken and despairing, having no hope or feeling too unclean to come to God. They feel as if their chances are gone, their life has become a dead end. Then we speak the comforting word of the Gospel, and tell how even sinners like the Ninevites were spared when they repented and believed in God.

Think how unlikely it was to get any response from such an openly wicked city as Nineveh! They needed to hear the law in its full severity. Jonah probably feared for his own life, going to the people and to take the message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jonah had just had his own near miss with death, for his willful disobedience to God—and had been spared his life when he repented and called to God for mercy. Shouldn’t he have seen the parallel to the Ninevites? That God could spare them too, if they turned from their sin? Apparently that was the very thing he feared! That God would show mercy, and these pagan sinners would be spared. And what a contrast to Israel! God had sent them countless prophets, countless warnings to turn from their idolatry, from their disobedience to God. Yet they kept on in their sin, and didn’t listen. They should’ve known in the first place, because Israel had been given God’s word and commands, and were His chosen people!

What a surprise then, both to Jonah, and to the Israelites who heard his story, that these pagan Ninevites, who knew nothing of God’s Word, and were renowned for their wickedness, would so quickly repent and believe! It ought to serve as a lesson to us about the temptation to think that God’s mercy is only for those who’ve been outwardly religious, or moral. Or that people who’ve been hardened sinners, or who’ve been far from God’s word and commands cannot have a true change of heart and be fully received into God’s grace. This should stop us to think about how we need to welcome and fully receive anyone who turns from their sin and comes to believe in Jesus Christ, and not to hang their old sins over them. Lest we become like Jonah, who was spared death and shown mercy, only to begrudge God’s mercy to others. Yet how merciful God is, even to Jonah, to use a reluctant worker like himself for a great purpose. So may God also use you and I when we’re hesitant or stubborn about doing His work, and help us to search out and find those unlikely people who are just as much in need of God’s Word.

Did you also notice how Nineveh was an example of national repentance? That the king issued a decree, and all of them from the greatest to the least mourned in sackcloth and ashes and fasted. The threat of disaster brought a whole nation to its knees in repentance and prayer. In the past, when a serious disaster hit the nation, churches would have a national day of fasting and prayer, and there are even special services for this. The understanding wasn’t that disasters were a punishment for some specific sin, but rather that these are a call to repentance because we realize life is short. Would we ever see such a corporate act of repentance on the part of our nation? A recognition of our collective sin and need to turn to God in repentance? Unfortunately in the case of the Ninevites’ repentance—however many were saved by Jonah’s message—a hundred years later or so, they had lapsed back into their old ways and the city was finally overturned as the prophet Nahum warned. This too should be a lesson of not taking God’s mercy for granted, and falling back into sin.

But perhaps the most important message from the story of Jonah, is that God is constant in His mercy. The message Jonah preached was of the fierce judgment of God that was coming for their sin. God’s judgment is against the hard-hearted and unrepentant. There seemed little hope for grace. Yet the text says that “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth”…and then “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” (Jonah 3:5,10). Rather than following through with the destruction He planned, God observed their repentant hearts and actions, and showed His constant mercy to them. It’s God’s delight to show mercy for the repentant and sorrowful in heart. He desires that the sinner turn from his way and live. He would not destroy the repentant.

Jesus declared that the sign of the prophet Jonah—his three-day “burial” in the belly of the huge fish, and his release, was a “type” or you might say a “picture prophesy” of His own three day death and burial, and subsequent resurrection. In Jesus’ own words: “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:40-41). Jesus called the people of His generation to account for not repenting at His preaching. Here Jesus was, the one greater than Jonah—greater in who He was, greater in His sternness, but also greater in His compassion and constant mercy to those who would turn and repent. Jesus pointed out their stubbornness in not turning at His message, compared to how readily the Ninevites believed. They were witness to the fact that God could raise up a people for Himself even from the Gentiles, not only among the Jews. It reminds us that the Gospel won’t always stay with us if we despise it and ignore it.

But this sign of Jonah, the three-day burial and resurrection of Jesus, was to be the one miraculous and confirming sign of who Jesus was. Jesus would be most clearly known through His death and resurrection. Literally brought to the pit of death by God’s wrath, suffering an awful death for sin on the cross, Jesus puts before our eyes the radical penalty of sin and God’s judgment. So we don’t take His call to repentance idly. And from the darkest depths of the grave, God vindicated and raised His innocent Son Jesus to life again. Jonah was delivered from the belly of the whale; Jesus was delivered from the darkness of the grave. Nineveh was delivered at least for a generation from the destruction God had threatened; and God patiently waits for people to repent today, so that they may be delivered from the final judgment falling against them. Jesus delights to show mercy to the broken-hearted, to the poor in spirit, to the sorrowful. The cross is a sign of God’s constant mercy.

Our second reading warns us that the time is short, and the world in its present form is passing away. Believe without delay, for we don’t know when the end will come. Have we been on the run from God and His calling for our lives? Have we been disobedient and ignored His call to repentance? Have we not shown mercy as mercy was shown to us by Jesus? Now is the time to be right with God. Now is the time to repent, turn to God and believe. To mourn our sin, but rejoice in the constant mercy of the only true God—the One who turns away from destroying the repentant. We, like the Ninevites have been spared a great judgment, and by trusting in Jesus, we’re shown mercy. And we’re joined in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus through our baptism (Rom. 6). In baptism we’re joined to Christ, so that in His mercy we’re spared from God’s judgment, and given a new way to live after Him. We’re linked with His mercy and we’re linked with His Life, to walk in new paths, to live as though we’re not attached to the things of this world. For this world in its present form is passing away. Even in our reluctance, fear, and imperfection, we’re being used by God to accomplish His purposes. His love is constantly working on our hearts, renewing us after Him. And the God of constant mercy will safely carry us through to our eternal home.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
1. What task might God be calling you to, for which you are a reluctant worker?
2. Are there people you have given up on witnessing to, because you assumed they were “beyond hope”?
3. How does God show His constant mercy to the repentant?
4. How is the sign of Jonah related to Jesus?
5. What assurance does Jesus’ constant mercy to us at the cross bring to those who have repented and are troubled of their sin?

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