January 20 & 21, 2018 Epiphany 3
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The 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.
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
Jonah. Even if you have never read the Old Testament, even if you can’t name the books of the Old Testament, there is a good chance that you know something about Jonah. Most people, if they do recognize his name, if they remember anything at all about Jonah’s life, they will identify him as the man who spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish. But there is more to Jonah. He was a contemporary of Hosea, Amos and Joel. Did you know that of all the Old Testament prophets Jesus compared himself only to Jonah?
It is almost impossible to separate the prophet Jonah from his famous encounter with the fish. The fact that Jonah was able to survive for three days and nights in the belly of a fish was amazing, a miracle so unbelievable that we can believe it only because God has given us the faith to believe it.
But it is important for us to remember that this miracle is followed by two more chapters. And our text for today from Jonah 3 includes at least two additional miracles, miracles that are just as incredible, miracles that are perhaps even more unbelievable. The Word of God before us today presents us with an account that is truly amazing. Let’s call it An Amazing Story about Amazing Grace, for we see God’s patience with one man and God’s love for all mankind
The text begins: “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” What appears to be nothing more than a simple introduction becomes much more significant when we focus our attention on a single word: “second.” The fact that God came to Jonah a second time reminds us that God had spoken to him before.
At the beginning of chapter 1 God told Jonah, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” God’s marching orders were clear, and God’s prophet got up and got moving right away. The problem was that Nineveh was north and east of Israel, and Jonah hopped on a boat that took him straight west.
It wasn’t an honest mistake. Jonah wasn’t directionally challenged. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was traveling in the opposite direction from Nineveh because he was trying to run away from God. And the Lord used a strong wind and some huge waves to convince Jonah that was a bad idea.
Let’s talk for a moment about Jonah’s state of mind. Why would he deliberately disobey God? Why did he try to run away from God? Why was he so against preaching against Nineveh? Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a world power in Jonah’s day that was famous for its violence and brutality. The Jewish people feared the Assyrians. It’s probably safe to say that the Israelites hated the Assyrians. And perhaps Jonah did too. After all, those pagans worshiped false gods. They were always harassing and oppressing God’s people. The last thing Jonah wanted to do was to have God extend an olive branch to his enemies.
Jonah knew something about God, and he didn’t want to share that secret with the Assyrians. From his personal experience Jonah learned that the Lord was compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and rich in love, and Jonah was afraid that if he preached against the people of Nineveh they might take his words of warning to heart. And if they repented God might not give them the fire and brimstone they deserved and give them another chance instead.
We can kind of understanding Jonah’s thinking, but did he really think he could thwart God’s plans? Was Jonah convinced that he was uniquely qualified to decide who deserves God’s grace and who doesn’t? Do we ever fall into the same trap? When we see stuff on the news that makes us shake our heads or hear about the messes our friends or co-workers have made of their lives, do we feel bad for those people? Do our hearts go out to those people? Or do we allow ourselves a few moments of smug satisfaction because our lives are not as bad? If we do, then we have forgotten the true meaning of grace.
Grace is God’s undeserved love, which means that no one deserves it. It doesn’t matter if you are in church every week. It doesn’t matter how much money you put in the offering plate. It doesn’t matter if you are the best neighbor. If you have ever spoken one unkind word, if you have ever had one impure thought, if you have acted on a single sinful impulse, you are a sinner. And if you are a sinner you don’t deserve God’s love. You deserve wrath. You deserve death, eternal death. But you know God’s grace in sending his Son to be your Savior. You know what Jesus has done for you. He died for you on the cross and took your sins away. You are forgiven in Jesus. What grace God has given.
Jonah had three days to think about what he had done and what he deserved inside the belly of the fish. And God used that time to teach Jonah an important lesson. Even though he was God’s prophet, even though he was one of God’s chosen people, that didn’t make him any more worthy of God’s grace than anyone else. And even though Jonah didn’t deserve it the Lord gave him a second chance. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh a second time, and what happened next is a powerful example of God’s love for all mankind.
This time “Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days.” Nineveh was big and it was important. And on his first day in the city Jonah preached this simple eight word sermon (it’s only five words in Hebrew): “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” These words made a significant impact: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” Jonah’s warning swept through the city like wildfire. The people took Jonah’s words to heart. They repented of their sins. And then all of them, from the king in his palace to the animals in the barn, put on sackcloth in the hope that the Lord would not follow through on his threats to destroy the city.
Bible critics are quick to criticize the book of Jonah, and not just the part about Jonah getting swallowed by a giant fish. They claim that it is unrealistic to expect an entire city and every man, woman and child in that city to react the same way to a prophet’s message. For tens of thousands of people to repent so quickly and so unanimously it would take a miracle. Martin Luther would have never aligned himself with these skeptics, but he did agree with their analysis. Listen to what he wrote about this mass conversion: “I am tempted to say that no apostle or prophet, not even Christ himself, performed and accomplished with a single sermon the great things Jonah did. His conversion of Nineveh with one sermon is surely as great a miracle as his rescue from the belly of the whale, if not an even greater one.”
Luther was right. It was nothing short of a miracle when the whole city of Nineveh repented of their sins. And it was another miracle, a miracle of divine grace, when the people’s prayers were answered: “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.”
As far as I know, a person getting swallowed by giant fish and living to tell about it doesn’t happen very often. And mass conversions on the scale of Pentecost or greater are extremely rare. But the miracle of conversion, the miracles of repentance and forgiveness, those are miracles too, and they do happen every day.
And that miracle of what happened in Nineveh is happening all around the world. In Chandler, AZ, in Malawi, Africa, in Nepal and Pakistan and Russia and China, everywhere Christians gather around God’s Word, the Holy Spirit is there. He is doing for them what he is doing for us, forgiving our sins, strengthening our faith, filling us with hope, giving us joy and peace.
There is one more interesting bit of information about Jonah. The name Jonah means “dove,” and ever since the baptism of Jesus Christians have used the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. That name and what the name symbolizes tie everything together today. The Holy Spirit (who is often pictured as a dove) worked through the word of the prophet (whose name means “dove”) to produce a miracle in Nineveh. And the same Spirit uses the same Word to produce the same miracles in the hearts of people today. How that should motivate us to using God’s Word, being faithful in our devotions and in our coming to church.
By the grace of God, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe. We believe that Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish. We believe that an entire city of pagan people repented of their sins. We believe that every word of the Bible is true. We believe that our sins are forgiven. We believe that our Savior lives. We believe that the Bible is an amazing story about God’s amazing grace, the story of God’s love for all mankind. We believe. What a miracle the Lord has done in us. Amen.