The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany February 1, 2004
1 Peter 3:15-17
130(1-5), 352, 506, 130(1, 5)
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to 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, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them…Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ Jesus, our fountain of Grace:
When Jesus came to Galilee and called Peter and Andrew, James and John, He put them into an apprenticeship, preparing them for their life of ministry by involving them in His own. They were not merely to “Follow Him” for their own sake, but for the sake of others: “I will make of you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).
An integral part of the disciples’ training was to be growth in understanding themselves and understanding God as He revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. These men came to realize how futile they were in their own pride and self-importance. How often did they feel and think as Peter did in the boat with Jesus after the miracle of catching the fish, when this proud man fell to his knees saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
But the other half of their training came from the fact that the Lord still accepted them, put up with them, and enriched them with blessing, in spite of their unworthiness. With Jesus as their teacher, the disciples were learning the height and depth, length and breadth of God’s gracious will.
Today, we’re going to see much the same thing as Jonah Learns a Lesson in Grace. Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He was called by God and God simply compelled him go. Through the experience of preaching to Ninevah, the Lord taught Jonah a lesson he was not anxious to learn. In considering the story, we ask two questions: I. How far does God’s Grace Go? II. How much can God’s Grace do?
In asking the question, “How far does God’s grace go?” it’s interesting to look at how far Jonah was willing to go to avoid doing what God told Him to do! It took a lot to bring Jonah to the point of our text, where God tells Jonah the second time, “Go to Ninevah, and preach to that great city the message I give to you.” [vv.1-2]
The prophet arrived at the city’s gate—a city with an area so great that it took a three day’s journey from one side to the other. Would you care to join him? This is what another prophet, Nahum, had to say about Ninevah: “Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery. Its victim never departs” (Nahum 3:1). A stranger could enter the streets of Ninevah, and never be seen again.
Ninevah was the capital of the ancient empire of Assyria. It was a fearsome military power whose armies were as dreaded they were efficient. They dealt cruelly with those whom they conquered. The Assyrians were ravenous, like a lion seizing and tearing up its prey to feed the lioness and cub. Assyria swallowed up nations right and left. The only real contender in the balance of power seemed to be Egypt. And the only real buffer between Egypt and Assyria was Israel.
Enter Jonah—a prophet from Israel in the service of the Lord, the God of Israel. Jonah came to town and preached the message God had given him: “In 40 days, Ninevah shall be overthrown!” [v.4] Nineveh would be overthrown by the wrathful hand of God. The city would be overthrown—the same term used for God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nineveh would be overthrown for its inhumanity, its wickedness, and its idolatry. God does not trifle with the serious nature of sin. Jonah’s message was the sobering message of truth.
But what about this wrath of a righteous God? Why did he send Jonah to a city bound for destruction? What was God’s real goal? Jonah knew it all along, as he said later: “I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2).
We know how far the wrath of God can go. But how far does the grace of God go? Jonah knew that God’s ultimate desire was to save this great city. God hates the sin, but He has always loved His creation—this world and our human race even in our sin. “‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Such grace, such loving-kindness comes from God through the act of sending His precious Son into this world. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8). May the Lord spare us from ever taking for granted this great deed, that God so loved the world, that He sent His Son onto the predetermined path of the cross. He sent Jesus to bear the sins of the world knowing that it would involve the punishment worthy of Adam’s sins, and Cain’s, the sins of Israel, and of Egypt, and of Assyria. Jesus bore all of these sins and our own sins including the secret sins of our hearts.
God’s gracious compassion was evident in Jesus. Not only did He receive the pleas of the thief on the cross and offer the Water of Life to the five-time–divorced Samaritan, Jesus also continued to reach out to the scribes and Pharisees even though they conspired against Him. Jesus still sought for all people to “turn from their ways and live” by believing that God’s grace extended to them.
Jonah’s grace did not extend as far as God’s. Jonah ran away the first time God called him. Jonah went west when God told him to go east. But God in His gracious love found Jonah and tossed Jonah’s ship with a storm. Jonah knew what was happening and told the sailors to throw him overboard to spare the others. Then Jonah was swallowed by the famous fish. Then God called Jonah again. This time Jonah went but he was afraid that Ninevah would repent, and God would relent.
Jonah could not bear the thought that God’s grace extended to Ninevah! In Jonah’s mind, the God who loved and forgave Israel had no business showing mercy and love to Israel’s enemies!
But God’s compassion went even beyond grace for the cruel Assyrians. He loved even a man like Jonah, in spite of Jonah’s prejudice and self-righteousness. That was why He did not give up on Jonah and dealt patiently with him. The prophet learned a long hard lesson about how desperately ill he was with the disease of lovelessness. He too, fell short of the glory of God.
The history of Jonah also leads us into the question, “How much can the grace of God do?”
Stubborn Jonah still had one hope: Perhaps Ninevah would reject the call of God. Perhaps the people would laugh, or turn away in silence. Perhaps they would kill him and add to the weight of their sin. Then the preacher would be justified in his assumption that Israel was somehow more worthy of God’s attention than other nations.
But deep down, Jonah knew what God could do through His Word. He can turn hardened sinners to repentance! God was and is able to bring a whole, wicked, godless city into a state of godly fear. From the king to adults, to children, the whole city repented. The whole city humbled itself before God and the world, wearing sackcloth, fasting, and praying that God would have mercy.
God’s message worked a miracle of repentance. It saved a city, and changed its ways, at least for a time. It was an astonishing feat for the hesitant prophet Jonah to see. It showed what God could do with the hardened and wicked.
After Jesus rose from the dead, once again a hardened city was changed. This time it was a city of ‘Jonahs’—people who self-righteously thought they were worthy of God’s grace and despised the ministry of Jesus Christ. They had crucified their “Lord and Christ” Peter told them (Acts 2:36). Once again, a people cut to the heart by their sins, asked the disciples “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). God, in His grace, brought people to see their sins and repent.
Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, reminded them of how much God had done for them in His grace: “You He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world…among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
What can God’s grace do? It works through the means of Grace—the Gospel that Jesus has reconciled us to God. A Gospel taught and demonstrated through the Word and through the Sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God works through this means to change hard hearts, stubborn hearts, wicked hearts. He confronts us with the terrifying reality of what our sins deserve, but more importantly, He confronts us with the promises and assurance that we need not perish, that all has been set right, and that He is at peace with us through Christ Jesus. He shows us “the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7)
This is the only Gospel that can truly touch our hearts. The Gospel teaches us that though we have consistently fallen short of God’s expectations, His love for us has a permanent, eternal foundation. That is the message and the work of God that creates new people out of old sinners like us!
Ninevah repented and Jonah pouted. God spared Ninevah. We’re not told whether Jonah’s heart was ever softened. But the Lord taught him an excellent lesson. It is a lesson from which we would all do well to learn!
How can I, as your minister, preach sin and grace, how can I address with you the touchy issues of your sin and how God has dealt with it, unless I am aware that He had to first deal with my sin? How can we parents “bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), unless we first are willing to be admonished by the Lord and heartily embrace His mercy toward our numerous blunders? How can I enter a rough neighborhood, or a foreign country, ready to proclaim the Gospel, unless I am first prepared with the awesome knowledge that He loved me and gave Himself for me, and then realize that He loved others with the same fine, eternal love. This is truly hands-on discipleship, when we learn to share with others the Gospel that genuinely moves our own hearts.
“For the love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14) May this be the driving force behind all that we do! Amen.
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