Sermon on Jonah 3:1–5, 10 for Epiphany 3, January 21, 22 & 24, 2021
- It seems that almost everything in life is about balance. In art—is there a proper balance of color. Are the items in the picture positioned to balance the frame. In food—are the flavors in balance, sweet, salty, sour. In building—are the doors and windows in proper proportion and proper position to preserve a visual balance. And preaching and Christian doctrine are about balance, too. The main balance we need to watch is between the two main doctrines of the Bible, law and gospel. A very dear teacher of mine said that false doctrine usually isn’t something foreign or wild thrown in, but an overemphasis of one thing at the expense of another. We see a lack of balance in the preaching of Jonah—and in the attitude of Jonah.
- Our reading began, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” We can’t read a sentence like that without asking, “What about the first time?” I think you know the first time. That was when God told Jonah, “Get up. Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach against it, for its people’s evil way has come up before me.” Nineveh was over 700 miles to the east. Today it’s the site of Mosul, Iraq. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah instead got on a boat headed for Tarshish, which was either in Sicily or in Spain. Since Spain is about 4,000 miles to the west, I think that’s more likely. At that time it was thought to be “the ends of the earth.” Jonah headed as far as he could in the opposite direction.
- He did this because he hated Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which was the largest and most oppressive empire at the time. That’s why Jonah hated Nineveh. God says, “Preach to Nineveh. Call them to repentance.” And Jonah thinks, “God, you’ve got to be kidding. Nineveh is evil. Destroy Nineveh. That’s what they deserve.” That’s why I called Jonah an unbalanced prophet. He could only think of the message of law for Nineveh. “God will judge! God will give you what you deserve! God will destroy! Here endeth the lesson! Amen!” But God himself had a different idea. In 1 Timothy 2(:3-4), St. Paul wrote, “God our Savior, … wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That includes Nineveh. That includes the people you love and the people you detest.
- I am afraid that historians will look back on the times that we live in and call it the age of hate. I’ve seen lawn signs that say “Hate has no home here.” And that’s fine and good. But we all need to look in the mirror of God’s law. Look within. What is your level of anger? It is so very easy to play “us and them” games. That’s what we have seen in politics. Both sides say, “We’re not the problem. It’s them. They’re the ones who are hateful.” “Look at them, they are the ones acting like dictators!” There’s an old saying, “You become what you hate,” or a neighbor girl used to say, “What you say is what you are.” “You point one finger, you have three pointing pack at you.”
- So Jonah gets on a boat, thinking, “Nineveh is awful. I’m not going there.” We have yet to see how awful Jonah was. He gets on a boat headed almost 5,000 miles away from Nineveh. And God has other plans. That’s when the storm came on the sea, the sailors threw Jonah overboard, the great fish swallowed Jonah, swam back to Joppa and spit Jonah out on the beach. That’s where today’s reading begins. “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Get up. Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah hikes 700+ miles to the east on foot. We are clearly told, “Nineveh was a great city to God. It required a three-day walk.” Other translations say “A visit required three days.” But then, we read, “Jonah walked through the city for a day.” And his sermon has to be the shortest on record. “Forty more days and Nineveh is going to be overthrown!” All law. Destruction. He must be thinking, “There God, I did what you said. That should be it now.” Jonah did the bare minimum.
- But then God’s Word does its work. “The men of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least. … When God saw their actions, that they had turned from their evil way, God relented from the disaster which he said he would bring on them, and he did not carry it out.” This is the only place in Scripture where people are left to guess the gospel. The fact that a preacher came, preaching destruction gave them the hint that God wanted them to change. The king gave a decree and said, “Who knows? God may yet relent and …turn from his fierce anger.”
- That’s not what Jonah wanted. He sat outside the city and was waiting for the fire and brimstone to fall from heaven. He prayed, “God, I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God. If you won’t destroy Nineveh, it would be better for me to die” (Jonah 4:1-3, paraphrased). And he sits. He finds a vine with large leaves that gives him shade, and he sits there—waiting and hoping for Nineveh’s destruction. Then the vine withers and dies, and Jonah is mad about the vine. And God says, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you didn’t tend it or make it grow. … but you aren’t concerned about Nineveh which has more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:10, paraphrased) All Jonah could think about was destruction—and Nineveh’s repentance and God’s grace were the last things Jonah wanted to see.
- Something Jonah teaches us is how self-consuming hate can be. Even though hate is directed and someone outside of you—it still burns within you. Twice in the book of Jonah, Jonah says “It is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah’s hate hurt Jonah. But Jonah’s hate couldn’t stop God’s grace—so Jonah’s hate hurt Jonah alone. We are never told about what happened with Jonah, whether or not he ever understood God’s grace. Some people think that Jonah himself wrote this as his own confession of guilt. His book is balanced with law and gospel. Sin and grace. God threatens to punish, but God freely forgives those who repent. Jonah himself—the book ends showing him to be an unbalanced prophet.
- How balanced have we been? God so loved the world. Including Nineveh. Including Washington DC. Including Madison, Wisconsin. Including Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Including that neighbor with a Trump sign. Including that neighbor with a Biden sign. Love does not mean agreement. It doesn’t always mean trust. It does mean compassion. It means you hope for the best for someone—repentance for the sinner, not destruction.
Jonah 3:1–5, 10 (EHV)
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up. Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh just as the word of the Lord had commanded. Now Nineveh was a great city to God. It required a three-day walk. 4 Jonah walked through the city for a day, and he called out, “Forty more days and Nineveh is going to be overthrown!” 5 The men of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least. … 10 When God saw their actions, that they had turned from their evil way, God relented from the disaster which he said he would bring on them, and he did not carry it out.