Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (3rd Sunday after the Epiphany—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
January 22, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Old Testament lesson recorded in Jonah:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against 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, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. . . . When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
In one particular congregation, a pastor was pleased when he noticed that a young couple who had started to attend church continued to attend on a regular basis. Each Sunday they came, he got to know them a little better. One Sunday he discovered that they were living together without being married. The pastor hesitated to speak judgment to the couple, even though he knew it was God’s will that he share with them that God’s Word forbids living together without being married.
I know exactly how this pastor felt. It’s very difficult to have to speak God’s Word of judgment against the sins of His people. It’s really no fun for me to have to tell a couple living together without marriage that they are living in a sinful relationship with each other and with God. If only couples wouldn’t live together before marriage, then I wouldn’t have to even worry about it. If only people wouldn’t sin and need to hear God’s Word of judgment, showing them their sins, a pastor’s life would be a lot easier. But that’s not reality, is it? God’s people, pastors included, need to hear the message of God’s judgment against our sins. His message of Law must be proclaimed when we become comfortable doing, thinking, or desiring things that go against God’s Word. And it’s not always easy for pastors to speak that Word. It’s not always easy for Christians to speak God’s message of Law to other Christians, even though we are expected to. Like Jonah, you and I are reluctant to do what God calls us to do.
Jonah was called by God. “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” (Jonah 1:1-2) God, out of His grace, chose Jonah to be His messenger to the Assyrian people who lived in their capital of Nineveh. No, they were not Israelites. No, they were not the chosen people of God. But God’s love and grace is for all nations and peoples. God needed to have His Word of judgment spoken against the people of Nineveh so that they might hear the Word, repent, and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. (And isn’t that what the Lord wants for all people?)
But Jonah didn’t want to go and deliver that message of judgment. He, like pastors and God’s people today, was reluctant to share God’s Word of Law to those trapped in their sins. Maybe Jonah didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. I mean, if you tell someone what they are doing is sinful, they are probably not going to take it very well. They might get mad at you. They might say nasty things to you or about you. Maybe Jonah was afraid that they would do him serious harm even though he was only the messenger. It’s God who is angry over their sin. Jonah would just be relaying that message. Yes, but Jonah would also be the one to take any flack.
Maybe that’s why pastors and Christians alike are sometimes reluctant to speak God’s Word of judgment when people are caught in sin. When we share God’s message about sin, it’s God’s message. He is the One who is hurt and angered by the sin of people. But it is often you and I who take the flack and the hostility for speaking the truth in love. I’m the one who has been yelled at for telling a couple living together that their life choice is not in accord with God’s Word even though the couple thought it was just fine. I was the one who was made to feel guilty for that couple leaving the congregation because of what “I” had done in telling then what God says. Is it any wonder why I would be reluctant to do it again?
When you speak to your teenager who is misusing God’s name when he texts OMG, “Oh my God,” and he lights into you because your being judgmental, how do you feel? When you talk to your Christian co-worker who is constantly bad mouthing the boss, and they call you a big goody-two-shoes, are you more likely to stand up for God’s Word next time or not? It is never easy to speak God’s Word of judgment. Although that is exactly what the Lord asks us to do. God calls us to this task in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Jesus tells us in Luke 17:3, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” To pastors God says in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
I guess one can hardly blame Jonah for going in the opposite direction. I have to admit there are days that I wish I could go down to Joppa and board a ship going to Tarshish to flee from the presence of the Lord. But it didn’t work for Jonah and it ain’t gonna work for me or you either. “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) God the Son Jesus Christ became flesh and lived among us in order to save us and all people from our sins. Unlike Jonah, Jesus didn’t abandon His mission, even when Satan tempted Him to do so. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus could have turned and run the other way. He could have said, “Forget it.” But He didn’t. Jesus chose, out of pure love and grace, to drink the cup of God’s judgment for our sins and the sins of all people. Jesus willingly suffered God’s full punishment for our sins on the cross so that everyone might receive forgiveness for their sins.
Having died to win our forgiveness and after being raised for our justification, Jesus commissioned those who believed in Him as Lord and Savior to take the message of sin and grace to the entire world. We read in Luke 24, “Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’” (Luke 24:45-48)
People cannot repent or turn away from their sins if they don’t know they are sinning. People can’t know what sin is without hearing God’s Word of Law that shows us our sins and our need for the Savior, Jesus. Nineveh could not have repented; they could not have turned from their evil way, unless they first heard from Jonah that they were doing what God forbids. The people of Nineveh had to hear the message of God’s judgment. So, too, we need to hear that message of God’s judgment against our sins. We may not like hearing that the lifestyle we have chosen is wrong. We might not care to hear that our words and actions are sinful. But we have to hear it. Other people have to hear it. If we don’t know that we are sinners, or that what we are doing is contrary to God’s Word, how could we ever need a Savior? How could we ever receive Christ’s forgiveness? We couldn’t and we wouldn’t. Therefore, repentance and forgiveness of sins has to be proclaimed.
People must hear God’s Word of judgment in the Law. People must hear the Word that convict them of their sinfulness and drives them to true sorrow over wrong thoughts, words, and deeds. Those, then, who have heard God’s Law and are troubled by their sins, must hear the proclamation that their sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ. They must hear the Good News of the Gospel that Jesus Christ died and rose again to save sinners! You and I also must hear God’s Word of law and judgment, that message of grace and love. After God’s Law has shown us our sins and driven us to our knees, His Gospel raises us up with the forgiveness of sins and the ability to live and lead a new life, turning away from sin and living according to God’s Word.
When you and I as Christians are called upon by the Lord to speak His Word of Law, His Word of judgment against sin, we are also called to speak His Word of Gospel, His Word that sins are forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. We can’t run away from this task even as Jonah couldn’t escape it. God wants all people to recognize sin for what it truly is, rebellion against Him. God wants people to realize that sin separates them from Him and prevents them from entering into eternal life. God wants to lead people to repentance and sorrow over their sins so that He might fill them up with the forgiveness and everlasting life Jesus’ won for the whole world on the cross. And God wants you and me to share that message.
It’s not easy to tell someone that their lifestyle, words, or actions are sinful, that they go against God’s Word. We might feel like running away from every instance where the Lord calls us to speak His Word of judgment. But for the sake of the other person, we can’t run. For the sake of their eternal life, we have to show them their sin by saying what God says to them about their life, words, or actions. They must hear the Law so that they might be led into repentance and faith, trusting that the Gospel we then speak to them, “Your sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name,” is also true. God grant us the power of the Holy Spirit to be faithful always in speaking His Word of judgment and grace when He calls us to do so. Amen.