Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (3rd Sunday after the Epiphany—Series B)
“Fishers of Men or Fish Food”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
January 25, 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament reading from Jonah 3:
Then the word of the Yahweh came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call to her the proclamation which I am speaking to you.” And Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was a great city belonging to God, a walk of three days. Jonah began to go into the great city a day’s journey. And he called out saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed in God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. . . . And God saw their works, for they turned from their evil way, and God changed His verdict concerning the disaster which He spoke to do to them, and He did not do it.
Today’s Old Testament reading and Gospel are both a little “fishy.” In Mark 1, our Lord Jesus begins His ministry by calling His first disciples. Christ said to Simon Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Like the fishermen that they were, Jesus’ disciples were expected to draw others into the Kingdom of God, into the rule and reign of God now present in the work of Jesus.
Now these were not the first people whom the Lord called to draw others into His Kingdom. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” (Heb. 1:1 ESV) It has always been the Lord’s desire that ALL people be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4) In the days of the Old Testament, God sent out His Word to the people through the prophets whom He called and appointed to this task. This leads us to the “fishy” part of the Old Testament—the story of the prophet Jonah. Jonah is the one prophet who had an issue with being a “fisher of men.” And instead, he became fish food, literally. From Jonah 1:17, “And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
It was this great fish that God appointed to the task of swallowing up Jonah, thereby saving his life from drowning. Perhaps the Lord was thinking, “Alright Jonah. I commanded you to go to Nineveh and call out against it because I am aware of their evil. I wanted you to announce my Law to them and show them their sin. My desire is that they would repent of their sins and trust in me for grace and mercy and salvation. But you decided to run in the opposite direction. Now, instead of being a fisher of men for Me, you are going to be fish food for a few days so you can sit and think about your situation and your role in carrying out My will.”
So why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh as a fisher of men and announce God’s Word to the people so that they might hear, believe, repent, and be saved? Maybe he didn’t think it was fair to go to the Gentiles instead of the people of Israel. Maybe Jonah didn’t think that the Ninevites deserved a Word from God, since they didn’t belong to God’s covenant people. Turns out, the reason Jonah didn’t want to go and be a fisher or men and speak God’s Word to the people of Nineveh was because Jonah didn’t want God to have mercy on them. Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. Jonah 4:2-3, “And he prayed to Yahweh and said, “O Yahweh, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
You see, after the word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time, the sea-weed-draped, vomit-stained, and traumatized prophet whom the great fish threw up on the dry land finally did go to Nineveh. He finally did call out against the people, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people received the Lord’s Word. God’s Law showed them their sin. The people of Nineveh believed in God. They were moved to trust in Yahweh. Jesus Christ affirms this in Matthew 12 when He says, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” This only makes sense if the Ninevites became true believers in the Triune God. They were believers who were justified by grace alone through faith alone. Nineveh was converted to faith in God by means of His Word, proclaimed by Jonah! God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth that He alone is God, the God who saves, the God who has mercy, the God who will send His only Son to save everyone from sin and everlasting death.
And because Jonah knew this about God, he didn’t want to go and be a fisher of men. He wanted God to roast and toast those pagan Ninevites. He wanted the Lord to destroy these people and their city, really give them what for, those non-believers! “I knew you’d have mercy on them,” Jonah said. “I knew that you would move them to repent of their sin. I knew you would lead them to faith through Your Word. And I knew you would have mercy and forgive them. I think I’d just like to crawl in hole and die now, thank you very much. Humph!” Then we see the real heart of Jonah. God gave Jonah a plant to give Jonah shade from the sun’s heat. Jonah was thrilled to pieces with the plant and its cooling shade. Next day, God appointed a worm that attacked and killed the plant. The sun rose and Jonah had no shade from the scorching sun and wind. He was angry, very angry because his plant was gone and he had no shade. And Yahweh said to Jonah, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left?” Jonah would rather that God save his plant than all those people.
I wonder if the sin of Jonah is a reason that Christians today shy away from Jesus’ call to discipleship, being fishers of men, drawing others into the Kingdom of God. By the sin of Jonah I mean the desire for God to punish those evil people, those sinners, who really deserve it. Those people are so bad, they are so wicked. Look at what they do and how they live. God should really stick it to them. He should really punish them. It’s really not a whole lot different than the feelings of the people in the days of Jesus against the tax collectors and “sinners.” God should really punish those people. They don’t really belong in His Kingdom. They’re not good enough.
So if we, as disciples of Jesus, announce His Word to people, they might repent. They might receive God’s mercy and grace. And like Jonah, maybe we really don’t want that. What we really want is justice. We want the bad people to be punished for hurting us good people. We don’t want the Lord to forgive those who sin against us. We want God to punish them really good. Besides, if we go out as fishers of men, some of “those people” might come to our church. And that would taint the good thing we’ve got going here. We don’t really want them, those tax collector and sinner types, sitting here with us, do we?
I fear that sometimes we Christians tend to care more about our “plant,” what we have and what we like and what we want, more than we care about others who are in need of God’s saving grace and mercy. God forgive us for the times that we as individuals, and as a congregation, have been like Jonah. God forgive us for the times we as individuals, and as a congregation, have run the other way when the Lord has given us opportunities to share His Word with others. God the Holy Spirit help us all to realize that we are no different from the Ninevites, the tax collectors and the sinners of the world.
Rather than being called to be fishers of men, we should have been designated by God as fish food. His justice and holiness should have devoured us up in punishment and condemnation, for you and I are sinners too. We are no more pious or holy or good or kind or anything than anyone else. In fact, we are just as bad as everyone else. We are so deeply filthy with sin and evil that we don’t even realize our own depravity. Being fish food is better than we deserve, for what we deserve is eternal death in hell, forever separated from the Lord, suffering beyond imagination.
Yet, as God rescued Jonah with a three-day rest in the belly of a great fish, so God has rescued you and me and all sinners of every time and place, with a three-day rest of His only Son in the grave. God the Son became flesh and blood human so that He might be able to suffer your hell and mine, to die your death and mine on a cross. Jesus let the great fish of death swallow Him whole into the grave so that you and I would never have to be death’s food. And borrowing the language of Jonah, death and the grave vomited Jesus upon the dry land in His resurrection. Death and the grave couldn’t stomach the very Son of God who died to save the world from sin. So Christ rose in triumph, forever defeating death.
Because of Christ’s shed blood and His resurrection from the “fish” death, you and are cleansed from all our sins. You are forgiven, no matter who you are or what you have done. As individuals and as a congregation, we are forgiven for the times we have failed to be fishers of men, for the times what have not used the opportunities the Lord has given us to share the Good News of salvation in Jesus with others so that they also might repent and believe in the Gospel, like the people of Nineveh. And forgiven of our sins, you and I have resurrection and life in Christ. Death will never swallow us. We will never be fish food for the grave! Life everlasting is ours and death cannot hold us. On the Last Day, we will rise again and will be with the Lord forever.
In your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, you were brought into the Kingdom of God. Through water and the Spirit, you have been made followers of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. In the power of the Holy Spirit, go forth as fishers of men. Tell the blessed news of forgiveness and life everlasting that belongs to everyone because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pray the Lord to be the God He has promised to be in Christ—gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Hold Him to His promise as you share Jesus and look for God to do wonders as He brings more people into His Kingdom by the power of His Word and Spirit. Amen.