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Epiphany 3 2024
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hamilton, Ohio
Pastor Kevin Jud
January 21, 2024
Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 1 Cor. 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20


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What do you think of when you hear about the prophet Jonah?  What image comes to mind?  Is it that great Sunday School story about a man being swallowed alive by a great fish and living to tell about it? 

            Now our friend the great fish only gets mentioned in three verses in the book of Jonah, but I worry he distracts us from the greater message in this short book.  Although, in a way I think we are okay being distracted by the fish because Jonah is a rather disturbing figure.

            Jonah is a prophet of God living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  God comes to Jonah and says, “Get up, go to the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it, because their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah gets up and Jonah goes, but he does not go toward Nineveh on the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq.  Jonah gets up and goes to the port city of Joppa, modern Tel Aviv, and hops on a westbound ship headed for Tarshish which is probably in modern day Spain, as far away from Israel as he can get on the Mediterranean. Jonah really does not want to go preach to the Ninevites.  And it is not because Jonah doesn’t know God; Jonah knows God.  Jonah knows God too well.  Jonah knows that God is gracious and compassionate.  Jonah knows that God is slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness. Jonah knows that God wants Nineveh to be saved, but Jonah doesn’t want the Ninevites to be saved.  Jonah would prefer they are destroyed because Jonah hates the Ninevites.

            Now Jonah is not without reason for hating the Ninevites. He is not just being a bigot who only likes his own kind.  Nineveh is an important city in Assyria and the Assyrians are a fearsome people bent on the destruction of Israel.  The Ninevites are Israel’s enemy.  They are known for being especially brutal in war and remarkably cruel to the prisoners they capture before they execute them.

            This account of Jonah is probably recorded between 800 and 750 BC.  God will use the Assyrians to overrun Israel in 722 BC and the 10 northern tribes will be taken into exile, never to return as punishment for their ongoing idolatry. 

At the time of this account of Jonah, the Assyrians have overrun Damascus and are now threatening the Northern border of Israel so Jonah has good reasons for not wanting to help save the Ninevites. 

This is why Jonah is a disturbing character.  Jonah is troubling.  We want to think, I would never act like Jonah, but we do not really want to look at Jonah too closely because it is a little too much like looking in the mirror.  Jonah knows that God is merciful, but he does not want God to show mercy to the Ninevites. 

Who are your Ninevites?  Who are the people you do not want forgiven?  Is it those idiots in the other political party and their media toadies spewing propaganda?  Who is it that you do not want forgiven?  Is it evil groups and countries and leaders like Hamas, Iran, the Houthis, Kim Jong Un?  Is it the cultural influencers who want access to your children in order to push their godless, hedonistic infertility agenda that rejects marriage and babies and families in order to indulge their every perverse desire? 

Or maybe your Ninevites are closer to home.  Perhaps it is that former friend who betrayed you, hurt you and, you fear, will hurt you again.  Or the next door neighbor that you have been feuding with for years?  Or your estranged brother or sister?  Or your ex-husband or ex-wife?  You don’t want to forgive them.  You don’t want God to forgive them.  You want them to be punished and prevented from hurting you.  Perhaps it is the one who abused you.  You have every right to hate your abuser, and Jonah has every right to hate the Ninevites and yet God’s grace extends even to them.

            Jonah receives instruction from God to go to the Ninevites.  Does Jonah get on his knees and pray, “Thy will be done?”  No.  Jonah thinks, “my will be done,” and he high-tails it out of there figuring if God can’t find me, he can’t make me go.  But that plan is flawed.  God is, of course, omniscient; all knowing.  You can’t run away from God.

            God knows exactly where Jonah is going and once Jonah is on the boat headed for Tarshish, God sends a great storm to shake up Jonah and the men sailing with him.  After trying unsuccessfully to outrun the storm, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard and the sea grows calm.  We see here that Jonah is not against all foreigners.  Jonah is willing to die for these Gentile sailors.  Jonah is brave, but he is full of hate.  Jonah would rather die than have the Ninevites saved.

            As Jonah is sinking, a great fish swallows him and he is inside the fish for three days and three nights.  Jonah prays a prayer put together from different Psalms and in that prayer he agrees to fulfill the original mission on which God has sent him.  Then the fish vomits Jonah up onto the beach.

            God gives Jonah a second chance.  He tells him, “get up, go to the great city of Nineveh, and preach to it.”  So Jonah goes to Nineveh, about 500 miles inland and when he gets there he preaches to them this simple message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed;” a simple message from a reluctant preacher. 

            And the reaction is utterly amazing; miraculous. The Ninevites believe Jonah.  They immediately repent of their evil ways. They put on rough goat hair sackcloth worn during times of grief and mourning.  The king declares a general time of repentance and fasting for both humans and animals.  The Word of God is powerful.  “Nineveh will be destroyed,” this is a harsh word of law, but it is preceded by a bit of Gospel.  “Forty more days.”  The destruction is not going to be immediate.  There is a chance.  God’s law and gospel drive the Ninevites to immediate and deep repentance.  God sees their repentance and He turns from His anger and does not destroy Nineveh. 

Jonah wants limits on God’s mercy and grace.  He wants mercy and grace for some but not for others.  Jonah wants his enemies destroyed.  We see here how God’s mercy and grace…God’s love… is boundless.  God’s mercy and grace is not limited to our understandings and desires.  God mercy and grace is truly for all. 

            We marvel at the Ninevites’ immediate reaction of repentance and obedience.  It is truly a miracle of God, like the people responding to John the Baptist’s preaching in the desert, or like the first disciples, Andrew, Peter, James and John answering Jesus’ call and immediately leaving their fishing boats and following Him. We marvel, because our contrition and repentance is so often slow and hesitant.  Contrition is sadness and mourning over our sin, and repentance is a change of heart; turning from sin and turning back to God.  We can be slow of heart and so we marvel at the Ninevites’ unhesitating obedience to a message from God. 

            Now, you’d think that Jonah would be happy that he is such an effective preacher with his short sermon.  But he is mad.  He is really mad.  Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed.  He knows he is being used as a mouthpiece of God and he does not like it.  After Nineveh repents and is saved, Jonah sits down outside the city and pouts.  He tells God, “This is why I ran away in the first place.  Why did you save them?  I’d just as soon die.” 

            Jonah wants limits on God’s mercy and grace.  He wants mercy and grace for some but not for others.  Jonah wants his enemies destroyed.  We see here how God’s mercy and grace…God’s love… is boundless.  God’s mercy and grace is not limited to our understandings and desires.  God mercy and grace is truly for all. 

            It is hard for your sinful side to understand how God can love someone that you hate.  But when you take a genuine look inside of yourself, you have to wonder how God can love you, and yet he does.  His love is beyond comprehension.  He loves you so much that he turns his anger away from you and your sin, and turns all of that anger onto Christ on the cross.  Jesus is your Savior.  He paid the full price for your sin and took upon himself the anger of God.  His grace is overwhelming and it comes to you in the power of God’s Word just like it came to the Ninevites.

            So when you hear about Jonah, do not get distracted by the fish.  The fish swallowing Jonah is interesting and it is a picture of Christ emerging from the tomb, but the great fish is only a supporting character in this story.  When you think about Jonah think of his reluctance to bring God’s grace and mercy to his enemy and let that convict you of your own unforgiving tendencies.  Then think of the Ninevites’ incredible repentance and God’s amazing grace.  Remember God’s lavish gift of forgiveness offered even to the worst of sinners. The fish swallowing Jonah is amazing, but even more amazing is the power of God’s word and the miracle of God’s love and forgiveness for you.            Amen.