St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

January 21, 2024

It’s only once every three years that we have a scripture lesson from the Prophet Jonah so when this text does come up, I like to take the opportunity to preach on it. And to really get a good grasp of our lesson today, you should read the entire Book of Jonah, not a long book at all; it’ll take you all of 30 minutes to read at a snail’s pace and then check out our website where I post all my sermons.

Jonah was the son of Amittai of the tribe of Zebulun. He was born in northern Israel 900 years before Christ during the reign of evil King Ahab. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, located northeast of Israel, in the northern part of what is called Iraq today.

Nineveh was a very wicked city. Any depravity you can conjure up on your mind, such was Nineveh. It was the largest city of the Assyrians, full of pagan worship, false gods, adulterous sins, murder, theft, and everything in between. The people were violent and even venturing toward the city gates was dangerous.

And Jonah, he was a faithful and pious Jew, a man of northern Israel, devout to a fault. So, when the Lord called him to rise and go to Nineveh, the place of hell on earth, Jonah was less than eager. He was likely scared of the call, but the main reason was that he didn’t think Nineveh was worth God’s time. And so, Jonah the prophet does as many believers have done over the centuries, he up and runs from God. He heads south to the harbor city of Joppa, pays for transport to the city of Tarshish which is basically a city at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea in today’s Southern Spain, and he hides deep in the bowels of the ship and plans on staying there until they reach port.

But Jonah never reaches the port because you cannot hide from the Lord, and God sends violent winds upon the sea which threaten the boat’s stability and structure. The captain and his shipmates discover who Jonah is, they grow very, very frightened because they rightly fear that the Lord’s hand is at work, so they throw Jonah overboard.

As the Lord continues to discipline Jonah, He then sends a great fish to swallow up the prophet and Jonah lives in this beast’s belly for three days and three nights. While in there, Jonah prays a very lamenting prayer to God, a prayer of repentance and trust, and God causes the great fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land, likely somewhere between Jonah’s own home and Nineveh.

The Lord, again, calls out to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh to preach repentance to the people. He goes, and he preaches, warning them that in 40 days the Lord will destroy the city unless they repent. The people repent, and even the king of the city decrees that all men and beasts in the city shall not eat and shall instead dress in the traditional clothing of penitence. And because of their repentance and trust in the Lord, their city is spared.

But Jonah, he isn’t happy. He complains to the Lord because he didn’t think those Ninevites deserved to be saved, to be shown mercy. And by use of a simple plant and a worm that ate it, God teaches Jonah a profound lesson about true mercy.

And this event of ages past concerning Jonah and Nineveh is also a lesson for us. In fact, it is several lessons. It is a lesson about vocation and calling, a lesson about God’s discipline and repentance, and a lesson about God’s endless and impartial mercy.

And when we consider our Lord’s preaching in our Gospel lesson today, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel,” we see the same lesson echoed from our Lord Christ’s mouth, the message of repentance and faith in God.

The first lesson regards the calling. Every one of us has a station or stations in life, we can refer to this as our “calling.” Now, if you want to walk around wearing your pride on your shoulder saying, “I chose my career, I chose my family, I chose my…” whatever, okay fine. If it makes you feel good about yourself to tell yourself that you have control over your life and your station, whatever, but it’s simply not true. God calls you to your station in life, and He provides opportunities and circumstances for you to discover your station, but it is ultimately He who calls you there.

And in your station or stations in life, be they homemaker, or parent, or grandparent, bus driver or front desk clerk, shelf stocker, mechanic, musician, child, grandchild, whatever the case, God has placed you into your stations and given you purpose. And the basic purpose of your station in life is to serve your neighbor. And depending on your station, this may be as simple a thing as putting groceries in their bag and asking, “paper or plastic.” It may be making sure the roads and streets are safe to drive on by keeping them plowed and salted and sanded. It may be your call to raise your children or take part in the lives of your grandchildren, so they are raised in Christian homes, that they learn the catechism, attend church, and avoid those things which cause sin and rebellion.

Whatever the case, God has assigned to each of us a station and a calling in life and we are called to serve our neighbor in our stations. But what do we most often do? We run and hide, don’t we? It may not be by boarding a ship to cross the sea, but how often do we, in our lives, rather than using our stations for the neighbor abuse our stations for our own gain and desire? How often do we refuse to help the neighbor and draw him to repentance and faith simply because we don’t think it’s our job, we don’t think we’re qualified to open our mouths and speak of Christ, we think it might get us in trouble if we even mention Jesus while at work?

Now, the Lord doesn’t ascribe to each of us these stations in life in order that we use them to earn our salvation or show Him we really love Him and listen to Him. But, as Paul writes, “The time is short,” and so we are to use our stations in life for the Gospel. To say things like, “I’ll be more devoted…later, I’ll be a Christian…later, I’ll be more regular in church attendance…later, I’ll stop living according to the sinful flesh…later” is the epitome of foolishness because there is no recognition that later may ever come. It’s sort of like the parable of the rich man who filled his barns with the world and when he died, he had nothing for God.

This is a great and troubling problem in parenting these days. See, parenting is a station given by God, a calling afforded by the Lord, and among the stations of life, parenting is the most important station there is. God established family and parenting so that parents would raise their children in Christian homes, surround by Scripture, prayer, worship, godly conversation, godly habits, good stewardship of time and talents, and yes, even treasures.

Yet what does the world tell us regarding the station of parenting and families? The world says, “Don’t raise your kids as Christians, don’t pray with them, don’t worship with them, don’t teach them the Scripture, don’t bring them to church. Instead, put your children second only to your lives, wants, desires, and dreams.”

See, here’s the thing…everything that the world offers your children and grandchildren, whatever it may be, is intentionally designed to keep your children from Christ. And if you, as the parents or grandparents, do not teach the kids that this is a fallen world, a world that does not like God but violently hates God and His church, just like Assyria and Babylon were kingdoms full of violence and hate against Israel, your kids will fall for this world because it seems right in their eyes. But if you teach them and pray with them and study the Scripture with them, bring them to church – and I don’t mean once every couple of months when you have spare time, but I mean as often as humanly possible – then you are fulfilling your station and your call as a parent and even a grandparent. You are instilling in your children and grandchildren a foundation upon which they can build lives faithful to God’s Word and Sacraments because, “The time is short.”

And let’s be honest, a big reason why the American churches have been in steep decline for decades now is because the kids aren’t in church. They’re spending millions on Taylor Swift concerts and bowing knee to the god of entertainment, and millions more to the goddess of higher education where they are told, from day one, that God is dead, and since the foundation of Christ and His Word isn’t there…generation after generation after generation has become atheist or indifferent toward the faith.

We are literally seeing a whole new Sodom and Gomorrah being built before our eyes, and brick by brick this nation and this world is slipping deeper and deeper into darkness. And let’s be clear: the Lord will not put up with this depravity forever. Parents, you have an opportunity to live out your station as parents and raise your children to stand firm against the wave of skepticism and godlessness in our society, but you must understand that your stations in life, be it kids or career or whatever, it is FOR the faith, for serving your neighbor, for calling out to your kids, your family, your friends to repent and believe, and to exhibit Christ by your words and deeds.

It’s easy to run and hide and to zealously avoid your call, but for the sake of the neighbor, repent and by God’s grace stand and fulfill your calling.

The second thing we learn from this text is that God disciplines His children whom He loves. Jonah’s time in the big fish was his time of discipline, where he contemplated his actions and attitudes, so that, in his penitence, he would be more ready to do what the Lord called him to do. Granted, Jonah wasn’t happy about it, but he finally trekked to that heathen city and opened his mouth.

God disciplines those whom He loves and calls according to His purpose. God may not discipline us like he did Jonah, but as His children, we know He disciplines us through various means and trials in order to make us stronger and trusting Him more. Should we fall into sin, the Lord may use pastors, the church, family or faithful friends to set us straight through strong words, honest criticism, or even through things like closing communion or excommunication for a time. The Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and His discipline isn’t always easy, but as a parent disciplines a child, so too does our heavenly Father discipline us. He may allow events to enter our lives, situations which force us to depend on Him and stop depending on ourselves. Jonah, for example, was deep within a boat that was threatened to sink, and the Lord went even further by having him tossed into the deep sea where he could only trust God. St. Peter, who thought he was strong, stepped out of the boat and walked on the water, that is until he saw the waves and felt the wind. But when he began to sink, to whom did he cry out but to Jesus to save him!

The same Lord who loves us may toss us into the seas of trouble and trial so that we learn to cry out to Him in every trouble, listen to His voice and His call and not try to run away or go our own way.

And consider Jonah. He was born and bred in Israel. Now, Israel was a symbol of God’s holy and eternal church, and when Jonah boarded that vessel in Joppa, he was leaving Israel and abiding in himself and his own desires rather than remaining on the firm and safe soil of Israel. God used this sinning to discipline Jonah and return him to Israel so that he would carry out his call as a prophet. Likewise, we might find reason to leave the church, run and go our own way in this tumultuous world, to find safe haven from God and from our call. But the God who loves us, He will always find us no matter where we hide and He will, in His time, return us to His church, the safe pasture of His eternal kingdom, and it may be that we must face the depths of our sin before He brings us back. For Jonah, his “rock bottom” was the stench and bowels of a great sea creature in which he learned humility and repentance. For us, it may be horrible consequences for our sins which ultimately bring us to our knees before the Lord. Whatever the case, God’s discipline is for our good and though we may find it extremely uncomfortable in the moment, over time we will be thankful and stronger in faith because of it, that is if we do not reject the Lord’s discipline and go our own way regardless, rejecting Christ and His salvation for some worthless thing in this world which has no hope of saving or helping us in any way.

But the most important point of this text, not to mention our Epistle and our Gospel today, is how it shows us God’s unending, zealous, unfettered mercy and grace for those who repent and seek Him.

Jonah’s whole complaint against the Lord was the He was willing to show mercy and forgive the people of that horribly evil city, that the Lord was willing, even eager, to look past their sins and transgressions of many, call them to repent of their ways, and then relent – change His mind – about destroying them on account of their evils.

Jonah absolutely hated this, and he tried to council the Lord and said to him, “O Lord, 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. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah’s lack of willingness to show mercy and forgiveness to the people of Nineveh was the basis for his fleeing from the Lord and his call to preach in that treacherous city. He knew that the Lord would, in fact, show mercy and forgive should the people repent, and Jonah wanted no such kindness toward them. He hoped the Lord would destroy that evil city, and it may be because he himself felt the effects of their depravities even in Israel.

But the Lord would not contend with Jonah’s complaint. God replied to him and said, “You think you have a right to be angry?” The Lord provided a large plant or tree for Jonah that he might be shaded from the sun’s heat. The next day, God caused a worm to attack the plant and the plant died. Jonah was uncomfortably unhappy about this and again, told the Lord he wanted to die. But God said to him, “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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Jonah learned from the Lord that mercy isn’t contingent on a person’s works, that mercy isn’t for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. God showed mercy to Nineveh, a city of over 120 thousand people, because they acknowledged their sin, covered themselves in repentance, and cried out for help.

See, the world with all its alluring ways and temptresses makes us think that we’re doing what is good and right; we don’t know right from left, up from down, right from wrong, and we just do what everyone else does because, “When in Rome do as the Romans” tends to be our way of thought. But when the Lord comes with His threats and judgments and says, “No, you are wrong, you are sinning, you are blaspheming God’s holy name, repent or die,” we are shaken to our bones and can do nothing but repent. We see that we have gone a mile too far, been totally blindsided by sin and evil, and that trusting in man and in the ways of the world leads only to destruction.

But God is merciful, so very merciful, and His love and forgiveness is boundless and offered to all people irrespective of how horrible their sins. And as with Jonah, as with Paul, as with Jesus who is God in the flesh, the message is the same: The end is near, destruction is imminent, repent of your ways and believe the Gospel!

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when you hear His voice and His call to repentance, do not harden your hearts as Jonah did, but instead, do as Nineveh and cover yourself in sackcloth and ash, fall down before God in humble repentance, confess your sins, and believe in His mercy. And do not think, as many churches and seminaries teach these days, that you can have both your sin and God’s mercy at the same time. You cannot continue in sin and rebelliousness without repentance and expect to receive the gifts of God, either by Word, or by Sacrament. You cannot serve two masters.

God isn’t interested in a song and dance. He surely comes, even today, warning us of the final judgment of this world and all who dwell within, and He comes with His hands filled with all the mercy, the grace, the forgiveness, and the love of eternity for you to receive. He comes as a man dying on a cross with arms stretched wide, and from that blessed suffering, He cries out the ancient message of the prophets: repent and believe what I have done is for you. Amen.