Epiphany 3 – “The Universal Grace of God” – Jonah 3:1-10

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“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.”

Of all of the prophets of the Old Testament, Jonah is definitely the bad boy in the group. Jeremiah may have complained that he wasn’t the right man for the job, but at least he didn’t try to skip town. When the call came to Jonah, Jonah hopped a boat headed in the exact opposite direction as the Lord told him to go.

But as Jonah would learn, it’s hard to hide from God. “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea and there was a mighty tempest on the sea so that the ship threatened to break up.” The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes applies to sailors too. But for sailors, instead of foxholes, it’s sinking ships. The sailors call out to their gods for help. Call it religion, call it superstition, but they conclude that God is hopping mad as someone onboard. They cast lots to see who the problem passenger might be. And sure enough, the lot fell to Jonah, who was asleep in his cabin.

To his credit, Jonah admits his guilt. He tells them that their only hope is to throw him into the sea. Strangely, Jonah seems to have a genuine concern for the wellbeing of the sailors, offering up his own life that they might not die but live. It’s those Ninevites that Jonah hates.

So, overboard goes Jonah and suddenly the sea is calm. Just listen to what happens next. “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly…” They were terrified that they were going to all drown in the stormy sea, and now they are even more terrified that the sea grew calm.

This, by the way, is the same reaction of the disciples who were in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee. While the storm threatened to sink them, Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat. They woke Him up and He commanded the waves and the wind to stand down, and immediately the sea was calm. And Mark writes, “they were exceedingly afraid.”

No sooner does Jonah hit the water but a big fish comes along and swallows him up and takes him on a three day, all expenses paid, cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. Needless to say, Jonah did not have a room with a porthole. At the end of the third day, “the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” Thrown over the side of one boat and now vomited out of another, Jonah picks the seaweed out his hair, washes off the slime, and gives thanks to the Lord for saving him.

And with that, we come to chapter 3, our assigned reading for this morning. “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.”
And so this time we read, “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” Jonah was one of those people who have to learn things the hard way. But at least he learned his lesson.

This might be a good place to interject a little bit of background about Nineveh. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were a terrorist nation. When Assyria conquered Israel, they put fishhooks through their nostrils, linked them together with long ropes, and let dragged them out by the nose. Literally. This is the Nineveh that the Lord called Jonah to go to and “call out against it.”

As soon as he arrives, Jonah starts preaching. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Now that’s a short sermon. Only seven words in English, five in the Hebrew. I know you all would like me to preach shorter sermons, but really, five words? This may be the shortest sermon in the bible, but it gets the job done. As sermons go, its got everything a good sermon has to have. It’s got law. And it’s full strength law. “Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This is no preaching what the congregation wants to hear in that.

That word, “shall be overthrown” is the same word that’s used in Genesis 18 regarding Sodom and Gomorrah. If Nineveh doesn’t repent, it’s going to become just like Sodom and Gomorrah.

But there’s also wonderful gospel in this sermon. “Yet forty days.” There is still time to repent. Time to turn away from their wickedness. Still time to turn to the way and the truth and the life.

“Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” As short as it is, you can learn a lot about God from a sermon like that. We learn that God really doesn’t want to overthrown Nineveh. He doesn’t want to destroy them. He wants them to repent, believe His Word, and be saved.

If God just wanted to get rid of them, He would have just sent fire from heaven and destroyed them. The very fact that He sends His prophet Jonah means that He wants to save them. He wants to “relent from disaster.” “God is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.” (2Ptr.3:9).

Granted, it would have been nice had Jonah developed this text a bit more than he did. It’s a though he’s only doing the bare minimum required of him. It’s like he doesn’t really want the Ninevites to actually get it and repent and believe. He’s only doing what he has been told to do in order to avoid being carried off by another whale or giant bird. In his heart, Jonah really wants to see these terrorists “overthrown.”

But just as Jonah couldn’t run away from God, neither could he prevent the Word of God from accomplishing its purpose. “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.”

They “believed God.” That’s the same phrase as is in Genesis 15 regarding Abraham. “And [Abraham] believe the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen.15:6). And not just a few believed, but “from the greatest of them to the least of them” believed. And they fasted and put on sackcloth, visible signs of their change of heart and mind.

If ever there was an example of the power of God’s Word to do what it says, here it is. You certainly can’t credit this to the powerful sermon of a charismatic preacher. All you’ve got here is God’s Word. But it’s God’s Word.

And “The word reached the king of Nineveh and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

The King issued a proclamation and published it throughout Nineveh. “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” This is really an amazing speech from the pagan king of Nineveh. It’s the sermon that Jonah should have preached. Sometimes, sad to say it, the pagans are better preachers than Christians. If His believers won’t proclaim it, God will sometimes use unbelievers to preach His word.

One thing that is interesting to note here is that it is the FAITH OF THE PEOPLE that changed the law of the land. It’s not the LAW OF THE LAND that changed the faith of the people. Proper legislation was written into law because the people of Nineveh had a change of heart.

Wouldn’t it be something if instead of relying on legislation and Supreme Court rulings to overturn Roe vs. Wade it simply became obsolete because everyone from the ‘greatest to the least’ among us heard the Word, believed in God and repented?

“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.”

Now you would think that this would be a good place to end the book of Jonah. “And everyone sang the common doxology” and “they all lived happily ever after.” But it doesn’t. There is another chapter. And it begins with these very disturbing words, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry.” Jonah knew what kind of God, God is. “I knew that you were slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster.” “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish.”

Jonah wanted to see the Ninevites get what they had coming to them. He didn’t want to preach the Word to them because he knew the Word has the power to create faith in the heart. And he knew that God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah was perfectly happy that he was saved back in chapter two. But he was “exceedingly displeased and angry” that the Ninevites were saved in chapter 3.

The book of Jonah ends with a question. God questions Jonah saying, “Should I not 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?” That’s were the book ends. We’re left hanging. Nineveh repented, but now we’re left wondering, will Jonah repent? It’s a question that we need to ask ourselves as well.

Ultimately, “God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, relenting from disaster,” because of the atoning and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for the SINS OF THE WORLD. The number of those for whom Christ died includes everyone. Christ died for Ninevites and Israelites, Christians and Muslims, heterosexuals and homosexuals, right to lifers and pro-choicers, the fetus in the womb and the one with dementia in the nursing home. Christ died for ALL people, “from the greatest of them to the least of them.”

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is universal grace because God so loved THE WORLD. But salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone. And faith is a gift from God, which comes by hearing the Word and in no other way. As St. Paul reminds us, “How will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how will they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15).

In former times, God called fish to catch men. But now in these last days, he calls men to catch men and women, boys and girls, from every tribe and language and nation. They were called and trained and then sent to preach the Law – repent and turn from your sin because you will not get away with it before God.

And the gospel – believe the good news that God in Christ has thrown His only-begotten Son into the sea FOR YOU. He has born the guilt of your sins and was swallowed up in your death and, and after three days, He rose from the dead so that you too might walk in newness of life.

It matters not who the sinner is or how great the sin. God’s love is for all, the appalling, the immoral, the terrorist, even for you.

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