1/24/21 – Epiphany 3 – “The Worst Sermon Ever” – Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. I’ve titled my sermon for this morning, “The Worst Sermon Ever.” I’ll let you be the judge of whether this title is in reference to Jonah’s sermon from our Old Testament Reading or if I’m referring to the quality of my own sermon. Either way, our reading from Jonah 3 is our text this morning. The story of Jonah, in my mind, is one of the more fascinating stories in the Bible. Of course, the iconic moment of the book is the incident with the Great Fish—that’s what we all remember from Sunday School. But the story of Jonah is much more complex than that. There are four movements in the book, one for each chapter. And the third movement in chapter three is, in a lot of ways, the climax of the book. But before we look more closely at our specific text, it’s important that we get an overview of what has led Jonah to this point.

2. Jonah was, at best, a man with a sketchy character. The first time that Jonah is introduced in the Biblical narrative is in 2 Kings 14, when Jonah prophesies in favor of Jeroboam II, one of the kings of Israel who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:24a). This prophecy, by the way, was pretty quickly reversed by the prophet Amos in Amos 6. So, we come to the book of Jonah already a bit suspicious of Jonah’s character…and this suspicion is heightened (and even confirmed) just three verses into the book of Jonah. The Lord has just commanded Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to preach there. But just three verses into the book, like a little toddler, Jonah stamps his foot and runs the other way. Now, we need to keep in mind that Nineveh was the capital of the great Assyrian Empire, the archenemies of Israel. You can understand why Jonah might not have been too excited about the idea of going there to preach to his enemies, but this still doesn’t excuse his child-like behavior.

3. So, Jonah gets on a boat with a bunch of pagan sailors who are heading in the opposite direction of Nineveh. As soon as he’s on the boat, Jonah goes below deck to sleep. Pretty soon, the Lord sends a massive storm that starts rocking the boat side to side. The wind is swirling all around. Waves are crashing into the boat and these sailors are starting to freak out. They’ve sailed in storms before—but not like this one. This one is clearly a divinely sent storm. After they’ve done everything that they can think of to get out of the storm, including praying to their own gods, the captain goes below deck to wake Jonah up. Oh yeah, by the way, Jonah’s been sleeping this whole time—talk about acting like a spoiled toddler! Anyway, Jonah gets up and the sailors decide to cast lots to see who’s fault the storm is. And, lo and behold, it’s Jonah’s fault. Surprise, surprise! So, as soon as Jonah sees that he’s been found out, he utters arguably the most ironic line in this entire book, “I’m a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Okay, so let me get this straight—Jonah worships the God who made the dry land and the sea, but he got on a boat to run away from this God……what a joke! God made the sea and the dry land alright, and Jonah is dumb enough to run from God by getting on a boat? But then it gets even worse because of what Jonah does next. Jonah tells the sailors, “Yeah, why don’t you just throw me overboard…that will solve the problem.” …You know what else would solve the storm problem? Turning around and going to Nineveh! But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. He would literally rather die than go there! What a selfish little child!

4. So, the pagan sailors throw Jonah overboard, albeit reluctantly. And as they do, they pray to the Lord that he would not hold this against them. And just as soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm stops. The pagan sailors start worshiping the Lord and sacrificing to him. And there’s Jonah…in the water…getting ready to die because of his selfishness and hatred toward these people whom he perceived as his enemies. But God wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily, no pun intended. So, God sends a giant fish to catch Jonah and swallow him. And Jonah is in the belly of this giant fish for 3 days and 3 nights. And while he’s there, he utters this beautiful prayer: “I called out to the LORD and he answered me…” (Jonah 2:2). At the end of the prayer, Jonah agrees to go and preach in Nineveh like the Lord wants. The Lord answers Jonah’s prayer by having the giant fish vomit Jonah out onto the dry land. What a way to have God answer your prayer! And so, Jonah heads for Nineveh, and things are looking good. As a reader, we have hope that Jonah has finally turned a corner and is going to do the right thing.

5. This is where our text for this morning comes in. Jonah hears the Lord’s command to go to Nineveh again, and this time he actually goes! Things are looking good! Now, Nineveh was a gigantic city. It would take days just to walk through. Jonah’s got his work cut out for him. Jonah gets part way into the city, he stops, and sets up shop to start preaching: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned!” (Jonah 3:4). And then he just turns around and leaves… What in the world just happened? This is the worst sermon ever. I mean, there’s no mention of what the Ninevites have done wrong, there’s no mention of what they should do to respond, and there’s no mention of God. This sermon certain would not fit the qualifications of a good, Lutheran sermon. The law isn’t specific enough and the gospel is completely missing! What’s going on here? Has Jonah intentionally given the bare minimum of information? There’s absolutely no effort on Jonah’s part in this sermon. It’s like he’s trying to sabotage his own message and ensure the Ninevites destruction… But, once again, God has other plans. The Ninevite King hears about this message and he, along with the whole city—including their cows—everyone repents! Despite the continued childlike behavior of his prophet, God is working to teach Jonah a lesson: The Lord loves all people, even those whom we hate.

6. So, where does this leave us? Well, if we stop and really let this word of the Lord speak to us, then we realize that this story of Jonah is more than an ironic story about a rebellious prophet. This story of Jonah is actually intended to mess with you. It’s intended to hold up a mirror to our own lives. It’s intended to help us recognize the ways in which we react in anger to those whom we perceive as our enemies, much like Jonah did. This story is inviting us to see the Jonah deep down inside each one of us. But this story also reminds us of the great love that our Lord has for each one of his people—a love that would cause our Lord Jesus to go to the cross to die so that all who turn to him might be forgiven. In the end, this is a story which invites us to submit to the Lord’s will in humble gratitude. It invites us to be thankful that the Lord puts up with and even loves the Jonah in all of us.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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