By Paul Koch –
Sometimes we come together at church are we feel a bit let down by what we hear and experience. I know that we aren’t supposed to say things like that. We’re supposed to say how we are always uplifted and edified by gathering around our Lord’s Word and sacraments. But if I were to put out on the church sign that today’s sermon was going to be from the book of Jonah, why, you would have certain expectations. You would expect some story featuring a guy trying to skip out on his responsibilities, and a big storm, and the casting of lots, and the throwing of Jonah overboard, and finally a great fish that swallows him whole and carries him back to Nineveh to do the Lord’s work. You would be ready and looking forward to this powerful and dramatic story that has fueled the imaginations of God’s children for thousands of years.
But then what happens? We come into this place and we read together from this action-packed book, but we read the part that has none of the colorful and exciting scenes we all know and love from Jonah. This is, perhaps, the most boring part of the whole text. We didn’t recount the fish part nor the call of God to go, nor the storm. We don’t get his prayer from the belly of the fish, and our imaginations don’t run wild with what that must have been like. We didn’t even read how the fish vomited him up onto the land. I mean that’s some awesome stuff! And so, I understand if this is a bit anticlimactic for you. I get it. There are so many wonderful and engaging parts of God’s Word. Why would we focus on this one small slice that is so uneventful? But before we think that this might not be worthy of our time, perhaps there is a certain brilliance in focusing on this. For when we intentionally strip away all the other sections, when we press away from the popular parts of the story, we are given to see by a greater contrast and the center of the story. That is, our thoughts and minds are given to rest on the central theme that we are all to learn from the story of Jonah.
So, what do we have in this text? What is it that we focus on? This section focuses us on what happened when the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. This is a second call to Jonah after he had just spent three days in the belly of the fish. And, by the way, it is exactly like the first call, “Arise, go to Nineveh, and call out against it.” Jonah, with the smell of fish belly still on him, thought that perhaps this time he should do what he was called to do. So, he goes to Nineveh. He walks though the great city and preaches the saddest sermon you’ve eve heard. It’s not complex, just one sentence,
Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
That’s it. That is the Word of the Lord that he was given to proclaim to the wicked city of Nineveh. And guess what? It works. The people of Nineveh believed God and they repented. They put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. They even put sackcloth on their cattle and herds. They repented of their wicked ways in hope that God would spare them. And this is just what God does.
And so, when we get beyond the fish and the storm and all the other wonderful things, we find that at the core this text is about the powerful working of God’s Word. It’s not necessarily flashy and stunning but it gets done exactly what it intends to do. God had a Word that he wanted to get to Nineveh, a Word to bring them to repentance so that he might have mercy, and that Word got there even though Jonah did everything he could to go in the other direction. From beginning to end, the Word is the one thing in control. And this, it turns out, is the one thing that we are not comfortable with. After all, if the Word is in control, then it means that you are not the one in control.
See, you try to escape the Word in your own life. Oh, I know that you are here, you’ve come to church. You gather to hear the Word, but you can be awfully selective about that Word. And when the Word tries to get a bit to greedy with your life, when it says things you don’t like or calls you into action in a way that doesn’t fit with your chosen lifestyle, that Word is kept at arm’s length. The Word of God calls you a Christian, an heir of eternal life, which we like. But then it calls you to actually live like that. It calls you into a life of sacrificial giving, of support for the proclamation of the Word. It calls you into service to one another, it draws you to bonds that are greater than family. It says that it isn’t good enough to just come here on Sunday and then switch it off for the rest of the week. No, the Word wants control of your whole life. After all, it is the Word connected to the water that washed you in Baptism. It is the Word given with bread and wine that promises you the very body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The Word doesn’t leave your life, as some arbitrary thing that you can do with as you like.
Jonah was a prophet of God. He thought he could use the Word for his own purposes and be selective in when to obey and when to ignore. But he couldn’t escape it, he couldn’t run away from it. And if God’s prophet couldn’t do it, do you think you will any more success?
Good luck. For the Word that came after Jonah has done even more for you. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word was born of Mary and breathed the air of his own creation. Our rebellion against the Word came to blows upon the cross of Calvary as the Word of life died for you. When the people of our Lord’s day demanded a sign for him, when they wanted to see some new tricks some dramatic moment of glory, he said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of a fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:39-40} To run from the Word is to run from the one who suffered, died and rose again for your salvation. This Word, that exists outside your control and your desire is the Word of your hope, your confidence, your joy.
You then, are called to live a life in the Word. A Word that still forgives, still calls and gathers his people. Though this life isn’t promised to be easy, it is a life that you don’t live alone. You don’t need to spend days in the belly of a great fish to reconsider your life choices for you have brothers and sisters that gather around you. God’s Word comes to you from the baptismal font and from the altar, but it also comes on the lips and in the actions of one another. This whole gathering here today is a living reminder that the Word is in control. The same Word that called Nineveh to repentance now says to you, “Repent, and believe the good news!”
Jonah preached that glorious one sentence sermon to the Nineveh and they repented. And what did God do? Exactly what Jonah knew he would do. He relented. He turned from his wrath and had mercy on them. What a wonderful gift! What a treasure to have the steadfast love of God pour down upon you, when you do not deserve it. And you do not deserve it. But Nineveh was not in control, Jonah was not in control, and you are not in control. The Word is in control.
When God relents, Jonah is upset. See, he wanted the Ninevites to get what was coming to them. They deserved the wrath of God. And so, seeing the outcome of the Word that he was sent to preach, he stews in his inability to escape the Word and says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Turns out, he knew all along the power and wonder of the Word of God. He tested it and thought he might break free, but God’s word would do what it was sent to do.
And so, we find in Jonah something greater than storms and fish. We find a powerful reminder of the working of the Word. And today, I have been sent to you, though I am an unworthy and broken servant, to speak the simple Word to you. The Word calls you, the Word judges you, the Word says that in Christ alone you there is hope and life and joy. For you are forgiven all of your sins.