Sermon 38


  Historiated initial 'E' depicting Jonah Thrown into the Sea


Learn From Jonah

Jonah 3:1-3

January 25, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we hear about Jonah – the most successful evangelist in the Bible. We hear about him to learn from him how to succeed.


Off on the Wrong Foot

In our reading for today we hear that God orders Jonah of Gathhepher (2 Kings 14:25) to go to the great pagan city of Nineveh and to admonish them to repent. But that’s only half of it. Jonah 3:1-3 tells us the rest, that the word of the Lord


came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Go to Nineveh.... and proclaim my message.” So Jonah... went to Nineveh.


The other half of the story, then, has to do with why God told Jonah to do the same thing – twice. And “there’s the rub,” as they say [Hamlet (1601) III.1:65]. Something must have gone very wrong the first time around. But as we shall see, it was even much worse than that.

            God told Jonah to go to Nineveh. But as you might remember, Jonah, for no stated reason (until Jonah 4:2), flees to Tarshish by way of a ship docked in Joppa, to escape from “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). Immediately God is hot on his trail. He strikes the ship with a fierce storm that nearly sinks it (Jonah 1:4). This throws the unsuspecting crew into a tailspin. It wasn’t the storm season – as Luther notes in his popular 1526 lectures on Jonah (Luther’s Works 19:53). So why was this happening, they wonder? They’re in a panic. Finally they figure it out – quite by chance (Jonah 1:7) – that the storm is punishing Jonah for his disobedience (Jonah 1:12). By a process of elimination they discover that the only way to save themselves is to throw Jonah overboard – which they do and immediately the seas calm down (Jonah 1:15).

            But this isn’t the end of it for Jonah – he at least, has much more turmoil awaiting him. Out of the blue, a huge fish or whale scoops him up in its mouth and plunges down to the bottom of the sea with him in its belly. And there Jonah sits for “three days and three nights,” trapped inside the whale (Jonah 1:17). Even though this whale was full of grace and kept Jonah from dying on the high seas – in large part by suspending “the digestive process of nature” which would have devoured him in its belly (LW 19:82, 67) – that whale also gruesomely punishes him all the more. Luther writes:


Jonah must pass through the jaws of the whale. God takes on a glowering mien. It seems that His anger is not appeased by the death and the penalty, to which Jonah is willing to submit [by being thrown overboard], and that He cannot avenge Himself fiercely enough on him. It must have been a horrifying sight to poor, lost, and dying Jonah when the whale opened its mouth wide and he beheld sharp teeth that stood upright all around like pointed pillars or beams and he peered down the wide cellar entrance to the belly.... How often lung and liver must have pained him! How strange his abode must have been among the intestines and the huge ribs!.... Who can really comprehend how a man can survive three days... within a fish, in the middle of the sea, all alone, without light and without food? (LW 19:67-68).


Leave it to Luther to figure this out – and disabuse us all from imagining Jonah’s time in the whale as some sort of a weekend joyride at the beach. [On this screwball view, see T. E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary (1977) p. 97 and the many children books on Jonah skewered in my essay, “Eaten Alive,” Touchstone, April 2008.]


Scared Straight

So when the command from God comes to Jonah the second time, he’s learned his lesson and “quickly obeys” (LW 19:46, 52). No more detours. No more attempted evasions. Off to Nineveh he goes – as he should have done the first time God sent him. Luther has this explanation for his change of heart:


[Now] Jonah... proclaims God’s goodness.... [He] had possessed this knowledge of the grace of God prior to this [calamity], although not in the same measure in which he has now acquired it in the tempest. For here he truly realizes that God respects no person and no merit, since He helps such unworthy sinners. Before this, Jonah was... steeped in the delusion that God esteemed the person and his work (LW 19:81).


Indeed, Jonah knows now what he knew before about God, but in a much greater way. Jonah, then, sounds like Job, when at the end of his harrowing trials he confesses (Job 42:5-6):


I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise my self, and repent in dust and ashes.


What does this tell us about successfully broadcasting God’s word to the world? What can we learn from Jonah so that we can be more successful? Well, we learn that the best of God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) first endure terrible traumas before they can get the message of God out as they should (Acts 14:22; LW 19:47). This was certainly the case with Stephen (Acts 6:11-13; 7:59-60) – and even later with Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8-10). What these traumas do is put us in our place so that we will give up on fiddling with God’s word (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2) and simply pass on what we receive from the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:3).


Our Repulsive Message

This is an important point since our message offends people – being not all sweetness and light (Isaiah 30:9-11; Matthew 11:6; Luke 4:28-29; John 6:61, 7:7, 15:18-19; Acts 6:54, 20:29-30; Romans 16:17-18; Philippians 3:18-19; 2 Timothy 4:3-4). To gussy it up is to falsify it, for it cannot be made easier than it actually is (Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 12:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; Hebrews 12:3-11). When Jonah finally delivers his message, it isn’t filled with pleasantries and incentives. No, he simply lets it rip and thunders out mercilessly (Jonah 3:4):


Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.


What kind of an offer is that? There isn’t even any conditional in it to sweeten the deal – like if you repent, then you shall be saved. All it does is blast Nineveh with the wrath of God. All it does is declare coming doom, with “no promise of mercy” in any of it (LW 19:89)! So much for catering to outsiders to make them feel welcome (as in Patrick R. Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger, 1992, and Richard H. Bliese and Craig Van Gilder, The Evangelizing Church, 2005). According to Jonah, the church should be on the attack – rather than stumbling all over itself to accommodate unbelievers (Acts 5:11-13; 1 Corinthians 14:23-25). Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) made this the motto to the third part of his book, Christian Discourses (1848) (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 17:162):


The essentially Christian needs no defense, is not served by any defense – it is the attacker, to defend it is of all perversions the most indefensible, the most inverted, and the most dangerous – it is unconsciously cunning treason.


This is because all defenses are really a vote of no confidence in Christianity – for it must be defended, and thereby changed, because it’s not good enough the way it is.

            Lutherans, however, in their Confessions – at least – stand against these distorting defenses and line up instead with Kierkegaard [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 139]:


We... preach the foolishness of the Gospel, which reveals another righteousness, namely, that because of Christ, the propitiator, we are accounted righteous when we believe that for Christ’s sake God is gracious to us. We know how repulsive [abhorreat] this teaching is to the judgment of reason and... that the teaching of the law about love is more plausible...


And neither does Jonah back down from his repulsive message of coming doom and destruction – even though his five word sermon in the original Hebrew may only be a summary of what he actually said (LW 19:85). And the effect of his sermon is also surprising. Rather than driving the Ninevehites away, they all repent to ward off the coming catastrophe (Jonah 3:5). They were scared straight – as Jonah had been earlier – by the coming horror. This frightful message wrenched them out of whatever recalcitrance and defiance were holding them back [contra Phyllis Trible, The Book of Jonah, NIBC (1996) p. 515]. This was just like when Peter converted thousands by first “cutting them to the heart” with his attack on their waywardness (Acts 2:37-42; Proverbs 28:23).


A Second Chance

So rejoice in God’s mercy – that he gave his disobedient servant a second chance to deliver the message – since it ended up helping so many. And also be of good courage when you fail to follow the Lord. Do not despair over your poor showing (LW 14:60) – even though we all have been “put... to shame” by the Ninevehites (LW 19:89). Instead, repent, as both Jonah and Nineveh did (Matthew 12:41), and try again – difficult though it may be to admit you’re wrong and God is right (LW 8:325; 51:318). Know that “even the greatest and best saints sin grievously against God, [so] we... must not despair, even though we fall into sin” (LW 19:47). For God, who can threaten us beyond our wildest imaginations, also loves us steadfastly. Just because he threatens us, it doesn’t mean he’s “a horrible tyrant or... devil” (LW 19:63). Indeed, his “mercy asserts itself and proves stronger than all wrath and every sentence and judgment” of his (LW 19:47; James 2:13).

            It is therefore an art to know how to properly make use of this second chance. Jonah could have refused the offer because of the way God hammered him for his sin. But he instead repents:


Let us learn the real art and skill of extricating ourselves from all distress and fear. To do this, we must first of all take note of our sin, forthwith make a clean breast of it, and confess it. That disposes of the most urgent danger and need. For help must first be brought to the heart; this must be lightened and given air to breathe. Then it is easier to aid the whole person. Thus the conscience must first of all be disencumbered and given room to breathe, and then aid can be found for all trouble. Two things are involved when God’s anger strikes, sin and fear. Impudent hearts cope with this situation incorrectly. They let the sin remain and are intent only on ridding themselves of the fear.... They would like to continue to sin with impunity; but that is not possible, since punishment regularly follows in the wake of sin.... It is the nature of the godly to.... suffer punishment and be delivered of sin [rather] than to remain in sin and be free of punishment (LW 19:63-64).


So in our failure we are graciously surprised – finding “victory and triumph concealed in the greatest weakness” (LW 19:67).


Christ the Ransom

So “repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). But what is this good news that enables us to repent? It is that Jesus came to offer his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Just as Jonah had to be sacrificed to calm the raging seas, so Christ also must be sacrificed to save us from our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; Hebrews 9:26). The sailors on board with Jonah didn’t want to sacrifice him (Jonah 1:13). They were hoping for a less “costly expiation.... However, this was not to be” (LW 19:65).

            As much as we would like for the sailors to have been right – blood, sacrifice, punishment and suffering are at the very heart of our salvation and peace with God (Colossians 1:20). This is because “it is not simple for God to forgive sins” [Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (1968) p. 166]. The Muslims therefore have it wrong that the crucifixion is not necessary for salvation and forgiveness (Koran 3:85; 4:45, 157, 171; 5:39; 7:153, 165; 10:63-65; 11:61; 17:42, 75; 19:60; 32:4; 39:53-54; 49:14; 60:12; 74:48; 82:19; 98:5-6; 101:6-11; 110:3). We must repent to be forgiven alright – but that only works when we do so on the basis of Christ’s crucifixion which secures our forgiveness.

            That is because the penalty for our sins must first be paid before our sins can be forgiven (Hebrews 9:22). The fact that the prodigal son is forgiven without there first being a sacrifice (Luke 15:20-24) does not counter this, since Christ’s sacrificial death was already part of the scheme prior to the telling of that parable (Luke 9:51-53). No, the Lutheran Confessions have it right again:


The content of the Gospel is this, that... Christ our Lord,... bore the curse of the law and expiated and paid for our sins, that through him alone we re-enter the good graces of God, obtain the forgiveness of sins through faith,... and are saved eternally. For everything... which offers the mercy and grace of God... is a joyful message that God wills not to punish sins but to forgive them for Christ’s sake (BC, pp. 561-62).


Because Jesus “took upon Himself our sins... of His own free will, it was right for Him to bear the punishment and the wrath of God... for our person” (LW 26:284). Without that sacrifice our joy in knowing we’re forgiven would always remain uncertain.

            For certainty comes only by God doing what the law couldn’t do, due to being “weakened by the flesh.” He sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin” (Romans 8:3). This condensed formulation explains the certainty of our salvation once we elongate it with other Bible verses. For the law, you see, is based on our obeying it steadfastly. But we can’t do that (Romans 7:18) and so the law can’t save us. In its place Jesus comes to pay for our sins by being punished for them in our place (1 Peter 2:24). By dying for our sins, he condemns sin by detoxifying it – or stopping it from threatening us with everlasting hell, by being punished himself for us (Galatians 3:13; BC, p. 414). So we get off free (LW 22:167), provided we believe in Jesus and what he suffered for us. When we believe in that, then his suffering on our behalf counts in our favor. Otherwise it doesn’t in the least (John 3:36). For God has chosen to give the salvation won by his dear Son only to those who believe in him (LW 32:76).

            Rejoice, then, in the Lord for his goodness and mercy (Psalm 23:6). Give thanks to God for the Savior Jesus Christ and the faith he has given you to know him, love him, and follow him. Delight in the joy this brings to lighten your troubled hearts. And then receive Christ today in the Lord’s Supper. For he is not a dead sage whose words we dutifully remember and endlessly ponder. No, he is the resurrected and living Lord – ruling over the living and the dead (Romans 14:9). He is here today physically in the bread and wine of this sacrament – mysteriously and mystically awaiting you to eat and drink of him. And when we do, kneeling down at the Altar, he will abide in us (John 6:53-56) that our faith and love may be more lively, disciplined and devout. So do not miss out on this great gift of assurance (BC, pp. 499, 577).


Love Not the World

And when we leave this holy house of God today, let us also live lives “worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Let us do so knowing that if we live in the Spirit we had also better well “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). And that will mean for us doing good deeds in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17).

            One such good deed is to love not this world since it is passing away (1 John 2:15; 1 Corinthians 7:31). Labor instead for that which does not perish (John 6:27). So don’t put all of your eggs in the basket of this world – getting as much as you can (contra Luke 12:15), as soon as you can (contra Matthew 6:33), and holding on to it as long as you can (contra Luke 12:18). Instead set your minds on things “that are above” (Colossians 3:2).

            But what will such heavenly-mindedness mean for us in our daily lives? Shall we go hide in a hole somewhere and wait to die? No, at the very least it will instead mean not seeking glory and honor from each other (John 5:44). Doing so only puts a drag on our spirits and keeps us being petty, irritable and small-minded. Let us break free from this entrapment, knowing instead that “those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted” (Psalm 62:10). Let us care for them all, but not seek their approval (1 Corinthians 2:15; 11:31-32). Even Jonah would have done better if he had followed this divine instruction. For it would have freed him from worrying over Nineveh getting punished as he thought they deserved [perhaps due to their likely recidivism – see T. A. Perry, The Honeymoon is Over: Jonah’s Argument With God (2006) p. 164]. No, the world is in the Lord’s hands, and we are but his unworthy servants (Luke 17:10). We are to serve him – and let the chips fall where they may (LW 6:148; 17:174). Call on God to help you get this done, and he will, for it is in his word, and worthy of praise. So love not the world, but rejoice in the goodness of the Lord – which is but another timely lesson well worth learning from Jonah. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)