“The LORD’s Gracious Call to Repent” (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)
The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (January 24, 2021)
What a difference a week can make. Right? Former President Donald Trump is now citizen Trump and is residing and golfing at his estate in Key Largo, Florida and our new President, Joseph Biden, is in the Oval Office furiously signing one executive order after in an attempt to undo or reverse everything his predecessor did. Even though President Trump is no longer in office, unbelievably, his enemies in the House and Senate are continuing in their efforts to impeach him a second time. The vitriol, vindictiveness, rancor, bigotry, partisanship and bitter divisiveness they are exhibiting pollutes not only the political atmosphere of Washington but our whole nation. And even though our new president says he wants to unify and heal our country, the moves he has made and the orders he has signed have so catered to the ideology and demands of the progressives and socialists of the left that he has only fueled the fires of civil unrest and hardened hearts against one another.
On top of this, our whole national government is now in the control of those who have made it crystal clear they want to fundamentally change America. They are not just talking about changing our free market economy to a more socialist system and changing our constitution to allow the Federal government more power over the states. They have also been very open about their intention to purge our society of the Judeo-Christian values; that is, Biblical values, upon which it was founded and completely silence the voice of Christian teaching and preaching. They accuse all such teaching as being the bias and bigotry of White Supremacy.
Now, whether those of this so called “progressive” agenda want to acknowledge the LORD, the Holy Trinity, the only true God, or adhere to His will and word or not, they cannot dismiss Him or thwart His righteous judgment against their evil.
This ought to greatly concern us all! After all, the LORD means business. He has said concerning those who oppose Him, “I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them” (Ezek. 25:17). And again, He says, “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless” (Is. 13:11).
All of human history proves just how serious the LORD is with His threats. No person, culture, leader, nation or kingdom has ever been able to continually circumvent, ignore, or despise God’s expressed will for humanity, as clearly enumerated in God’s Revealed Word, The Holy Bible, without receiving the LORD’s righteous and severe punishment. Here are just a few examples: the destruction of all but 8 people with the world wide flood … the fiery end of Sodom and Gomorrah … the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD … the fall of the Roman Empire … the crushing defeat of the evil Axis of Powers during World War II… and the breakup of the former Soviet Union. As our progressive leaders continue to lead us away from God, they lead our nation ever closer to meeting the fierce judgment and wrath of God.
The LORD’s threat of judgment and severe punishment, however, do not stem from any sense of vindictiveness or even a perverse sense of enjoyment in seeing people suffer. Rather, it always has come out of His compassion and always will. His desire is that all might know Him only as God and for all people to know of His saving grace. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? ( Ezek 18:23).
The clear and overriding message of The Holy Bible, however, is that God’s righteous judgment always serves His grace. The aim of our God is not that He might destroy anyone, even the wicked. He loves all whom He has created. In His compassion for them He desires to save both the just and the unjust and that none should be brought to destruction, but repent and live (I Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9). This is made abundantly clear in the final verse of our text from the Book of Jonah. It reads: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
God’s compassion is the very driving force in the whole Book of Jonah. Only when we come to comprehend the breadth and depth of this compassion will we understand God’s dealings with His prophet Jonah and the city of Nineveh, as well as His dealing with us and His calling of us to deal in kind with our world.
The great city of Nineveh was the capital city of the mighty, wicked, and ruthless kingdom of Assyria. This kingdom’s depth of immorality, idolatry and hedonistic ways was only eclipsed by its blood thirstiness and penchant for cruelty. Israel, the LORD’s people, were often the unfortunate receivers of Assyria’s wickedness.
The events of our text take place with God’s second calling of Jonah to go and preach to the great city of Nineveh. This second call of the LORD was necessary because Jonah had rebelled against God the first time God asked him to go to Nineveh and preach the word He gave him. In fact, Jonah had run in the opposite direction and boarded a boat sailing west across the Mediterranean Sea to get as far away from Nineveh as he possibly could. It took being thrown overboard in a storm at sea and being swallowed alive by a giant fish for Jonah to begin to see things God’s way... to be open to answering God’s call the second time. Being in the belly of whale for three days can be a great attitude adjuster!
Why did Jonah think it was such a bad idea to preach God’s Word to Nineveh in the first place? It really wasn’t about being afraid to go into hostile territory. Sure, Nineveh was a notoriously wicked city, whose inhabitants were longtime enemies of Israel. It would have been completely natural for Jonah to be afraid. The armies of Nineveh had often invaded, destroyed and conquered Jonah’s homeland.
Something else, though, moved Jonah to run away. He reveals his true reason in a conversation he had with God, recorded in the last chapter. Jonah explains, “...for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.”
Yes, you heard him correctly! Jonah actually rebelled against God’s call to preach to Nineveh because he knew God was so compassionate. In other words, Jonah knew that if the people repented at his preaching to them, God would compassionately forgive them and not bring upon them the destruction they deserved. And this was reprehensible to Jonah. He thought these wicked Gentiles deserved to be punished, wiped off the face of the earth! It wasn’t the wickedness of man Jonah feared. He was afraid God would be compassionate and spare such wicked people.
Unfortunately, Jonah is not alone in his inability to reconcile God’s compassion for the wicked. We all wrestle with it. We know and expect God to be compassionate toward the innocent victims of violence. We rejoiced and gave thanks to God with the Psalmist in our Introit that He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. And, of course, we have no problem with God showering us with His compassion. After all, we rationalize that we are not as bad as those wicked people over there!
But that God should be compassionate toward the Ninevites... toward ISIS… toward ruthless dictators like Kim Jong Un... toward abortionists; toward Antifa and Black Lives Matter thugs, well, that just chaps our hides!
But, friends in Christ, that God is compassionate toward even the wicked is exactly why He deserves our praise. Where would you and I be without such compassion? We may have judged our own sins to be less severe and less deserving of God’s wrath than those of others, but God judges that the wages of all sin is death. As a God of perfection, He sees that even if we keep the whole law and yet fail in just one point we are guilty of it all and deserve the same punishment as he who has broken it all (James 2:10).
As the apostle John writes, God has graciously given His Son Jesus Christ to be the propitiation not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2). Yes, we are all benefactors of God’s undeserved compassion; that includes those on the left, as well as those on the right. Without it, only destruction and misery would be in our paths. It is His compassion crucified that has saved wretches like us. So, thanks be to God for His compassion for the wicked! He deserves our praise not our criticism for such compassion.
Jonah had to learn this lesson of God’s compassion the hard way. He had to spend 3 long days wallowing around in the stomach juices of a sea monster to contemplate God’s compassion for him, as well as the Ninevites. But, you see, being swallowed by the fish was not punishment from God for disobeying His call. No, it was an act of God’s saving compassion. In His mercy, God did not allow Jonah to sink to his death at the bottom of the sea floor when he was thrown overboard, which he would have deserved because of his rebellion. Instead, the fish became God’s instrument of grace to save the disobedient Jonah’s hide.
Jonah finally acknowledged this compassionate salvation while still in the dark and damp, but safe, interior of the fish. Jonah prayed, “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But Thou hast brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.” God found and saved Jonah even as Jonah wallowed in his anger, defiance and disobedience! This is our compassionate God!
An interesting side bar: as Jonah noted himself, to preach across the whole breadth of the city of Nineveh would take 3 days. Amazing isn’t it! That would be one day for each day he was in the belly of the fish. 3 days to contemplate how compassionate the Lord had been to save him. And for us, a reminder that our Lord spent three days dead in the tomb of God’s compassion to save all of us!
And, get this; in His compassion God saved you and me by The Fish, Jesus Christ. Let me explain. One of the words for fish in the Greek language is the word ichthus. The early Christians used that word to teach and proclaim their compassionate Savior. They used each letter of the word ichthus as the beginning letter of other words to spell out the message: “Jesus Christ God’s Son, Savior.” We are compassionately saved by God’s Great Fish!
Where, then, does this leave us concerning all the evil around us? How do we deal with it?
First of all, we must remind ourselves that like Jonah we are people born of God’s compassion. As St. Peter writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead...”
Because God had compassion on our plight, Christ was crucified for our transgressions and raised again for our justification. Our new life in Christ is shaped and molded by compassion. To be an agent of wrath is not fitting of us. We are people marked with the cross of God’s mercy. Accordingly, in the compassion we have received we are to reach out to victims of others’ injustice as well as to those who are victims of their own ignorance, lusts, or belligerence.
For one, such compassion does not allow us to simply sit idly by and watch as our nation continues to spiral downward in falsehood and wickedness. Instead, God’s compassion compels us, like Jonah, to speak up with the truth of God’s Word that people might be turned away from their pursuit of all things wicked, perverse, and destructive of others.
This does not mean, however, that we simply proclaim to everyone, “God loves you?” God did not send Jonah to Nineveh with a Valentine or to tell the people “I’m okay and you’re okay!” No, Jonah’s message from God was this: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned...utterly destroyed!” His message was fire and brimstone! It was pure law! But it was law backed by God’s love for the sinner, who needs to be truly “woke,” woken up to the peril he is placing himself into by his impenitence.
And so is to be our preaching to the wicked today. Everything is not okay for those who are living in defiance of God’s law. Like the Ninevites, they are headed for certain eternal punishment in hell. For God can not forgive where there is no repentance. How can you forgive the person who does not see that he has done anything wrong? They need to hear the threat of God’s punishment that they might turn from their wicked ways and receive forgiveness from God’s compassion. True compassion desires that they live and not die in their sin.
So powerfully did God work through the message of Jonah that the whole city, including the king, repented immediately. The sincerity of their repentance was seen in that they all, from the least to the greatest, even their animals, observed a no food and no drink fast. The Holy Spirit through that Word proclaimed to them, interestingly convinced them that because the LORD was giving them this opportunity to repent, He must be compassionate and would perhaps even save them from destruction. So we hear in the response of the King himself. He said, “Who knows whether God may turn and change his verdict and turn away from the fierceness of His anger so we will not perish?” (v. 9)
God did not have to change His mind. It was always in God’s compassionate heart to save the Ninevites. It was out of His compassion for them that He had sent Jonah to preach in the first place. His message of Law served the interests of His compassion to save the wicked. When they repented He was glad to also in His compassion speak a word of forgiveness.
Such is our God. To the prophet Ezekiel, that God was also sending out to preach a message of repentance to save wicked sinners, He said, “’As I live,’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.”
Nothing has changed. The saving of all, even the most wicked, is still in the compassionate heart of God. Yes, we as a nation cannot continue to live in defiance of God’s clear Word, as well as the denial of Him and His Son Jesus Christ, and not expect to feel the hard blow of His rod of justice and punishment. Perhaps as some believe, all the civil unrest, rioting, disrespect for authority, and the breakdown of the order of our society is indicative of the fact that we are already under God’s wrath.
But, as American Christians, we ought not lose heart. Our comfort is two-fold. First of all, as we learn from Jonah’s experience, God’s threats and even His blows of punishment stem not from His wrath but rather from His gracious compassion that such discipline might bring us to repentance and so, enable us to receive His eternal and sure absolution. The fact that He has not already just wiped us off the face of the earth but is still calling us to repent is evidence His grace is still upon us. Secondly, we can be comforted to know that In His Grace and love for even the wicked, God has already proclaimed in His only-begotten Son that all who repent and believe in the Gospel shall be saved. (Mk 1:15, Jn 3:16)
It’s not too late for you and me to call upon our society to repent. As long as we continue as a nation, we are assured that despite the unrelenting push to further wickedness and evil by many in our society, God is still waiting for us to repent. We can still be God’s Jonahs, proclaiming the truth and urging our nation to repent. And, most importantly, we must keep proclaiming God’s compassion in Jesus Christ, who has already atoned for even these sins. For it is only that grace of God, as in the case of the Ninivites, which will ultimately turn the hard-hearts of Americans to repentance.