1Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And 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. . . .
10When 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. (Jonah 3:1–5, 10)
The account of Jonah is a familiar one. Both to those inside the church and to those outside the church, the account of Jonah is almost immediately recognized. I use the word ‘account’ because that word ‘story’ is understood by some as referring to something that is not true. Even here in this place there might be at least one, if not more, who believe that Jonah was never swallowed by a great fish, though the Bible reveals this to be so. And certainly this is the case outside of these walls. At schools, colleges, and universities, as well as in our communities, and dare I say, even in many churches, it would be correct to assume that many students and faculty, members and even clergy alike discount Jonah as legend, myth, and a historical, not having much if anything to do with reality.
I say these things to you now, not because you don’t know them, but because you do, in order to remind you what you already know, that not everyone takes the Word of God as God says, and that you may be aware of the unbelief that is out there, and then, with God helping you, to stand firm on what God has made known, not that which is based on fantasy, but that which is founded on God’s work and God’s action in history that we might know and believe in Jesus.
When we read Holy Scripture, we don’t come at it like it’s just any other book. However, the Bible is, generally speaking, questioned as to its historicity, its literality, its truthfulness, and its application, even within Christendom itself. Many mainline church bodies, though they may say that the Bible is God’s Word, at the same time declare that what is written in it is not historically accurate. But if not historically accurate, how can it be God’s Word? God to be God means that He speaks only the truth. If the Bible is not true, how are we to trust what’s recorded in it? Some say that the Bible is not to be taken as it says. But if that’s the case, is any of it to be taken at face value, and if so, what part is and what part isn’t? Some say that what’s in the Bible doesn’t have to do so much with real events, people, and times, but more importantly, the meaning behind the stories. The important thing to many today, with regard to the Bible, is not whether or not the things really happened, but how the Bible makes one feel, what it says to me, how it makes one a better person, or the effect it has on one’s life, not in the sense of recognizing one’s sin, confessing that sin, and then believing in God’s promises through Jesus Christ for eternal life, but in the sense of how one’s life might be improved only in the here and now. The emphasis has become less on eternity and more on present – one’s personal life – not how one stands before God, but how one sees oneself in relation to self or others.
The pursuit of happiness and contentment with oneself has become the ultimate goal, it might seem. And many see the Bible only as a means to that end. But in doing so, however, those who use the Word of the Lord for their own gain not only miss the mark with reference to God’s Word and its application. They also are placing themselves in God’s shoes and taking His place as Lord rather than hearing the text as God’s, through which He makes His will known – what we are to believe and how we are to live.
When it comes to the Bible and the words therein, even to the text before us of Jonah, it is not for us, or for anyone, to question the revelation, proclamation, declaration, condemnation, or salvation of the Lord God who gives such testimony, not for Himself, but for our sakes, that we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest what He has both said and done for us, even for people like us who want to be first in line ahead of God and the definer of our own destinies.
When it comes to the Bible, the historicity of the event is not to be divorced from the meaning of the text and vice versa. If it is, you end up with myths like the Greeks and Romans. If it is, then you have theories like evolution, unbelief in the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land by the Israelites when the Egyptians were chasing them, a virgin-less birth, and ultimately, a God-less Jesus, who was crucified, not to pay the debt for the world’s sins and yours and mine, but who died to be only an example of selflessness and to show us how we ought to be towards others, ‘turning the other cheek and loving our enemies.’ If the Bible is not true in all of its words, then what is recorded in it is not true. If, as some believe, the Bible is only what we make out of it or get from it, then man has become god and God is no longer God.
Instead of placing ourselves above the Word, we humble ourselves before it. And instead of deluding ourselves with the notion that it doesn’t apply to us, we yield to it, for not only does God justly condemn sin – He also has removed that judgment from us and has placed it upon His Son.
God makes knows His workings in the world through Scripture, not only His judgment and anger, but especially His mercy and His patience. Jonah said it this way, I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm (Jonah 4:2). Ironically, this is why Jonah ran away from God the first time.
In our text it says, Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time (Jonah 3:1). For the word of the Lord to come to Jonah the second time implies that it came to him a first time. And a first time it did. And that word to Jonah the first time was this, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me (Jonah 1:2).
God was calling Jonah, one of his prophets, to go to a specific place, to a specific people, and to proclaim a specific message. God had called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and to preach repentance to her citizens, because destruction was soon to come upon them because of their wickedness. But instead of going in the direction God had told him to go, he went the other way. He tried to avoid God’s calling, and that’s why Jonah ended up in the water.
But even though Jonah fled from God, God had other plans for him. God would use Jonah as His instrument to declare judgment upon the people of Nineveh, whether Jonah wanted to or not. [God uses us for His purposes even if we don’t know them (i.e. doctors, judges, teachers, parents, etc.).] And so God did use Jonah for His purpose. Jonah did go to Nineveh after being in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. And Jonah did preach the message that God told him to preach. And the people did turn from their sinful ways. And the Lord did relent from destroying wicked Nineveh, for they confessed that they were sinners, and they believed in God for deliverance.
What Jonah said of God was true, He is the gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm (Jonah 4:2). It was because of this that Jonah tried to avoid going to Nineveh as God’s prophet. Jonah desired God’s grace and His mercy, but only for the people of Israel. The unbelieving nations, such as the wicked Ninevites, did not deserve God’s kindness. They deserved His wrath. Jonah wished God’s goodness only for himself and his people and no one else.
This was a commonly held position in Israel. And it is also one found among us. We too, like Jonah, know God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and One who relents from doing harm. We have come to know this through the One who himself said of Jonah, As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40). Through the One who himself was three days and nights in the tomb after being hung on the cross, we ourselves have come to know that God is Good (Psalm 73:1), that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and that God forgives the sinner (Luke 5:21; Acts 5:31).
Though we don’t deserve God’s favor or kindness, even because of our confessing our sins to Him, and though we ourselves deserve instead to be overthrown than be delivered, the Son of God substituted His holy life for our wickedness. Jesus gave His life for ours in death. And the Father has accepted His life and His death in our stead.
But this Good News is not just for us. The Good News of God is not just for God’s people. It’s for all and everyone. For God so loved the World (John 3:16). God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). ‘The world,’ says St. Paul. ‘The world,’ says Jesus. God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).
And how does God go about saving people and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth? How did people in the days of the Apostles hear about Jesus? How did the Ninevites in Jonah’s day hear about the coming destruction because of their wickedness? God made it known to them. There were those sent of God to proclaim such news. There were those sent of God to declare God’s judgment and God’s peace. And still today does God still send. Still today there are those sent of God to speak His unadulterated and true Word. And still today do God’s people confess His Name and Proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
How did you come to know of Christ and His love? How did you come to believe in Him as your Savior? It was through the Word of the Lord that you came to faith. It was through the Word preached and spoken to you that you believed. And it is through that same Word by which you remain and continue in true faith. And it is through that same word by which others hear, repent, and believe.
Give thanks, then, that God has so opened your eyes to see your sin and opened them that you see clearly your Savior Jesus Christ. Give thanks for those whom God has sent and for those God does send. Give thanks that the Good News of sins forgiven is not just for you, but for all people. For just as others don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, neither do you. But neither they nor you are forgiven because of deserving it. Rather it is because of Christ, and Christ alone.
Rather than run away from God and His call to serve Him and serve others, because of Christ, wherever you are, whether near or far, here or there, be faithful to our Lord. Hear His Word. Know that you are not your own, but were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 7:23). You were washed with water and Word in Holy Baptism. Also know that God’s goodness to you in Christ extends also to your neighbor. On that account, as God is towards you in Christ, forgiving you your sins freely and showing you His kindness, so ought you to show that same kindness to others. As God loves you, so ought you to love one another – freely, unconditionally, unreservedly, and continually (1 John 4:11). Amen.