The words of Jesus in the gospel this morning are rather direct. They’re among those words of our Savior that I think we don’t like to hear sometimes. Perhaps in the same way as when someone has a big task to accomplish and they’re determined to get it done and they’ve got no time to mess around – their answers will be clipped and short and to the point – they know exactly what needs to be done and they are going to do it and you are either going to be a help or a hindrance, to get on board or get out of the way. I don’t mean to say that Jesus is being a curmudgeon, rather that he’s totally committed to God’s gospel work and this morning he calls us to the same.
Our Old Testament lesson helps us to do it. It brings before our eyes pictures of total commitment so that we might consider Christ’s call and our attachments and commit ourselves to his work.
The first picture of total commitment we find in a foreign place, that enormous, pagan city Nineveh. It’s a picture of ignorance. The Lord characterized these people as ones who “cannot tell their right hand from their left hand,” that is probably best translated, “they don’t know right from wrong.” If you think that unlikely just recall what you encounter as you walk through this city: our society’s struggles (or not) with human sexuality – a pantheon of gender neutral pronouns, or gender in children, or well, a whole host of things…; things entirely beyond where they were even a decade ago – so that it’s almost a foreign place where there are so many “rights” but what God considers right is absolutely wrong. Of course, there is no escaping God’s judgments – and, our culture now or this one back then, wickedness always comes to God’s attention even when it is by way of ignorance.
And so it’s told as the preacher marches through the streets of the city proclaiming his simple sermon, “40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned!” A great and complete destruction – like that one that happened at Sodom and Gomorrah. But, contrary to expectation, the results from the sermon are simply amazing, miraculous. “The Ninevites believed God,”; all of them. No eating, no drinking, wearing scratchy sackcloth mourning clothes – in deed and word they respond to God’s warning. As the king decreed: “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” And he does; and they don’t. From total ignorance, this beautiful, unexpected picture of repentance – total commitment to God’s ways.
Actually, it’s not all that uncommon. Sinners turn from wickedness at the Lord’s Word all the time. And, in this story, it’s “a thing”. This kind of beautiful picture comes into view because of that other, conspicuous picture of total commitment. It’s a picture of better knowledge. It’s the prophet himself. It looks great, at first glance. These are the opening notes, “Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh.” Probably he gauged that big old city, a three-day tour kind of big it was. Probably he hiked up his suspenders, knocked the dust off his boots and set about to preach that city into destruction – just as he’d been told. “40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” And after only one day of minimal preaching the prophet’s message produced pure repentance – entire contrition over sins – the whole city-wide congregation at once. You’d expect to see snapshots of joy, Jonah’s fist-pumping, mid-air leap, Instagram post (#God’sWordRocks). But, contrary to expectation, the results after the sermon are pathetic, underwhelming: the prophet pouts. Listen to his prayer and his pronouns,
“O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
From better knowledge of God, this petulant, astounding picture of egoism – Jonah was totally committed to himself.
There are so many temptations that call us away from God’s ways but probably the worst is commitment to ourselves. Jonah knew better – he’d received God’s grace when God saved him from drowning, swallowed him up in a fish, spat him out on the beach, and sent him to preach again… Of all things, Jonah is angry that God is gracious; the grace he himself had received he did not want freely given. But that’s not uncommon. Take it in the smallest way; in our personal relationships with people. Work in God’s kingdom can be something as simple as forgiveness for a wrong done to us. But sometimes don’t you produce the angry, bitter face, tight lips, squinty eyes – though you know God’s gracious forgiveness, you also feel that that dirty, rotten whoever doesn’t deserve to have it! And it feels good to hang on to that anger – so we choose to… total commitment to me. And maybe it shows itself in fear of others or selfish prayers to protect me, but whatever the way of this we can be sure: wickedness always comes to God’s attention, especially when it’s despite better knowledge. And, if we don’t turn away, destruction looms…
There’s still one more picture of total commitment. It invites us away from all of that. The picture of the pouting prophet really gives us opportunity to see the pictures of God’s mercy. Of how he looks down on his creation with interest and compassion. Last line in the whole story, God says, “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” He is… Had been for millennia by then with Nineveh; watching his creatures. He looks down on the wicked (and our wickednesses included) with concern and sends his prophets to proclaim his Word. In fact, what a picture of mercy! He could strike down the wicked – Nineveh or Jonah or me – but instead he invites us into the conversation, calls us to think about what is right or wrong. The last line of our section, “Have you any right to be angry?” In his Word, he calls to question our angers and our fears, our biases and our sins – to see to whom we’ve truly committed ourselves. When we turn from these and back to him, he proclaims mercy and forgiveness for each and all.
Leave behind the prophet pouting on the hill outside Nineveh and you’ll see how it’s so. Turn your gaze to the prophet who looks longingly toward the city of Jerusalem – the place where he will terribly die at the hands of wicked men. He’s determined to get there. To preach through rejection, to walk into betrayal, to choose death, and finally to rise to life again. Jesus, the great prophet, is totally committed to being God’s Word of salvation for the whole world. Jesus is totally committed to accomplish full and complete forgiveness of sins for the wicked. To produce life with God and salvation for eternity for the undeserving. Jesus has done this. He is totally committed to you. So that you don’t have to be totally committed to you. Rather, by faith in his mercy, you can be totally committed to him.
You know what that looks like? Picture it:
- It’s in Galatians 5 (the other 2nd lesson we could have used today) – where you, God’s people, are free in the grace of God to choose to live by his Spirit. Which means, the feelings of the sinful nature and its temptations, they don’t own you. You can actually put away envy and hurt and fear and live in love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and gentleness and self-control – in all the fruitful ways that help us and others to leave sin behind and bring praise to God in the world.
- It’s in 2 Corinthians – where God does let you live in such a way that you could, like Paul, boast before the world – because he’s allowed you to testify to his grace, he’s preserved you in dangers, he’s grown you through trials. But he also gives you to boast most in this: these weaknesses are opportunities for God to show his mercy and strength. Contrary to human expectation: when I am weak, when I expect no results, when the situation is worst, then I am strong for I rely on the merciful God who strengthens me.
- It’s in Psalm 62 – where God’s people sing, “My soul finds rest in God alone, my rock and my salvation.” In him they trust for they have known that God is strong, the Lord is loving and his reward is the greatest good.
People of God, pictured in all these ways, let us daily turn from commitment to ourselves and rejoice in God’s kingdom work and gladly heed his call and follow him. Let us hear the invitation of his Word that the joy of his Spirit may fill us and the fruits of righteousness be abundant among us. And this will be our reward: to look with joy on the kingdom of God, his mighty, merciful work for us and in us and through us…and see a picture of total commitment – from him and in us, so that it might be in many others too.