They spoke a different language with a different accent, but their English was remarkably clear. They had a different color of skin, but their concerns and their joys were remarkably similar. They had a different background in education, but remarkably they were able to study deep theological concepts while translating words from the Bible written in Hebrew and Greek, yet another huge step away from their native tongue. They were young men who were part of summer school class that I took at our Seminary a number of years ago, men who were Hmong (Hmong) by nationality – having once lived in the country of Laos, next to Viet Nam. It was a pleasure getting to study with — and to getting to know — these young men who are now WELS pastors, and at that time I remember saying to myself more than once, “Man, it is really something that God could do such amazing things for people like that…”
Now that statement is true enough. It is amazing that God could so such amazing things for people like that who had been brought to faith in Jesus Christ while growing up in a culture that wanted nothing to do with Jesus Christ and sometimes harmed people who did – or worse. But what could have been very spiritually dangerous about what I was saying to myself? I pray I didn’t mean in that way, but what was dangerous was the possibility that I was thinking it might have been easier for God to do something like that for me than it was for God to do something like that for them. The better way of saying it – and the biblical way of saying it – would be, “It’s No Different for Them Than It Is for Me!” If all of us can think about our Christian faith and our Christian life in this way, it’s going to help us understand a little bit better what was going on with the remarkable story about the prophet of God named Jonah and the evil people of a very large city called Nineveh in the modern day country of Iraq – and what that means for your and my journey of faith in this world today.
You may well remember that Jonah did not want to go to talk about the Lord to people about whom he felt very strongly didn’t deserve to hear the message of a compassionate and gracious God, the almighty Maker of heaven and the Savior of the world. Humanly speaking, you couldn’t blame him. It would be like us being asked to go to whatever country might be our enemy right now and wants to do us harm. Jonah had to spend three days in the belly of that big fish in order to come to his spiritual senses and answer the Lord’s call in our Lesson for today, when, right after the fish spewed Jonah forth, we are told in the opening verse that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,” a calling Jonah now obeyed, a calling that led him to first of all give the warning God wanted the people of Nineveh to hear in no uncertain terms, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
Bible students have long debated whether the amazing repentance of the king of Nineveh and the people of the land was only a repentance of being sorry and afraid for their sins, or whether it was the complete repentance of that kind of sorrow, coupled with a confidence in the forgiveness of their sins, but, while we can’t speak with absolutely certainty about it, there is no reason to think that they could not have actually come to faith in the Lord’s grace and mercy because of the Lord’s grace and mercy. Hundreds of years later, in fact, Jesus himself used the people of Nineveh at Jonah’s time as an example of what should have been the case for the people of his time, when he said to the Pharisees of his day, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.” And if you and I are tempted to say in self-righteousness rather than humble awe, “Man, it’s amazing that God could something for people like that,” then we can use that reminder, can’t we, “It’s no different for them than it is for me.”
Why is that? Why is our coming to faith no different than anyone else’s coming to faith? The answer is simple to say from God’s Word, but not easy at all to accept in our human heart. We were all born in the same way – created by God but not in the family of God, because our coming into the world was stained with the sin that was not part of God’s original creation of Adam and Eve. Ever since they fell to Satan, all people are born in that condition of inherited or original sin, and no person has any chance to avoid staying with Satan, unless someone else whom God has brought to faith in Jesus tells us about the work of Jesus – the very message which has the power to give us the faith to believe it through the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is that perspective about our lives which then allows us to receive the great comfort that the parables of Jesus in today’s Gospel are meant to give us – those parables of the growing seed and the mustard seed. What these parables help us realize is that not only should we be humble about the fact that it’s no different for them than it is for me, but we also can be very thankful for the fact that it’s no different for them than it is for me. Jesus does that by inviting us to be amazed that something so great can be done by something that seems so little.
This is what I mean.
Jesus talked about planting little seeds. If you plant a seed, do you do anything that causes that actual seed to grow? You may till the soil and water the ground, but who is completely responsible for giving that seed the power to become a plant that provides food? The Lord. It is the exact same way with the little seed of God’s Word, and that’s why it is such a joy and so important to be people who are in God’s Word. The Bible often compares using or sharing the Word to sowing seed. God promises that the seed will grow, unless we let it wash away with our sins or get choked off by our worries. As you and I keep hearing the Word, we join people from different cultures of different times since the beginning of the world and even now in our own country and in places far, far away, who are being assured that there is nothing I have ever done that could cause God to stop loving me, who are being assured that there is nothing that could ever happen in our lives or in the world around us that could ever take us away from being part of his family, who are being assured that no matter how much someone may harm us or belittle us or even hate us, we have the ability to be patient and to endure and to forgive. That is the power of that little seed that God placed in our hearts when in his love he gave us the faith to believe in Jesus Christ.
Who would ever have thought that something so little like that would be able to do something so great? The little Lord Jesus once asleep in the hay and years later dead on a cross – the despised Lord Jesus once sought by a heathen king wanting to include him in his attack on babies and years later sought to be silenced by religious leaders who would not cease their attacks until his words could be heard no more – the humble Lord Jesus once growing up in a town few people cared about and years later wanting to make sure his mother would be cared for by a dear disciple after he was gone. This little, despised, humble Lord Jesus is the one whose perfect life, innocent death and glorious resurrection all over the world throughout all time has comforted guilty consciences that wondered if that sin – or every sin — could ever be forgiven; encouraged hearts filled with sadness and worry; directed decisions made after prayerful requests to his holy throne; motivated sacrifices of personal desires being replaced by putting someone else first, sacrifices of giving time to help a soul in need or a body of believers in a church, sacrifices of spending money not just to please self but to take care of God-given responsibilities and as offerings to further the kingdom of God so more people could grow in – and then go with – the same gospel message of the little, despised, humble Lord Jesus, who is the Lord and King of all.
Just like the tiny, little mustard seed Jesus talked about grew into such a huge garden plant that birds could even find a place to rest in its shade, so the tiny, little, seemingly insignificant message of our Lord God has done amazing things – and will continue to do amazing things – for those who hear what the Lord our God has said about our need for Jesus and what the Lord our God has done by sending Jesus – just as he did for the people to whom Jonah preached in Nineveh in the Middle East, and just as he did for those Hmong brothers in Southeast Asia, and just he has done and is doing for us here in Southeastern Wisconsin.
Thank God with all your heart that because of the work of Jesus Christ each one of us can say, “It’s no different for them than it is for me!” Through Christ my Lord what God has done for them he has also done for me. Let’s keep praying that God will use us to get more “them’s” to join us and see what a great big difference that will make in our lives and in this world with the little light of Christian faith and Christian love which God has given to us all. Amen.