Do you ever wonder about that scene along the shore in the gospel? The boys are working with dad – family business – fishing, fixing nets, trolling the lake. Jesus strolls by with a job offer. He calls them to a new job and they go! Minimal position description: “You seem to like fishing… Follow me and I can translate that skill set to catching people.” And they go. You would think there would be a number of concerns, wouldn’t you? “What’s your benefits package like, Jesus?” “My wife works full-time, Lord, so I’m going to need to know a little more specifically what your schedule expectations are?” “Do you think I’d be able to remote in?” But no, he calls, they follow – leave dad and the nets behind and they just go. What a wonder!
It’s just the same in the story of Jonah. There’s a lot of wonder behind where our story starts, of course. Jonah had run from God’s command to preach. He’d seen God’s wrath in a ship-shattering storm. Tossed overboard, he’d spent days in the belly of God’s salvation-fish. Now he was wiping the fish-phlegm off his face – recently vomited out onto the beach. That’s all well and good but this morning I’m thinking more of this: that God sends Jonah to unbelieving Nineveh and he goes and he preaches and it works, like over the top. People who ran after everything ungodly thing this world could offer became ones who followed the Lord into his kingdom. They repent. They believe. What a wonder!
It truly is a wondrous thing. At Jonah’s time, Assyria was a great and fearsome enemy of God’s people. Jonah probably disliked them greatly. You could infer it from how he ran the opposite direction when God sent him the first time. It would be like if God came down and said, “Phil, go to that great city Tehran and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Alaska Air flight 6029 to Honolulu would look pretty pleasing right then… But Jonah finally went. And whether he liked it or not, this proclamation was going to take some time. It says, “Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days.” In ch.4, God says of Nineveh that it’s “more than 120,000 people” – decent-sized by 21st century standards. It would take a few days’ time to proclaim to everyone there. But here’s how things went down: “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed:” And let’s assume, with good reason, that Jonah was sullen and angry and so he preached the bare minimum he had to get out, literally just five words in Hebrew: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Day 1: “The Ninevites believed God…all of them, from the greatest to the least…”
You know it’s not Jonah with his winning words that works this wonder – he wanted to get done and get gone. No, only the Lord works true repentance. And it is…
1. Brought on by his Word
Isaiah the prophet conveyed this message from God, “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” With Jonah it seems God wants Nineveh’s destruction. Thelaw of God’s wrath hangs over their sin-filled city, “40 more days!” Perhaps Jonah wasn’t a complete curmudgeon. Perhaps he expanded on the gospel of that 40 day grace-period. Perhaps he spoke like God’s other prophets sometimes did: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” In fact, the last thing God says in the book of Jonah: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” And he was. So he had his saving Word proclaimed to them. And by it they believed.
Jesus talks about the Ninevites in Matthew 12: “ 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.” He’s making a comparison: Ninevah did a full-on turn around from death to faith and they had only Jonah; the people of Jesus’ day and you and me, we have the Word of God, Jesus Christ himself. Jesus says, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” Not just words, but (as we studied in bible class last week), “the gospel, [that is] the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Indeed, “faith [or belief and repentance] comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Faith to believe and trust that God has provided rescue from the guilt of sins by the gift of his son, Jesus… Faith in his wickedness-free life in our place and the promise of everlasting life with God… Faith in this Jesus comes exactly and only by the preaching of God’s Word.
The Lord works true repentance through his Word, and then it is:
2. Demonstrated by our Actions
The Ninevites showed the true repentance God had worked through his Word: universally they believed, they fasted, they put on sin-sadness garments. Even up to the king, who finally proclaimed:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. 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.”
Sackcloth and ashes, man and animal, from prince to pauper. For what? In order to demonstrate in their actions that they were sorry for sins. They recognize that’s what they are when they call them “evil ways” and “violence”. They leave those things behind, and call urgently on God for the “maybe” of his mercy instead. This is repentance in action – sorrow over sins and desire to follow God’s ways instead.
You and I rely on no “maybe” of God’s mercy. We have it in Jesus Christ. We are his own people who live by faith. How do we show it? Like Jonah or like Nineveh? Striking, isn’t it? The new-to-faith king of Nineveh seems to say God’s grace better than God’s twice-sent prophet ever does. In fact, I wonder in Jonah whether God gives us this prophet to help us think about our own repentance and faith. Consider:
- God boldly shows us that his Word works. But do we run from proclaiming it nonetheless? Because it’s hard to trust that by it he will work? We fear this Word can’t overcome the objections our brother or daughter will make? We fear that the lifestyle they’ve chosen and feelings they have, these are stronger than God’s powerful law, his gracious gospel? Or you fear for yourself: you fall into sin again and again and again and you wonder whether anything can work to make you holy and save you – and you fear to test this Word God promises.
- God boldly shows that his Word brings mercy to sinners. Perhaps we are tempted to get stuck like Paul warns in the 2nd lesson – in all the feelings, things, relationships of the passing world. Maybe we hang onto our anger or our shame or our guilt…it feels to have that raw emotion burning away in our hearts. And we refuse flat-out to speak God’s Word to our own hearts or that friend who hurt us. We refuse like Jonah in ch.4, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was angry on the couch? This is why I was so quick to shut down your Word. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…I knew you would forgive and relent. And he/she/I don’t deserve it!”
Look at Jonah and see. God doesn’t just want actions done, but hearts that are his. Seek out Nineveh and see repentance and reliance on God’s mercy. Then check your own hearts and confess your own sins. In faith, daily repent and believe the good news that one better than Jonah has come for you. Jonah got vomited onto the beach after three days in a fish; Jesus is a sign like no one has ever been – risen from three days in his grave, the sign of everlasting life for sinners. Trust in the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Trust that he has won forgiveness for every time you’ve run away from his Word. Remember that very forgiveness is made for all those around you too. Seek out this Word and trust that he will work on your heart and in the hearts of others. And then proclaim it – with joy that leaves behind wicked ways and selfish fears – preach in what you say and do.
And as the Lord works this true repentance, brings it about by his Word in us and others and it’s demonstrated in what we say and do, this will be:
3. Repentance pleasing to God
“When God saw what [Nineveh] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” You don’t have to go to Nineveh to find that. This morning already we’ve been enjoying God’s compassion on us. In lives of repentance and faith we confessed our sins without fear. We implored the Lord to have mercy and he proclaimed it in absolution. We sought out his Word and listened to what he says to us. As we celebrate his sacrament, our Savior will bring God’s good pleasure to us in his own body and blood together with bread and wine. He will intimately, lovingly say to you, “I forgive you all your sins. I am so happy that you are mine that I promise to be with you. I will strengthen you and help you and lift you up with my mighty hand so that you can and will live lives of faith.” And we will sing the joy of being people who have God’s good pleasure: for our eyes have seen the salvation that shines out in this Epiphany season. We know the Savior who walked the shores of Galilee and called sinners into his kingdom. Like this morning, to prophets or unbelievers or ourselves, we hear how gracious and merciful is our God to proclaim his Word and call us his own who would otherwise not be. What a miracle! What a blessing! What wonderful work our Lord does! No wonder, then, that we follow him: so graciously he’s called us into his kingdom. No wonder, either, that we continue to proclaim that kingdom: relying on his Word, putting our faith into action, and living in his good pleasure, we repent and believe his good news. Amen.