Epiphany 3-B, January 25, 2015
Rev. Brian Henderson—Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
Many of us have heard the story of Jonah since we were children. It has several lessons that are wonderful for children to learn, because if those lessons stick with them when they are older, they will serve as reminders to them that while God is indeed merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, His will in our lives can not be avoided.
In the first two chapters of Jonah we are told clearly what God’s will is: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” And in the very next sentence we read, “But Jonah refused to go, and instead he rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. ”. I remember as a child, after hearing this story so many times, thinking, “Oh oh… Jonah, don’t mess with God, and don’t run, because He will always find you. He’s got ways of making you go!”
So what happened to Jonah while he was on board that ship bound for Tarshish? A terrible storm kicked up and the sailors thought that the gods of the sea were angry with them and must be appeased. But Jonah knew it was the Lord’s doing; He knew he had been found out. But in the militancy of his sin, he devised a way of not doing what God wanted done… he would die before he would go to Nineveh. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord” Jonah said, “(He is) the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” [Jonah 1] And they did just that!
But God’s will and His presence cannot be denied. So what did God do? He sent a giant fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Note: Does this sound familiar?), before that great fish spit him out. And where did it spit him out at? Right there on the shores of Nineveh!
So what caused Jonah to be so militant in his sin of disobedience? Well, two things actually. First, the people of Nineveh were the mortal enemies of the Israelites, and second Jonah new God’s nature very well. Listen to Jonah’s own words found in chapter four for why he ran from God: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” In other words, Jonah knew that if his mortal enemies repented, that is if they believed God and turned to Him, He would save them from their certain punishment.
In our readings this morning (Jonah 3:1–5, 10, 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, Mark 1:14–20) we are given a clearer picture of repentance for all of us in the church today. In chapter three of Jonah, God re-commissions Jonah on the same mission, but this time he is given an even more offensive message to declare… offensive to Jonah that is. Instead of a message of certain punishment through the Law of God, Jonah also declares the gospel, which is hope in God’s mercy. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Forty more days… that is the gospel. If they will receive God, that is turn to him, do a 180 degree turn away from their sinful life styles, God may relent!
The story of Jonah is really the story of two groups of sinners turning to their Savior God, and conversely by turning to God’s mercy, they repented; they turned away from their sins. Jonah, on his part was given a second chance to turn away from his sin of disobedience and simply proclaim God’s Word, which he did. The people of Nineveh similarly, were shown their sin by God’s Law and they too repented; they turned to God’s mercy.
What is there in your life this morning that God is calling you to do a 180 from? What is it that is interfering with your higher calling from God? Is it you finances, relationships, anger, or lust? Or perhaps it is your continued misuse of alcohol or drugs that is influencing you with a different kind of spirit other than the Holy Spirit?
Whatever your Tarshish is this morning, God has been trying to get you to turn from it and turn to His Son Jesus Christ for some time, and now you must apply the lesson of Jonah to your own life. God is exactly the same now as He was when Jonah encountered Him. He will not relent and He will not let go. He will hound you until you relent and let go. You will not know His peace in this world until you allow His will to happen in your life.
And like the people of Nineveh, your time is short; you too have only a certain allotted portion of time to repent; to do a 180! St. Paul puts it this way: “The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Just as St. Paul had to be ready for the Lord’s return at any time, so we too must be ready today. In all our vocations and stations of life, we must allow God to be in first place; we are free to be in the world and use all of it’s resources, but they must not replace God’s presence or will for us. St. Peter says that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise (to return), as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” [2 Peter 3:9] That is, He wants you to do a 180!
Repentance is really very simple. God wants you to turn to His Son, Jesus Christ. He wants you to agree with Him that you are lost, hopeless, and helpless in your sins and then like a child separated from it’s mother in a large crowd of strangers, simply call out to Him… “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!”
You see, your sin that you think you hide so well from God is plainly seen by Him. In other words, in your sin, you stick out like a sore thumb. Isn’t it true that sometimes, we can be so lost in our sins that we don’t even care? But God sees and knows; He cares! God wants you to return to Him by turning to the cross and see His Son Jesus; look full into His passion, his suffering and death and know that it was for you. And then look at the tomb that held the lifeless body of Jesus for three days, but on Easter morning it was found empty, because He lives! He then wants to turn your eyes back to the waters of your baptism, and there once again be refreshed and find your identity and your way back onto the path of repentance. Do a 180; turn back to the beginning, which is your eternal today.
You have heard me say what I am about to declare so many times, that I am afraid you are getting tired of it, but I pray that you never tire of this reminder. “You have been saved from your sins and allowed to remain in this world for a reason.” And that reason is clearly stated in our gospel reading. You are to be fishers of men. You are to proclaim the very same message that Jonah was tasked with: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
This morning I trust that you are here because you have listened to and responded to the call of Jesus. You too have heard Him say, “Follow me.” But follow Him where? Follow Him as He simultaneously leads you deeper into both the Kingdom of God’s grace by faith in Jesus Christ, and then out into a world darkened by sin, seeking to save the lost, by proclaiming the very same message that saved you! Repent… do a 180. Turn to Jesus Christ to be saved and you will be simultaneously turning from the sins that have entrapped you!
Dear friends, you are not alone in this mission of both living out repentance and declaring it. We the church, your brothers and sisters are right there with you as we are drawn ever deeper into the mystic union of Christ’s body the church in witness, mercy, and our lives together with Christ and each other.
As we breath in and out to live in this physical world, so too are we sustained by the spiritual pattern of repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins. As our hearts beat and give life blood to our bodies, so too, repentance is the very rhythm of the church.
What is repentance? It is the cry of a lost child that knows it will only be safe in the protective arms of it’s Father. It is the tear dropped from the eye of faith. It is the milk and honey of the gospel after the heart has been torn by the gall and the wormwood of the Law.
By God’s free grace given to you through Christ Jesus you have been set free, so turn to Christ and live out that freedom. He will again remind you of His mercy and bring peace to your soul. Dear friends, do a 180… AMEN!