God Cares for All
Sermon 1718 Jonah October 25, 2020
First of all, it was a fish, not a whale. Both Jonah and Jesus, when he makes mention of Jonah, talk about a great fish, not a whale. It is the same word that occurs in 1 Samuel to describe the Fish God, Dagon, of the Philistines. To prevent a distraction about what type of fish it was, Jonah says God provided a great fish. In the same way God is going to provide a vine that in less than a day can cast welcome shade on Jonah’s lean-to. And once more in the same way God is going to provide a worm that will eat through Jonah’s shady vine. God created this fish, just as in Psalm 147 it says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” This is God’s creative power, not a rumor that God is a number crunching accountant. Calling something is a creative power. And he “called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night (Genesis 1.5).’” It is no more miraculous to create a great fish than it is to miraculously get that fish to where he has to be to swallow Jonah, whole, and then have the digestive juices stop working so Jonah can survive in the belly of the great fish for three days. It is no more miraculous to create a great fish than it is to miraculously direct that fish in a beeline to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean where, in a fit of indigestion, the great fish vomits Jonah up onto dry ground. I hope we have handled that elephant (or great fish) that is in the room.
Oh, and yes, Jesus made the comparison between his being in the tomb and Jonah being in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights (Matthew 12.40).
We are looking at the Sunday School lesson of Jonah. Its central theme is
God Cares for All
The good and the evil need God’s forgiveness.
We should care as well.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1.1-3).”
So the story of Jonah opens. Nineveh is perhaps that day’s largest city in the world, west of India and China, that is. It took three days to walk through it. Figuring conservatively, it had a population of 1.2 million people, in the days before indoor plumbing and public sanitation. That’s tough to do. Though the Assyrian Empire, headquartered in Nineveh, ruled from modern day Iran to Turkey and Egypt, it had temporarily lost its mojo. That was dangerous. When you swim with the sharks, you need to be tough. Nineveh had not been tough for at least twenty years.
Jonah knows what the Lord is up to. He will later complain, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish (4.2).” Jonah doesn’t want God to forgive Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want the people of Nineveh to be saved.
At this point we are scratching our heads. Who is the villain here? Certainly the people of Nineveh are wicked. The Lord says so. They are violent. They have a history of cruelty and, after a few miles of bumpy road, they will get back to their cruel ways. These are the people who will destroy Israel and almost blot out Jerusalem. The stone carvings they proudly made of their own military campaigns make anything Hollywood’s slasher movie producers come up with look like Dr. Seuss books.
But what can you say about Jonah? He is a prophet. He knows the voice of the Lord. Not only does he not listen to the Lord, he actively works against the Lord’s will. Recently the Canadians have heavily fined a few Americans who happened to get lost on their way to Alaska and ended up 500 miles to the east, in Banff National Park. The Canadians were highly suspicious that Americans so bad at directions would be so good at not spreading COVID-19. But how bad at directions do you have to be to be told to go 800 miles northeast and you book a cabin on a boat going 3000 miles to the west! And it wasn’t an accident. When he booked passage on the ship, Jonah had told the sailors he was running away from the Lord!
What did these villains deserve? Jonah’s message to Nineveh was clear. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned (3.4).” Death and destruction would be their lot. And that’s not even considering the eternal destiny allotted for unbelievers. What did Jonah deserve? That was clear by the great storm the Lord raised while Jonah was sailing to Tarshish. “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you (1.12).” There’s no repentance there. Jonah is at the scene of a fire. The firemen come and there Jonah is, with a half-filled gallon of gas at his feet and a book of matches in his hand. And he’s still trying to light the last few matches!
There are no heroes! That’s life. If we are looking for a hero in our world, we are going to look long and hard. Our national heroes led “complicated” lives. Our sports heroes are flawed individuals. Even those the Roman Catholic Church investigates for sainthood, the investigators only look for miracles done after their deaths. They aren’t even as thorough as the FBI. The FBI investigates backgrounds all the way to childhood.
We are not the heroes some might think we are. Sometimes we may be in places we shouldn’t be. Sometimes people who have access to our deep, dark secrets might not be so careful with them. That’s why the last thing any of us would want is an app on our phone deliberately tracking our whereabouts. I mean, besides Fitbit, and Google, and my Smith’s app. Did you know it automatically sends me coupons when I am entering an advertiser’s aisle?
“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who, O Lord could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared (Psalm 130.3-4).” Nineveh will listen to God’s warning. From the king to the cattle, they will display their sorrow and repentance. "When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened (3.10).” Jonah will repent. “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God (2.1).” “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land (2.10).”
When we see our sin, yes the various outward sins of greed and lust and violence, but when we see the root of that sin, a disobedience to the Lord of life, when we see our sin, we see our need for God’s forgiveness. “Create a right spirit within me. Cast me not from your presence.” “And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” I think there are many reasons to come to church for in-person worship. Certainly you can gather outside and safely talk and the weather is so pleasant on a Sunday morning. It is impossible to receive the Lord’s Supper virtually. No, it really is. We’ve had any number of good theologians chew on that problem, going way back to the days of Martin Luther! But perhaps a greater blessing is to hear the absolution, the public forgiveness of your sins. “By Christ’s command, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” One of my friends keeps asking me, “Don’t you know your sins are forgiven?” I keep telling him, “My sinful human nature always thinks I am lying!” But even my sinful human nature has to shut its mouth when my Jesus speaks.
God cares for all. The good and the evil need God’s forgiveness. God cares for all. We should care as well.
Now here’s the beauty and the horror of the Book of Jonah. Jonah still hasn’t learned his lesson, even after he did what he was supposed to (preach God’s message of deliverance through repentant faith--the Gospel) and God did what Jonah feared he would do (deliver repentant Nineveh). “Have you any right to be angry?” the Lord asks him (4.4).”
Jonah still thinks there’s an outside chance Nineveh will get clobbered. On day 40 “Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city (4.5).” It was hot.
“Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live (4.6-8.’”
Here’s a guy with a one track mind! “Nineveh is going to burn—I want to stick around to watch it!” What a smug, little prophet sitting in the shade! He preached the Law to them because he wanted them in hell. He still thinks he is better than the people of Nineveh! He couldn’t use “we” instead of “you” in a sermon if we put a gun to his head! He still doesn’t care for them, even after he has spoken the word of God to them and even after they have believed!
What a blind hypocrite! He practically curses God by his wish to die because he is so hot, deprived as he is of his shady vine. He could have gotten out from under the sun and been on his way back home. He could have gone into Nineveh, rented a room, kicked back and rejoiced with those who rejoice. He could have gone down to the river and had a cooling swim! But no. Like a hamburger in a frying pan, he was rooted to his front row seat to see Nineveh burn.
Now here comes the big finish. “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about this vine?’ ‘I do,’ he said. ‘I am angry enough to die.’ But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But 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 (4.9-11)?’”
The question is left unanswered. It reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. After the Father confronts the headstrong older (outwardly obedient) son, “My son, we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (Luke 15.32)” Jesus stops the parable. We don’t know if the older son got off his high horse and came in to join the homecoming party.
The answer is obvious. Yes. God has every right to be concerned about this entire world. He made it. That’s point number one. Jesus died for all their sins. That’s point number two. God had every right to be concerned about Nineveh. He had created and tended it. That’s point number one. He had turned their hearts to faith, and it had shown by their turning away from their evil deeds. That’s point number two.
The other answer is equally obvious. We should care as well.
As we have been forgiven by God, let us forgive others. We pray that every day in the Lord’s Prayer. Do we realize what we are praying for? We have sinned against the Lord so many times in our lives and he has wiped the slate clean. Can we not forgive the few times someone else ticks us off, says something that could have been taken in a wrong way or acted contrary to how we though a decent person should act under those circumstances?
I worry. I worry that, as I get older, not only will my arteries harden, but my heart will undergo a hardening. I worry that I will start to view individuals or even entire classes of people as undeserving of help, not worth my caring about them. I worry that I will say, “They had it coming.” “What goes around, comes around.” I worry that I will turn away with an “I told you so” under my breath.
Our Lord has put a better spirit within us. “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6.10).” “‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The Good Samaritan who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise (Luke 10.36-37).” “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6.28, 35-36).”
God Cares for All
The good and the evil need God’s forgiveness.
We should care as well.
If even a prophet of God had to be taught God cares for all, how much more you and I!