REPENT AND BELIEVE
A sermon by Justin Clavet for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany, Preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Naperville, Illinois, Jonah and Mark 1:14-20, January 21, 2018
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When God gives the Law, people grumble. Nobody wants to be told they can’t do the things they like. Nobody wants their shortcomings and failures to be pointed out. But their reaction is often worse when God gives the Gospel. When the faithful look to their neighbors and see godless sinners, they want to find a just God who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. When instead they find the Gospel, which promises mercy to all who repent and believe, this can be more terrifying to them than the Law which accuses all sinners. Humans lust for the punishment of sin and wrongdoing. Forgiveness is hard, but vengeance is easy and feels so good. But God is most certainly better at forgiveness than we are. Which is wonderful news for us indeed, because nobody can be more deserving of God’s grace than anybody else is. None of us are deserving. And Jonah saw that even the greatest enemies of God’s chosen people can be forgiven by him.
The titular character in the book of Jonah is a caricature of a prophet. His story begins with the Word of the Lord coming to him, instructing him to go to the great city of Nineveh, and “call out against it” (Jon 1:2) because its wickedness had been made known to God. But instead of going to Nineveh – the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the very seat of the great enemy of the Judean people – Jonah decided to flee to Tarshish, an imagined far-off paradise, to escape the presence of the Lord. Jonah trekked to the Mediterranean port city of Joppa, found a ship headed to this metaphorical land of Tarshish, paid his fare, and got on board.
It wasn’t long before the ship crossed paths with a mighty storm and great wind which the Lord had hurled upon the sea. The sailors, afraid that this storm would break their ship apart, cried to their gods and threw all the cargo onboard into the waters. Meanwhile, Jonah tried to retreat even further from God into a deep sleep in the hold of the ship, having failed to escape his problems by setting sail. The captain found Jonah laying down, fast asleep in this terrible storm. The crew’s prayers to their own gods having gone unanswered, he woke him and frantically begged him to pray to the Lord, hoping that maybe Jonah’s God would spare their lives.
The sailors cast lots and determined that Jonah was to blame for their misfortune. They turned to him for answers. ‘Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here?’ Jonah told them, ‘I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the earth and the waters. I have boarded your ship to flee from the Lord.’ This didn’t please the sailors, and the storm was getting worse. ‘What have you done? What can we do to put an end to this?’ Jonah replied, ‘I know it’s my fault that this storm has come. Throw me overboard into the sea.’
Not wanting to murder this man, the sailors tried to row the boat ashore but it was no use. The storm grew stronger still. Even though the men were not Israelites themselves, they decided in this desperate moment to pray to the Lord from whom Jonah was trying to escape. They beseeched the Lord to spare their lives, to not hold them accountable for Jonah’s death. Jonah was thrown into the sea, and answering the prayers of the sailors, God sent a great fish to swallow him up. In this instant, the storm stopped. The sailors who were witnesses to this event converted; their faith was now in the God of Israel.
At this point, Jonah has reached rock bottom. But often, being in this position lends us the clarity and humility which we are not afforded on our descent. From within the belly of the great fish, Jonah turned to the Lord and prayed. He recites a psalm (Jon 2:2-9) in which the poet prays to God from the pit of Sheol, the home of the dead; he hopes to be rejoined with the Lord in the holy temple where he resides. And even though the poet is separated from Lord by an immense distance, his prayer is heard.
There is nowhere we can go to escape from God. There is no distance we can travel that the Lord’s saving grace will not reach us. At all times, and in all places, God hears our prayers. And after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, God heard Jonah’s prayer and instructed the fish to vomit him back out onto the dry land.
Once again, the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, and he was instructed to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message. Not wishing to end up inside a fish once again, Jonah does as he is told this time, but only just. He set out and arrived in Nineveh, in the land of his people’s enemies. Nineveh was a massive city with a correspondingly large population; it would have taken three days for Jonah to walk across the face of it. But after walking in the city for just one day, Jonah stopped and bellowed, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4). After this pitiful display, Jonah left the city and set up camp just outside its walls, to wait and watch what would come of Nineveh.
And what happened? Exactly what Jonah feared most. The Ninevites believed God! The people repented. Every person fasted and put on sackcloth, signifying their mourning and sorrow in this time of crisis. Jonah’s prophecy reached the king. He declared: ‘No human or animal in Nineveh shall eat or drink a single thing, and every person and animal will wear sackcloth.’ And just like the sailors, this foreigner turned to the God of Israel and instructed all of his subjects to put their faith in his mercy. “[C]all out mightily to God,” (Jon 3:8) he told them. ‘Turn away from your evils and your violence, and maybe God will change his mind.’ And God did just that! When he saw the Ninevites repent, he spared them and their city. This made Jonah very angry.
Why was Jonah so angry? And why didn’t he avoid all the trouble he faced at sea and just go to Nineveh the first time the Spirit came to him? To the ancient Israelites, a prophecy that did not come true was assumed to be spoken by a false prophet. But Jonah knew that a prophecy of destruction, like the one he was instructed to pronounce to the Ninevites, is intended to bring about faith and repentance. If the Lord in his mercy spared the faithful and repentant people of Nineveh, Jonah’s words would not come to pass and his reputation would be soiled.
Before he encamped outside the city walls, Jonah prayed once again to God: ‘I knew this would happen! This is what I told you when I was back in Judea, when I decided to run away to Tarshish!’ “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jon 4:2). At first, when Jonah was given the gift of God’s word, he refused to preach it. Why? Was he afraid of the Law? No. He was afraid of God’s mercy. He couldn’t let himself bring the good news of the Lord’s love to this city of sinners, enemies of God’s chosen people. They surely didn’t deserve it. ‘If I don’t preach,’ he thought, ‘then their redemption will not come.’ When he had run out of options, he decided to preach only the Law: ‘God will destroy you for your sins.’
Jonah is a bad prophet, and his actions are confounding. But despite his best efforts to derail God’s plans for the city, the Spirit was still at work in Jonah. Twice, he makes preachers out of pagans. By Jonah’s own admission to the sailors, the Lord made both the sea and the dry land, but in his foolishness, he attempts to flee from God by sailing on the very waters of his creation. In doing so, he incurs God’s wrath, and the great storm which the Lord threw at him made believers out of the idolatrous sailors. The captain and his men were shown to be more reverent than the prophet who tried to sleep away his responsibilities below their decks. When God finally drives Jonah to Nineveh, he makes a pitiful effort, does his best to conceal the Word of God, leaves immediately, and hopes that he will be ignored. But the Ninevites do not ignore him. The king becomes a champion of Jonah’s God, acknowledging that in light of their faith and repentance, he may show them mercy and spare their city. Their repentance puts Jonah over the top, and now, outside the city walls sits an angry and sulking prophet.
It is maddening to Jonah that the Lord would show his mercy to all the wrong people. “[P]lease take my life from me,” Jonah says to God, “for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). Jonah cannot bear to live any longer with the knowledge that his preaching saved the people of Nineveh whom he despised. As one Biblical commentator points out, the text here likely intends to draw a connection to the prophet Elijah’s request for death in 1 Kings. But, while Elijah wishes to die because he has not able to convert anyone through his preaching, Jonah wishes to die “because his preaching has been an overwhelming success.” God asks Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jon 4:4). Jonah cannot comprehend the mystery of God – the justice and mercy that coexists within him despite the oppositeness of those two things.
To make Jonah understand, the Lord made a bush sprout up over him, giving Jonah much appreciated shade. The next day, God made a worm appear that attacked the bush and caused it to wither, taking with it the shade that brought Jonah so much relief. To hammer it home, God stirred a sultry wind to blow in Jonah’s direction while the sun beat down on his head. This heat was too much for Jonah to bear, so he asked God once again to die. “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” God asked. Jonah answered, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” (Jon 4:9) The writer ends the book with God’s retort, ‘You are so upset about this bush, which you did not grow, which sprouted from the ground one day and died the next—but you think I should not be concerned for Nineveh and all the many animals and 120,000 people who live there?’
Is it right for us to be angry? Can we find fault in God for his radical mercy? Is he showing injustice when he gives his mercy when it is not deserved? By no means! Would you tell God he cannot be merciful whenever he pleases? Certainly not! In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus challenges his disciples with similar questions: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Mt 20:15).
Several centuries after the author of Jonah’s story put these words on paper, the Word of God again came to Judea. After being tested by Satan in the wilderness for forty days, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15). This preacher would give to the people the Gospel that Jonah would not.
When the blasphemous Pharisees and scribes asked Christ to show them a sign, he answered them, ‘No sign will be given to you except the sign of Jonah. The Ninevites who repented at the poor proclamation of Jonah will condemn you who do not repent when something greater than Jonah stands here before you.’ And just like Jonah, who spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, Christ would spend three days and three nights in Sheol. (Mt 12:38-41)
This God-man, who looked so ordinary his betrayer Judas had to single him out to the scribes and chief priests with the sign of a kiss (Mk 14:44), walked along the Sea of Galilee calling apostles. He found his first preachers in fishermen – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – with the words “Follow me” (Mk 1.17). While they were stirred by the Spirit to drop everything and go with this stranger immediately, we should not regard them as any better than Jonah who tried so hard to defy his call. They followed Jesus expecting him to lead them to the thrones of God’s kingdom, but instead Jesus went to the cross. Simon Peter – whose father was named Jonah (Mt 16:17) – denied Christ three times in the hours before his death.
So, too, would it be a mistake to think for a moment that we can do any better than the apostles who betrayed and abandoned Christ at his cross, or Jonah who tried to conceal the Word from those he deemed unworthy. We fail God time and time again. And like Peter, when we realize what we have done, we break down and weep (Mk 14:72). We fall to our knees and confess that there is nothing that we can do on our own to make ourselves righteous before God. Like the captain and the king, confronted with our certain destruction, we place all of our faith and trust in God’s grace and mercy. We follow Christ, repent, and believe in the Good News.
Our God wants nothing from us, asks nothing of us, other than to have faith in his grace – for he knows we are capable of no more than this. On his cross, Christ repents for us, giving the purest mercy to those who do not deserve it – our very selves. Follow him. Believe in the Good News. And you will receive his grace.
To Christ be praise and glory! Amen.
Note:  Anthony R. Ceresko, “Jonah,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 584.