Text: Jonah 3:1-10
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This past Fall I had some poster made for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One was a map of Germany at the time of Martin Luther, the other was a copy of the 95 Theses printed in English. Having never had a poster printed before, I was quite proud of how these posters turned out and because I was proud of how these posters I was determined to find a way to hang them on the wall here at the church without putting any holes in them or sticking any sticky stuff on them that might not come off.
One day at Superstore I found suction cups with clips to hold posters. These were no ordinary suction cups, however. The package claimed that they worked that 1,000 little suction cups all in one. They could hold on any surface, the package said, and they even came in bright fancy colours. I was sold. Surely these will hold up my posters and keep them safe, I thought to myself.
Sure enough, I brought the suction cups back to Christ Our Saviour and when I tested them out they worked. The posters were up on the wall and they were undamaged. However, the next day when I came back to the church one of the posters had fallen. It was a little wrinkled now, but I assured myself that it could be flattened out again. Things got worse when I tried to bring the posters to Redeemer, however. The walls in the basement at Redeemer are not smooth. The suction cups barely held on for a few minutes before the posters started to fall. But then I remembered the little wax clips that we have at Redeemer. Could something so simple, so basic, so old fashioned really hold these, my beautiful new posters up on the wall without damaging them? I didn’t really think it would work, but I was desperate so I gave them a try. Sure enough, they held. They held really well. For weeks on end my precious posters stayed there, undamaged, hanging on the wall for all to see. The simple, old, little clips worked.
I think people sometimes think about God’s Word, the Bible and the preaching of it, the same way that I thought about the wax-backed clips. God’s Word seems like something that might work, but it is also kind of old, outdated, seemingly irrelevant. Could God’s Word really work in our lives and in the lives of others? Don’t we need something better, more relevant? Like the clips, the old, outdated, seemingly irrelevant word of God is in fact the only thing that will work in our lives and in the lives of others.
This truth is displayed wonderfully in our Old Testament reading today. Today we heard about the prophet Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to a city called Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were the great world power of the day and they were a constant threat to the people of Israel. Kings of Israel and Judah had to pay tribute to the kings of Assyria just to keep the Assyrian armies away. Needless to say, the people of Israel did not like the Assyrians very much. Neither did Jonah.
Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew that if he went there and proclaimed God’s Word to them there would be a chance that God might forgive them. That is after all what God is known for. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Even for the people of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t like that idea, so Jonah hopped in a boat and tried to sail away to a place called Tarshish. On the way a storm came up and the boat that Jonah was in nearly sank. Jonah realized that this storm was his fault because he was running away from God so Jonah told the sailors to through him into the sea. The sailors didn’t want to do that, but after a while they had no choice. The storm wasn’t letting up. They threw Jonah into the sea.
God wasn’t done with Jonah though. God sent a whale to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of that whale before it vomited him up onto dry ground. That is where we meet Jonah in our reading today. He is sitting on the shore, covered in whale vomit, stinking to high heaven, and rejoicing to be back on solid ground when the word of the Lord came a second time to Jonah and said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message I tell you.” This time Jonah went.
But when Jonah gets to Nineveh he remembers that he really doesn’t want to be there and that he really doesn’t want to preach God’s Word to them. As Jonah enters the city he does start preaching, but he makes kind of a half-hearted effort. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Jonah calls out time and time again as he walks through the city. But that’s all he says. No explanation, no interpretation, no application, just this same call again and again. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Jonah, the runaway prophet, doesn’t really want the people of Nineveh to get the message. But Jonah, as unenthusiastic as he is and as much as he doesn’t want the people of Nineveh to hear his message and repent, is preaching God’s Word and God’s Word works.
The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s uninspired preaching. They hear his one line sermon. They hear the call that he does not want them to hear. They hear and they repent, all of them. There are 120,000 people living in Nineveh at that time (a large city in those days) and all of them, from the least to the greatest, repent. Jesus Himself never preached a sermon that had such a great effect on so many people at one time. Even the king, the highest authority in the city, hears about Jonah and his message and he repents too. The king orders that every single citizen in the city needs to fast and put on itchy, uncomfortable sackcloth clothing. The king even orders that the animals fast and wear sackcloth too. The whole city is going to repent. “Who knows,” the king says, “maybe God will forgive us and we will not be destroyed.” God does forgive them. God sees their repentance. God does relent. God does not destroy them.
There are all kinds of things that we can take out of the story of Jonah, all kinds of themes that apply very clearly to our lives, but today what matters most for us is that God’s Word works.
The book of Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word in the Bible or as we hear it preached to us by pastors is a living thing. It is a powerful thing. It is like a sword that cuts us to the heart with the accusations of the law and then binds us up and gives us life through the good news of the gospel that Jesus our Lord has taken our sin upon Himself.
God’s Word convicted the people of Nineveh and showed them their sin even though Jonah’s preaching was not particularly inspired. God’s Word also proclaimed to them the forgiveness of sins as God relented over the disaster. God’s Word worked.
There are two ways in particular that I think this applies to us today. First of all, in the Christian church these days there is a constant desire, it seems, to find new, more effective ways of reaching out to the world around us. While that is an admirable desire, there is a danger that we end up forgetting that God’s Word is the only thing that has the power to change the hearts of people. Our world today is not all that different from the city of Nineveh back in Jonah’s day. It never has been, the world has always been like that. In ancient Nineveh God worked through the boring, plain, uninspired preaching of a discontented prophet and changed the hearts of all the people. For us today, as we seek to reach out to the world around us, God’s Word and the preaching of it is the only thing that will change the hearts of people and bring them to the same repentance and faith.
Secondly, in our own lives we tend to take God’s Word for granted. In the Small Catechism in his explanation of the commandment that says we should “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” Martin Luther says that this means that we should “fear and love God so that we do not despise His Word or the preaching of it but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Have you taken up God’s Word as the life giving Word that it is and gladly heard and learned it at every available opportunity? Have you held it sacred? For all of us answer is inevitably, no. We, like the people of Nineveh, need to repent because God’s Word is not something to be ignored or discarded. It is the living active Word of God that works in the hearts of believers.
The ultimate proof that God’s Word works lies in Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. He, the spoken word of God through whom the entire universe was made, took on flesh and accomplished His work on the cross bringing salvation to the ancient people of Nineveh in Jonah’s day and to you and me today. He works even now in our hearts bringing that same repentance and faith that He brought to the people of Nineveh to you and to me. He works to forgive our sins, even our sins of despising the Word, and to give us life. Like the people of Nineveh, God has relented and turned from the disaster that we have brought upon ourselves with our sinful ways. He has forgiven us for the sake of Jesus and promised us life in His Word.
God’s Word works. May we hold that word sacred and gladly hear and learn it every day of our lives. And may we invite others to hear that word with us so that they, with us and the people of Nineveh, can be forgiven and rejoice in the promises of life through our Saviour, the Word made flesh. In Jesus name. Amen.