A sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10, for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, January 18/21, 2018.
There is a saying that goes like this, “Love conquers all.” Some ascribe this to the Latin poet Virgil. Even bigger than who said it is what does this phrase mean? The answers will vary depending on whom we ask. If we would ask people in our neighborhood, would we be surprised by what we hear? Many would claim that we just need to show love to all people. Love mends fences torn down by hatred, racism, bigotry, and other hurtful actions. Love will unite us. Love will overcome everything.
This is a nice thought, but it will not always work. Love can help build bridges; however, our love is not perfect. Our love sometimes focuses on ourselves rather than on others. Even in a marriage, when love should be at the height and ideal, our sinful attitudes can burst love’s bubble.
As Christians we look to a different love that conquers. We look to the prime example of love, God. God’s love goes so far beyond our understanding. God’s love even leaves us wondering if it goes too far. It sounds so foreign to us that we might hardly be able to believe it. Can God’s love go too far? Can God love a person too much? We might even wonder, “Can love, even God’s love, conquer all?” If we have any doubt, we see God’s love, his all surpassing love, in action today in his dealings with Jonah and the people of Nineveh.
God gave Jonah a second call. God’s first call to Jonah became one of the most well-known Bible stories of all time. God came to Jonah initially with a command. He told Jonah to go and preach against the city of Nineveh. Jonah wanted nothing to do with this command from God.
Jonah needed an escape. He hatched a plan, which he thought would work out smoothly. Jonah thought he could outrun God. He embarked on a boat and went in the opposite direction of Nineveh. At first Jonah thought he got away from God’s command to go and preach. Well, trying to run and hide from God will never work.
A furious storm came up while at sea. Right away Jonah knew he was caught. He told the crew he was the reason for this mess. If they wanted to save their lives, they had to throw Jonah overboard. The crew did not want to comply. They tried everything to keep the ship from breaking apart. They steered with all their might towards land but to no avail. Finally, they had to listen to Jonah. They threw him overboard. The storm stopped.
God did not forget about Jonah. He provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. For three days he lived in the fish’s belly. He had time to think. He could reevaluate his actions. Jonah would be able to see that he should obey God’s command to go and preach to the city of Nineveh.
So, a second time God came to Jonah, “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you’” (Jonah 3:1-2). Maybe God should have reevaluated his choice of messengers. Jonah tried to run away the first time. What would keep him from doing this again? God should have just given this job to someone else, someone more fit and willing for such a task.
God’s love would not allow him to leave Jonah alone. God took this frail human being in Jonah to proclaim his message to Nineveh. God took this weak man, who was unworthy based on his own merits, to proclaim God’s almighty Word to a people needing to hear it. God’s love goes the distance to choose unworthy, undeserving messengers for a monumental task of proclaiming his words.
This time Jonah listened. “So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh just as the word of the LORD had commanded. Now Nineveh was a great city to God. It required a three-day walk” (Jonah 3:3). Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. The city walls surrounding the city stood as an imposing force to any enemy nation who dared to try to conquer the city. The army of this world power, which struck fear in other nations, was stationed in Nineveh.
Nineveh was also known as a heathen city. Temples to false idols made their home in the city of Nineveh. The culture promoted cruelty to enemy nations. The people lived in great wickedness. They had no fear of God. They had no respect for God. Their hearts were like stone, much like the idols they worshiped.
With a city known for its great evil it was no wonder Jonah came with the following message, “Jonah walked through the city for a day, and he called out, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh is going to be overthrown’” (Jonah 3:4)! Just like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of Jericho and Ai, Nineveh would meet its end. God’s patience had worn out. Their sin had become too great. Nineveh would be no more.
Jonah probably did not hold out much hope for the people of Nineveh. They would not listen to his message. They would call him crazy and go on with their normal everyday life. “The men of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least” (Jonah 3:5). God gave the people forty days to repent. It took one day. As soon as the words came from Jonah’s lips, the people of the city repented. Their hearts were cut. They fasted. They humbled themselves before God. They wore sackcloth as a sign of sorrow. This city, usually known for its evil, turned to God.
We scratch our heads along with Jonah. We understand that God would give the people forty days to repent, but who thought they would listen? Maybe God is too lenient. Maybe God should have just brought destruction right away without warning. The city deserved it. We would not have shed a tear over the destruction of a city known for its wickedness.
God’s love went the extra mile with the city of Nineveh. Some people estimate the population of Nineveh to be around five hundred thousand people at this time. Five hundred thousand souls needing to hear God’s message of forgiveness. They certainly did not deserve to receive God’s mercy, yet it is exactly this group that God wanted to share the good news with.
Do we often wonder how God could show his love to the undeserved? In our minds we think various countries might be “unworthy” to hear God’s message. Some countries follow the religion of Islam. They have no fear of God in them. We should not spend time with them. Yet, God’s love goes out to those countries. They are part of the “all nations” spoken of in the Great Commission. Today, we see God’s Word making great strides in those nations. They know the true peace of God’s love for them.
We want to screen some people before they become members of our church. We have a reputation to keep up. We do not want people with a shady past, let alone some red flags on their record. We might not be able to invite our neighbor to church, because they have been married three times. Our coworker drinks the weekend away. Our friend at school struggles with homosexual feelings. Again, God’s love goes the distance for those people. A church is not a country club with no dirty laundry to air. The church stands as a hospital to treat all people infected with sin. God’s love goes to those struggling with the tendencies of sin. God’s love reaches out to those people with the precious news of forgiveness.
What about us? When the finger is pointing right in the middle of our chest, what do we think? All of a sudden we make every excuse in the book. I am a good person. I do good things. I give of my offerings. I come to church. I treat my family well. I do deserve God’s love.
We must remember that no one deserves God’s love. Our attitudes do not always reflect Christian love and concern. We grow lazy at our jobs. We do not faithfully use our gifts to give God all honor and glory. Our thoughts turn to what is in it for me, rather than how can I help others. Our respect for coworkers and those in authority is not always there.
God does not withdraw his love from our life. Just because we mess up or struggle with a certain sin, God’s love goes the extra distance. Even for the many times that we take God’s gift of forgiveness and throw it back in his face by our unthankfulness, God’s love continues in our life. He comes to us through Word and sacrament to wash those sins away. God gives us the strength to fight temptation. God’s love points us to the cross. There is love. There is mercy for us.
God’s love becomes all the more amazing when we consider where we came from. We were slaves to Satan. We were dead in our sin. We had no power to come to him, nor did we want to. God did not write us off. God called us. God loved us. God’s message of forgiveness came to break down the stubbornness of sin in all those undeserving of anything good from him. God’s love comes to the undeserving in order to save them.
As the people of Nineveh repented, they showed their remorse. What would God do now? Jonah proclaimed destruction in forty days. The nation surely did not deserve it, did they? “When God saw their actions, that they had turned from their evil way, God relented from the disaster which he said he would bring on them, and he did not carry it out” (Jonah 3:10).
God looked at the nation’s heart and not just their outward appearance. They had genuine sorrow over their sins. They turned, at least at this moment, to God. God relented. He did not bring about the destruction upon the nation. God’s love was patient with this nation. He wanted to give them more time. He wanted this act of repentance to continue on in the life of the people.
God never wants anyone to perish. It is God’s good and gracious will to have all people come to faith and live with him forever in heaven. God gives people every opportunity to repent and come to faith. God was so moved to send his Son into this world to be punished for sin in our place. God provides all we need. Through all of this God wants us to turn to him in repentance.
This is the message God’s messengers, like Jonah and the first disciples, take out to the world. The power did not come from Jonah’s words. He was a weak vessel. The power comes from God. God’s love does not want to see people destroyed in hell. God’s message creates faith in the hearts of people.
This is the importance of our mission work. God calls his messengers, you and me, to go out into the world to preach a very simple message. It does start with us being sinners. We need to recognize that in no way can we save ourselves. For all those who reject God’s love they will face destruction in hell. We need to recognize our unworthiness.
For those who turn to God in faith they will not face destruction. God’s love has provided a way out. God’s love gives us something we do not deserve. This is the other side of the coin we proclaim to the world. We preach Christ crucified. We tell people about a Savior from sin. We proclaim Christ’s love which goes the distance in all things.
“Love conquers all.” Our human love can only go so far. God’s love indeed conquers all. It has conquered our enemies. It has overcome death. God’s love gives us peace. God’s Love Goes the Distance. It comes to those who do not deserve it, you and me included. It saves us from destruction with its wonderful message of forgiveness in Christ. Let us go out and share this amazing love with the world. Amen.