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Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
“Something Greater than Jonah is Here”
Seminarian Paul Norris, Vicar
St. Matthew 8.23-27; Jonah 1.1-17
30 January 2022
Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
How do you react when you are told to do something that you really just don’t want to do?
I am reminded of a situation with a child that was told to me by another parent. While his mother was washing the dishes, a small boy slipped his way into the kitchen. The boy switched off the lights leaving his mother standing in darkness and unable to complete her dishwashing. The mother asked the young boy to turn the lights back on, but the young boy replied, “I can’t reach the switch.” Now, we all know this was a bald-faced lie since he had managed to turn the lights off in the first place! Upon hearing the commotion, dad arrived on the scene to rectify the situation. This time the young boy was told to turn the lights on by his father and he again replied, “I can’t reach the switch.” His father retrieved a chair, positioned it under the light switch, and placed the boy on it so he could reach it. Defiantly, the boy put his hands behind his back and said, “I can’t reach it.” The father told the boy to put his arms up and turn on the light. The boy then indignantly responded with his real answer, “No.” I think we all know what happened next. Let’s just say that after his father administered several applications of the Law to the boy’s rear end (or as we say in the south, “painted his back porch red”) he finally repented of his sin and turned the lights back on for his mother.
Maybe you make excuses why you can’t or won’t do something. Maybe you procrastinate. Maybe you avoid the person who justly told you to do something and you pretend that they never said anything to you at all. Perhaps in stubbornness or out of spite you do the opposite of what you were told to do, or voice your defiance and flat out reject it by saying “no.” These are just some of the ways we break the Fourth Commandment. This is what Jonah did. When God told Jonah to do a specific task that Jonah didn’t want to do, he didn’t initially complain or make excuses, he just ran away. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and call out against the wickedness and evil they were doing. That would be the same as going by yourself unannounced to the governor and legislators of California and calling them out for all their wicked acts. (I’m sure some of you here would have no problem doing that!), but Jonah does not want to do it.
Jonah chooses to run away from God. Jonah goes down to Joppa and finds a ship that will take him to Tarshish. Jonah gets out of town as fast as he can. Instead of traveling to Nineveh, he goes in the opposite direction. Jonah is hoping to avoid God (as if that is possible) so that he doesn’t have to do what God commanded him to do. Jonah is abandoning his vocation as a prophet and turning his back on God.
But the real reason behind Jonah’s avoidance and flight from God is not essentially with Nineveh. Jonah has a problem with God and his merciful nature. Jonah is a Hebrew who fears the Lord and he confesses Yahweh to be the creator of the sea and dry land. (Jonah 1:9) He also knows that God is merciful and forgives those who repent.
Just as we understand the word of God to be Law and Gospel, Jonah is instructed by God to preach the Law to the Ninevites. But Jonah knows the word of God also includes his mercy and forgiveness for repentant people. Jonah has no problem with the Law being applied to Nineveh. What Jonah would really like is for God to punish and destroy the inhabitants of Nineveh, not save them. In Jonah’s mind, Nineveh is inhabited by evil Gentiles outside of the covenant. They do not merit God’s mercy, only his wrath.
Jonah’s real problem is with the Gospel. He believes that the Gospel is only for himself and the Israelites, not for gentile foreigners. He would rather die than see God show his mercy to this city of pagans. In Jonah’s mind, the city of Nineveh is the embodiment of evil and wickedness, just as we view some immoral cities in our nation. In Jonan’s judgment, they don’t deserve God’s mercy, and the notion that if they repented God might relent from his judgment upon them is something he finds abhorrent. God said, “Vengeance is mine…” (Deut. 32:35) Jonah is stepping in the place of God and deciding for God. Jonah’s sin attempting to thwart the will of God causes the judgment of God, the judgment he believes is for the Ninevites, to fall upon him.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God does not punish for the sake of punishment or because he enjoys it, God is holy and just. God speaks the word of Law and he punishes people to ultimately lead them to repentance and forgiveness. God desires repentance. Sometimes it takes a storm to get our attention. The Judgment of God falls upon Jonah when God hurls a great storm upon the boat he is fleeing in. Jonah, secure in his sin, is fast asleep while the tempest rages and threatens to break up the boat. After the crew casts lots, Jonah is exposed as the cause of the storm which imperils all on board. God calms the storm and saves the sailors from death when Jonah is thrown overboard.
Jonah’s sin of disobedience results in him being thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish. But the belly of the fish is not a means of punishment for Jonah, it is a means of salvation. Jonah could have drowned and died in the depths of the ocean, but instead, God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah and preserve him for three days. From the belly of the great fish, Jonah cries out to God in prayer in repentance. Hearing this prayer of repentance, God speaks to the fish and it spits him up on dry land so that Jonah can finish his mission to Nineveh. God brings Jonah to repentance in the belly of the great fish, and he calls the city of Nineveh to repentance through the prophet Jonah.
The call to confession and repentance from God is uncomfortable business. The Law makes us uncomfortable because it shows us who we are. None of us like confessing that we are sinners. Wouldn’t we all rather run from God than hear the incriminating words of the Law?
God is not using Jonah as an example of how he will smite us with his judgment if we disobey him, or run from him. The point of the Jonah account is that God is a God of mercy and relents from his judgment against sin to the repentant. God didn’t let Jonah die as he heard his prayer of confession and repentance from the tomb of the great fish. And God refused to let the Ninevites die without hearing Law and Gospel preached to them by Jonah.
The message of God’s mercy to sinful people is so important that our Lord Jesus pointed to Jonah three times in scripture as The Sign. Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet whom Jesus directly compares himself to. Jesus said, “…An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matt 12:39-41)
The sign of Jonah as Jesus preached in the Gospel of Matthew is meant for those who are well acquainted with the narrative and book of Jonah; the Pharisees. Today, the evil and adulterous generation are those who outwardly belong to the church and claim connection with God through Christ, yet violate this relationship by perverting God’s word, disobeying God’s commands, and joining with others of this kind. The sign or miracle of Jonah prefigures what Jesus will do. The Son of Man, will die and rise again from the dead on the third day. Jesus puts his seal on the historical fact of the account of Jonah who was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. Whoever rejects this miracle rejects Jesus. The miracle is not that Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, but that after being swallowed, he was preserved alive, spat out on the third day, and escaped death to accomplish his God-given mission to Nineveh. As Jonah escaped from the belly of the fish on the third day, our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the grave on the third day to complete his mission. This is the sign of Jesus’ resurrection, and only judgment and death await those who do not believe and will not repent. Even the inhabitants of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah will rise up to condemn those who reject the preaching of Jesus.
In our Gospel reading, a terrible storm comes upon the disciples. Jesus calms the storm with his word. Only Jesus can do this with his word because he is God incarnate, the word whom through all things were created. (Jn. 1:3) He is the Lord of whom Jonah confessed. Jesus calms the storm which imperils us. This is not the storm that some would describe as trials and tribulations of our earthly life. Jesus calms the storm of sin and death. The wind and waves of sin and fallen creation threaten to overwhelm and drown us, but our cries for salvation are answered in Christ Jesus.
Indeed, Jesus is something greater than Jonah! Jesus took the judgment and wrath of God in your place. You will not perish eternally because Christ Jesus died on the cross for your sin of disobedience and defiance; all your sins. Jesus, with perfect obedience to the father, suffered and died on the cross for you. All of your sins were paid for by the holy, innocent sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. And, after being thrown into the belly of the tomb in the heart of the earth, Christ rose from the dead victoriously on the third day conquering sin, death, and hell for you!
All the earth with Joy is sounding: Christ has risen from the dead!
He, the greater Jonah, bounding from the grave, His three-day bed,
Wins the prize: Death’s demise-Songs of triumph fill the skies.
(LSB 462 stz 1)
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.