Seeking What's Already Happening
Topic: Biblical Verse: Jonah 3:1–3:10
Third Sunday after Epiphany
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (Mark 1:14-20)
“Being SJLC 2015: Seeking What’s Already Happening”
I’m not really accustomed to doing this, but today I’m going to deliver someone else’s sermon. It was originally proclaimed by Jonah, son of Amittai, on mission to the people of Nineveh of Assyria. Here it is:
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Were you expecting something more?
I’ve got to admit that it is a pretty minimalist message. There’s not a lot there for one of our Confirmation students to use in writing a sermon report. The whole thing’s only five words long in the original Hebrew! And beyond that, there aren’t any illustrations or funny stories shared by the preacher to help communicate his point. There’s not even a glimpse of grace. But from that five-word minimalist message, preached by one man (who might not even have cared all that much about his audience and their fate), we see a maximum impact.
Hearing the prophet’s short sermon, the people of Nineveh repent – and they do it in a big way. Most importantly, they turn from their evil way and turn to Yahweh for deliverance. To show that repentance, though, the people (and even the livestock!) of the land are covered in rough, itchy sackcloth and fast from food and water. They call out to God for salvation from the doom set before them. So God changes His verdict; however, if you’re paying attention, you see that Nineveh is still overthrown: the people left evil behind and turned to follow God.
What did Jonah want to see happen in Nineveh as he preached that sermon? It’s possible that he was still hoping that God was going to bring about the downfall of this capital city of Assyria, that the Lord would give them what the prophet thought they deserved. When I’ve taught about the Assyrians before, I can’t help but mention that they were, as I’ve heard them described, “bad dudes.” The Assyrian armies were merciless and brutal, impaling people on stakes in front of defeated towns and pulling captives along by fishhooks. Nineveh itself was known as a morally bankrupt place, wicked and full of deceit. So now Jonah, after three days in a fish’s belly, having been called a second time by God – the only prophet in the Bible who had to be called a second time! – obeys the Lord and goes to Nineveh, if grudgingly.
Nineveh was a great city, far more powerful in its day than Jerusalem. But another way of translating the Hebrew phrase which describes the city here in Jonah 3 is “a great city belonging to God.” And that’s key for understanding what’s going to be happening once Jonah arrives. God cares about the people of Nineveh. God cares about the great cities and nations of the world, because they’re all His. God wants them to repent and turn from evil. Even His second call to Jonah gives a hint as to His divine plan: His command has changed from “call out against Nineveh” to “call out to Nineveh” the Word being sent.
And God’s Word was effective! As one of my seminary professors summed up Jonah and his sermon: “Little effort, poor skills, a short sermon – and total success!” This one reluctant prophet comes to the massive metropolis of Nineveh and its surrounding area, proclaiming the straightforward message that God gave him. And the people repent.
So why did they repent, and repent so vigorously, at that? We don’t know exactly what had been going on in Nineveh in the time before Jonah arrived, though the power of Assyria was waning and regional rulers were fighting its authority. In those days came a foreign prophet, this Jonah, whose reputation possibly preceded him as he journeyed into Nineveh. He’s the guy who was as good as dead, resurrected from a fish’s belly after three days! Even the pagan people of Nineveh listened to the words of a prophet. We don’t know what all had been going on to lay the groundwork for such wide-scale repentance in Nineveh; however, we do know that the people of Nineveh had a need, a need that presented itself under a variety of disguises. God’s message through Jonah summed that need up and drove it home: they needed God’s mercy and God’s grace. Why did the people of Nineveh repent? Did everything that was going on in their lives and their land just drive them to despair? Ultimately, they repented because of Yahweh’s compassion for them. And that’s the same compassion that sent Jesus on his mission for you.
Jesus delivers God’s compassion, even as God had compassion on the people of Nineveh and spared them from destruction. In that same compassion, Jesus went to destruction on the cross for all the evil that you and I have done, including the good we failed to do. Now ours might look like a different kind of evil than that which was known in Nineveh – I’m hoping you don’t pull people around by fishhooks! – but every thought, word, and deed which demonstrates our rejection of God’s design for life is evil. It’s evil when you focus on your own desires and turn a blind eye to others’ needs. It’s evil when you see that someone could use a bit of compassion and yet you refuse to show it. Because of our evil, like the people of Nineveh, we need God’s mercy and grace.
Mercy and grace are the hallmarks of Jesus’ mission. Jesus is the one who makes our reconciliation with God a reality. The people of Nineveh hadn’t heard of God’s mercy and grace, yet they certainly hoped they existed. Called to repentance, they looked to Him in hope against the promised doom.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:24, Paul writes, “He who calls you is faithful.” In your need for hope, know that Jesus is the faithful one who calls even today.
In Mark’s Gospel account, you heard Jesus calling his first disciples. There in Galilee, far from the once-great city of Nineveh, the Lord started to turn fishermen into fishers of men. As Mark records it, they immediately left behind their work to follow him – kind of like the people of Nineveh heard God’s Word through Jonah and turned to repentance. I don’t know what was already happening in the future disciples’ lives to lay the groundwork for Jesus’ call on the beach. What I do know is that Jesus came on his mission for all the people he calls to be his own: Simon, Andrew, James, John – and you and me.
In this Epiphany season under our Being SJLC emphasis here at St. John’s, we’ve been reminded that Jesus is on a mission, a mission for the whole world, including our community. The kingdom of God has broken into that world and into our community through Jesus. He is at work on his mission to redeem and restore people’s lives to God. But how can we know where he’s working around us know? Pay attention to what we’re being shown.
Where are mercy and grace needed? You need only open your eyes to seek what’s already happening in the lives of the people you encounter. You will always have opportunities to show love, joy, truth, and patience to people in need – gifts of the mercy and grace God has given you – and in so doing, you will be the people of God. You will be making God’s compassion tangible as Jesus works through you to deliver his gifts. Now to be sure, you and I are imperfect missionaries! But that’s OK: so was Jonah. But unlike Jonah, you can care for the people to whom God has called you, knowing that Jesus is calling them, too.
As it was with Nineveh, being an everyday missionary is ultimately about God’s compassion. Joining Jesus on his mission, share the compassion which you yourself have already received. It might be a minimalist message, but through Jesus, it will have maximum impact.