How do you react when you are told to do something that you really just don’t want to do? Maybe you procrastinate. You just keep putting it off and putting it off. Some people may just not do it at all and then make excuses. Perhaps they say they didn’t know they were supposed to do it. Perhaps they say that they didn’t fully understand what they were supposed to do.
The prophet Jonah didn’t use any of these tactics. Instead, when God told him to do something that he had no interest in doing, he just did the opposite. The word of the LORD came to Jonah saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire and call out against it because the evil it was doing. This would be rather like if in the midst of the Cold War during the early 1980’s a person was told to go to Moscow and call out against it because of the evil the Soviet Union was doing.
Jonah didn’t want to do this. So instead of going east to Nineveh in what is now Iraq, he went west. We are told, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.” He got out of town as fast as he could and he went in the opposite direction from where God had told him to go.
Of course, you know what happened. Things didn’t exactly go according to plan for Jonah. God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship. As the sailors tried to determine why this was happening, Jonah finally confessed, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” The sailors made every effort to avoid doing this, but as the storm became worse and worse, they finally gave in and carried out Jonah’s instruction.
Jonah was plunged into the sea, and when this had happened the storm ceased. God sent a great fish to come and swallow Jonah, and Jonah found himself in the fish for three days and three nights. While in the fish Jonah prayed with confident faith that God would rescue him. He prayed, “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’” Jonah turned in faith to God, and after three days God had the fish vomit Jonah up on the shore.
And then we hear in our text, “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” This time Jonah had learned his lesson, and so he headed off to Nineveh just as God had commanded.
Nineveh was a very large city. So Jonah travelled a day into it and called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The message of Jonah the prophet had a great impact. The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Even the king of Nineveh listened. He ordered that everyone should put on sackcloth and fast. He told the people to call upon God and said, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” And then we hear at the end of our text, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”
That is normally where we stop with the account about Jonah. But if we do, we will miss a fascinating thing that occurs just after our text. In the very next verses we read: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”
According to Jonah, the reason he didn’t want to go to Nineveh had nothing to do with being afraid. He wasn’t fearful about condemning Nineveh’s sin and proclaiming God’s coming judgment. No, what he feared was that when he did this Nineveh would repent and then God would forgive them. Jonah says that he knew this would happen because God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
In our text tonight we see that God confronts sin. He speaks a word of Law and he punishes sin in order to lead people to repentance. He does this with Jonah when he sends the storm that causes Jonah to be thrown into the sea and swallowed by a fish. He does this with Nineveh as he sends Jonah into the city to tell them to turn away from their evil or else they will be destroyed.
Of course, the season of Lent does the same thing to us. It is a time when we reflect upon our sin. We confess our sin to God. We repent. Yet tonight the book of Jonah reminds us that we do this before the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
We know that this is true because Lent is leading us toward Holy Week. Because God wants to forgive those who repent, he sent his Son into the world to die on the cross and then rise on the third day. Jesus Christ willingly submitted himself to this so that God can both justly judge sin and also graciously give forgiveness.
During Lent we are moving toward the first service of the resurrection, the Vigil of Easter. This service focuses on baptism and proclaims to us yet again that we are forgiven because we have shared in the death of Christ through baptism. Jonah plunged into the water and then was in the belly of the fish for three days. The apostle Paul says in Colossians that you have “been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Through baptism you have shared in the death and burial of Christ who was in the tomb for three days.
Yet like Jonah, Jesus Christ did not remain buried in the depths. On the third day he rose from the dead and emerged from the tomb as he began the resurrection of the Last Day. Through Holy Baptism the Spirit of Christ has given you rebirth. The resurrection power of the Spirit is already at work in you and so you have already begun to receive the benefits of our Lord’s resurrection. And because you have shared in the death of the risen Lord through baptism, you know that will share in his resurrection when he returns in glory.
Because of your baptism into Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection you are forgiven before God when you repent. But the account of Jonah teaches us something else as well. It teaches us that those who have been forgiven by God must also then share that forgiveness with others.
In our text, Jonah proclaims the Law. The people of Nineveh repent and God forgives them – he relents from bringing disaster upon them. And then in the very next verses Jonah is angry about this fact. Jonah says that this is the very thing he was afraid that God would do! He feared that God would forgive Nineveh because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Of course the irony is that this is the very same reason that God had just forgiven Jonah. Jonah sinned when he disobeyed God. Imprisoned in the belly of a fish for three days he knew his sin and turned to God in faith. And God delivered him – God forgave him. Yet having just received the forgiveness of a God who is gracious and merciful, he doesn’t want someone else to receive the same thing.
The example of Jonah reminds us that Christ’s forgiveness that we have received in baptism must be shared with others. The forgiveness that we receive cannot stop with us. It must pass through us and on to others if we are to keep it before God. As Paul told the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just has God in Christ has forgiven you.”