Epiphany 3b

Preached: February 5, 2012

Our God Calls Out with Compassion
Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Other listening options or try the podcast at iTunes (You will be leaving our website.)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts to speak up for Jesus is Jonah 3.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah again: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Proclaim to it the message I tell you.”

Jonah got up and went to Nineveh as the Lord had told him. Now Nineveh was a very large city, taking three days to walk it. Jonah started to go a day’s journey into the city and proclaimed, “Only forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned!”

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sack cloth, from the greatest to the least of them.

God saw their actions that they turned from their evil way. He relented from the harm he had said he would do to them, and did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-5, 10).

This is the word of our Lord.

You can’t run away from God. Maybe that’s the lesson we remember from when we first heard about Jonah. God told him to go to preach to Nineveh and he ran the other way, getting on a ship headed for Tarshish. God sent such a violent storm that the sailors couldn’t ride it out. Jonah told them what he has done and that the only way to calm the storm was to throw him overboard. The sailors try everything they could to avoid that, but finally they have no other choice. God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and three days later it spit him up on dry land.

But, dear friends, there’s more to Jonah. In fact, focusing on the thought that you can’t run away from God leaves us the wrong impression. For you see, even though the book is only four chapters long, it displays God’s compassion again and again -- his compassion toward Jonah and Nineveh and his compassion toward us. Why would we want to run away from our compassionate God?

Look at his compassion toward Jonah. He doesn’t let him run away and die in unrepentant sin. Rather he sends that storm to shake Jonah’s conscience awake. For any terror or suffering of this life that draws us back to God is immeasurably better than the unending torture of hell. In addition, God sends that great fish to save Jonah. What compassion! In chapter two, Jonah praises the Lord for his compassion. He says, “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me … Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:2, 10 NIV1984). How great the compassion of the Lord our God!

And now as we look at the beginning of chapter three, we focus on the Lord’s compassion toward the people of Nineveh and how that same compassion reaches out toward us today. May the Holy Spirit move our hearts to rejoice in the compassion of the Lord our God who calls out to us from his word. The theme today is: Our God calls out with compassion. Part one: Hear his loving warning. Part two: Repent with your eyes on Jesus. Part three: Echo his call to others. For the compassion of the Lord your God calls out to you.

A. Hear his loving warning

As the text begins, the Lord for the second time tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeys. He goes and proclaims the message God tells him to. What was that message? “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4 NIV1984).

Now, dear friends, do you hear the compassion in those words? The very fact that God sent his prophet to warn them is an act of compassion. On top of that he gives them forty days notice, so patient is his compassion. Why would he do this if he did not long for them to turn from their evil ways so that he could spare them? Our God calls out with compassion. He calls out his loving warning.

Our natural heart, though, objects: “If God were compassionate, why would he destroy them at all?” It’s the same kind of thinking that asks how a loving God could send anyone to hell. The root of this seeming dilemma is our own refusal to recognize how wicked we are by nature and how great our sins are. Nineveh had brought this destruction down on itself by its sinfulness. The first time the Lord told Jonah to preach against the city, he adds the reason why: “Because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 NIV1984). Compassion that ignores wickedness is no compassion at all. For always ignoring evil is in itself evil.

Hear his warning, dear friends. Hear his loving warning that flows from his compassion. For we are sinners. And as we confessed at the beginning of the service, we deserve only God’s punishment now and in eternity. For “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV1984), the Scriptures declare. That’s the pay we’ve earned with our sin, eternal death and damnation. We confess with the Apostle Paul, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18 NIV1984). Any good in us is a new creation of the Holy Spirit through the water and word. And yet even with the Holy Spirit at work in you, how often we fail to do the good we want and instead do the evil we hate! What a wretched man I am!

But how great the compassion of our God! For he sent you One, greater than Jonah. He sent you the One who didn’t simply spend three days in the belly of a fish but rather in the belly of the earth and then returned from the dead alive. He sent you his Son, Jesus Christ. As you hear God’s loving warning, repent with your eyes on Jesus, which brings us to part two.

B. Repent with your eyes on Jesus

The text says, “The Ninevites believed God” (Jonah 3:5 NIV1984). They took his word seriously as the truth. Because they believed the message, they changed their actions. They turned from their wicked ways. This was not outward show. They deeply regretted their sin, and they felt the terror of disobeying the living God. This inner sorrow brought them to forsake the comforts of this world. They fasted and wore the rough irritation of sackcloth. What they felt on the inside showed on the outside. They humbled themselves before the Lord, turning to him.

God’s message hit home not only for the common people, but from the least to the greatest. Even the king himself fasted and wore sackcloth. He humbled himself before the Lord, relying on God’s compassion alone. He issued a decree: “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:8, 9). And God’s compassion did indeed spare them.

Like the people of Nineveh, dear friends, believe God. If a prophet coming out alive from the belly of a fish was proof enough for Nineveh that he spoke God’s truth, how much more so can you and I know beyond doubt that Jesus, who rose from the belly of the earth on the third day, speaks God’s truth! Believe him, dear friends, believe him.

For without faith in Jesus, the deepest sorrow in the world, the greatest terror over sin, and the severest expressions of grief are not genuine repentance, no matter how heartfelt. They are only an earthly sorrow, the kind of sorrow Judas had.

But with your eyes on Jesus, know how great God’s compassion for you is. He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all. “Mark the sacrifice appointed; See who bears the awful load -- ’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God” (“Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal 127:3). God could not leave your sin or mine unpunished, so he punished his Son in our place. Jesus willingly suffered for all the sins of the world -- all of your sins, every last one of them. So great is his compassion toward you!

With your eyes on Jesus, repent. Confess the greatness of your sins and the even greater compassion of your God. Turn from your evil ways. For Jesus has washed away your guilt. Why return to that filth? He has washed you clean with his blood in the water and word of Baptism. Turn to Jesus in faith. He has redeemed you to be his own. His body and blood given you in the Lord’s Supper testify that you are his. Follow him in faith.

With repentant hearts fixed on Jesus, gazing in wonder at his compassion, how can we not call out his message to others, which brings us to part three.

C. Echo his call to others

Yes, dear Christian, our God has called out to you with his great compassion. You have seen it in his Son Jesus Christ and experienced it as his words have entered your mind and heart. How can we not echo his call for others to hear?

Like Jonah of old, call out the Lord’s message. He hasn’t sent you to a far off city like Nineveh. He hasn’t called you to preach in a congregation. But he has given you his word to share with others in your life.

Notice how the Lord told Jonah to proclaim “the message I give you” (Jonah 3:2 NIV1984). We are to echo what the Lord say. An echo doesn’t change the message. We are not to modify it, adding our own thoughts or subtracting what we think is outdated. Echo his compassion in the loving warnings you speak against sin and the damnation it brings. Echo his compassion as you speak his gospel promise that points others to Jesus, our divine Substitute, who alone saves from sin and death.

But maybe our thoughts raise an objection: “I don’t know what to say.” But, dear Christian, you do know. For you know what you believe. You know God’s law. And you know Jesus and his promises. Express that faith which the Spirit has worked in your heart. You don’t have to quote exact Bible passages; rather, express in your own words the same truths God has revealed in the Holy Scriptures. And what’s more, the more you yourself are in the word, reading it, hearing it, studying it, the better the Holy Spirit is able to equip you to echo it.

Or maybe we feel that our heart is inadequate. We might be fearful. Or we might not fully feel that compassion for others that longs for their salvation as God does. Should we wait to echo God’s message until more love fills our heart so that other see how much we care? There is that saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Is that a reason to remain silent?

Now it’s true that we want to continually be growing in our love for others. We want God’s compassion and patience to fill us more and more so that we, like him, do not want any to perish but everyone -- yes, even that person who has wronged you -- we want everyone to come to him in repentance. And yes, we do want to be growing in our expression of care, loving our neighbor as ourselves. But our heart falling short in compassion is no excuse for remaining silent.

Jonah’s heart still had a lot of growing to do. He didn’t like those people in Nineveh. Nineveh was the chief city of the Assyrian Empire, which had done great harm to his people. In fact, chapter four, tells us that after preaching God’s message, Jonah set up camp outside the city hoping for God to destroy it. He explains that he had tried running off to Tarshish in the first place, because he knew that if he went to preach and the people repented, God’s compassion would spare them. And he wanted them dead. Jonah had a long way to grow in compassion, and the Lord tries to teach him that in chapter four.

But for our consideration today, simply note how powerful God’s message is despite Jonah’s heart and despite ours. Even though our hearts fall short in love, compassion, and care, God’s word can still powerfully penetrate the hearts of others. That’s no reason for us to remain callous in our hearts, for then we jeopardize our own faith and salvation. But it’s also no reason for us not to be echoing his call to others.

Echo his call, dear Christian, as you faithfully share his word with others. For you know in whom you believe, and though our hearts fall short, his word is powerful.

As you think about Jonah, there is so much more to contemplate than what you might have thought when you first heard about him. How compassionate the Lord our God is! As he calls out with his compassion, hear his loving warning with your ears. Repent with your eyes on Jesus. And with your voice echo his call to others. For the compassion of the Lord our God has called out to you. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313