Although there are some differences with the audio available here, the text of the sermon below is pretty close to the sermon delivered at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York this morning. Jesus compares Himself in our text in Luke to Jonah–a prophet known from the fish story in the Book of the Twelve. Throughout the season of Lent, we will continue looking at the Gospel of Luke but we will jump over several chapters from this Sunday to the next. The next five Sundays of Lent will explore these passages: Luke 20:9-19, Luke 20:20-26, Luke 22:66-71, Luke 23:1-25, and Luke 23:26-49.
Everyone knows the story of Jonah the prophet who was swallowed by a great fish. The word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it a message God’s judgment. Instead, Jonah rose to flee in the opposite direction to Tarshish across the sea by boat. God was none-too-pleased and Jonah soon found his way into the belly of a great fish (not a whale) in the sea where he would remain for three days and nights. From the belly of that great fish Jonah called out to the Lord, the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. The book itself never indicates that the people of Nineveh knew this part of the story, but Jewish tradition before Jesus and the interpretation of Jesus Himself in Matthew and Luke may suggest that the people of Nineveh knew what had happened to Jonah. In the VeggieTales movie Jonah, Jonah tells the king of Nineveh that he was in the belly of a whale for three days and nights and that whale spit him out on the land so that he could bring them a message—they smelled him, which convinced them that it wasn’t a fish story and he really had been in the belly of a great fish—and then they were willing to hear the message. The makers of the movie explain in the extras that there is archaeological evidence that the people of Nineveh worshiped an idol represented by a fish. If that’s right, then when Jonah was spit up by the great fish the people of Nineveh would have understood that the God of Israel was greater than their idol and they should listen to Him. So Jonah was a prophetic sign to the people of Nineveh that they needed to heed his short and simple prophetic message of God’s judgment against Nineveh. Yet that prophetic sign with his short sermon provoked a very different response in Nineveh than the words of judgment spoken by the prophets to the people of Israel and later also by Jesus to the people of Israel in His day. Hear the word of God:
- The people of Nineveh from top to bottom believed the sign of Jonah and heeded his short sermon and thus turned from their evil ways, but the nation of Israel refused to believe and turn.
- Rather than dismissing Jonah as a crazy person telling another fish story, the people of Nineveh believed his prophetic word that in forty days the city would be overthrown. The people of Nineveh believed that their only hope was that by repenting, God might give them a second chance like Jonah got. They believed the sign of Jonah. I remember a pastor in seminary who had done a lot of evangelistic work with Muslims and they had a hard time with the sign of Jonah. They didn’t believe that Jesus had really died on the cross and then rose from the dead. And they didn’t think the sign of Jonah was much of a prophetic sign of death and resurrection because Jonah was living in the belly of the great fish. But the professor pointed out to these Muslims that Jonah 2:2 it said that Jonah cried out from the belly of Sheol—which is the Hebrew word for the place where the dead go. Indeed, Jonah was dead in the belly of the great fish. The belly of that great fish was his tomb—he was in the deep—the abyss—he was in Sheol or Hades—he was in the place where the dead go. And from that place where the dead go, Jonah called upon the Lord. Thus Jonah was resurrected from the dead when the fish spit him out on the land. It is no accident that Jonah went from the sea to the land—this is a picture of new creation. Then Jonah went and prophesied to Nineveh. And whether they knew what had happened to Jonah or not, the people of Nineveh believed Jonah. Therefore, the people of Nineveh died to themselves and lived to God. They put on sackcloth and ashes and they fasted as if they were dead people and they prayed to God starting on the first of the three days (not an accidental number) it would take Jonah to walk across the city. Sure they knew that God might go ahead and destroy the city, but maybe He would see them and have compassion for them and turn from His anger. They believed God and turned to Him and when God saw how they turned from their evil way, God turned from what He said that He would do to them. And lest someone in Israel say that Jonah was a false prophet since the city was not destroyed, there is another way to understand that short sermon that Jonah himself didn’t understand. That is, the city was overthrown – the people had fallen down in repentance – they were transformed – for another acceptable translation of verse 4 would be: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be transformed!” Since the Ninevites believed God and the bad news about their sins, they experienced repentance unto longer life. (Regardless of what might have prepared the people of Nineveh to receive this message of judgment from the true and living God, God gave them faith and repentance to rebuke Israel.)
- Israel had many chances to believe God’s word of judgment and turn from their evil ways so that God would turn from destroying them. They were given a lot longer than forty days. Those Ninevites were not seeking God and His righteousness, but found Him. They were not seeking signs, but believed in Jonah’s preaching. (And if you think about it, they didn’t see Jonah in the great fish or spit up on the land by the great fish, but they believed Jonah’s preaching). Yet Israel had the law of God and heard the prophets apply it to their day but many of the people of Israel did not believe the prophets. They did not believe the bad news of the coming judgment of their own nation spoken by prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But the Exile did happen according to the word of the Lord. [Arguing from the lesser to the greater—from Jonah, Isaiah, Solomon, to Jesus…] Likewise the generation in Jesus’ day did not believe Him when He said that Jerusalem would be destroyed. But the destruction of Jerusalem did happen according to the word of the Lord in the year AD 70. Thus the purpose of Jonah is the same purpose that Jesus has for mentioning the story – to rebuke Israel for not believing the Lord and turning to Him. Therefore, the only sign that the people of Israel in Jesus’ day would get was the sign of Jonah – as He said, “for as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jesus was a sign to His generation because He preached a message of repentance and He became a sign to His generation because of His death and resurrection. He died to Himself and lived to God. He experienced physical death on the cross and then rose from the dead on the third day. And when they heard the preaching of the apostles it was their second chance to believe God and turn from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands. And God gave some the gifts of a saving faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto eternal life. Many others remained unchanged. (But sooner or later everyone will be overthrown.)
- Jesus can come again anytime now.
The earth came to an end once with a flood and this age will come to an end with fire. Indeed, just as the flood waters cleansed the earth of all that filth the first time so too the fire will purify the earth the next time. But until the day of the Lord comes you have a second chance to believe God’s word of judgment and turn to Jesus Christ for salvation. Some people will think that we are crazy for saying judgment day is coming, but others will believe God and turn to Him. All those who do believe God unto salvation will inherit a purified and renewed earth that Revelation says will have no sea—that is, it will have no forces of chaos and death. (Thus at the final judgment the men of Nineveh will condemn the people of Israel who didn’t believe Jesus because they had heard Jonah and were overthrown but Israel had heard Jesus and had not been transformed.)
Those who believe in God and His Christ today have already been overthrown. That is, those who are in Christ have been transformed. To us, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a fish story. We believed the sign of Jonah. We have fallen down before God and His Christ. We have humbled ourselves before them. We have willingly submitted to Jesus Christ as our Lord and the Father as our God. God already rules us – His kingdom has already come in one sense. Of course, our old self is still subject to sin and death and our old self will continue to need to repent. But we already belong to the new creation in Christ Jesus. It is easy for us to see the need for Ninevites—and others who worship false gods—to be converted and easy to for us Gentiles to rebuke Israel, but we too need Jesus. Our attempts to be our own king and God have been overthrown by the true God and King. We have been overthrown so that He might reign. Thanks be to God. Amen.