Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 21, 2024

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Commentary

A common exercise for aspiring creative writers is to write a 6 word story.  With the platform of social media, these short stories have taken off on sites like Reddit and Tumbler.  Here are a couple examples:

“Axe falling, the rooster crows, ‘Wait!’”

“Only child, but never the favorite.”

“They lived happily ever after, separately.”

You can do a lot with a few words, aptly chosen.

In 2012, the magazine The Christian Century posed this same challenge – though with 7 words – to some current theological thinkers.  Tell the Gospel in 7 words.  And here are a couple examples:

“God, through Jesus Christ, loves us anyhow” by Martin E. Marty

Baylor Professor Beverly Gaventa offered, “In Christ, God’s ‘yes’ defeats our ‘no.’”

Pastor Martin Copenhaver’s contribution was “God gets the last word.”

And Nadia Bolz Weber gives us this one: “We are who God says we are.”

Comments, Observations and Questions:

All of this brings us to Jonah’s work of evangelism in Nineveh. Nineveh is a huge city. A three days’ walk, the text tells us. Jonah ventures in, not quite a full day’s journey and he begins his missionary effort.

After thinking he could run away from God, being tracked down by a storm, gobbled up by a whale, puked up on dry ground and gifted with a second chance at this, you’d think there’d be no shutting Jonah up.  That he would be bursting at the seams to tell the people of Nineveh about the grace that found a wretch like him.  About grace that is greater than all our sin.  About how God is steadfast in mercy and abounding in love.  Just given the source material of his own life, Jonah has more than enough reason for praise, for gratitude and for testimony.  Just imagine all he has to say.

When he opens his mouth to say it, here’s what comes out:

“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

8 words. (5 words in the original Hebrew.) That’s all the text tells us he offered to the people of Nineveh.  After receiving grace upon grace, chance after chance after chance, Jonah obeyed God, went to Nineveh and did, almost precisely, as little as he could possibly get away with.

Author Eugene Peterson gives this estimation of Jonah’s character. “Jonah obedient turns out to be as much in violation of the word of God as Jonah disobedient. . .Jonah is worse obedient than he was disobedient. Jonah obedient is angry and vindictive. Jonah hates Nineveh. Jonah despises Nineveh. . .Jonah obeys to the letter the command of God, but Jonah betrays the spirit of God with his anger.”

Perhaps you are someone who is generally obedient to God. At least in the big picture.  At least you try to be. Obedient-ish. Obedient adjacent. And yet. And yet, says chapter three of Jonah’s story, it is very possible to be obedient and angry. Obedient and vindictive. Obedient and half-hearted.

Again, from Eugene Peterson comes an estimation of our character, “It is in our virtuous behavior that we are liable to the gravest sins. It is while we are being good that we have the chance of being really bad. It is in this context of being responsible, being obedient, that we most easily substitute our will for God’s will because it is so easy to suppose that they are identical…when we are being obedient and successful, we are in far more danger than when we are being disobedient and runaway.”

The sin here is not a 180 degree turn away from God, as it was at the beginning of Jonah’s story.  The sin here is subtle but oh-so-sad!  That a child of God, who has been chased down and cajoled and comforted and confronted and challenged and called, should have no desire to share that same grace with others.  Choosing, instead, to be half-hearted in praise of God’s grace.  To be half-hearted in sharing the hope we have within us.  To be half-hearted while standing as representative to Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s humility, Christ’s humanity.  Christ’s live and love, Christ’s sacrifice and death, Christ’s victory over the grave and his throne in heaven.  This does, indeed seem to be the gravest sin.  And all the more terrible for the fact that it isn’t running rampant out there on the streets so much as it is sitting – or, in my case, standing — piously in here in this sanctuary.

Jonah’s efforts were half-hearted.  And yet.  With God there is always an “and yet.” Jonah’s efforts were half-hearted **and yet** Jonah’s words produce an outsized effect on that great city of Nineveh.

Here, as in chapter one, Jonah plays the fool, the jester, the jerk in order that we might hear the story of God from an unlikely source. In chapter three, we see God’s story in the actions of the King.  While Jonah is dragging his feet and saving his voice, the King, we are told, “rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” These are the humble actions of Christ, who gave up his throne in heaven to come down to earth, to feel our pain, longing and grief.  In order to die, to rise again, ascending to his throne in heaven that, where he is, we may also be.

“The Ninevites believed GOD” and “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”  In a way, Jonah was incidental, peripheral to the work of God.  This is why we say that when God’s word goes out, it does not return empty.  No matter the weakness of the messenger. No matter our belligerence, our half-heartedness.  No matter the condition of our hearts, God will be believed.

With or without us, God will tell stories of grace.

With or without us, God will bring redemption to those in need.

With or without us, God will offer salvation to those who are lost.

With or without us, God will do what only God can do –

turn souls to repentance,

turn death to life,

turn feet to dancing,

turn spirits to song.


Invite the congregation to share their stories of grace.  A testimony to the gospel in 8 words.


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