Repent! So we are told, and so also we tell others, not just during the season of Lent, but always. But who is called to repent? If we look at the message of the prophets, is the message a universal message, or is it only for some? As we read through the prophets, we see that they are called by God to call the nation of Israel, both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, to repentance. As I gathered my thoughts about this text, I was thinking of saying that this was the message that Jonah was called to preach. But it really wasn’t. His message was simply to be, in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed. Nothing was said about turning or returning, simply that their sins merited destruction. After all, how could Nineveh be called upon to return to God, when they were not His to begin with? The message to Nineveh was the same as that which the other prophets preached to the surrounding nations: a message of destruction because of their sins. Though they did not know God and did not honor the true God, they did have the law of God written on their hearts, and most certainly did not live up to that. Jonah, who held the office of prophet, prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel, who reigned for 40 years at the beginning of the 700s BC. How long he prophesied, we don’t know. Outside of one reference in 2 Kings and the book that bears his name, we know nothing of his ministry. But in Jonah we see one of those many and various ways by which God spoke of old by the prophets. But his ministry to Nineveh is significant, and the account of his call, refusal, second call, and success, has something to say to us, both about ourselves, and about God.
In the case of Jonah, we have someone unique among the writing prophets: while the others denounced foreign nations with a “Thus says the LORD,” they did so in the context also of denouncing Israel and Judah for their sins as well, the nations who were God’s people but who were in rebellion against God. The other writing prophets spoke to rebellious people and many of them were put to death because their message was not palatable to a people who was complacent in its rebellion. Jonah was actually called by God to go into the teeth of the enemy and to denounce them and announce to them that in forty days Nineveh would be overthrown.
In Jonah we see a reluctant prophet, unwilling to go where God desires him to go. Why? It wasn’t really fear, though to go into that wicked city and preach its destruction seemed like a suicide mission. Rather, we see that Jonah saw through the bare words of the message that God called him to proclaim. He saw God’s ulterior motive, His “hidden agenda,” if you will, behind the words, and saw that God did in fact desire the residents of Nineveh to repent. We do see in the next chapter that Jonah became angry at God for not carrying out His plan of destruction. He says, “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.” Jonah does not see Nineveh as a place deserving of a message from God. The message itself, that message of destruction, would have been pleasing to Jonah. What he couldn’t abide was the fact that upon hearing the message Nineveh might repent, turn to God, and seek mercy. And they did. Interestingly, they did it not knowing whether they would receive mercy. The king says, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” Those words, “Who knows?” are telling. Nineveh had no grounds for assurance that God would be merciful to them. They had no real hope. The best they could have would be a hope against hope that God might show them mercy. And God was merciful and did relent from bringing disaster upon them.
But it was not only the people of Nineveh who needed to repent. Jonah did as well, since his hope was that God would carry out His threat. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a brutal empire who was feared throughout what we call the Near East, and for good reason. Certainly, Jonah believed that even though God was a merciful God, he also believed that some people were so evil that they did not deserve mercy, that the message of mercy should pass them by. But do we not at times feel the same way? There is evil, but then there is real evil. God can and should forgive the one, but not the other. God should forgive people like us, but not people like them. There are times, though, when pondering my sins I think I believe in justification by grace through faith because it is the only chance I’ve got. But then I realize that it is the only chance I’ve got, and it is the chance that God has provided. If we dare to think such, that there is evil, but then there is real evil, we need to remember that we, too, are dust, that when we are told that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that includes each of us.
Though hope was not in the words of Jonah, the people of Nineveh had no choice but to repent. They had a hope against hope, but apart from that they knew that they had no hope. So they repented and God relented. He did not destroy them. Such is the compassion of God for every sinner, and such is the reminder that we need to hear. God does not rejoice in the death of any sinner, and neither should we.
The call to repent must go out to every generation. No one can rely on the hope of the penitence of their forebears. A century after Jonah, Nahum again foretold the destruction of Nineveh, which had returned to its evil ways, ultimately destroying the Northern Kingdom, and nearly destroying Jerusalem, except for God’s direct intervention. Nahum’s prophecies served to comfort the nation of Judah, as they awaited the final destruction of their enemy. And in 612 BC Nineveh was destroyed. The Assyrian Empire was replaced by the equally wicked Babylonian Empire. God does not desire the death of the wicked, but if they refuse to turn to God, the wrath of God remains upon them and they are destroyed.
One point that Jonah missed, and that many even in Jesus’ time, and many even in our own time miss, is that to be one of God’s chosen people at all comes by an act of grace on God’s part, not by an act of goodness, or relative goodness, on the part of the chosen one. God did not choose us because we deserved it, because we were less evil than those around us, but purely by His favor toward us in Christ. We were elected as His own even before the foundation of the world, before we had done anything at all, indeed even as God had beheld our sinful state. He chose us, not in some arbitrary manner, but He chose us in Christ. We were chosen, and that choosing has been made known to us by God’s clear act on our behalf. When we were brought to the font, God, through His called servant, placed His name upon us, forgiving our sins, declaring to us that we have been adopted into His family. Every time we confess our sins, whether in the public service or privately before the pastor, the words “I forgive you,” are words that come from the mouth of Christ, for they are spoken by His command and authority. Every time you hear the words “The body and blood of Christ given and shed for the remission of your sins,” the “for you” is at once for everyone who hears it, but also for you as the individual child of God who has been redeemed by Christ.
The words that Jonah spoke were purely words of judgment. But those words caused the citizens of Nineveh to examine themselves, repent, and turn to a God they did not know in hopes of receiving forgiveness. In Christ, the preaching of judgment is always followed by a word of absolution, a word which is spoken in a sure hope that sins have been atoned for and have been wiped away.
When Christ’s messengers went out into all the world, that world included the people who were members of nations that were nemeses of the Old Testament people. Though Assyria had conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 BC and had marched to Jerusalem, their descendants heard the Gospel and had come to faith, forming the Assyrian Church of the East, which tradition says was established through the preaching of the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew. Egypt, which had enslaved the children of Israel and was an enemy for centuries, heard the Gospel preached by St. Mark the Evangelist, and so founded the Coptic Church, which also still stands. When Christ says that the Gospel is to be preached to all nations, He means just that. And so, Christ’s church has expanded throughout the world. In some places the planted seed may sprout abundantly, and the church may rapidly grow. In other places the growth may seem to be sparse, but the church is present. In some places the church may seem to die out, but it pops up in other places. In the days of the Soviet Union, the leaders expected the church to die out, since Christianity, they thought, was just a religion for old women, and when the old women died out, so would Christianity. But as time went on, one generation of old women was replaced by the next, and the next, each teaching their children and grandchildren, and the church outlasted the Soviet empire. But in some times and places it seems that the church is on the verge of dying out. In Canada, for example, the province of Quebec has gone for a staunchly Catholic province to a totally secular one in just a generation. In Europe, once the place of great growth, the Gospel seems to be having a tough time making headway. But in Africa and parts of East Asia, there is growth. Just looking at the Lutheran Church, we see that there are now more Lutherans in Africa than in North America, more Lutherans in Papua New Guinea than in North America.
It is tempting to despair because at times it seems as though we live in a post-Christian society. But God’s church, though it may become a remnant, will continue until Christ brings this age to a close with His return. His command was to make disciples of all nations, and to do it by baptizing and teaching. And it is in this way that Christ is with His Church until the close of the age.
And so we go out to preach to this generation. There may be some situations, and some people, to whom we do not want to preach mercy. But God says, “Go,” and in our going we make disciples of God’s enemies, turning them into His friends, for God indeed was in Christ reconciling the world, the entire world, to Himself in not counting their trespasses against them. We also have indeed been reconciled to God through Christ. So, take comfort. Indeed, rejoice! Amen.