Pastor and writer John Maxwell tells about a junior high basketball coach who was smart. If he had a kid who was slow of foot, he named him Speedy. If he had a kid who seemed to lack the confidence to be aggressive on defense, he called him Mr. Hustle. He hung these nicknames on the kids not as putdowns calling attention to their deficiencies, but with a straight face and seeming seriousness. “Did you see how great Mr. Hustle was on defense?” he’d ask the team during practice.
Guess what happened? When combined with the proper instruction and correction, kids whom the coach called Mr. Hustle really did become hustling defenders and those he named Speedy became among the fastest ones on the team, able to lead the fast break.
Somewhere this coach had learned the power of words. We see this confirmed elsewhere. I read about a study yesterday that said compliments outnumber criticisms by five to one in good marriages.
Our words have power.
But no one’s word is more powerful than God’s Word!
Hebrews 4:12 says that “...the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Eugene Peterson paraphrases this same passage in The Message: “[God’s] powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.”
I like this last line because, in fact, we do try to get away from God’s Word. We do it because God doesn’t always say what we want to hear.
And we don’t only try running away from God’s Word only when it warns us against the sins we like to commit—be they gluttony or tax evasion, sexual promiscuity or personal arrogance. We also seem to run away from God’s Word when it forgives and affirms us because we convince ourselves that God couldn’t possibly forgive us.
A woman approached me after worship and told me that, in her mind, whenever she heard the absolution, the assurance of forgiveness for all who confess their sins to God the Father in the Name of Jesus Christ, she thought it applied to everyone but her. She eluded the Word of God for her.
We also run away from God’s Word when it tells us to do things we don’t want to do. Thing like...
• Forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
• Lend a hand to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
• Fight for justice and equality for all people, even those with whom we disagree.
• Say a good word for the person nobody likes.
• Tell someone else about the hope we’ve found in Jesus Christ.
And on that last point, I know that more often than I care to remember, I have been hesitant about sharing Christ with others. I've been a lot like Jonah in our first lesson for today.
There have been many times when God’s Word has come to me as it did to Jonah, clear as a bell, whether while I’ve been reading the Bible at home, or hearing it in worship, or an insight from another person in a Bible study. But do I heed it and do what God tells me to do? Not always. And so, I try to block God access to my heart. I try to elude God's Word.
This was exactly what Jonah did. The Old Testament book of Jonah describes events in Israel and elsewhere in the 8th. century BC. A nation that neighbored Israel, Assyria, was less than neighborly. It was, in fact, Israel’s greatest enemy, murderous and warlike. Assyria’s capital city was a place called Nineveh. Ancient Nineveh set on the same ground as a modern city you may have heard about: Mosul, Iraq.
Please open your Bible to Jonah 1:1-2 (page 645 in the sanctuary Bibles). We’re told: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” Jonah was not keen on this idea.
In fairness to Jonah, whose reaction to this call, his hatred for the Ninevites, and his surliness toward God throughout the four-chapter book that bears his name have given him a bad press through the centuries, if God told you to go to Mosul, a city where today the murder and intimidation of Christians has been so horrible and pervasive, would you go?
Or would you, as Jonah did the first time God’s Word came to him, run in the opposite direction and book yourself on a Mediterranean cruise?
But God’s Word is relentless and powerful!
God was emphatic that Jonah needed to do what God’s Word had told him to do.
Once the ship on which Jonah boarded was at sea, the God Who can control the wind and waves, sent a storm. Jonah convinced his shipmates that he was the cause of this life-threatening storm and that they needed to toss him into the drink so that God would bring calm seas. The second they did that, there was a dead calm. The storm had stopped and you might think that that was the end of Jonah, now experiencing the death penalty for his rebellion against God.
But, of course, God initiated a unique bailout plan for Jonah. There’s a lesson in this for you and me: God gives second chances and new starts even to people who don’t seek them.
No matter how far you feel you’ve wandered from God, God wants to speak His Word of reconciliation, peace, purpose, and forgiveness to you. God wants you to have second chances.
That’s exactly what happened to Jonah at the beginning of today’s lesson: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 'Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’”
Jonah still didn’t want to do what God’s Word told him to do. But when given this second chance, Jonah obeys God. Our faith is often measured not in our willingness to do what God asks of us, but in our obedience to do what God asks of us even when our wills cry out to follow completely different paths.
So Jonah goes to Nineveh. There, he does the absolute minimum that God tells him to do. He only walks a third of the way into the city and delivers what is in the original Hebrew a five-word sermon. Here it is: "Forty days more Nineveh overthrown." That’s it.
If you had been a Ninevite and heard that sermon, how would you have reacted?
Would you have laughed it off?
Would you have gotten angry?
Would you have ignored this strange foreigner covered with the stomach juices of the great fish that had swallowed and spit him out?
I can imagine reacting in any of these ways.
During my first two quarters as a student at Ohio State, I commuted by bus, getting a transfer in downtown Columbus. There, most days, I saw and heard a guy who was well-known. He walked around the downtown area pushing a stroller filled with rolls of toilet paper. Attached to the stroller were posters with illegible scrawl. This man would go around telling people to repent for their sins and then, occasionally, he would crow like a rooster. Clearly, there was something wrong with the man. The Ninevites might have been expected to react to Jonah in similar ways.
But their reaction was more akin to that of a businessman in the Loop in Chicago one day. There, man was in the habit of pacing quietly back and forth among the throngs of people, then stopping, pointing to a single individual, and saying, "Guilty." The businessman was once the target of this performance, turned to a friend with whom he was walking, and asked, "But how did he know?"
When Jonah proclaimed Nineveh guilty, the whole city repented.
They turned from sin and turned to the God none of them had ever worshiped before. On hearing Jonah, the Ninevite king told his people in Jonah 3:8-9: “Let everyone call urgently on God. 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 3:10 then tells us: “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.”
Nineveh was spared. Its people--at least the people living there in the eighth century BC--turned from sin and turned to God. God forgave them and they lived, reconciled to God.
What about that paltry sermon of Jonah’s changed the lives of all those Ninevites?
It’s fairly simple and truly amazing, really: Jonah’s words weren’t just Jonah’s words; they were also the Word of God. The Word of God is powerful.
Think of it:
• God spoke His Word and the world and everything in it came into being.
• God’s Word, the second Person of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--came into our world and came into your life in Jesus Christ to die and rise in order to set free from sin and death all who repent and believe in Word of good news about Him.
• God’s Word comes to us today in the Bible, in the water of Holy Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, in the fellowship of believers, in our confession of faith, and even in sermons, paltry and otherwise.
God’s Word is powerful! It comes to us and, usually incrementally, imperceptibly, changes us from the inside out.
God underscores this in Isaiah 55:11, when He says: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
God has unleashed His Word on the world so that all people will have the chance to repent--to turn from sin--and believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior. It has even, in the words of John Newton in Amazing Grace, “saved a wretch like me.”
God wants His Word to come to and penetrate all the Ninevehs of the world, even the Ninevehs that reside in our own hearts, minds, and wills.
And God’s Word comes to you again today: to tell you whether to confront you for your sin, to confirm you in His forgiveness, or to send you like Jonah to your own Ninevehs at work or home or school, to believe God’s Word, trust it, and do what it tells you to do because God’s Word is still powerful, even today, even for you.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God convicts us of sin.
It convinces us that Jesus died and rose for us and that His grace is for us.
It guides us in living lives that honor God.
May we hear it and heed it always. Amen