Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Ruth and Jonah (Midweek Lenten Worship, Part 3)

[Here, you'll find the video of the live stream of tonight's Midweek Lenten devotional worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, and the text of the message shared.]

Jonah 1:1-17

The first thing to be said about the Old Testament book of Jonah is that it’s not a fish story. Only three of its 42 verses deal with the great fish we immediately think of when we think of Jonah. The fish is only one of His creatures that God sends to rescue Jonah throughout the four short chapters of this book

It should be said though, that we may be tempted to wonder why God even bothers with rescuing Jonah. He’s rebellious, selfish, even hateful. 

But then, when others observe us, people who are, by baptism and belief in Jesus, simultaneously saints and sinners, the same question may arise: Why is it that God bothers with people who can, at times, be so fervent in confessing their faith and also be so rebellious, selfish, and hateful?

As we began this series two Wednesdays ago, we said that the Old Testament books of Ruth and Jonah compel us to ask some big questions. And we’ve begun to answer them. 

In Ruth, we saw that God’s care for His own people–represented by Naomi, Elimelech, and their two sons–didn’t stop at the border between Israel and Moab, where they went as hungry refugees; God, Yahweh, was still their God and with them outside the promised land. 

We've learned that God was equally concerned about people outside His Old Testament covenant. Through His Word, shared by Naomi and her family, Ruth, a Moabite foreigner, came to believe in God, even becoming the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s second king and the ancestor of the family into which Jesus, the Savior of the world was to be born. 

In turning tonight to Jonah, we see our questions more fully answered by God’s Word. The God we know in Jesus isn’t confined to particular places. He’s got the whole world, actually the whole universe, in His hands.

Jonah lived more than two hundred years after the time of Ruth. By his time, Israel had torn into two: a kingdom to the south, often called Judah, with worship centered in Jerusalem, and a kingdom to the north, called Israel, whose worship life would eventually settle in Samaria. 

Both kingdoms rebelled against God. But Israel, the northern kingdom, was the most notorious in its idolatries and mixing of other religions with the worship of Yahweh. Nonetheless, the north produced great people of God, including the prophet, Elijah. The ancient rabbis believed that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath who God raised from the dead through Elijah. That may or may not be true, but we do know that Jonah was one of the prophets at the king’s court in 2 Kings.

Jonah is the fifth of the twelve minor prophets whose books are bundled together in the Old Testament. Unlike the books of the other prophets, which are mainly composed of the oracles God gave them to speak, the book of Jonah is a historic narrative that tells us about what happened when God commissioned Jonah to speak God’s Word to the Ninevites, when Jonah refused to do so, when God again called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and when Jonah finally delivered God’s Word to the Ninevites. 

But what is a prophet? Above all, God called prophets to deliver God’s call to people to turn to God in repentance and faith. That's important to keep it in mind.

Now, to our text for tonight, Jonah 1:1-17. It begins, as we see in other prophets’ stories, with the Word of God coming to Jonah. He’s to go to Nineveh to preach against the Ninevites and their wickedness which, God says, “has come up before Me.” (Jonah 1:2) 

Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a nation that had treated God’s people harshly. The archeological remains of Nineveh exist today not far from the Iraqi city of Mosul, about 250 miles from Baghdad. 

There would have been great dangers for Jonah in going into enemy territory. But that, as we’ll see, isn’t why Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites. He was concerned that the Ninevites might repent, trust in God, and be welcomed into relationship with God. But Jonah hated the Ninevites and didn’t want them to walk with God.

So, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah books passage on a ship in the Mediterranean to someplace called Tarshish. Jonah thinks that he can “flee from the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3) In his anger with God, Jonah seems to have momentarily forgotten that the presence of the Creator of the universe can’t confined to his homeland. King David, who lived several centuries earlier knew better than that. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there;  if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me…” David writes in Psalm 139:8-10. God is with us even when we don’t want Him to be!

As you know, a huge storm erupts. Each of the sailors and passengers prays to their own gods and toss cargo overboard to lighten the weight of the ship. But nothing stops the storm or settles the ship. The other passengers cast lots to determine who’s at fault for this life-threatening storm. The lot falls to Jonah. Although running from God, Jonah, a saint by God’s grace and a sinner by birth, confesses his faith to Gentiles. Now, this is ironic. In confessing his faith in God to Gentiles on that ship, Jonah is doing the very thing God wanted to send him to Nineveh to do. (Another case of, “Either God gets His way or God gets His way.) Jonah tells his shipmates: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9) He explains that he has displeased God by running from the mission God has given to him and that to save themselves, the passengers and crew must throw him into the sea. 

Not wanting to be responsible for Jonah’s death, the Gentile crew try to row toward land, but to no avail. Then they do what Jonah won’t get around to doing until chapter 2: They pray to Yahweh, the God we know in Jesus, the great I AM! Jonah is evangelizing Gentiles despite himself

Finally, Jonah is thrown overboard and a dead calm descends on the sea. Then we’re told, “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord [that is, in the original Hebrew, Yahweh] and made vows to him.” (Jonah 1:16) 

This is not the last time that Jonah, perhaps the original Lutheran–a reluctant evangelist–is used to convince others to trust in God even as he, listening to his sinful nature, refuses to trust in God himself. Jonah is like you and me, maybe, and definitely like the apostle Paul who confessed that his sinful nature often got in the way of his faith in God: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Thoughts like these may have been going through Jonah’s mind as he floundered in the sea. But, God ismerciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6) 

God was faithful to Jonah even when Jonah was faithless to God. He sent a great fish to swallow Jonah and save him from death. 

The grace of God which He extends to us now in Jesus Christ isn’t a license for us to commit sin, of course. 

But God’s grace, His charitable love for sinners, even sinners who believe in Him, is tough and resilient. God is unwilling to quickly give up on anyone. 

That’s why eight-hundred years after Jonah, God would take on human flesh in Jesus Christ to die on a cross for our sins and rise from the dead to offer life with God to all who repent and believe in Him. 

God doesn’t give up on Ninevites, Jonahs, or us…or that neighbor somewhere in your life or in your world you don’t like, the way Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites. 

In Jesus Christ, we know that God never tires of calling out to us as Jesus did at the beginning of his earthly ministry: “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) 

More about the reluctant Jonah and the good news God has for us all next week.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Repentance, Not Judgment

[Here, you'll find the live stream video of today's 11:00 AM worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, and the text of today's message.]

Luke 13:1-9
On a social media site, a Christian recently publicly refused to pray for the Ukrainian people. He said that the Russian invasion of their country proved they were under God’s judgment.

This man seems to have a faulty theology of glory, rather than the Bible’s theology of the cross. The theology of glory declares that if you’re a believer in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, nothing bad will happen to you. That, of course, is untrue. Throughout history, believers in the God first revealed to ancient Israel and now revealed to all the world in Jesus, have suffered calamities, tragedy, and death, both natural and manmade. Jesus Himself, God the Son, suffered brutality and death on a cross and told all of us who follow Him that we will, at the least, suffer the indignity of death ourselves, will suffer like the rest of humanity, must daily die to our old selves so that our new selves can rise, and may even be persecuted for our faith before we are finally raised to live eternally with God.

Scripture says that there are times when God chastens and condemns His people and brings calamity, even death, to them for their sin. Ancient Israel became so rebellious toward God in the wilderness that He sent poisonous serpents to bite them. Many died. It was only when God ordered Moses to melt down bronze, fashion it into the form of a serpent, put it on a pole and raise it, and make the people look at it in repentance to acknowledge their sin and place their faith in God alone, that the suffering survivors recovered.

In the New Testament book of Acts, a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, under no obligation to give the proceeds from the sale of their home to the Church, told everyone that’s what they had done. They wanted bragging rights. But when it became known that they’d actually held back some of the money they claimed they had given, God took their lives. It’s a chilling incident.

Judgment can come from God in this life. But we need to be careful in saying that when people get into trouble, they must be under God’s judgment. In fact, if we even think it, I suspect it’s best to repent for playing God. Only God will judge people’s worthiness for eternal salvation. We can and we must, as God’s people, share both His Law and His Gospel with others. But judging people’s eternal destiny is God’s job, not ours.

As our Gospel lesson for today, Luke 13:1-9, begins, some men tell Jesus about a recent event in Jerusalem: A group of Galileans had just been slaughtered in the temple by soldiers sent by Pilate, the Roman governor. This likely took place during the Passover, because that was the only time that laypeople, rather than priests, were allowed to participate in the sacrifices offered in the temple courts.

Jesus asks the men, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:2-3)

And then, citing another recent event, Jesus asks the crowd what they think of “those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:4-5)

Just before the people in the crowd remind Jesus of Pilate’s murder of the Galileans, Jesus has been talking about how important it is for us to accurately interpret the times in which we live. You see, at the moment Jesus was born at Bethlehem, the fallen creation in which you and I live entered the “end times.” When we rightly understand that this, we know that the life of this universe, not to mention our own individual lives, could have ended and still could end at any second. That means that the standard operating procedures of our inborn sinful human natures will not do. Judging others as worthy of God’s condemnation and ourselves as being innocents with a right to God’s blessings, good fortune, and ease will not do.

Jesus says that when we see others die violently or suddenly, we dare not conclude that God punished them or that they were worse sinners than we are.

God’s Word tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) The whole human race is composed of sinners. That includes you and me. There is no escaping that word all. Since you and I are all sinners and since no sin is worse or better than any other sin, Jesus says we dare not conclude that the person who dies from cancer or COVID, or the mother and child killed by a Russian bomb, or the young Russian conscript forced to be involved in “special military operations,” or the depraved despot who is unleashing war on Ukraine even as we speak, is worse than we are. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Instead, Jesus says, when we see the tragedies, travesties, and deaths of our fallen world, our first thought should be not to judge others’ salvation, but to repent. Unless we repent, Jesus says, we will perish. To perish, in the Greek language in which Luke wrote his gospel, means not just to die, but to be utterly atomized, but still to exist, crushed by the eternal suffering and torment that comes to those who put their faith in their own goodness and righteousness rather than in the goodness and righteousness of God.

To repent for our sin is not just being sorry for our sin, it’s also to  “trust in the one who brings [us] forgiveness and release [from the death sentence we deserve for our sin.]

It’s right for us to fear God and not just respect Him or hold Him in awe, because God has every right to hold us accountable and judge us for our sin.

But in Jesus Christ, we know that, as we turn to Him and turn away from our sin, we can trust in God not to judge us according to our sin, but solely and completely according to the righteousness He gives to all who believe in Jesus.

Jesus, the Son of God, is the Lord and King sent by God the Father, “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…” (Luke 4:18) Jesus covers the repentant in grace, forgiveness, and life with God! It’s the same grace, forgiveness, and life with God He commissions us to share with all the other sinners of the world.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable.

A man, clearly representing God the Father, owned a vineyard. As was common in the first century in that part of the world, the vineyard owner planted a fig tree among the grape arbors. But, after three years, the fig tree hadn’t produced any fruit. The owner of the vineyard is angry with the unproductive tree. So, he tells the vinedresser to cut it down. But the vinedresser, representing God the Son, Jesus, begs the owner of the vineyard, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” (Luke 13:8-9)

In the parable, Jesus, the One Who offered His life on the cross to save us all from sin and death, asks the Father for more time for “fertilizer,” His life-giving Gospel Word, to be poured onto the human race. Christ begs that the Father will give His Church time to spread His good news, sharing His call to repentant faith.

To the first-century churches of Asia Minor, anxious for Jesus to return and usher in His eternal kingdom in its fullness, the apostle Peter said, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Repentance and saving faith in Jesus are gifts God gives through His crucified and risen Son. May God help us spend our days not in judging others, but living in this repentant faith and in sharing the good news of Jesus, by which He saves the perishing and gives the repentant eternal life with God. Amen