An Invitation, Not a Judgement
Jonah 3:1-5, 10. Third Sunday After Epiphany.
In one particular congregation, a pastor was pleased when he noticed that a young couple who had started to attend church continued to attend on a regular basis. Each Sunday they came, he got to know them a little better. One Sunday he discovered they were living together without being married. The pastor hesitated to speak judgment to the couple, even though he knew it was God’s will. He gave a great deal of thought as to what to say when they came next Sunday.
The following Sunday, as they were leaving the church after the usual light chatter, the pastor simply said, “By the way, I do cheap weddings.” Within a short time, the couple called the pastor to set a date for a wedding. They also had their baby baptized, took adult confirmation instruction, and joined the church. The young man became actively involved in the church, ushering and serving as youth counselor. The pastor, like Jonah, was reluctant to act. But when he did act, following God’s will, good things happened.
So let’s look at Jonah’s story as a way of looking at our own lives in Christ. Jonah knew what God’s will was. He had been called by God (v1). He was asked to prophesy. He knew themessage, and he could be trusted to deliver it. We even read that Jonah’s ministry had beensuccessful under Jeroboam II, winning back land taken by Syria through preaching (2 Ki 10:32-33; 13:3, 7; 14:25). Jesus even favorably compared Himself to Jonah. Jonah He was credible and had a history of success, but when God called him to got Nineveh, Jonah ran from God.
Was it because of dislike of Nineveh and strong desire to see them punished that Jonah ran away from God’s command? Did Jonah not understand that God’s mercy desired that everyone should be saved? Or was there another reason for his reluctance to act? Fear?
We can’t know why Jonah didn’t do what God told him to do, but one of the Old Testament’s most memorable miracles, through the greatfish, changed many things. God’s power in delivering Jonah through the great fish convinced him to repent and preach (v 4). The power of Jonah’s preaching and work of the Spirit convinced the Ninevites to repent and refrain from evil (v 5). God had mercy when he saw the Ninevites turn from their evil ways (v 10).
So what can we learn from Jonah’s story? One thing is that, just as God called Nineveh to repent, God calls us to repent today. We are called to repentance because we know that the Law and Gospel message is preached and taught and we often fail to live up to witnessing the power of God’s Law and Gospel working in our lives.
It is no surprise that the words, “I am sorry” and “forgive me” are some of the least used and but most important in the English language. But as God intends for us to live, when we speak words of forgiveness, we witness to Christ and we live in the freedom of repentance.
And like the Ninevites and Jonah, many “Christians” today refuse to hear the message when God calls. It is so much easier to sleep in on Sunday morning, thinking, “I know I should teach Sunday school, but I am not qualified; there’s always time to go to church; the church is a bunch of hypocrites.” We ignore God’s invitation to hear and serve in His grace. We need to repent.
So, today, in light of our failures to listen to God’s invitation and accept it, we acknowledge that we often follow the example of Jonah, and this proves that we are sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness. We run away from the discomfort we might experience in accepting God’s invitation to labor in His kingdom. We allow our fears and our own desires to dictate our actions, and we justify our decisions against God’s will by any means we can . . . just like Jonah. We imitate the rebellious prophet and incur God’s judgement, but we would be better to imitate another example instead.
It took a while for Jonah to learn this lesson, but we Christians are meant to become imitators of God. As pastors, teachers, church workers, and people who attend church when others stay home, we live lives of invitation, not judgement. Our obedience to God’s call and commandments which include repentance, works of mercy, worship, life in the Word, and righteous living all show the grace of God at work in our lives. Our positive acceptance of God’s invitation to have Jesus as our Savior and Lord causes others to see Jesus at work in our lives, and He draws them into life and forgiveness.
The story of Jonah is a story of God continuing to call, even when the response is “no.” It is a story of God inviting us into Himself, and not giving up on us even when we head the other direction. God treats us with grace and mercy, He does not judge, and we find our greatest joy in accepting his invitation.
We may like to see a better ending to the Book of Jonah, one where Jonah rejoices in God’s grace rather than become indignant over it. But the ending reminds us that no matter how we feel about delivering it or receiving God’s invitation to live in Christ under God’s grace, God desires that we and all people would be saved. May we be reminded of this daily so that we can repent of our failures, take up the invitation to live forgiven and free in Christ, and witness to others the joy of God’s salvation—and invitation rather than a judgement. Amen.