Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Ash Wednesday Sermon – Jonah 3 – February 13th, 2013

In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
          This Lenten season we will be looking at the topic of repentance, using various examples of repentance from the Old Testament to guide our thoughts and our meditations.  Tonight, we begin with one of the great examples of repentance, the people of Nineveh.  And what we see here in Jonah 3 is a great reminder of a simple, fundamental truth that we can so often and so easily overlook, and that is the fact that repentance isn’t our doing – it is something God does by the power of His Word.  God calls and brings people to repentance. 

          I suppose some basic ground work is in order before we get into the text of Jonah 3.  There is the word repent itself – it means to change direction, to change a “pent” – or you can even think of it as being bent back into the proper shape.  The Greek word for it is “metanoia” – literally a changing of the mind.  And one of the things which we remember is that this reshaping, this redirecting, this changing isn’t something we do to ourselves.  It’s an act of God.  This is 3rd article of the Creed stuff – I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.  Repentance is not a matter of how smart you are, or how good you are – it is a matter of the Holy Spirit working upon you through God’s own Law and showing you your sin, so that you are restraightened, redirected, and then ready to hear and behold the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  So, without any further ado, let’s look at our text for tonight and see God at work bringing Jonah to repentance. 

          Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”  So the very first thing that stands out in that the Word of God comes to Jonah a second time.  Why a second time?  Because the first time, when God had commanded him to go to Nineveh, Jonah hadn’t liked the Word of God, and he ran away.  Sails off in the opposite direction – and God raises up a storm, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him over board, they eventually do – and God raises up a giant fish to swallow and save Jonah.  And even then, God must tell Jonah a second time to get up and go to Nineveh.  It’s a great deal of work God has to go through to get Jonah to Nineveh.  And finally, Jonah goes.  So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city,[a] three days' journey in breadth.[b] Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And Jonah goes, and Jonah preaches.  The prophet arrives and warns that in 40 days, God will wipe out Nineveh.

          It doesn’t seem like much of a sermon, does it?  Not a lot of hope there.  Not even a lot of finger wagging against bad and wicked deeds.  But it does point to one simple and great fundamental truth that sinful man loves to rebel against.  The truth that God is in control.  Note, there is no bargaining here – there is no “unless you do X, God will do Y.”  Nope.  It’s simply God speaking through His prophet saying what He is going to do.  It is God proclaiming that He and He alone is actually the One in control, and what He says goes.  And so this preaching cuts to the heart of all sin.  All sin, every act that you or I or anyone has ever done is nothing but seeking to ignore God and claim control for ourselves.  God says “Do this” – and we don’t.  God says, “Don’t do this” and we do.  We do what we want, and God and His Word can take a long walk off a short pier.  It was that way with Adam and Eve in the Garden – who in fact thought that if they ate of the tree they would then be in control, just like God.  It is that way with us, when we made up excuses for our actions, our words, our thoughts.  And it was surely that way in Proud Nineveh.  And there, all throughout the streets of that large city, the prophet of God comes announcing God’s plan – 40 days yet and Nineveh will be overthrown.  God is the one in control, not you Nineveh, not even me, because I certainly didn’t want to be here.

          And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached[c] the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  The people believed.  The Holy Spirit working through the Word crush and broke the proud hearts of the people of Nineveh, and they repented.  They believed.  What God has said is true – even with all its crushing impacts for us.  They throw on sackcloth and ashes, an old sign of repentance, one that is used even up to this Ash Wednesday.  They abandon the comforts of life that had driven their lives.  Instead, they simply listen to the Word of God which the prophet proclaimed, and they believed it.  Again, this is one of the things that is so problematic about repentance – it makes us see truths about ourselves that we would rather overlook.  Our sinful flesh would rather believe that everything that we do is wonderful, good, justified, or at least okay because it’s not as bad as what that other person in that pew over there has been up to.  We like to pretend that our actions have no negative consequences.  And that is why, in His Word, over and over again, God calls us to repentance – that is why we confess.  The word confess simply means “to speak with” – and when we confess our sins we are speaking with God His own Word, we say that God is right.  We believe what He has said about our sin, and we say, “Yes God, you are right.  We are sinful.”

          The King’s reaction, what he says in the midst of this repentance is wonderful as well.  And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. 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.”  The king knows what is going on in his city.  He knows what is going on in his own palace, in his own heart.  Turn, turn away from your own evil way, the way that you think is best rather than doing what God has said is good.  Put down the violence of your hands, for God has created you to serve your neighbor, not harm them.  You are not in control – quit acting like it.  Let God be God, let God be in charge.  And then, two simple words.  Who knows.  Who knows, perhaps God may choose not to smite us after all.  Who knows?  The king doesn’t – but God does.  With these words you get the proclamation that God is in control, not me.  The king doesn’t say, “surely our repentance and prayers will make God spare us” – that would just be more sin and ego and sinful man thinking he is in control!  Rather, the king confesses that people in Nineveh are deserving of both temporal and eternal punishment.  And now, it is in God’s hands – He is the One in Control.

          When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.  And God relents.  Much to Jonah’s consternation (who spends chapter 4 pouting because he wanted to see Nineveh blown up), God spares Nineveh.  And do not run with this the wrong way – don’t put the focus back on Nineveh.  This isn’t people manipulating God.  Rather, God is in Control – and who is this God?  He is the One who desireth not the death of the sinner.  He is the One who is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  He is the One who loves the world so that He sends His Son to the Cross to die for sinners.  It is good for us that God is in control, because He is a God of mercy and steadfast love that never ends.  Just as God’s Word shows us who we are, shows us our sin, it over and over shows us who God is – the One who loves and forgives the sin, the One who would not let man remain trapped in His own sin.  The One who relents from disaster – even countless disasters in our own lives that we are never even aware of the possibility of.  He is in control – and His Word drives us to repentance, makes us see that we are not in control – and why?  So that then the Holy Spirit by the power of the Gospel may show us that God is in control for us, for our benefit.  He has sent His Son to the Cross for you, He has raised His Son from the tomb for you, and because God is in fact in control, you are forgiven and will be raised to life everlasting in Christ’s Name.

          So, do not fear the topic of repentance.  Whenever we consider God’s Law, it will show us stuff about ourselves that we don’t like.  But God does not come merely to condemn the world, He works to redeem and created the world.  He is in control, and this is His good and gracious will towards you.  In the Name of Christ the Crucified + Amen.

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