God's Call to Repentance

Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Date: Epiphany III + 1/22/12

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” The first time it was a disaster. Or, was it? For the first time the word of the Lord came to him, at the command, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it,” Jonah rose but to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:1-3). Now which of the prophets of old wouldn’t respond immediately and dutifully obey the call of the Lord? Most did, albeit with various degrees of hesitation. But the Bible is no mere human work and no propaganda piece skewed to make its characters seem to have super-human strength or insight or dedication or even faith. So here we have the call of the Lord coming to one of God’s people, the great grandson of King Jehu, but he disobeys and flees from the Lord’s presence. But where, pray tell, is the Lord not present? So God followed Jonah and tracked him down, sending a great storm to intercept his getaway.

You recall the drama of Jonah’s willing if desperate sacrifice to be thrown overboard into the sea ostensibly to placate the judgment of “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). It was obvious that Jonah felt the guilt and sorrow for his disobedience. But sorrow is not yet repentance without faith. Then “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). Then Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish, strangely, a prayer of thanksgiving, “and the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).

Though, you will agree, Jonah deserved God’s judgment and punishment of death, the Lord delivered him through a spectacular miracle. You will agree also, then, that we deserve God’s judgment and death because of our sin and disobedience. Yet the Lord has delivered us through a spectacular miracle, the vicarious death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, as He Himself said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40), thus predicting both His death and resurrection.

So now, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” The “Hound of Heaven”[1] has still not lost track or hope that His servant will now hear again and trust and obey. And this time “Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord” (Jonah 3:1). He preached what He was sent and told to preach. And these otherwise ungodly, heathen Gentiles nevertheless believed God and repented of their sin. And God “relented of the disaster the he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” Quite a successful mission, don’t you think? You would think. But the drama is not over. For Jonah didn’t think the result was so pleasing, for “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” This time, in the face of Jonah’s rebellion, God “turned up the heat” of His word, calling, still calling Jonah to do what the otherwise despised heathen did so readily, namely, to repent and to remember and to believe that the Lord’s mercy and grace is, after all, as He first promised to Abraham, for “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3).

This is still God’s plan and mission. Now the word of the Lord comes to those He calls to preach repentance and faith. Instead of sending a fish, however, He sent fishermen. “Follow me,” he said to men named Simon and Andrew, “and I will make you become fishers of men.” For whatever that might mean, they dropped their nets designed for catching fish and were caught in the net of God’s grace. So also men named James and John He called and they, too, were caught by God to be catchers of others.

So is the Church likened to a ship, a lifeboat sent to rescue all who are drowning in the deep of the loneliness of their separation from God. We enter the Nave of the church building and see the font where, in Holy Baptism, by water and the Word we are rescued from the flood of sin and death. Like Jonah we are called to join in the repentance and faith of those who come aboard, for the entire life of faith in this holy ark is marked by our baptism and sustained and given hope through the Word and the daily repentance and faith it inspires. The same judgment lodged against the most unlikely is against us all so that we might also receive the same mercy. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:31).

The word of the Lord comes to us again today, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). And with the call, through the Word preached to us the Lord Himself works repentance and faith in our hearts. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, and our Savior, the Son of God three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, so we have been swallowed up, that is, “buried with Christ by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). And now we also know that God calls those who know repentance and faith, who have experienced the judgment and mercy of God themselves, to arise and go at His calling to call others, all others to the same gift of life in Christ Jesus our Lord; life both by His creation in this world and life in the world to come.

With Jonah, with Simon and Andrew, with James and John, and with all who have been caught in the saving net of God’s grace, let’s go fishing.

[1] Francis Thompson (1850-1907).