“God Cares for the Lost”

(Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – Epiphany 3 – January 24, 2021)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – 1Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. 4And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them…. 10Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

Dear Redeemed in Jesus Christ:

Can you identify which company uses this slogan: “When you care enough to send the very best”? According to the Hallmark greeting card company, one way we can show that we truly care for someone is by sending our very best in a personalized card with our message of love. For whom do you care enough to send the very best? Would you think of family members, friends, or others whom you associate with and enjoy being around?

In our text, we see that God cared enough to send His very best to the least likely recipients. He wanted to share His message of love and salvation with the residents of the wicked city of Nineveh, who had made themselves enemies of God and of His people in Israel. But in order to share His message of salvation with them, they first needed to hear His message of repentance, lest they perish in their sin and unbelief. So God called His prophet Jonah to go and preach to them. The message is clear: “God Cares for the Lost.” Here we see that 1) He wants all people to repent and be saved, and 2) He works repentance and faith by His Word.

1) He wants all people to repent and be saved

Our text begins: “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you'” (vs. 1-2). The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, because the first time he had not wanted to go and share God’s message with those people. Nineveh was the capital city of the powerful and very evil empire of Assyria, 500 miles to the east of Israel. For some time, Assyrian rulers had been expanding their empire by ruthless methods of war, including torture and dismemberment of conquered victims. That evil empire posed a threat to the entire region, including Israel.

No wonder Jonah had fled the first time the Lord called him to go to Nineveh, right into the heart of that pagan nation steeped in wickedness! In Jonah 1:2-3, God told the prophet: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah went in the opposite direction. He headed west to the Mediterranean Sea and caught a ride with a ship headed for Tarshish, attempting to flee from the presence of the Lord.

We can understand Jonah’s desire to avoid such a wicked place as Nineveh. How many of us would want to go preach the Lord’s message in one of the countries in our day where they inflict torture and painful deaths on God’s people, if they make a public confession of faith?

But something else bugged Jonah, too. If God wanted to destroy Nineveh He could just do it without warning, as He did to Sodom and Gomorrah when He rained fire from heaven on those wicked people (Genesis 19:24). But God was choosing to give Nineveh a chance by preaching repentance. This bothered Jonah. Why should God care enough about those depraved sinners to send His very best, should they repent? Later, when the people of Nineveh did repent and God spared the city, Jonah complained in chapter 4:2-3: “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” The grace God showed to such miserably lost sinners really bugged Jonah.

As Jonah knew, God had revealed His care for lost souls long before this. Through Moses, He had revealed His name to His people as “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). To be sure, He is a just God who will punish unrepentant sinners with hellfire; yet, He is a God of love who desires more to forgive and save sinners. He said in Ezekiel 33:11: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”

So there was Jonah aboard a ship, running away, pouting about how gracious and merciful the Lord could be to such lost and miserable sinners. He did not care enough to bring God’s very best to them. In self-righteous pity, He curled up in the gently rocking hold of his escape ship and slept like an innocent baby. But just when he thought he had it made in the shade, God sent a great wind and tempest, threatening to sink the ship with its sailors and cargo and Jonah. Awakened in the face of death, a terrified Jonah confessed that it was his fault for running from the Lord. He told the sailors to throw him overboard, that they might be spared. As Jonah sunk in the dark depths, the sea calmed. Chapter 1 concludes: “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

In chapter 2, we hear Jonah’s prayer inside the fish. It is a psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord for having rescued him from drowning in the depths of the sea, and for having been so gracious and merciful to him. Jonah saw firsthand that love of the Lord who cared enough to send the very best even to him, the miserable sinner who had been running away from the Lord. There in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed with a new heart of repentance and faith: “‘I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.’  So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (Jonah 2:7-10).

Having gone through death in a sense, and having been given new life by God’s mercy, Jonah came out a new man. God changed his heart through His gracious gift of salvation. Now, he who had fled from the Lord’s presence longed to be in the Lord’s presence and hear His Word of salvation for sinners. And he also desired to share that message with fellow sinners.

Do we ever find ourselves fleeing from the Lord’s will like Jonah? God wants to direct us by His Word to go one way; but we have other priorities and head the opposite way. Maybe it is that there is someone in our life for whom God cares enough to send His very best. It may be the least likely person in our mind, one who seems miserably lost in his sinful ways. Yet, God wants you or me to go and share His message of mercy, love, and salvation with that person. Have we been running the other way? Maybe it is fear of how that person might respond unfavorably. Perhaps we excuse ourselves by thinking: “I don’t know what to say. Lord, can’t You send someone else to that difficult person?” Perhaps we excuse ourselves by thinking of all that person has done wrong, and how he does not deserve for us to care enough to send him the very best. And if he were to perish in his sin, he would deserve it! So like Jonah, instead of sharing God’s care for the lost and His heart of mercy toward miserable sinners, we would rather flee to our own ship of escape. We would rather curl up and rock ourselves to sleep in our own comfortable ship hold of apathy toward the lost and satisfaction with ourselves.

Like Jonah, God may need to send a tempest against our ship and wake us up to just how merciful and gracious He has been to us. It may take a great trial or failure on our part, where we find ourselves sinking in the deep waters of trouble. He may bring us to see just how our own sin has separated us from His presence, and how powerless we are to save ourselves, until we cry out in the face of death, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Why should God care enough to send the very best to us, when we have so often fled from Him into our own paths of sin?

But that is just what He has done. When we were lost in our own sinful course, deserving to sink in the dark depths of Hell’s abyss, God cared enough to send us His very best. He sent His own Son to be our Savior. Jesus came to our rescue, throwing Himself overboard into the sea of our sins. All the waves and billows of God’s wrath against our sin swept over His own Son (Psalm 42:7). On the cross, Jesus gave His life as the ransom for our waywardness, that we might be spared. Jesus showed that this account of Jonah was not just a myth, when He compared Jonah’s experience to what He was to undergo in His own death and resurrection. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus said: “For 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.” After God’s Son paid for our sins on the cross, after He had given His very best for us, His body was laid in the grave. But then, the Lord of Life came forth from the tomb on the third day, to give us His salvation and eternal life.

By the grace of God, like Jonah, you and I have undergone a kind of death to our sin and waywardness. In the waters of baptism, God drowned our sinful nature that leads us astray, and He brought us forth as a new man in His cleansing forgiveness. He brought us forth in Christ spiritually alive, eternally alive! Does not this grace of God toward sinners put a new attitude in our heart, and a new message on our lips? Does it not move us to share God’s care for the lost?

2) He works repentance and faith by His Word

When Jonah saw how gracious the Lord had been, when he saw firsthand the love of God who cared enough to send the very best to him, he was moved to share the Lord’s message with his fellow sinners. So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD” (vs. 3). It took three days to visit the city and its surrounding areas, and as he went, Jonah proclaimed the Lord’s merciful warning for all to repent, crying out: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (vs. 4). As Jonah proclaimed God Word among those miserably lost sinners, seeing the depravity of their lives, he never expected what happened. “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them” (vs. 5). God’s Spirit, working through His Word, caused the people to repent and believe. Our text concludes: “and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (vs. 10).

Which is a greater miracle – God sending the great fish to swallow Jonah and save him, or God sending His Word to such hardened sinners to save them from perishing forever in their sin and unbelief? The Bible tells us about the power of God’s Word to work His greatest miracle of repentance and faith in the heart of sinners. Romans 10:17 says: So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 1:16 says “the gospel of Christ… is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” Here, God’s powerful Word had worked repentance and saving faith in the hearts of these Gentiles who had been foreigners to the covenants and promises of God. The fact that they believed leads us to understand that Jonah’s preaching included more than just the condemning Law of God to warn them against sin. It must have also included the Gospel promise of the Lord, who cares enough save sinners and give them His very best. That message points to the Savior who would come into the world to die for the sins of all people – Jesus Christ. 

“So the people of Nineveh believed” (vs. 5)! Are there people in this world whom we think are beyond hope? Is there someone in our own life for whom we cannot imagine caring enough to share God’s very best? As we see in Jonah’s account, our calling is not to make that decision, but simply to share the Lord’s saving message with our fellow sinners and let His Spirit work the results. As believers in Christ, we have seen the results firsthand. God’s Spirit has changed our hearts, so that we can now say with the apostle Paul: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

God cares for the lost; and by the grace of God, so do we. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15); and for our fellow sinners we pray:

O Christ, our true and only Light, Enlighten those who sit in night;
Let those afar now hear Thy voice And in Thy fold with us rejoice.

So they with us may evermore Such grace with wond’ring thanks adore
And endless praise to Thee be giv’n By all Thy Church in earth and heav’n. Amen.

(Hymn: “O Christ, Our True and Only Light”)