To whom will you preach?

Based on: Jonah 4:5-11

Edward Spencer was a Bible student in Illinois in 1860.  He was planning to be a minister of the Gospel, but a shipwreck in the fall of 1860 changed his life.  The steam boat, “Lady Elgin” collided with another boat on Lake Michigan near Evanston, Illinois.  Edward Spencer was not on the boat.  He was on the shore.  When he saw some of the passengers struggling for shore he tied a rope around his waist and swam out to help them.  Sixteen times in a six hour period he went out into the frigid water of Lake Michigan and rescued a total of seventeen people.  The exposure and exhaustion left Spencer in poor health the rest of his life.

Can you imagine how those seventeen people wanted to show their appreciation – to say “thank you”.  I am sure that if they had the opportunity to save someone else’s life, they would do it.  Certainly they would be deeply moved by such an act of kindness!  Yet, when Edward Spencer died many years later, a comment was made that not one of those seventeen people said “Thank you”.  That seems hard to say with certainty, but it would be quite a shame if it is true.  

Today we look at Jonah.  He was an Israelite and one of God’s prophets.  His life was saved by God through the promise of the coming Savior.  He received God’s compassion and yet he wanted to hold back that same blessing from others.

God called Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and Assyria was the enemy of Israel.  Last week we mentioned how Assyria eventually conquered the ten northern tribes of Israel and they never again became a nation.  So this was the enemy.  God was calling Nineveh to repentance so that his judgment would not come upon them.  God was showing compassion to this enemy of Israel.

Jonah knew God would have compassion on them and that is why he ran away from Nineveh.  He was on a boat going exactly the opposite direction from Nineveh when the storm came and he was thrown from the boat and swallowed by the fish.  Of course that’s what we remember most about Jonah – the miracle of God saving him from drowning by commanding a fish to swallow him for three days.

Of course this was all part of a lesson for Jonah.  In God’s own compassion for Jonah God was leading Jonah to see God’s compassion, not just for Jonah but also for others.  When Jonah had time to think in the belly of the fish, he repented of his disobedience and the fish spit him onto the land.  Jonah went to Nineveh and told the people to repent of their wickedness.  And they did!  Even the king repented.  God saw their repentance and did not destroy them.  You know, I can’t think of another preacher who had such a great response to his preaching.

But what did Jonah do?  He did not praise God for this miracle that took place in Nineveh.  He complained.  He basically said, “God, I knew this was going to happen.  I knew you would have compassion on them and not destroy them, now I don’t even want to live anymore.  Lord, take my life.”  (It is a very good thing that God doesn’t give us everything we ask for.)

From Jonah’s point of view his mission was a failure.  Jonah still didn’t understand God’s compassion and he needed one more lesson.  That’s when God sent the vine to provide shade for Jonah and then sent the worm to take the vine away.  The sun was hot and the wind was harsh and again Jonah was angry enough to die.  Listen again to the dialog between God and Jonah.

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Jonah had more concern for the plant than he had for the people of Nineveh.  How foolish!  Jonah needed to see that God’s compassion is for all people, even for Jonah’s enemies.

You know, we are so much like Jonah.  We have opportunities to support missions all over the world and we are tempted to focus on ourselves.  God plants a mission field outside our door and so we run inside.  We come up with excuses like, “I don’t know what to say or how to say”, “They are not like us”, “We are just fine the way we are”.  Perhaps we even feel sometimes that God’s compassion is more for us than for others.  But God has placed us in Sleepy Eye for a purpose – to proclaim God’s compassion for all people through Jesus Christ, and to be living examples of that compassion.

It will help to understand that we were once like the people of Nineveh.  We were once wicked people deserving God’s wrath.  Certainly each one of us were sinners even from conception and deserved God’s righteous judgment.  But also we as a people, a cultural group, were at one time a heathen people.  We have no special claim to God’s grace.  For example, if you are of Germanic descent, do you realize that your ancestors at one time worshiped the trees?  It wasn’t until the early 700s that an Englishman by the name of Winfrid, also known as Boniface, came to the Germanic tribes and told them about the God who created everything and about Jesus Christ who died for them and was raised back to life.  Boniface risked his life to preach the Gospel.  He even cut down the sacred oak tree of the god Thor so that the people would not trust in it.  Would we still be worshiping trees if God had not sent someone more willing than Jonah to share the compassion of God with us?

Now by the blood of Jesus Christ we have been forgiven for our similarities to the prophet Jonah.  We have been forgiven for running away and for selfish attitudes regarding God’s compassion.  In baptism we have been changed from a Ninevite who needs to repent into a Jonah who has been given the privilege of sharing the Gospel with others.

We have shared the Gospel.  New members come into the church, babies are baptized, money is sent from this church all over the world to train and support missionaries.

We can see the work of sharing the Gospel continue with people like Gustav Harders, Alfred and Francis Uplegger, who brought the Gospel to the Apache Indians.  Or a high school classmate of mine, Wayne Oblender, who went to Novosibirsk, Russia to tell them about Jesus Christ.

We also have opportunities to do what they did and tell others about the compassion we have received through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Like those seventeen shipwreck victims in Lake Michigan so many years ago, our lives have been spared. Let us give thanks and live thanks by sharing with others the saving news of God’s compassion through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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