Epiphany 4: Jonah 1:1-17

God called Jonah to go and preach to the wicked city of Nineveh, to preach repentance into the forgiveness of sins.  The book of Tobit tells us that Nineveh was part of the Assyrian Empire, and so was Israel’s enemy (Tobit 14:15).  That’s why Jonah didn’t want Nineveh to repent.  He would rather see the city destroyed.  

So what did Jonah do?  He boarded a ship going to anywhere but Nineveh.  Jonah was trying to run away from God.  He didn’t want to do what God told him to do.  He was trying to run away from His presence.

We are a lot like Jonah.  We’d rather go our own way instead of following God’s way.  That old, corrupt nature within us tries to escape God’s will for our lives.  We, too, run from the presence of the Lord.

It’s true: our running away from God may not be as obvious as Jonah’s.  But it’s still there, and we’re still running!  We may not be escaping to some faraway place.  We may not be running away from God by refusing to go to church.  Instead, we may want a religion that’s on our own terms, a religion that doesn’t demand too much of us.  We want a religion where we can keep God at a safe distance and still be in charge of our own show.  

It’s when God gets too close and calls us to repent, to change.  That’s when we want to run.  That’s when we make excuses.  That’s when we flee from the presence of the Lord and hide ourselves in the belly of some ship.  Our “ship” could be almost anything, as long as it lets us choose the god we want.  It’s whatever we choose to avoid instead of facing the full-strength Word of the Lord.

But you can’t run from God.  He’s omnipresent.  No place exists where He is not.  And so Jonah’s rebellion against the Lord brought down a terrible storm on the ship he was aboard.  Nothing the sailors tried could save the ship from the storm.  The only act that finally kept the ship from breaking apart was sacrificing Jonah.  They threw him overboard, and the sea’s raging stopped.

It’s the same with us.  Our sin also brings God’s wrath upon us.  Like the sailors with Jonah, we can do nothing to save ourselves.  The Law demands our eternal death; only then will the raging stop.  But then God comes with His Word of the Gospel, where we learn of a new Jonah.  This new Jonah takes our place under the Law and saves us from its storm of judgment.  The new Jonah is Jesus. 

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus in the same circumstance as the old Jonah.  Just as Jonah was asleep in the ship, so also was Jesus asleep in the boat, despite the stirrings of the wind and waves.  

Jonah’s shipmates wake Jonah and ask him to call on his God, so they wouldn’t die.  Jesus’ disciples did the same, by waking Jesus with their cry for help.  They cried out, “Lord, save us!  We’re going to die” (Matthew 8:25).  

Jonah’s shipmates cast lots to see what caused this calamity.  The lot fell on Jonah.  Although we’ve brought the storm of judgment on ourselves, Jesus chose for the lot to fall on Him.  He took our place under the Law.  He willingly received what we deserved.  Jesus became the sinner, so we could be forgiven.  Jesus makes everything right with the heavenly Father and restores us into communion with God.

Jonah was cast overboard, and the storm disappeared.  But with Jesus, the time for Him had not yet come to be cast over into death.  His sacrifice would be on the cross.  So, instead, Jesus quiets the winds and the sea, and there was an instant calm.  

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish.  Our Lord Jesus also spent three days in the belly of the grave.  After Jesus had paid for our sins by shedding His blood, He came forth victorious from the depths of death, bringing His resurrection life to all who believe in Him.  By the cross of death, the storm of God’s judgment has subsided.  Through Jesus, there is now only calm, the full forgiveness of your sins.  In the risen Christ, you now have perfect peace with the Father.

That perfect peace is also yours through the water.  For it is through the water of holy baptism that God the Holy Spirit places you into Christ.  It is by the water and Word that Christ is now your refuge, just as the large fish was a refuge for Jonah.  Jesus saves us from the death’s watery depths by taking us into Himself.  He protects us in His body and joins us into His death.  Jesus then sets us on the shores of new life, of eternal life, by joining us also to His resurrection.

Romans 6 says, “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  The old Jonah was buried in the water; and from the water, a new Jonah came forth.  So also was the rebellious, sinful self in us buried in the water, and a new self came forth from the waters of holy baptism.

Now, our new life in Christ is nothing else than a daily return to baptism.  Every day, we are to be thrown overboard, so our sinful nature may drown and die.  The new self in Christ emerges and arises in us, so we live before God in righteousness and purity.  To be a Christian means to do a daily Jonah.  It is to die to yourself through repentance and to rise with Christ through faith in Him.

As we wait for the day when our old nature will be forever removed from us, times will come when our faith will be tested.  Times will come when it will look as if the storms of judgment will still undo us.  Sickness, pain, and sorrow in our hearts can make it seem as if we’re going to go under, never to rise again.  

As this tempest rages around us, we may even think that our Lord is still asleep in the ship.  “Why don’t you do something, God?  The ship’s about to go down!  Help!”  That’s the temptation we face: we doubt God’s goodness shown to us in Christ Jesus.  We fear what is going on around us more than we fear, love, and trust in God.

Jesus said to His disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”  They, at least, had some faith, even if small, to call on Him in their time of need.  They cried out, “Lord, save us!”  Yet, if their faith was stronger, they would’ve realized that they weren’t going down unless Jesus was going down.  For Jesus was on that boat.  

When it seems as if the wind and waves are going to overwhelm you, remember who their Master is.  Remember these faithful words from Romans, Chapter 8.  “I am convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus, our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not the present or the future, not powers or height or depth, or anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:38-40).

You’re in the boat with Jesus.  He has brought you into the ship of the Church.  The only way you’ll go down is if Jesus goes down–and His ship isn’t going down!  The truth is that Jesus has conquered the storm–and every other threatening evil–by His death and resurrection.  Jesus now shelters you in His holy wounds.  His risen presence surrounds you.  Now, not even death can snatch you from His hands.

So cast all your cares on Him.  He cares for you.  Our Lord Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all for the benefit of His Church.  And God has promised to work everything together for the good of those who love Him.  For He has called you according to His purpose.  

Jesus said, “I will never leave you or abandon you” (Hebrews 13:5).  He has given you His body and His blood in His Supper to strengthen you in that truth.  Now you can know that He is with you, forgives you, and loves you.

Believe that truth.  Trust in His Word.  Yes, it’s true this fallen creation still groans–the storms and vicious weather are but one proof of this.  It’s true you inwardly groan under the curse of sin.  Yet, this is also true–the Word of Jesus overcomes the wind and waves!  

As Christ’s own, live with the certainty of knowing where you are going.  Eagerly await your body’s deliverance, the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  That’s why you can boldly confess these words of Paul: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed” (Romans 8:18).  Amen.