Life Sunday January 20-21, 2024
“Pro-Life” Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
How do you evaluate a preacher? What makes one good and another one poor?
Maybe it is how concise a preacher can be. They don’t go on and on, and on and on, and on and on. (I guess that is enough – you get my point.) Maybe it is how effective they are. People pay attention. They talk and results are almost immediate.
If that is how you know that a preacher is worth their salt than Jonah is the best preacher that I know. His sermon got to the point. It was 8 words (only 5 in Hebrew). “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” No beating around the bush. No going on and on. You say what you are going to say and you sit down. Not like the preacher I heard about in Lincoln, Nebraska whose wife told her long winded preacher husband, “You missed a few good opportunities today to say “Amen” and get out of the pulpit.” Eight words is all Jonah needed.
And my, did he get a reaction to those words!! The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Ninevah: By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. (Jonah 3:5-9)
Concise and effective, that makes for a good preacher. Right? No. Jonah was a lousy preacher. He didn’t want to carry any message from God to those people. He despised everyone he spoke to. He wanted his message to fail. And he acted like a spoiled brat when everything was over.
The book of Jonah begins with a word to Jonah, “Go to the great city of Ninevah and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) But you know what he did. He ran away. He didn’t go east – some 500 miles through the desert to Ninevah, but he hopped on a boat and went west away from Ninevah.
But God went and found him by means of a big fish. Swallowed whole. Chapter three talks about a do-over for Jonah. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” (Jonah 3:1) But he didn’t like the people he spoke to. He didn’t want his word to work. His sermon contains no plea for them to repent. He doesn’t mention how God wants to restore them or forgive them. He speaks only eight pointed words. Then he sits down and keeps the scowl on his face. He wanted them to reject the words and die. But, as you already heard, they believed God. They repented.
The reaction of that preacher, Jonah? “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1-3) He was saying – God, I don’t like what you do. I don’t like how you are. You’re much too soft!!
What a lousy preacher. He had the wrong heart. He didn’t want to do the will of God. He cared nothing for the good of the people. He didn’t get what he wanted. The story ends with him whining and pouting.
In many Christian congregations the third Sunday in January is known as Life Sunday. That day was chosen because on January 22 in 1973 abortion became legalized in the United States. Since that time many millions of lives have been taken from the womb of their mother. I consider it a scourge on our country. I believe it leaves us with a conscience that should be bothered.
But being pro-life is much more than simply being anti-abortion. It is much more than a harsh word of law and condemnation – like Jonah wanted to give his enemies. Almost 30 years ago, on Easter Sunday, some of the members of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas came to picket outside my congregation in Arvada. They were notorious for their graphic pictures of aborted fetuses on their signs, as well as words that were accusatory. I don’t know why they picked my church but they came, and the police showed up, and they marched, and it made that Easter quite memorable.
Pro-life is much more than anti-abortion. Pro-life is everything God is and how He desires to bring the fullness of life to people. Jonah was sad about God being so pro-life to his enemies. He wanted God to take care of him but not to take care of them. He wanted God to be merciful to him but not to them. God is a God who treasures all of life. He treasures life in the womb, life as it grows and develops, life that grows older and has its unique challenges. God treasures life that is pained by sin and needs forgiveness to make it whole. Jonah was angry with God when he spoke about God’s great qualities, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Jesus said that He is for life, not against it. “I have come that you may life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) Isn’t it good that Jesus is for life when we read what some people wanted to do to the lady who was caught in bed with a person who wasn’t her husband. A group of men asked Jesus what should be done to her. They quoted the Bible and said that Moses commanded such a person to be stoned. But Jesus didn’t respond immediately. He wrote something in the dirt. And then spoke those famous words, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:8) And you know what they did? They all left – the oldest ones first. And Jesus – the one who was always “for-life” speaks to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:10-11)
Jonah was a lousy preacher. Wrong heart. Wrong attitude. He opposed the gift of life given to others. But we find his life mentioned in the New Testament when it talks about the great sacrifice that Jesus was going to make for the life of all people. Jesus spoke to some Pharisees who were demanding from Him proof of His claims by doing some miracle, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39-40)
Jesus came for all. The Bible says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) He is for-life, he is pro-life, life that is forgiven, strengthened, healed, filled with hope. He is for life that does not end now but goes on forever. He wants all people to come to faith. He wants all people to know that the death and resurrection of Jesus brings full life. By faith in Jesus anyone is given a new life and eternal life.
I’m not the only one who preaches around here. You do too. Maybe not from here, from this pulpit, but you preach, you speak, in your homes, in your neighborhood, at work, in your world. Are you good at what you say? Or are you speaking like Jonah? Preach like Jesus. Speak words of life. Defend the littlest, the oldest, the poorest, the most-needy. Speak words of grace. In the best way be pro-life, for life. Amen!!