The great British preacher G. Campbell Morgan—also a great figure in Winona Lake history, as the founder of the Winona Lake School of Theology; this is truly an odd little town—once observed that in the story of Jonah, most people have focused so much on the great fish that they miss the great God. He was right. It’s understandable, though, because Jonah shows us the great God at his most unsettling. Even the New Testament leaves it alone, except for these words from Jesus—and they’re hard to pin down.
What do we make of the sign of Jonah? It can’t be just his preaching—Jesus has already been preaching; the Pharisees want more. It can’t be just the three days in the fish, because Luke ignores that completely when he tells this story in chapter 11. But if we put them together and understand that Jonah himself was the sign to Nineveh—both his call to repentance and the story of his time in the belly of the great fish, a mighty sign of God’s power over life and death and all creation—it begins to make sense.
Consider: how did the Ninevites see Jonah? As a servant of God who arrived unexpectedly at an opportune time, preaching a message of judgment backed by displays of the power of God, giving them the opportunity to repent and seek mercy. That’s Jesus. He was God’s Redeemer sent at just the right time—and though he should have been expected, he wasn’t; the leaders of his people weren’t looking for him and didn’t want to. He preached a message from God of both warning and hope, explicitly promising mercy and grace to those who would turn away from their sin and follow him; and like Jonah, his message was authenticated by displays of power that could only come from God—including, ultimately, spending three days in the grave before rising again from the dead.
Of course, at the time of our passage in Matthew, that hadn’t happened yet; but there had still been plenty of signs of God’s power in Jesus’ ministry, including the stilling of the storm—another echo of Jonah—and the raising of the dead. The Jewish leaders just wouldn’t accept them. What they were really saying was something like this: “Look, Jesus, we don’t believe a word you say, and we’ve refused to accept all the miracles you’ve performed to help people as evidence in your favor. If you expect us to believe you, you’re going to need to produce a miracle on our terms, to our specifications.” They were setting themselves up to judge the Son of God. They would not believe him to be the Messiah unless he conformed himself to their predetermined ideas of what the Messiah would be and do and say. They would not submit themselves and their unbelief to him; instead, they were demanding that he honor their refusal to believe.
The summary lesson of Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees is that God doesn’t play that game. They had already seen more than enough to convince them, if they had been willing to be convinced, but their hearts were hard; they would not humble themselves to accept that they might be wrong. They would not be taught—they refused, they were the teachers, they were the authorities, they knew best—and so the only sign they would get would be Jesus himself, culminating in his death and resurrection. The resurrection would be the greatest proof possible that Jesus was who he said he was, and yet even then, many of them would refuse to accept the sign; and in refusing to repent and bow before him as Lord, they would seal their own judgment.
This is why Jesus compares them—unfavorably—to the Ninevites; which had to sting, because the scribes and especially the Pharisees were the exact opposite of the Ninevites. The Ninevites were the ultimate pagan barbarians, completely without God’s Law, while the scribes and Pharisees were devoted to God’s Law. Except that really—this is the key—what they were devoted to was their own understanding of God’s Law; they wouldn’t let anyone, not even God himself, tell them they were wrong. Which meant that they were really worshiping themselves and their religion. It’s a very subtle sort of mistake, perhaps the Devil’s subtlest snare, and very potent in making us immune to repentance; it’s the reason the Jewish leaders would not repent and acknowledge the God they claimed to serve, when even the Ninevites would.
Now, as we see the Ninevites juxtaposed with the Pharisees—equal and opposite errors, sort of Newton’s Law of Spiritual Dynamics—a question lurks: what happens when you merge them, when the Ninevites are Pharisees? We stand here this morning in a very particular way worshiping into memory, lifting the banner of the gospel and the standard of the cross in defiant response to the evils of the world—which is a very Hebrew thing to do; one of the great holy days of the Jewish calendar is the Ninth of Av, a day of fasting and lament for the fall of Jerusalem. And as we remember 9/11 and respond with worship, bearing witness to our faith in God our Redeemer who has overcome the powers of death and Hell and is making all things new, we also remember our nation’s Ninevites, who killed thousands of people, and sought to cripple our economy and destroy our government, in the most horrifying way they could contrive—in the triumphant conviction that they were doing so according to the will and good pleasure of Almighty God, as an act of worship. How do we deal with that?
As we said two weeks ago, we need to remember how God deals with his enemies; which means three things. First, he loves them, and wants to reconcile them to himself. He sent Jonah to Nineveh, and he died on the cross for the Pharisees even as they jeered at him; and he has called us to join him in that ministry of love and reconciliation. Love your enemies, he tells us, and do good to those who hurt you—yes, even those who are truly evil, who would massacre the innocent and call it good. Jesus did; he died for those who did it to him. This is the scandal of the cross.
Second, remember Jonah has a sequel: it’s called the book of Nahum. Assyria repented in part, and mended its ways in part, but only in part; and in the end, the judgment of God fell on them, and they were destroyed. Their destruction was less cruel than that which they had visited on so many other nations, but it was no less absolute; judgment fell, and Assyria was no more. The Lord is slow to anger, yes, but let no one think him weak or uncertain because of this; he is great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty. He prefers to destroy his enemies by making them his friends, but those who reject him, he will destroy the hard way.
And third, we must also remember that we too were once God’s enemies. We do not, we cannot, ever, regard the judgment of others from a position of moral superiority, but in the deep humility of understanding that there but for the grace of God go we all. This, I think, is what brings these first two points together in our practical experience. Too often, we don’t know how to hold them together—we saw this when Osama bin Laden was killed by a squad from SEAL Team 6; on the one hand, you had people who responded with unholy glee to the news, and on the other, people who called the first group’s reaction immoral, inappropriate and disgusting, because God loves everyone.
Yes, God loves everyone. No, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, as Ezekiel 33 tells us. But in his time, he will take their life all the same. Mercy triumphs over judgment, but only in those who surrender to mercy; judgment still trumps defiance. We should not rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than God does; it’s a regrettable necessity, part of the sad reality of our world. We should rather reflect and give thanks that by God’s grace we’ve been spared the same. But we should find comfort in it as well, because when the judgment of God falls on those who have set themselves against him, it is a good thing—it’s a small restoration of the order of his creation—and more than that, it’s a sign and a promise of what is coming.
The nations may rage, now, but they will not do so forever; those who stand against the Lord and against his chosen one will not succeed. They make their plans, and he laughs. They are temporary; God is eternal. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth shakes and its cities tremble, even though men should cause its towers to fall into the sea, for God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, and in the end, his city shall stand secure and all his enemies will be shattered. Let’s change the order a little this morning—please stand with me and take out your insert and let’s declare that together, let’s affirm our faith in the reading of Psalm 46.