When I was a kid, I watched a ton of professional wrestling. I knew it was fake, but it was so fun. Now, admittedly, I haven’t watched any of it in almost a decade, but I still remember a few things. I remember the anticipation that built waiting for that final match of the night, when the two big stars finally faced off, for whatever reason. And, personally, I loved it when they would have a cage match. If you aren’t familiar with the cage match, it went something like this. Instead of a normal, open ring, that a person could get in and out of, they locked a giant steel cage around the ring. The only way out was to win or lose. Otherwise, there weren’t any other rules. It was two competitors laying everything on the line and duking it out to their utmost. It was so much more exciting than an ordinary match. And their was always some spins and twists that were going to happen. Someone would break out of the cage somehow. Someone would somehow sneak in one of those folding chairs. Today, we have a cage match of sorts going on. We’re going to go round after round with two combatants.
In one corner of the ring, we have the Lord, the creator of the universe, ruler of all things, and merciful savior of mankind. Weighing in at exactly 0 lbs., because he’s a spirit, but not immense enough to fill all things. And in the other corner, we have a prophet, Jonah, son of Amittai, from Geth Hepher. His exact weight and height, unknown, because the Bible doesn’t tell us. And I, the reverend pastor Justin Heise, will be your MC tonight. This is shaping up to be a great match, even if it is a little one-sided. And I have to let you know that, if you are just tuning in now, you’ve already missed the first round. But, I’ll catch you up. Jonah’s first strategy was a doozy. He decided that he was going to try and run away, as far as he could conceive of going, but this is a cage match. There’s no escape. The Lord brought him into the ring with a huge twist, he had Jonah swallowed by a giant fish and vomited back up. I know most people think that’s the biggest miracle in we’re going to see, but I can promise you the Lord has bigger things coming. Round one went to the Lord. Let’s get ready for round two.
In round two, we see Jonah taking another strategy, he seems to be giving the Lord just what he wants. He heads to Nineveh and starts preaching there: “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned’” (Jonah 3:4). I can’t tell you exactly what Jonah’s strategy is here. Maybe he thinks that none of those Ninevites will listen to him. Maybe he thinks that God would never convert an enemy of the nation of Israel, but boy is he wrong! God works Jonah’s strategy for his own good. He’s about to work one of the biggest miracles of all time: “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” (Jonah 3:5-6).
The entire city, which was about 100,000 people, repenedt and turn to the Lord. I want you to appreciate just how amazing that is. Once a month, all of the pastors from all of the churches and denominations in Saint Peter get together to make sure we are all aware of anything that might impact all of us. One time, though, we sat down and took the average attendance of all the congregations in the city and compared it to the population of the city, to find what percentage of the people in Saint Peter go to church on Sunday. 18% was what our math came out to. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 15% of the population attending church on Sunday, but still not a huge number. But, consider if every single person in the entire city repented, and not just them, but also the entire city of Mankato, the entire city of Le Seuer, and the entire city of Jordan, plus those who live out in the countryside. That’s still less than the population of Nineveh at this time. Nevertheless, imagine if all of those people listen to one sermon, and God works in their hearts to repent all at the same time. That is an amazing miracle. Imagine how much celebration and joy that should bring to the hearts of Christians, to see people turning to the Lord. But, just wait for round three of this match.
Round three starts on a hillside outside the city of Nineveh. So far, the Lord has won the first two rounds, will his prophet be able to win this third? Let’s look at his strategy:
“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 and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:1-3).
Man, Jonah is looking defeated! He looks like he is already giving up. Why do you think that is? I’ve got a few ideas. Jonah clearly knows that God is a merciful God. He admits that God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. Should that cause him to rejoice? Shouldn’t God’s prophet be so excited to see his preaching change hearts? Shouldn’t the repentance of these people bring him joy? But, do you know why it doesn’t? Because Jonah has two problems. First, he doesn’t think that the Ninevites deserve God’s mercy, and he’s right about that. They don’t. But, he thinks that means God shouldn’t save them. His second problem is that while he thinks God’s people don’t deserve his mercy, he thinks that he does. Why should this Gentile nation get to hear about his gracious God? Jonah wouldn’t save these people, why should the Lord?
God’s strategy in this round is a little more subtle. There’s no dramatic miracle, this time. Jonah has already given up. So, the Lord just asks him one question: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, “No!” of course, he doesn’t have a reason to be angry. Doesn’t he see that? And now, get ready for a twist. This is where everything changes, because Jonah does something we wouldn’t expect. He tags someone else in. Is that legal? I don’t know, but as the person in charge, I’m going to allow it. Who does he tag in? Well, let me tell you this. If you finish the book of Jonah, you never find out how Jonah takes God’s news. Does he repent himself? Does he stay angry? We don’t know. The book ends before we find out. Because Jonah’s tagging you in. We leave Jonah pouting on a hillside and this cage match moves from Jonah vs. God, to you vs. God. Get ready for round four.
You are probably wondering how you fit into this cage match? How can you stand against the Lord? How can you fight against an almighty God? Because you don’t do the sort of thing that Jonah does, right? But we do. We may not do exactly what Jonah does, but the same sin lives in our heart, this idea that we for some reason deserve God’s love, but that others don’t. I can give you an example. About a month ago, out in our narthex, I had a conversation with one of you. I won’t say who, and I’ve changed what was talked about just a bit, but this is what happened. We were talking about how she had seen a car accident over on Washington, and one of the people involved in the accident was a Somali woman. She was driving the car. Somehow, she and another woman had collided. I don’t know all the details of the accident, but after telling me about she said like, “Most of those Somalis can’t afford to get their cars fixed after something like that. Maybe if they were more like us, that wouldn’t happen to them.”
I don’t include conversations like this to scare you. I don’t want you to think that you shouldn’t talk to your pastor because you might end up in a sermon someday. But, this is worth pointing out. Can you sense what was behind her comment? Because in that moment, it was very obvious to me. She meant that if something bad happened to someone like that, then they probably deserved it. Maybe the people in our community from Somalia deserve to be refugees, to have less money, to be confused all of the time. But, if they could just be a little more American, more Christian, more like us, whatever that means, then everything would be better for them. Because the things I have, the good things that happen to me, those are things I deserve. Behind that comment was exactly what Jonah was saying. Other people don’t deserve God’s mercy, but I do. Whether they are from Nineveh or Somalia doesn’t matter, they don’t deserve God’s mercy, but I do. This is just one example. What about how we don’t reach out to people that live in certain kinds of houses, because maybe we don’t want them at our church? What about how we never talk to our co-workers about Christ, because it just never feels right, and I’m already saved? What about how we get jealous when something good happens to someone else, that covetous thought creeps into our mind, because don’t I deserve it more? These are all different flavors of the same sin, and it affects us all. Round four goes to God. It should. We can’t bring anything to this battle but sin and our own worthlessness. But, get ready for round five.
Round five is the final one. This is the round that will determine the whole match? Who’s gonna win? I hope that you realize you shouldn’t stay in the ring. You’re going to have to tag someone in. Not Jonah. He wasn’t doing much good. Tag in someone who can actually win the battle. Tag in Jesus. Jesus is the only one who can stand against the wrath of God. How is it possible that one person of the Trinity can oppose another? How is it that the Father can pour out his wrath on the Son? How can he who is One and undivided take a side against himself? I don’t know. But, He is the only one who can have victory. That sin we’ve been talking about, that we deserve God’s love, but others don’t, that is not true of us, but it is of Jesus. Jesus deserves God’s love, everyone other person does not. But, here’s Jesus’s strategy in this cage match. He flips that around. He makes himself nothing—deserving of no love—so that you and I receive God’s love. Jesus takes God’s wrath. He takes our sins—every single one, and he eliminates them. They’re gone. That’s it. Victory is won, and Jesus gives it to you. There’s the bell. The match is over. Amen.