Sermon Texts: Jonah 3.1-10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
+ Iesu Iuva +Beloved in the Lord: Grace be unto you and peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The basis for today’s sermon are the lesson from Jonah and the Gospel, which we’ve just heard.
Oremus: Domine filius Mariae, miserere mei, peccatoris. Amen.
Nineveh. All I need to do is say the word, and you’ve already made up your mind about what was going on there.
“40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” is the prophet’s message. And our mind races. Sins. Big sins. Idolatry and prostitution. Out of control greed. Trampling the poor. Bribery. Polygamy and homosexuality. Corruption at every level. Big-time sins.
Big-time sins calling for big-time repentance. It’s not every day kings put on sackcloth and sit ashes. The king of Nineveh did. No one keeps their herds and flocks and beasts from eating—how do you even do that? But the Ninevites did. Entire city-state populations don’t act en masse to dress in sackcloth. But they did in Nineveh. And they fasted, too. Clinging to a thread of hope that the Lord God would turn and relent from His fierce anger so that they wouldn’t perish.
Because that’s exactly what they had coming for them.
Nineveh repented big because they had big sins.
But you, you don’t need to. Nineveh had big sins. Yours? Not quite so big. Nineveh was really into the bad stuff. But you? Well, no Jonah has ever walked into your living room. The Ninevites were big, bad sinners, you’ve convinced yourself. And you’re not on their plane at all.
Fact of the matter is, we don’t know what the sins of Nineveh were. There’s no catalogue. But the verdict over you is no different than it was over Nineveh. 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown, was the prophet’s message. A far more appalling verdict hangs over you: The wages of sin is death, says Paul.
And not just the wages of the “big, bad” sins. The ones you imagine the Ninevites had.
That’s what Jesus’ words in the Gospel for today teach. They’re not directed against the big, bad sins. But against people who think they’re on Team God by avoiding gross sin and doing a few good things. They don’t murder. They don’t commit adultery. They don’t steal. They cough up a few bucks now and again for the vagrant. You might catch them in a particularly pious mood saying a prayer at the dinner table—“Good food, good meat. Good Lord! Let’s eat!” And every once in a while during Lent, they might give up their Hershey’s kisses or a few glasses of wine.
Nothing like the luxuriant, decadent Ninevites, the people Jesus is talking about in the Gospel are good people.
But their problem—your problem—is every bit as great the Ninevites’. You’re just better at disguising it. So often—and once is too often—your good works are nothing more than a cloak to cover what’s going on in your heart. So often—and once is too often—you take secret joy when those around you applaud what you’ve done and take note of your pious efforts, as if it were you and not your neighbor who needed your good works.
That’s because your problem, just like the Ninevites’, isn’t fundamentally a problem of actions. It’s fundamentally a problem of the heart. The place where you nurse and coddle your grudges and disrespect and lack of charity and greed and covetousness and envy. The place where you justify to yourself your own callousness toward others. Your own stinginess with all the talents and treasure and time the Lord has given you to use for the benefit not of yourself, but of others. The place where your resentment of your spouse or your parents, your boss or your coworker, has room to romp around in its own corral. The place where you cancel out scores of wicked deeds by remembering with great satisfaction one or two remarkably good ones.
No, fellow-redeemed. The question you should be asking yourself today isn’t, “How sinful must the Ninevites have been to hear, ‘40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown’?” It should be, “How sinful am I?”
But don’t answer your question until you hear the Ash Wednesday proclamation: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Which is nothing more than a fancy way of saying what Paul says in plain English, “The wages of sin is death.”
That’s how bad you are. You deserve to die. You deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. That’s what you confess every Sunday. And it’s true. Swish those words around in your mouth for a while and see how they taste. And then see what idols you’ve set up in your heart like the idolatrous king of Nineveh. See that in your heart if not in your body, you’re David and Bathsheba all rolled up into one. See that in your heart if not with your mouth and hands, you’re both Peter and Judas, who denied and betrayed the Lord. See that in your heart your greed has turned you into a modern day Ananias and Sapphira, stingy with the Lord’s generosity toward you. In short, see how your heart is the harbor and refuge not for the Psalm-One man, who meditates on God’s Law day and night, but how you’ve made it the seat of scoffers.
For who knows? Maybe the Lord God will relent from His fierce anger and you will not perish.
You know, this is the thing about Christian repentance. In a Greek tragedy, repentance always ends badly. Oedipus will always poke out his own eyes. Antigone will always be buried alive. Cassandra will always cry out in vain as she watches Artemis take revenge on Agamemnon.
But as hard and firm as God’s Law is—and it brooks no breach—the Lord God does relent. He does turn from His fierce anger. He does provide the rescue from death and hell. Christian repentance doesn’t end badly. It ends well.
You know, I’ve often wondered how it must have felt to be Jesus as He proclaimed the words of the Gospel lesson today. Or how it must feel to be God when He thunders from Mt. Sinai in the glory of His Law. Because each thunderous pronouncement, each turning of the screws tighter and tighter, each and every time Jesus focuses the Law on the heart of sinners—each and every time God does that, He increases the burden. That’s what the Law does. It comes to add transgression. It comes to make the burden unbearable. It comes to make death all the more painful. And hell.
But ironically the One who does all of that does it to Himself! When God the Father thunders over sin, He does it in order to make Christ who knew sin to be sin for us! The sin and guilt of the Ninevites? That lies on the shoulders of His own beloved Son. David’s adultery and Bathsheba’s? Charged against the Virgin-Born. The denial of Judas and Peter? Leveled against Jesus, who for it was forsaken by His Father. The greed of Ananias and Sapphira? Laid as accusation at the feet of Jesus, who though He was rich yet for our sakes was made poor, that by His poverty we might be made rich.
And so what do you think the Lord does with your sin and guilt? With your shame and death and hell? What do you think He does with the sins whose memories are rattling around in your heart right now? With the guilt that keeps you awake at night? With the shame that makes you not want to show your face? With your impending death and hell?
He does the same exact thing. The economy of God’s justice is always a zero-sum deal. Debts can’t be forgotten or forgiven by a fiction of accounting. They remain on the books until they’re paid.
And so Jesus assumes the human nature. And when He does that He identifies more closely with you than you can possibly imagine. Because He takes the human nature to Himself. And He forges a solidarity with you that’s closer than yours with your own parents and children. Because in the Person of Christ isn’t a human person, but the human nature. The human nature and divine nature made one Person. The Person of Christ. So whatever belongs to you now belongs to Him.
And so your sin? Charged against Jesus. Your guilt? Made the burden borne by Christ Himself. Your death? The full possession of Him who could not die, but who for your sake did. Your hell? Made His in the excruciating torture of the Holy Cross.
That’s what it costs God to relent and turn from His fierce anger: the holy life and innocent death of His beloved Son.
And that’s why the ash on your forehead isn’t a formless smudge, but a cruciform sign. Because God has imposed on your repentance also your redemption. He would not have the death of the sinner, but that he repent and live. And this is so important. This is what makes Christianity Christianity, and not a Greek tragedy. And God constantly plays that out in His church.
What does your Baptism in water mean? It means that Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Why? Because your Baptism was a Baptism into Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
And what’s the office of the keys? It’s that special authority that Christ has given His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners! Not by an accounting fiction, but because of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
And the Sacrament of the Altar? That you’re about to receive? What is it but the meal of the joyful exchange—where the sacred Body and Blood slain and spilt for the sin of the world is placed into the mouth of...sinners. Sinners just like you. So that you could just as well draw that cruciform ash mark on your forehead as a font or a chalice, where the cross of Jesus is made yours. Where the transfer of all sins and death is made. Where you receive life and the forgiveness of sins for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus.
What a horribly agnostic question the Ninevite king asks: Who knows? Maybe God will relent from His fierce wrath.
Fellow-redeemed: it’s not a guessing a game. You know what God in Christ has done for you. Only repent. And believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.