Three Day Journey
Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Epiphany 3, B
1Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Questions have been asked and remained unanswered regarding Jonah’s three day journey at Nineveh and what this phrase might actually mean. Did it take three days to go from one side to the other? Or all around the outside? Did he zig-zag into every corner and that’s why it took so long? Is this three day walk referring to Nineveh proper or all the surrounding region under its influence? Does this have nothing to do with distance at all, but rather is it a matter of Diplomacy? Day one is the official arrival. Day two is down to business and Day three is the ceremonial departure. Maybe this “three day” stuff is just an ancient metaphor for really really big. Nobody really knows for sure. But that was never really the point either!
What we do know about this journey of Jonah’s is the wildly successful conclusion that it brings. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them … It is a journey of stark warning and immediate repentance. From the highest (the King himself) all the way down to the lowest.
They hear the clear words of Holy warning and take them seriously. God said their time was short and they believed it. And they acted on it, right then and there. It is the same warning that God still shouts to every corner of this world. As Paul said in our Epistle: 29 ... the appointed time has grown very short. 31For the present form of this world is passing away. Or Jesus Himself in the Gospel: 15“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” We would do well to both take it as seriously as the Ninevites, and share it as fully as Jonah did.
Why? Because this divinely ordained journey results in full forgiveness, thus putting on full diplomatic display the unsearchable mysteries of God’s grace and compassion. It is the very mercy of God to those who don’t deserve it that changes everyone in this story and everyone who reads this story. And make no mistake. These Ninevites ARE forgiven. 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. In Matthew 12:41 Jesus Himself declares that: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
The pagan Assyrians of Nineveh are forgiven, even though they don’t deserve it. And it happens by the Word of the prophet who himself doesn’t deserve the honour of sharing that call to repentance. Yet, by that very same grace and forgiveness of God he has been given that chance, even though he doesn’t deserve it either. And here is where this idea of a three day journey begins to get really interesting!
We also know that this wasn’t the only (or the first) three day’s journey Jonah experienced. As a matter of fact, he had just come from a three day journey of some personal significance. That journey, of course, being the time he spent in the belly of a great fish. Indeed, having done his very best to undo God’s will for the Ninevites, and deny them any chance of forgiveness, God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Three days and three nights to come to repentance himself. A three day journey of soul searching to realize that he was not worthy of the very thing he would deny to others. Yet at the end of those three days he had that forgiveness and the task to proclaim it once again to any and to all. No matter who they are.
And Jonah’s first three days journey (if we dare to call it that) should also remind us of another three day’s journey ... one that our Lord Himself called attention to again in Matthew 12:40 “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Even as Jonah emerged from the insides of a fish, so Jesus emerged from the interior of the earth. Jesus rose on the third day. And it is that resurrection that ensures God’s full forgiveness not only of Nineveh, and Jonah, but of you and me, and the whole world.
In this text we see the patience of God. He is never slack concerning His promises or threats. When God says sin is an issue He really, really means it! And furthermore, HE will not put up with it forever. The time is very short indeed. This present world is passing away. But at the same time God’s kingdom is at hand. And in it God shows amazing patience with us sinners. He does not deal with us according to our sins. He does not punish us immediately, as we deserve. Instead He comes to us with the message of repentance and extends the time of grace for us to hear and heed it.
The seriousness of His love for us is seen not only in the full and free salvation He has given us through the merit of His Son, but also in the fact that He patiently brings that message to us, calling us again and again and again, to turn to Him in faith. A message He calls on us to bring to the hurting, heathen world around us. This is our 3 day diplomatic journey. Day one was the day you were baptized and born into His gracious kingdom. Day three is the day you leave this temporary life with all the pomp and ceremony of a good Christian Funeral. Day two is everything in between, where we get down to the business of speaking Law and Gospel and calling others to repentance and forgiveness wherever we happen to be. It may seem like a long time, but it is actually very short to do something so very important.
Jonah’s three day journey reminds us that God’s love & forgiveness in Christ are gracious gifts to us. We receive the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, not through our merit, but simply through believing the message of forgiveness. May we help others to see the same!