The unfortunate thing about preaching a 10-12 minute sermon is that you cannot say everything you want to say but you still try. This was my third sermon with deficiencies that may have been able to be fixed with an extra 20 minutes in the sermon, as well as better organization. Oh well.
A TALE OF TWO KINGS
Daniel 5:26-31 and Jonah 3
Today, I would like to share with you a tale of two kings. The king of Nineveh, and Belshazzar, the King of Chaldeans. Before we get to our main text in Jonah 3, first let us look at how Daniel records the story Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans. In Daniel 5, we have the son of Nebuchadnezzar who just in Daniel 4 confessed the greatness of the God of Israel, in contrast to Daniel 5, which records Belshazzar's drunken orgy party. In the middle of this party, handwriting appears on the wall. Daniel, the renowned interpreter of God's Word under Nebuchadnezzar was summoned in. Daniel's skill and delivery in other parts of Daniel is described as eloquent and dramatic. Daniel interpreted the words on the wall, as appears in the text in your bulletin. The basic interpretation was this: The days of your kingdom are numbered, you have been weighed and found wanting, your kingdom will surely fall to the Medes and Persians. In response, what did Belshazzar do? He honored the messenger, placed a robe of royalty on Daniel and gave him a high office like his ancestor Nebuchadnezzar did. Then, Dan 5:30, “that very night, Belshazzar the Chaldean King was killed.”
A strange ending to the story, isn't it? Belshazzar certainly honored the messenger. What went wrong?
Let us turn to the second tale, our main text is from the minor prophet Jonah from Israel, in the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Jonah delivers nearly the same message as Daniel in Jonah 3:4, “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Your days are numbered, you have been found wanting, your kingdom will fall. But notice this response. When the king heard of this, he gave no praise to the messenger, nor did he give Jonah high appointment. Bum deal for Jonah. Instead, the king of Nineveh responded to the message with sackcloth and ashes. This image of sackcloth and ashes is meant to demonstrate repentance. Repentance literally is “turning” from one thing to another thing. A changing of mind, will, and heart. Here, it says it is turning from evil ways towards God. The king himself repented, and tells us why in 3:9:
Jon 3:9 “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish."
Jon 3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned [or repented] from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
The same message came against both kings. A word of judgment, revealing and spotlighting one's sin, along with God's wrath against it. Yet, God gave judgment to one, but to the other one, He gave mercy. Do you see the difference? Both kings responded after the message was delivered. Belshazzar gave honor and titles and praise to the messenger. But the king of Nineveh responded to the message. No titles or honors were given to Jonah. The King of Nineveh repented to receive mercy.
What of Belshazzar's response? He may have thought it was a good response. Kierkegaard, a theologian who lived in the beginnings of our modern era, had a favorite parable he would tell to explain the emerging modern age. The story went: There was a new show about to open in a theater known for its originality and novelty. But just as the show was about to begin, the main actor saw the theater was on fire. He ran out on stage to warn the audience, shouting: “The theater is on fire, run!” The audience, thinking it was part of the show merely clapped at the masterful performance by the actor. Some said it was the best performance they had ever seen. So the actor shouted louder, “I tell you the truth, you will all die if you stay here, it's on fire!” the audience merely clapped and cheered louder, more impressed by the performance. So, Kierkegaard said, will the world go out: to the sound of applause.
This prompts us to ask: what is our response to the Word when it comes and uncovers our sin? It is an important question if you are a member of this church, because in the past few months, you could not have escaped the message and theme of judgment. Often, in the course of this series on the minor prophets, we havecome across this message of judgment. Also, we have seen this in our Sunday sermons on Joshua, where we have met a word of judgment in the book of Joshua that was not retracted against Jericho. How do we react to a declaration of our sin, and God's wrath against it?
In an orthodox church, it is easy to react with a kind of thankfulness in this way: “I'm glad our preacher does not shrink from preaching the truth like other preachers.” We can compliment how skillful or bold the delivery was. We, with our words, can applaud the messenger while ignoring the message.
Now, there is not necessarily anything wrong with thanking God for a faithful preacher or encouraging a preacher, though I suspect for pointing it out, few will approach me after this message. But, what is the proper response to the message of judgment? Repentance. The king of Nineveh repented, and he received mercy. So also, when our sin is brought before us and God’s displeasure against it, we should not merely praise the messenger, we should repent to obtain mercy.
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 12, Jesus references our text in Jonah against the Pharisees. He saw their lack of attentiveness to his message, and said “the men of Nineveh will rise up and judge you!” What is Jesus talking about?
If the king of Nineveh repented at Jonah's message, how much more ought we to respond to Christ's message?
If you read the rest of Jonah, you will note that Jonah was a less compelling prophet (he hated the people he preached to, he did no want them to repent!), with no announcement of his coming (he was an outsider to them) and his message was light on details (“forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”....that was it.) there was no promise of deliverance. Did you note how the king of Nineveh said, in verse 9, “Who knows, perhaps God may spare us”?
Contrast that to Jesus, Who comes as a compelling prophet, (loving His covenant people), with announcement of his coming (from the prophets, from John the Baptist, and coming within the community as a Jew), with much more detail attaching a promise of deliverance for repentance. Something the king of Nineveh didn't have. The king made no demands based on God owing mercy, even when he repented.
You see: God owes us nothing for our response. We see with Belshazzar, God owed him nothing for sitting under a skillful messenger of the word. Nor did God owe him anything for praising and honoring the messenger of the word. God even owed the king of Nineveh nothing for his repentance.
God owes us nothing.
The King of Nineveh repented on the mere possibility of mercy. It was God's discretion on whether to grant mercy, out of shear grace, not obligation, for He made no promises to him.
How much more ought the people of God come to God in repentance? We repent with the promise of mercy. After we come to the confession of sin in our worship, we will hear the words of assurance, “If we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” Faithful to what? To His promise to you.
God owes you no mercy, YET God has given you His Word in covenant. The king of Ninevah had no such covenant with God. God condescends to bind Himself to His promise to you. The promise of Christ's message is as the apostles presented it:
Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out,
(The message: Repent with the promise of obtaining mercy)
It is a message for believers and non-believers alike. To unbelievers, repenting, or turning, is from former idols, the counterfeit gods of sin we have served rather than God in Christ. It is pleading Christ, rather than our former gods, our selves, our sins. It is a repentance of a changing of the mind about Christ.
Know today, if you have never responded the message of Christ, the same promise is extended to you. God has a word of his displeasure with sin, of that evil which as perfectly holy, He can having nothing to do with. But, if you turn from your former self-confidence, to Christ, pleading His work rather than your own, Christ's Holiness rather than your own, you may be certain of God's forgiveness on the basis of faith. He confirms that work and promise first in your baptism, his visible promise to you of mercy, and then will confirm it repeatedly in the Supper.
Yet, it is also a message to believers, having already been pardoned in faith, that faith is a repentant faith that continues to turn from the sin that remains with us in heart and will, and the death and fleeting pleasure they provide in our lives to the true life and true joy in Christ. In repentance, God renovates our affections, turning our hearts from the things we formerly loved more and more to Christ and the works He has prepared for us. If we repent, God is faithful, to His Word of promise, to give us more of Himself in Christ, the greatest gift of mercy and grace. We no longer have to say, “Who knows? Perhaps God will give mercy” like the king of Nineveh. God has bound Himself to His word. He will give mercy to the repentant covenant member.
And if you are a believer, as 1 John reminds us, though pardoned through faith, sin remains throughout life, so then also remains the repentance of the Christian. The whole Christian Life is one of repentance, turning from sin towards God, through a growth of affection for God rather than sin. Repentance is not a one time thing, nor is it something we perfectly achieve in this life. Instead it is the duty of all of life.
Perhaps our hearts sink under that news, that we are perpetually in need of repentance, that we constantly are to hear the message “repent” in all of life. Repentance has a decidedly dower, “unfun” sound to it. Yet it shouldn't. Repentance is literally turning, from the ugliness of evil and destruction to the Beauty and Joy of God in Christ. What is that sin that you seem to love more than Christ? Look on Christ and His message, which is more beautiful to you? The small, momentary pleasure of your sin, or the pleasures He brings, that the 16th Psalm says is “pleasures evermore.” As C.S. Lewis put it, God tells us we are too easily satisfied. We play with mud pies in a puddle, while God has offered us a day at the beach. Repentance is a grand gift, as God exchanges our lesser things, for Himself, the greatest good.
[Invitation to the Table]
Repentance in the New Testament is presented as something that God “grants,” as a good and joyful gift that He enables. That is why our worship involves a rehearsal for a feast. We could be satisfied in smallness of gluttony and drunkenness like Belshazzar. Or we can turn to Christ's feast of true lasting bread and wine. Psalm 104:15 tells reads that God “gave bread to strengthen or sustain the heart of man, and wine to cheer up or gladden the heart of man.” These are the elements Christ used to picture Himself as offered to the believer, as that which we turn to: our sustenance and our joy and gladness. We turn from the bitterness of sin to the sweetness of Christ in the Gospel. We turn from the food that will not ultimately fill us, to the living bread, from abusing wine in drunkenness to the intoxicating wine of Christ's Gospel.
Repent! That you may obtain mercy. Turn from your sin in confession towards the One who gives mercy, and grace and joy. He has bound Himself to His Word. He will do it. Happy is the believer, to Whom repentance is granted, and deliverance is provided. Happy is the believer who feeds, not merely on the passing things of this world, but on Christ in their heart. Amen.