Here are some items from this morning’s church activities.
A. The pastor revisited the scholarly debate about whether the Ninevites truly and sincerely repented at the preaching of Jonah. Those who say “no” point out that the Ninevites continued to oppress other nations. The pastor said that this scholarly debate is similar to how a lot of people act: they presume to judge other people’s repentance, when the point is that God is gracious.
B. But does not Jesus tell his disciples in John 20:23 that whatsoever sins they retain are retained? Does that not imply that Christians can decide not to forgive certain people, and God will not forgive those people? The pastor said that Matthew 18 can illustrate Jesus’s statement there. When people in church are confronted with their sins and repent, their sins are forgiven—-within the church and by God. If they do not repent, however, then they are to be treated by the church as tax collectors and infidels. But how did Jesus treat tax collectors and infidels? He continued to invite them to repent and to be reconciled with God, receiving God’s grace.
C. Last Sunday, the pastor likened Jonah’s experience to baptism, which is about the burial of the sinful self and the resurrection of a new creature in Christ. The pastor last Sunday referred to ways in which Jonah changed: Jonah became less self-centered and became concerned for the well-being of people on the ship, so he offered to be thrown overboard as that would calm the storm. Today, the pastor talked about how Jonah died and rose again, spiritually speaking, in his experience of God’s grace: he personally experienced God forgiving him, rescuing him from drowning, saving him from the belly of the great fish, and giving him a second chance. God’s grace, similarly, is integral to the Christian’s spiritual death and resurrection. Of course, the lesson did not entirely “take” for Jonah, since God later had to correct Jonah’s disdain for God’s sparing of the Ninevites. Jonah’s death and resurrection was a process.
D. Jonah 3:3 calls Nineveh a great city to God. That part about Nineveh being a city to God is obscured in most English translations. The pastor interpreted that statement to mean that Nineveh belonged to God and God cared for it, since it, too, was part of God’s creation.
E. Nineveh’s message to Nineveh is that, in forty days, Nineveh shall be destroyed. No indication is there, at least explicitly, that God is extending to the Ninevites the option to repent. But could Jonah’s message have included more than we are told? From the response of the Ninevites in chapter 3, we see that there were things that the Ninevites knew after hearing Jonah’s message. They knew that the message was from God, and that this God was upset at them for their violent ways.
F. The class discussed what makes a sermon good or bad; Jonah’s sermon was brief, yet the Holy Spirit still used it to work repentance in the Ninevites. People offered a variety of indications of a good sermon: it is concise, it makes a point, it contains personal stories that people can relate to, and it is tied to a specific biblical text. One lady referred to a sermon an elderly preacher in Illinois gave shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing: he said that things would get worse before Christ returns. She has remembered that sermon whenever there is a tragedy—-a bombing, or a mass shooting. She also said that she does not like preachers who act as if they are auditioning for Saturday Night Live. Someone in my group said that he liked Billy Graham because he spoke with clarity and authority. We also talked about Luther’s sermons. Luther’s sermons were long, and these were the days when there were no pews, so people listened to them while standing. His sermons had a lot of rabbit trails, but there was something in them for everyone—-from the theologian to the milk-maid. To these marks of a good sermon, I would add that the sermons I remember helped me to learn more about the Bible or to understand it in a constructive and edifying way.