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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Our Longsuffering God

Third Sunday After Epiphany


Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”


Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.


When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3:1-5,10



            The Christian church has done a good job over the years of proclaiming God’s readiness to forgive our sins. In fact, we may have done too good a job. I say that because when anything comes too easily, there’s always the temptation to take it for granted.


            The extreme case of this is historical. In the medieval period there was a time when Simony, the buying and selling church pardons or indulgences, was widespread. Many people got the idea that they could commit a sin, pay their money, and be forgiven. In fact, it got to where some would purchase an indulgence in advance of a sin, so that when they committed it, it supposedly was already forgiven!


            That practice was eventually condemned, but you can still find the attitude that sin isn’t that big a deal because God freely forgives it. In the Bible, a lot of God’s reputation is based on God’s “longsuffering,” or in more recent versions, God’s “slowness to anger.”


            One place where there’s a reference to that is in the Book of Jonah. That prophet had been sent on a mission, by God, to call the people of Nineveh to repentance. Nineveh was a major city of Assyria, and the Assyrians were enemies of Israel. So Jonah didn’t want to preach to them. He’d rather have God’s judgement fall on them, so he got on a ship going the opposite direction. He ended up in the belly of a whale, or a great fish, “provided by the Lord.” After he was vomited onto dry land, he did as God told him to do, and preached in Nineveh. Remarkably, his preaching was very effective, and there was a mass repentance by the Ninevites.


            This did not make Jonah happy! He sulked away, and prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, isn’t this what I said would happen? That’s why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you’re a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, who relents from sending calamity.”


            God is willing – and even eager – to forgive those who repent, and Jonah knew it. He was glad enough about it for himself and his people, but not eager for God’s forgiveness to be given to Israel’s enemies. But God forgave them.


            In the New Testament, in his first Epistle, John tells us more about God’s provision for our continuing in a state of reconciliation with Him. The letter is addressed to people who are already Christians, but John knew that Christians are also sinners. As Martin Luther put it, we are at the same time saints and sinners. So John mentioned three different circumstances in which we might sin, and God’s remedy for reconciliation. First John wrote, “If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1 John 1:6) In other words, he’s talking about self-deception. This where we look at some things we’ve done that aren’t so good, or look at some good we failed to do, and conclude, “Well, I’m no worse than anyone else.” John sees that as a sinful attitude, and he brands it a lie.


            But he stated God’s provision for that: “… but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) He’s saying that we need to expose ourselves to the light of God – to measure ourselves by Christ’s standards. When we do that, even if we fail to measure up, at least we aren’t kidding ourselves. And walking in the light gives us fellowship with God and cleansing from sin.


            Second John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Now the situation is where we look at our lives and instead of saying we’re no worse than somebody else, we say that sin is not a part of our lives. This is denying the reality of our ongoing rebellion against the ways of God, the ways that are part and parcel of the life of faith. This, calling wrongdoing a mistake, and error in judgement, a miscalculation – anything but sin! I believe this is the favorite of politicians: “I made a mistake with that woman,” “I made a mistake not paying four years of taxes I owed,” “I made a mistake hiring that illegal house worker,” “Everyone makes mistakes!”


            But here’s the remedy God has provided: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) An honest and sincere confession brings forgiveness. It’s that simple.


            Third, wrote John, “If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the righteous one.” (1 John 2:1) Here John has moved away from the denial or minimizing of sins, to the Christian who falls into sin and has no illusions about it. The person knows it is sin – and maybe even thinks he or she can never be reconciled to God again. Often people can’t forgive themselves!


            But John uses courtroom imagery to show God’s plan for reconciliation. John writes that if we sin “we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense” – an advocate, a defense attorney. John is saying that in those situations where we have departed seriously from our spiritual walk, Jesus is still there to represent us before the Father. Now we don’t want to push that courtroom imagery too far. I don’t think it was John’s intention to make it sound like God is only like a courtroom judge. In this case, his focus is on Jesus, and John was simply making the point that the work of Christ for the sins of humankind was not a one-time-only forgiveness per person. Rather, he was saying that the forgiveness of sins is an ongoing blessing through Christ. John says of Jesus that “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)


            So there are at least three different circumstances in which John could see people needing to know the way out of sin, and he spelled them out.


            Behind Jonah’s story in the Old Testament and John’s words in the New is the root idea that God really loves us and values us. Imagine that you’re a guest in someone’s home. Now imagine that you’ve just knocked over a priceless vase - a family heirloom that can’t be replaced. Probably you did it accidentally, but maybe you did it on purpose – in anger. In either case it shatters on the floor, and you know you can’t pay for it.


            Of course you apologize to your host. Though saddened by the loss of the vase, he’s gracious and says, “I accept your apology. Now don’t worry about it.” Not only that, your host urges you to stay, even though there are a number of other priceless objects around, and knowing that as clumsy and bad-tempered as you are, you could still break more of them.


            Now, despite his generous attitude you continue to feel uneasy – afraid you might break something else – what’s more, you believe that behind the kind words, your host must be very upset over the vase. In time, however, you begin to understand that he really values you over the objects, and you finally understand that he really wants you to stay. He values the relationship. That’s why he offers the forgiveness. The relationship is more important that the sin!


            That’s why God wants to forgive us! Of course, we can still spurn God’s forgiveness, or not seek it, or deny that we need it, and then the judgement for our sins remains on us. But that’s not the route God wants us to choose. He wants us to remain, not as His guest, but as a member of his family.


            For, to tell the truth, God is not a vindictive tyrant, but a loving Heavenly Father to whom self-acknowledged sinners can come for freely-offered forgiveness. We don’t need any sin credits. We just need our repentance and God’s forgiveness which He’s ready to give – for Jesus’ sake.



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