Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 8:23-27 + Jonah 1:1-17 + Romans 13:8-10
The Gospel today is striking in its simplicity, isn’t it? Jesus and his disciples get in a boat. There’s a raging storm at sea, and while the disciples bail water, Jesus sleeps. They finally wake him and plead for help. He offers the solution, calming the storm immediately. And the disciples are amazed at the Lord’s power. It’s a simple story, an amazing story, a true story.
And you must have noticed how similar that story was to the Old Testament reading today from the prophet Jonah, didn’t you? Jonah gets in a boat. There’s a raging storm at sea, and while the crew bails water, Jonah sleeps. They finally wake him and plead for help. He offers the solution, calming the storm immediately. And the men on the boat are amazed at the Lord’s power. That story, too, is a simple story, an amazing story, a true story.
These two stories aren’t identical, but they share enough points in common that we need to ask the question, “Is God teaching us something here about a connection between the prophet Jonah and Jesus, or is it just a coincidence that the stories have so many parallels?”
Jesus himself gives us the answer. “The Scriptures testify about me.” After his resurrection from the dead, he explained this to his disciples: Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. More than once during his short ministry, Jesus compared himself specifically to the prophet Jonah. His conclusion? “Now one greater than Jonah is here.” As we compare the two stories before us today, that becomes clear: A Prophet Greater Than Jonah Is Here.
BOTH WERE CALLED TO PREACH
Both Jonah and Jesus were called by God to preach. Jonah, a sinful man from Israel, was called to preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s enemy. He was sent mainly to the Gentiles, although his message would be heard by the Jews as well. His was to be a message of destruction, “40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” Destruction by the God of Israel, destruction for their sins was the main message. Destruction, unless they would repent.
Jesus, a sinless man from Israel, was called to preach to the people of Israel, although his message would be heard by the Gentiles as well. His was to be a message of good news, “Forgiveness of sins, life and salvation by faith in me.” Forgiveness of sins by the God of Israel was the main message. Salvation, unless they would not believe in him. A prophet greater than Jonah is here.
BOTH GOT IN A BOAT
Both Jonah and Jesus got in a boat one day, and set out to sea. Jonah got in the boat to flee the mission God had given him. He hated the Gentiles of Nineveh and wanted to see them destroyed for their wickedness. He received God’s call to preach and he said, “No.”
Jesus got in the boat to pursue the mission God had given him, because he had already preached to the people on one side of the Sea of Galilee and he had more people to teach on the other side. Jesus loved both Jew and Gentile and didn’t want to see them destroyed for their wickedness. He received God’s call to preach and he said, “Yes!” A prophet greater than Jonah is here.
BOTH SLEPT THROUGH THE STORM
Both Jonah and Jesus fell asleep in the boat as a raging storm came up and threatened the lives of those on board. Jonah fell asleep in guilt and shame, knowing he was rebelling against the Lord, but still, not ready to admit his sin, not willing to obey God’s command. Jonah would do what he wanted to do, no matter what God said. And that kind of sinful rebellion takes a toll on a person. It’s exhausting to fight against God.
Jesus fell asleep out of exhaustion, too. But his exhaustion was the result of long hours dealing with people, teaching them, healing them, answering their questions, sometimes answering their accusations. It’s exhausting to preach God’s Word, but Jesus did it gladly and willingly, out of love for God his Father and out of love for sinners. A prophet greater than Jonah is here.
BOTH WERE WOKEN UP BY TERRIFIED SHIPMATES
Both Jonah and Jesus were woken up by terrified shipmates who had worked long and hard to steady the ship that was being tossed and battered by the wind and the sea. They were all experienced sailors, but had never seen a storm like this before. The men on Jonah’s boat were pagans who didn’t even know the true God, the LORD – Yahweh of Israel. And yet when they woke Jonah up, they asked him to pray to his God and were hopeful that Jonah’s God might just keep them from drowning. “Call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”
But Jesus’ disciples, who knew very well the God of Israel and even believed that Jesus was the Messiah promised by God – Jesus’ disciples were less hopeful, less trusting, more afraid than the pagan sailors of old. “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” The “Lord, save us” part is fine. The “We’re going to drown” part is unbelief – the opposite of faith. Even though a prophet greater than Jonah was among them, even though they had believed he was the Christ, they somehow concluded that knowing Christ would do them no good, and that both he and they were destined to perish in the storm. What good could a dead Christ do?
BOTH HAD AN ANSWER
Both Jonah and Jesus had an answer for their panicking friends. Jonah confessed that he worshiped the LORD God of Israel, the Maker of the wind and the sea and everything else. And then Jonah admitted that the storm was his fault, because he was running away from the LORD’s mission.
Jesus’ response to his friends was different. He didn’t need to tell them who made the wind and the sea and everything else. They already knew that, for as much good as it did them. And he had no sin to confess; this storm wasn’t his fault. Instead, he had a rebuke for them. “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”
That’s a stinging question, isn’t it? It reveals the sin underneath, the sin that threatens even believers in Christ, the sin that shoves Jesus to the side and says, “OK, you know Jesus is the Christ. You’re a Christian. So what? That won’t help you with…fill in the blank. Yeah, yeah, your soul, your spiritual life – all that’s fine. But your real problem is finances or relationships or health or politics or – whatever. Jesus is for Sunday morning – sometimes, but knowing him will do you no good in the real problems of life.”
Isn’t sin deceptive that way? Isn’t Satan subtle? He’ll let you keep the idea of Christ but wants to empty it of its significance. He’ll let you believe that you’re a child of God, baptized into Christ and clothed with him, as long as, when the going gets tough, he can convince you that it simply doesn’t matter. You still have to work things out on your own. Christ can’t help you in your real needs.
Ah, but he can and he does.
BOTH OFFERED THEIR SHIPMATES THE SOLUTION
Both Jonah and Jesus offered their shipmates the solution that would save them. Jonah’s solution? “Throw me overboard. Sacrifice me. Because it’s all my fault. And if you sacrifice me, then you’ll all be saved.” And he was right, wasn’t he? As soon as Jonah was tossed into the sea, the storm was gone; the seas were calm; and the men on board glorified the LORD, the God of Israel.
Jesus’ solution? That day on the sea of Galilee, Jesus’ solution was to use his almighty power as God. He rebuked the wind and the sea with a word, and the forces of nature bowed down before him. The sea was calm, and the men on board glorified the LORD, the God of Israel, who was not only in the heavens, but also standing there with them in the boat. A prophet greater than Jonah is here.
And that message needed to stick with Jesus’ disciples, because in a short while, Jesus’ solution to their real problem of sin and condemnation would be the same as Jonah’s. “Sacrifice me! Because God, in his immeasurable grace, will take your fault and make it my fault. And when I am sacrificed, then you’ll be saved.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus kept revealing to his disciples what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The Prophet would be sacrificed, and the storm of God’s wrath against sinners would completely subside. A prophet greater than Jonah is here.
BOTH SPENT THREE DAYS “DEAD”
And here’s where the comparison between Jonah and Jesus most significant. Both Jonah and Jesus spent three days buried. Jonah in the belly of a great sea monster, Jesus in the belly of the earth. Jonah’s “death” was only figurative – he was alive in the fish’s stomach, and for as miraculous as it was that God kept Jonah alive and then caused that fish to vomit Jonah out onto the beach on the third day, it’s nothing compared with Jesus. Jesus said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The prophet Jonah was a sign who pointed ahead to Jesus in many ways, but most of all, Jonah’s figurative death and resurrection after three days pointed ahead to Jesus’ very real death and resurrection after three days.
And as Jonah got up and finally went to preach to the people of Nineveh, so Jesus got up from the dead and sent forth his disciples to preach to all the nations of the earth: repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. Salvation by faith alone in Christ. Justification in God’s courtroom for all who believe, for all who claim the righteousness of Christ before God.
And he who did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things? Trust in him at all times, for everything you need in life. And when you’re afraid, you remember that to know Christ is not a meaningless thing. To know Christ is to have God’s help in all things, at all times. Jonah’s life, his story, points you to Christ and begs you to trust in him. That is the epiphany of Jesus in the miraculous calming of the storm – the epiphany of this prophet who is so much greater than Jonah. Amen.