Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord (April 20, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“The Sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:38-41)
With material adapted from Dr. Reed Lessing’s sermon series on Jonah
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery,  breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”  That’s from the 1971 song called – you guessed it – “Signs” by the one-hit wonder band the Five Man Electrical Band.  It’s about a hippie who feels discriminated against, unwelcome, and limited by all the signs he encounters in business, on private property, and even at church.
Signs, signs, everywhere there are signs for you and me.  “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”  “Don’t walk on the grass.”  “Do not disturb.”  “Speed Limit 55.”  “Limit One Per Customer.”  “Limited Time Only.”  We dislike these signs because they limit us.  Now, of course, the limits might be there for our protection … like the speed limit.  Or it might be because we’re getting a really good deal … so we’re limited to only one item for a limited time.  But we don’t like to be limited.  We want to live unbound and free, so we dislike the signs that limit us.  And then there are the signs we crave.  We search for a sign to believe that a love that once burned bright is not fading away.  We pray for a sign that a loved one will soon enjoy a full restoration of health.
A group of experts in the law and members of the religious group known as the Pharisees asked for a sign from Jesus.  They wanted proof of his claims to be the Messiah, proof to back up the authority of his teaching.  Jesus replied by describing them as “an evil and adulterous generation.”  Ironically, Jesus had given them numerous signs already.  All that he did in his earthly ministry …  feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, and so forth … all this is exactly what the Old Testament scriptures said the Messiah would do when he came on the scene.  But what did the religious leaders do in response to these signs?  They attributed the works Jesus did to Satan.
But there was one sign Jesus said would be given.  The sign of Jonah.  Before we describe this sign, let’s review what we know about Jonah, just in case you weren’t here for our midweek sermon series on Jonah this past Lent.  God called Jonah to go to the wicked city of Ninevah and preach a message of repentance.  Instead, Jonah hired a boat to take him as far away in the opposite direction as possible.  But God does not stop pursuing Jonah.  He causes a great storm to arise.  Jonah admits to the fearful sailors that he is the reason they are in peril.  So he convinces them to throw him into the sea.  Perhaps Jonah felt that being dead would be better than having to go to Ninevah.  But again, God would have none of that.  He sends a great fish to swallow Jonah, and in the fish’s belly Jonah remained for three days and three nights.  In the darkness of the deep, Jonah cries out for deliverance.  The fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.  The prophet finally heeds the Lord’s call and delivers the message of repentance to Ninevah.  The Ninevites repent.  God withholds judgment.  But Jonah gets angry.  He was hoping they wouldn’t repent, but rather get what they deserve.  The book ends with Jonah wallowing in self-pity and the Lord explaining to Jonah the importance of showing mercy and compassion, even to one’s enemies. 
So that’s Jonah.  Now listen to Jesus as he describes “the sign of Jonah.”  Jesus said, “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  This is the sign given to his opponents.  This is sign given to all people of all times and all places.  This is the only sign we will ever need in order to know and believe that Jesus is our Savior from sin, death, and hell.
Jonah, the imperfect prophet of God, was cast into the depths of the sea as a sacrifice of sorts so that the sailors on the ship might live.  Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was cast into the depths of death as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world so that you and I might live eternally.  After three days, Jonah was spit out of the fish.  On the third day, Jesus was spit out of the grave.  It was impossible for the grave to contain the holy, innocent body of the Savior.  It is impossible for death to contain the body of the one who is “the resurrection and the life.”
Both Jonah and Jesus bore the marks of their suffering.  Although the Scriptures don’t tell us what Jonah looked like after being vomited up on the seashore, you can imagine he probably bore the marks of one who recently spent time in a fish’s belly.  Reddened skin and graying hair from the acids in the fish’s gut.  Stinking of decay as if he really had been dead.  Covered in slime.  Tangled in long strands of seaweed.  What a pathetic sight he must have been.
            Jesus bore the marks of a man who had been crucified.  Following his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples who were hiding in fear behind closed doors.  Jesus showed them the nail marks in his hands and the spear mark in his side.  Bur rather than appearing bruised and beaten, Jesus appeared restored and renewed.  Rather than being tangled in strips of graveclothes, Jesus stood victorious before his disciples.  Thomas, too, who once had doubted, bowed before him in worship and rightly declared, “My Lord and my God!”
Jonah and Jesus both had a message to bring.  Jonah brought a message of repentance to the Ninevites.  They did repent and trust in God’s favor to them.  Yet, sadly, Jonah resented the fact that God would forgive these enemies of his, and God chastised him for this.
Jesus brings a message of repentance to us.  He calls us to repent of our sins and trust in his finished work at the cross and empty tomb for our forgiveness.  He calls us to love and forgive all people, even our enemies.  For those who do not, the Ninevites who repented in the days of Jonah will rise up in judgment and condemn them.  Do not be like the skeptics who do not believe the story of Jonah or “the sign of Jonah.”  Nothing is impossible with God. We have something greater than Jonah, the prophet who was swallowed by a fish and survived.  We have “the sign of Jonah,” the Christ who was swallowed by death and rose to life again.
The sign of Jonah is evidenced in our joy today.  The white paraments.  The joyful music.  Alleluias returned to their rightful place in the liturgy.  A full church.  These death-conquering words of life from the Scriptures: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4) … “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35) … “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) … “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) … “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25) … “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).  All because we have the sign of Jonah!  The sign that leads to life now and life forever!
And we have one more sign … the baptismal sign of the cross!  Our theme in Lent was titled “Survivor: Mediterranean.”  We heard how we survive God’s judgment over our sin because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But in fact, we are more than simply survivors.  United to Christ in Holy Baptism, we are conquerors … and even more so, as St. Paul says, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” (Rom. 8:37).  Your sins were placed in the grave with Jesus, nevermore to condemn you.  And like Jesus, you will rise again in victory on the Last Day, your body will be renewed and restored, and no disease or disaster or other effects of sin in the world will ever be able to cause you to suffer again.
In 1 Corinthians 1:22, St. Paul writes, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”  People still want signs today, don’t they?  But we have been given the only sign we need.  We preach Christ crucified … and risen ... and present in his Body and Blood in the Holy Sacrament.
The sign of Jonah.  This was the core of the preaching of the Apostles all through the book of Acts.  It’s the apostolic eyewitness testimony that we receive still today.
There are signs that do limit us.  “Speed limit 55.”  “Limited time only.”  The sign of Jonah – the resurrection of Jesus – is a sign that does not limit you.  It means you truly do live a life unbound and free.  Like the grave clothes that would have hindered Christ’s corpse, like the stone that would have kept him in the tomb, in Christ Jesus there are no graveclothes or stones standing in your way.  The Lord of Life came forth unbound and free so that sin and shame and death and the devil can no longer keep you in bondage.  Bound to the death and resurrection of Jesus in Holy Baptism and by faith in him, you are unbound, set free … free to live of life of peace with God, free to live in peace with your fellow men as far as it is possible, free to joyfully anticipate your own resurrection to eternal life on the Last Day, and free to proclaim that …
            Christ is risen!
            He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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