Midweek 6 – 2021 LSB #’s 423, 535, 845
Text – Jonah 3:10
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, & He did not do it.
LOVE SO BROAD
In the name of Jesus, whose broad love extends to every single person. Amen.
In Jesus Christ, how large is the love of God for sinners? That’s the theme that we’ve been exploring during this Lenten season. For this last Wednesday night service, we will consider this dimension of God’s love – how broad & wide it is.
All human beings, from every culture, have a tendency to draw a circle around the people who we think are “the right kind” of people, our kind of people – people who are worth caring about, worrying about, speaking well about, treating with value & dignity.
Perhaps for you that is a very large circle, with not too many people falling outside of it. Yet, for each one of us, there is a temptation, at some point to draw that line, whether we realize it or not. On the other side of that line there are people who are bad, offensive, despicable, evil & nasty, who are unworthy of our love or pity or care.
During His ministry, Jesus’ disciples acted this way, & famously, so did one of the OT prophets. God called Jonah to go & preach repentance to the ultimate enemy of His people. He called Jonah to enter their capital city of Nineveh & preach to the ruthless Assyrians & their ruthless king. Hopefully, you know the story.
Instead of obeying & going to Nineveh, Jonah headed straight in the opposite direction, hitching a ride on a ship heading west. God sends a storm on the sea. God rescues Jonah from drowning by preserving him in the belly of a fish. Jonah prays to God, & the fish vomits Jonah back out onto dry land. That’s where the sermon picks up in Jonah chapter 3. God commands Jonah a 2nd time to go to Nineveh & call the Assyrians to repentance. Notice, as I read, the stark contrast between how wide God’s mercy is, & how not-so-wide is the mercy of Jonah:
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, & He did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, & he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord & said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious God & merciful, slow to anger & abounding in steadfast love, & relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”
The Assyrians were the scourge of the world in Jonah’s day. They were known for brutally subjugating other people groups, torturing those who dared oppose them. There is ancient artwork that archeologists have discovered, depicting the Assyrian troops impaling people on sharp poles or skinning them, both while they were still alive.
Years after Jonah, the Assyrians would annihilate the northern kingdom of Israel. Ten of the 12 tribes of God’s people, were erased from history. Shortly after, the Assyrians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. God rescued Jerusalem at that time, but historians estimate that as much as 50 percent of the population was killed or force-marched into a life of slavery.
If Jonah was going to draw a circle, with certain people outside that circle who did not deserve love or mercy, it makes sense that he put the Assyrians outside the line. God did not. The pity, the mercy & the love of God drew no lines, & extended all the way to their capital city, all the way to the king on his throne.
Because of their great sin, God declared that His judgment was at hand, & that Nineveh would be overturned! But because of God’s great mercy, he sent them a prophet, led them to repentance, took pity on them, & spared them. That drove Jonah mad.
How different the attitude of Pastor Henry Gerecke. He was a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor who volunteered to serve as an army chaplain during World War II. When the Allies defeated the Nazis, it looked as if Pastor Gerecke would return home to his wife & family. Yet, because he was Lutheran, & because he spoke German, top brass requested that he remain in Europe a bit longer for a special assignment.
He was to travel to Nuremberg, Germany, to serve as the personal chaplain to the Nazi war criminals who were being put on trial by an international tribunal for the unspeakable things they had done, including the carefully orchestrated murder of millions of Jews.
These men had certainly drawn a circle around a group of people they thought were worth valuing. Everyone outside of that circle was beyond their care, beyond their pity. The world knew them as monsters, spoke of them with the label “monsters.” And that they were.
But Pastor Gerecke had a calling, a calling not only from Allied authorities, but from our God, whose mercy is so broad. By God’s grace, Chaplain Gerecke did not draw his circle so narrowly that it excluded these men. He spoke to them frankly about their sins, about their need for a Savior, about Jesus Christ, who had borne their sins – all of their sins, yes, even theirs.
Some, like Hermann Goering, refused to believe that Jesus could help him, refused to believe that Jesus was anything more than a man. Goering died without hope, without God, without the divine mercy or forgiveness which the Great I Am was so graciously extending to him through Pastor Gerecke.
But several other prominent Nazis came to acknowledge their overwhelming sin. They confessed their evil to Gerecke & to God. He pronounced Holy Absolution. He communed them with the body & blood of Christ. He continued to minister to them with God’s word & promises, right there in prison.
A number of them were condemned to die & Gerecke walked beside five of them on their way to be hanged. Some of them you will meet one day, in the light & joy of heaven, where
forgiven sinners share in Christ’s glory & love forever.
In 2015, a book was written by journalist Tim Townsend, about Gerecke’s chaplaincy. It’s called Mission at Nuremberg, & it’s a great book. From beginning to end, it gives striking testimony to the wide mercy of God, & to the beauty of that mercy being extended through the lives of his people. But not everyone appreciated the book.
The circle-drawing spirit of Jonah is alive & well in hearts today. If you go on Amazon & read the review comments, most are very positive, but two negative reviews stand out. The first one-star review reads:
Getting close to these monsters & giving them human qualities & emotions is very difficult... to swallow. I understand the Christian philosophy of forgiveness, but that should be left to God. Let them go to their deaths fearing they may burn in hell. They provided no comfort to those they burned.
The other reviewer who gave it one-star was offended for the same reason:
It appears the author tries to rationalize why... Gerecke... became so close to the Nazis. He does this in a number of ways. First, by giving a short biography of each Nazi, quoting numerous times, “Gerecke strived to remember that before their alliance with Hitler, before the choices they made that led to mayhem & murder, they had all been boys once & that they were still God’s children.”
The reviewer begins to wonder what his purpose was other than to downgrade what the Nazis had done. He then closes his review with the blunt statement: “…just asking forgiveness is not enough to save these Nazi monsters’ souls.”
Oh, but it is – because of Jesus Christ. Dear friends, God’s love extends to all. To Assyrians. To Nazis. To monsters. To sinners. To you, & me. His mercy is so great, & so wide because Jesus Christ, His Son, came to be the Savior of all. The whole world. Every nation. Every person. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16) Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, & entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) “As [Adam’s] one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so [Jesus’] one act of righteousness leads to justification & life for all men.” (Romans 5:18)
“Christ died for all,” St. Paul writes. (2 Corinthians 5:15) Christ. Died. For. All. Elsewhere Paul wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
It is remarkable that no one is excluded from God’s mercy. It is remarkable that His love for sinners, in Christ, is so broad, so wide, that it excludes no race or clan, no woman or man. Since that is true, what is so remarkable, & so amazing, is that God’s love & mercy therefore includes even me. No one is excluded from God’s pity & love.
The sermon hymn stated, “How wide the love of Christ! It knows not class or race but holds our one humanity within its broad embrace.” LSB 535:1.
“God desires all people to be saved & to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) As God’s mercy & love extends to all, He calls us as His forgiven children to erase the lines that we have drawn in our heart. No more circles. God calls us to love & to care, to be more like Chaplain Gerecke & less like Jonah.
There is no difference! All people have sinned & fallen short of God’s glory. But God’s mercy & saving righteousness & forgiveness in Jesus Christ is for each of them. For Gentiles & Jews. For slaves & free. For rich & poor. For black & white. For citizens & for immigrants. For male & female & even those who are confused about their gender or disordered in their sexuality.
God’s love & mercy in Christ extends to labor & to management. To the famous & to the obscure. To Republicans & to Democrats. To progressives & to nationalists. To your neighbor whose dog keeps getting in your trash, & to that person whose social media posts get under your skin like no one else.
God’s mercy extends to all of those people, & even to you. “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.” LSB 611:1. Lent is a season of repentance – a time to examine our own hearts before God, to confess our sins, & cling to His enormous mercy for us in Christ Jesus.
Lord God, open my eyes to my own lack of love & mercy for others. How have I been like Jonah? What lines have I drawn in my heart to exclude others from my pity & love, from my prayers & from my help? Lord God, have mercy on a narrow-hearted sinner like me. Grant me your grace, that I may walk in love & mercy toward all, with a wider heart of love, with a wider mercy toward every other; just as your mercy is for all, heavenly Father, even for me. Amen.
How wide the love of Christ! It knows not class or race but holds our one humanity within its broad embrace. How deep the love of Christ! Descending to a cross! He bears within His wounded hands all human pain & loss. All praise to You, O Christ, for love whose depth & height, whose length & breadth fill time & space with endless life & light! Amen. LSB 535:1, 4-5.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet