Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord (Epiphany 4)

Matthew 8:23-27; Romans 13:8-10; Jonah 1:1-17

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Why do bad things happen to good people? You might be surprised to learn that God’s Word does provide an answer to that question, but you’re probably not going to like it. The answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” God’s answer to that question, is that there are no good people. Remember the words of St. Paul to the Church at Rome: “All have sinnedand fall short of the glory of God,” and “there is none that is righteous, not even one.” And, remember Jesus’ own words to a rich young man who called Him good teacher; Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is goodexcept God alone.” Therefore, instead of asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” perhaps you should be asking, “Why don’t bad things happen to me continually?” Truly, you shouldn’t wonder why a terrible thing has happened to this person or to that person, but rather why you, who are just as deserving as they, have, by the grace of God, been spared. That’s the true mystery of it all, the mystery of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
The so-called “Problem of Evil” isn’t really a problem at all when you take God’s Word and your sin seriously. In the beginning there was God, period. God created all things that exist, including humankind, and it was good; in fact, it was very good. There was no evil in God’s very good creation. There was only God, who is good, and the good creation He created. However, God gave us a free will, that is, a will that was free to reject Him and His goodness and choose something else, something other – evil. So, why is there evil in the world? It’s not because God created evil, but it is because His free creatures, man and woman, chose to reject God, to rebel against His goodness; it is because God’s free creatures chose evil over good. Because of mankind’s free choice of evil over God’s Word and goodness death entered the world. This was mankind’s choice and doing, not God’s. While it may be incorrect, and certainly unhelpful and unkind, to suggest that any person’s suffering is the direct result of his or her sin, it is not incorrect to say that suffering and death in general are the result of sin in the world, sin and death that came into the world, not by God’s choice, but by man’s. And so, the storms of life often encompass us and threaten to destroy us. But, we need not fear, for God is still good, and He is still God, and that means that He is in control. Though He did not create the evil that afflicts us nor introduce it into His good creation, He is still LORD of all, and He will restore all things, in His way and in His time, to order, goodness, and perfection once again.
The LORD commanded Jonah to go to wicked Nineveh and preach His Word, His Law and Gospel, that they might turn in repentance and find salvation in Him. But, Jonah didn’t want to go. More importantly, Jonah didn’t want to go, not because he feared the Ninevites or that God’s Word would be ineffective, but quite the contrary, Jonah fully believed that the LORD’s would was powerful to turn the Ninevites in repentance so that they could be saved. Jonah didn’t want that to happen; he felt that this was too good for those wicked people, and that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to receive forgiveness. So, Jonah made a choice; he chose to reject God and His goodness and to run away and hide from God. He charted a freighter and sailed off for Tarshish, hidden and fast asleep in its hold. The LORD permitted a ferocious storm to come upon the ship. The wind roared and the waves buffeted the ship striking terror into the hearts of the sailors that they would be overcome and perish. Now, storms and gails, trials and tribulations, come and go upon us all. They are not of God, who is good and the rule and measure of all that is good, but they are under His control and He permits or prevents them from befalling us according to His good and gracious will.
Jonah knew this fully well. When the sailors awakened him in their terror, Jonah confessed that this was God’s doing, and that it was because of his sinful rebellion that He permitted the storm to afflict them. He told them to throw him overboard and that the storm would cease. Whereas before the storm Jonah refused to obey the LORD and preach His Word to the NInevites that they might repent and be saved, now Jonah was willing to die that the pagan sailors might be saved. And so, they threw Jonah into the see, and the storm was stilled, and many of the sailors believed in the LORD who made the sea and the wind and is their Master. But, then the LORD did something more; He sent a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish where he prayed fervently to the LORD that He might save him. Though his sin was his own and he justly deserved death and eternal torment, the LORD heard and answered Jonah’s prayer and, demonstrating His power and authority once again, this time over the beasts of the earth, the LORD caused the great fish to vomit Jonah out on dry land. And the LORD commanded Jonah a second to time to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites. This time Jonah obeyed. He preached repentance to the Ninevites, and the Holy Spirit worked contrition in their hearts and they cried out to God and were spared His impending judgment. Truly, the LORD works all things together for good, even the rebellious and evil things that we and other men do, for the good of those who are called according to His purpose.
So often it seems that God’s ways are not our ways. What we count as foolishness may we come to see as wisdom by His Holy Spirit through His Word. For, it appeared foolishness that the people of Nineveh should be forgiven. And, it appeared foolishness that the LORD would use a wicked, rebellious man to bring this Word to wicked people. And it appeared even greater foolishness still that this man should be thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish in order to make this happen. Thus, when the scribes and Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus in order for them to believe Him, Jesus answered them saying, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
Indeed, Jesus had performed many great and miraculous signs, and still they did not believe Him. Heaven was opened, God the Father spoke, and His Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan. He changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana. He healed men of leprosy and disease and of paralysis, and even raised several from death to life by the power of His life-giving and creative Word. Jesus had demonstrated His authority and control over the forces of nature on land, and then He demonstrated the same over the forces of nature at sea. As in the story of Jonah, Jesus was at sea with His disciples when a terrible storm came upon them and the disciples were terrified that they would perish. All the while Jesus was sleeping. Shaking Him awake in their terror, they said to Him, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Jesus arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. Then He rebuked His disciples saying, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
Why are youafraid, O you of little faith? Does your life seem to be out of control? Are there forces and powers at play that affect you that are indifferent to your suffering or need? Does it sometimes feel as if the Lord is sleeping, is powerless to help, or doesn’t care? Repent. Perhaps the LORD is causing your idols to be stripped away, those persons and things in which you have knowingly or unknowingly placed your fear, love, and trust over, above, or in place of Him. Repent. It is good that they be tossed overboard and buried in the depths of the sea. When you are tempted to cower in fear, hopelessness, and despair at what is befalling you and the world, and when you are tempted to flee from the presence of the LORD and His will, remember that He is awake and active, upholding heaven and earth and the laws of nature and all things for you, His beloved.
God permits storms and trials to come upon you, but He also rescues you in them so that you may see clearly His protection. Jesus’ kingdom, His Church, is strengthened and grows by sorrow and trial as by these the LORD calls you to turn your attention away from yourself and back towards Him. The LORD uses storms and trials to perfect your faith and to strengthen your weak and little faith. Your Lord is present with you always, even if unseen or seemingly inactive and asleep. He is in this place, this boat, this ship, this ark, His Church, commanding the natural elements of Word and Water, Bread and Wine to serve you, to absolve you, to strengthen you, to equip you and to send you. Do not be afraid. Your LORD, Your God, is present to save you.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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