What We're Concerned About (Jonah 3-4)

If you've been with us the past few weeks, we've been looking at Jonah. You may know Jonah's story because you've got kids, and you've been watching the movie. Even if you're not very familiar with the Bible, chances are that you've heard about Jonah and you know a little about the story.We've discovered that Jonah's story is really our story, because all of us at one time have run from God. Some of us are still running. Then, last week, we looked at what happens when we've run. We have a tendency to think that when we've run, we're not able to turn back to God because God won't take us back. We discovered that when we've gone as low as we could go, run as far from him as we could, that God still welcomes us back when we call on him.Today we come to the surprise ending of the book. If it had been up to me, Jonah 1 would have been the end. Jonah runs, God sends storm, Jonah is thrown overboard, God is just, the end. But the story doesn't end there. God doesn't write Jonah off as fast as we would. Jonah 2 is about Jonah getting a second chance.Jonah 3 starts with this second chance. "Then the LORD spoke to Jonah a second time: 'Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message of judgment I have given you'" (Jonah 3:1-2). There's not a chance that Jonah's going to disobey this time. He knows the consequence. So Jonah goes this time, just as he's been commanded.
This time Jonah obeyed the LORD'S command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: "Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!" The people of Nineveh believed God's message, and from the greatest to the least, they decided to go without food and wear sackcloth to show their sorrow. (Jonah 3:3-5)
I read this and think, "I'm so sure that they repented that easily." When I'm downtown, I sometimes run into street preachers. A lot of times I believe a lot of the same things that they believe, but I still don't want to make eye contact with them. They don't really seem like they get that good a response.History tells us that the residents of greater Nineveh may have been prepared to hear a message like Jonah's. There were some warring tribes that had just struck a coalition north of Nineveh. They had just experienced two plagues that had wiped out a good chunk of the population. They had also experienced an earthquake and an eclipse. Then this guy shows up who had just spent three days in the belly of a great fish. When Jonah showed up with this message, the people said, "You know what, I think I believe him." The response was amazingly good.
When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in sackcloth and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city: "No one, not even the animals, may eat or drink anything at all. Everyone is required to wear sackcloth and pray earnestly to God. Everyone must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will have pity on us and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us."When God saw that they had put a stop to their evil ways, he had mercy on them and didn't carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:6-10)
It's an amazing response. Even the king responded. You'd think that Jonah would be overjoyed. If I were Jonah, I would want the story to end here - I preach, 100% of people respond, I go home in glory, the end. But the most surprising part of the story is still to come.
This change of plans upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the LORD about it: "Didn't I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people. Just kill me now, LORD! I'd rather be dead than alive because nothing I predicted is going to happen."The LORD replied, "Is it right for you to be angry about this?" (Jonah 4:1-4)
Jonah's not at all pleased with the response. It's hard to imagine Billy Graham getting upset that so many people had responded to his invitation at a crusade, but that's precisely what happens here. Jonah gets ticked off that the Lord is so compassionate and gracious to these people. He'd rather see them get destroyed than to repent and turn to God.Jonah didn't really want his nation's enemies saved. He wanted them to be destroyed. He probably didn't want to go back home and have to tell people where he had been and what had happened. "Where've you been, Jonah?" "Nineveh." "I hope you gave it to them!" "I did. I told them they only had forty days until they'd be destroyed." "Good! They had it coming to them. What happened?" "They repented and God decided not to punish them after all." Nineveh's repentance would not play very well back home.
Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see if anything would happen to the city. And the LORD God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah's head, shading him from the sun. This eased some of his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant. (Jonah 4:5-6)
I don't know exactly what Jonah was waiting for. He may have been sitting on top of the hill waiting to see if God would change his mind and destroy Nineveh after all. Jonah might have been imitating Elijah, who felt depressed after a similar type of victory. He's ticked because God's so gracious. This is the surprise ending to the story. It presents Jonah - and ultimately us - in a very bad light.Once again, Jonah's story is our story. This is the dirty little underside to church life. It's a picture of us at our worst - worse, in some ways, than when Jonah ran from God. Listen to how this story ends:
But God also prepared a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant, so that it soon died and withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God sent a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. "Death is certainly better than this!" he exclaimed.Then God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?""Yes," Jonah retorted, "even angry enough to die!"Then the LORD said, "You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn't I feel sorry for such a great city?" (Jonah 4:7-11)
God prepared the plant to provide Jonah comfort, but more importantly, as an object lesson for Jonah. The plant provided Jonah with some comfort, but was gone as quickly as it came. Then God sent an east wind, called a sirocco. They still have these today. It raises the temperature by about fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. There's no humidity in the air. It's unbearable. If you experienced it, you would want to die too. God used all that as an object lesson to reveal something dark about us.God says, "You're concerned about this plant?" Jonah says, "You bet." God says, in effect, "Then is it okay for me to be concerned about the 120,000 people in Nineveh?" There's even a little dig there: "At least can you get concerned about the animals?" And then the book ends. We don't know what happened to Jonah, but God has made his point.I find it easy to think I'm better than Jonah, because I really do care about people, at least I think I do.I care about people, but in the end - and here's the dirty secret about all of us - in the end, I care about temporary things a lot more than I do about people. People last forever, and they're what God cares about, but we're often more about temporary things - stuff, positions, plans - than about people.When I pick up my dry cleaning, I'm probably more concerned with the dry cleaning than I am about the people who worked on my dry cleaning. The clothes I pick up are going to by dirty in a few days, but the people's souls are going to last forever.At work, at the gas station, at the restaurant and grocery store, it's much easier to focus on the stuff than the people.Today, I passed someone begging for money about a block away from here at the traffic light. When I see someone doing that, I'm usually afraid they're going to get hit. But then it's easy to see him as someone you wish wasn't there. We wonder if he's genuinely needy or just out to get our money. We wonder how he's going to use the money. We do everything but see him the way that God sees him.Sometimes I turn on the television on Sunday mornings while getting ready for church. World Vision sometimes shows the situation in some far-off country. It's gut-wrenching to watch. The need seems so severe. I sometimes find myself wanting to turn the channel. They call this compassion fatigue. It's easy not to care, or to turn my attention to other easier things.I've heard a pastor say that he doesn't really care as much what his people believe anymore. You can believe all the right things, but it doesn't change your heart. He cares more now about what his people care about than what they believe. You can believe that people need the Lord, but caring about them personally is much more powerful. Sure, we care, but on the priority list of things we're concerned about, it's not near the top. We're a lot like Jonah in that respect.This pastor asked God to let him see people as God sees them. God answered his prayer, but after a short time he asked God to stop. It hurt too much. It cost him too much of his comfort. The second time he prayed that God would let him see people the way that God sees them, but that he would also give the strength to maintain that compassion for people.There's the whole other level to this: that if we're really honest, there are some people we're not sure we want to see forgiven. We like them messed up, because we think they deserve it. If they were forgiven, then we'd have to forgive them too, and that would be very hard. There are people we read about in the newspapers, and we know, even with the things they've done, they could be forgiven if they came to God, but we hope they don't. There are people to whom we hope God won't show his grace and compassion.When you came in today, you were given a flower. I'm going to ask you to do a hard thing. That flower represents Jonah's vine. I'd like you to take it home and let it die. Don't put it in water, don't dry it. Just let it die. As you watch it die, I want you to think of what it is that occupies your attention and keeps you from being concerned about people, and to identify that thing with the flower. As the flower dies, it'll remind us that the things we're concerned about - even good things - are temporary, but people will last forever.Prayer:
What are you concerned about? Good things, maybe bad things, but for sure, they're temporary things. What is it that you're most concerned about? What keeps you from seeing people the way that God sees them?Father, I pray that you would help us identify what it is in our lives that we care about more than people. Change our hearts so we care about the things that you care about. In Jesus' name, Amen.

After You Hit Rock Bottom (Jonah 2)

Two weeks ago, we started to look at the story of Jonah. We discovered that his story is all of our stories. We've all run from God; some of us are still running. We think we're different, but we're really not. Jonah's story helps us understand what happens to us when we run, and ultimately what happens when we stop running.I've been reading a book called Traveling Mercies by Ann Lamott. It's a book about one person's spiritual journey, and it's not a story for the easily offended. She grew up believing God was almost like a strange man with a personality disorder. She took drugs, spent a good chunk of her life drunk, had multiple boyfriends - some of them married - and viewed Christians with great suspicion."Then one afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me," she writes. She found herself calling a pastor. She doubted God could love her, but he said, "God has to love you. That's God's job." She reluctantly began to attend church, always leaving before the sermon, but the music started to get to her. "Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender." Finally, one day she did stay for the sermon, "which I just thought was ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape." She ran home to her houseboat and prayed a version of the sinner's prayer I've never heard before - one that I can't repeat in polite company.We may or may not have had the same experiences as Anne Lamott, but we can all probably relate to what she said: "the cracks webbed all the way through me." We're not all that different. A lot of us have reached that point of brokenness, even though our lives may not have looked as messy. We may have reached the point of wondering whether God could still love us.What's amazing in Lamott's story, as well as Jonah's story, is that when you reach this point, it's not really a point of despair. It's a point of hope.It's a point of hope, because it turns out that God reacts differently from how I would react. If I was God (thank him I'm not), Jonah 1 would have been the end of the story. You mess up, you're thrown overboard, the storm ends, justice is done, the end. I'm not so sure I would give Jonah a second chance. I'm always tempted, when I tell someone to do something and they don't and everything falls apart, to say, "I told you so." I'm not so sure there would be Jonah chapter 2 if I was God.But Jonah reacts differently too. Even though he's at a very low point in his life - how much lower can you get than up to your neck in water and seaweed inside a great fish - he doesn't pray a prayer of deliverance. He prays a prayer of thanks. Somehow he figures out that God's not quite done with him yet. Even though he's experiencing the consequences of his own disobedience, he sees hope because of God's character.I don't think he composed this section word for word when he was in the fish. He probably prayed something along these lines, perhaps even using some of the Scripture passages that came to mind in the middle of the crisis. This prayer reflects his thoughts, perhaps, as we was in the fish's digestive system, but a little more neatly composed than he might have been able to handle from within the situation.Some lessons for when we hit the bottom:

1. When we call in distress, God listens

Anne Lamott's prayer used language so vulgar that I can't repeat it here. It doesn't seem to have mattered; God heard her. We sometimes think God only listens to us when we're in neat situations, when we're presentable enough that he won't be offended by us. It's like what they say about banks: they only loan money to people who don't need it. We think that God only gives grace to people who don't really need grace. But that isn't the case. God responds to us when we call on him, even if our lives happen to be a mess.Listen to Jonah 2:1-2: "Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish. He said, 'I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the world of the dead, and LORD, you heard me!" Jonah wasn't in a great negotiating position. There wasn't a lot that Jonah could say that would get God to respond favorably to him. But God listened anyway.Sometimes the most eloquent prayer we can pray is, "Help!" Those times that we wonder if it's safe to turn to God, or whether he's turned his back on us - it's safe. We can still call out to him.

2. When we run, God will work to get our attention

Jonah continues his prayer by describing his situation. He paints a picture of what God will do to bring us back to himself when we run:
You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. Then I said, 'O LORD, you have driven me from your presence. How will I ever again see your holy Temple?'"I sank beneath the waves, and death was very near. The waters closed in around me, and seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead. But you, O LORD my God, have snatched me from the yawning jaws of death! (Jonah 2:3-6)
Jonah thought he was as good as dead. He sank to a pretty low level - one that a lot of us have seen in others, or even in our own lives.God could spare us from the consequences of our actions, like some parents do. I've seen some parents cover for their kids - write checks for their overdrawn accounts, shield them from the consequences of their mistakes. God isn't the type to shield us from the consequences of our mistakes. Think of Moses (kills a man, exiled to the dessert) or David (adultery, lost a child, kingdom began to fall apart, lost his reputation). God lets us experience the full consequences of our actions when we run so we understand the cost, so we won't run quite as far the next time. He does it, not to pay us back, but to win us back.

3. God is strategic in how far he takes us

Jonah writes, "When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the LORD. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple" (Jonah 2:7). Here's where we see that God isn't vindictive; he's strategic. When we run, our lives may look out of control, as Jonah's did - way out of control. But we're not out of God's reach. God is bringing us to the place where we have nowhere else to turn. He becomes our last, our only resort. For some of us, it almost takes as far as it took Jonah - to the point at which he had lost all other hope. God will bring us to the end of ourselves so there's nowhere else to turn.

4. We forfeit God's grace when we run

Jonah 2:8-10 says, "Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God's mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone." The word mercies is one of my favorite Old Testament words. It's hard to translate into English. It has the idea of a stubborn, relentless kind of love that won't give up on us. When we run, God does lead us to the point at which we want to come back - but we forfeit something. We forfeit his mercies; we forfeit what we would have had if we had kept a close relationship with him. There are consequences.There's a touch of irony in Jonah 2:10: "Then the LORD ordered the fish to spit up Jonah on the beach, and it did." I think we're supposed to read that and think, "If only Jonah was so obedient!" If only we were that obedient as well.We're all runners. We've either come to the point at which the cracks are showing, and there's nowhere else to turn, or else we'll be there one day. All God's people have been.God uses our brokenness for a purpose. Everyone God has ever used has first reached the end of themselves. Go through the list of the people God has used - Moses, David, Peter, Paul, Jonah. They're all people who have something in common with us. They've run until there's been nowhere else to turn.Prayer
Thank you that you hear us when we're as far from you as possible. Thank you that it's your job to love us, even when we are at our most unlovable.Your story is a story of using people who've run away, and then run back to you. Thank you that you can use any of us, not because we have it all together, but because you can put us back together.

Mother's Day

Yesterday's National Post revealed that "Most mothers report feeling disappointment on Mother's Day, despite receiving more attention than fathers do on Father's Day, a new study has found" (May 10, 2003). While it's a good day for many, it's also a hard day for others.

You may have heard of the letters to God from kids. One girl wrote, "Dear God: Are boys really better than girls? Try to be fair, even though you are one."

One of the problems when we talk about God is that we're limited, and often end up thinking in human terms. While God definitely uses male terms to describe himself, he also uses the powerful image of motherhood to describe his relationship with us.

Yet Jerusalem says, "The LORD has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us." "Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on my hand. Ever before me is a picture of Jerusalem's walls in ruins. (Isaiah 49:15-16)

Powerful images:

"Ever before me is a picture of Jerusalem's walls in ruins" - God's got us in his mind; we're constantly in his thoughts, even in our brokenness

"I have written your name on my hand" - Whatever God does, he's reminded of us. In a sense, our names became permanently written on Jesus' hands through the crucifixion.

"Can a mother forget?...Even if that were possible, I would not forget you." God's love even exceeds that of a mother for her child.

"As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." (Isaiah 66:13)

Image of a mother comforting a hurt child - how God wants to embrace us in our hurts.

"LORD, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don't concern myself with matters too great or awesome for me. But I have stilled and quieted myself, just as a small child is quiet with its mother. Yes, like a small child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD-now and always." (Psalm 131)

A song of ascents - what pilgrims sang on the way to Jerusalem to worship.

"My heart is not proud..." - a sense that as we come to worship, our accomplishments and credentials become unimportant. We simply become a worshiper.

"As a small child is quiet with its mother" - The picture is of a weaned child, maybe 4-5, who wants to cuddle with its mother, not out of physical need, but out of a desire to be close, to be loved.

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me." (Matthew 23:37)

Image of a mother hen. As she senses danger, she calls out for her chicks to come underneath her wings for protection.

God calls for us to come for protection, but we don't come.

Motherly love is among the strongest of human loves - and it provides a window to understanding the love of God for us.

Adapted from a message by Brian McLaren

Running from God (Jonah 1)

Open your Bibles to Jonah 1

Familiar story - many people know bits or pieces, perhaps have seen the movie

Background

800-750 BC; A contemporary of Amos, shortly after Elijah and Elisha; Israel secure and spiritually smug; Assyria a threat from the north.

Did it really happen? Matthew 12 - Jesus thought it was historical and not allegorical

It's the story of us - it's all of our stories; the story of runners

But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. (Jonah 1:3)

This terrified them and they asked, "What have you done?" (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.) (Jonah 1:10)

1. There's a story behind the running (vv.1-3)

Something powerful but unspoken precedes his decision to run. God wants us to do something difficult, perhaps unreasonable. Self surrender vs. selfishness

2. Runners make the strangest choices (v. 3)

Joppa - where people weren't likely to be Israelite

Tarshish - Nineveh 500 miles to the East in modern-day Mosul, Iraq; Tarshish, possibly 2,500 miles in the opposite direction (southern Spain); unknown, the opposite direction, as far away as possible

Boat - probably first time in a boat

3. Runners affect others (vv.4-16)

Endangers them - Phoenician sailors

Jonah sleeping (no conscience?); they're awake losing their payload

They're worried about his survival; Jonah isn't worried about Nineveh

They worship God (imperfectly); Jonah continues to run

4. God will let you run, but you can never outrun him (v. 17)

God sent a wind that caused a storm (v.4)

God sent a great fish (v.17)

God waits, but God allows you to experience the full consequence of your actions.

We've all been runners; we may not be ready to give up running. Your experience is not unique. Running as far away as you can get. Running will hurt; you can't outrun God.

As we'll see this month, you can't outrun God.

Pray - those who are tired of running; for those still on the run, that you would send the wind that causes the storms