Jonah’s story should give us great hope as Christians. He’s probably the most successful prophet in the Bible—in terms of all the people who repent and believe as as result of his ministry. But notice that his success mostly comes through his failures. Do you believe you’re not good enough for God to do powerful things through you? Think again.
This is the last sermon in my “Opening the Scriptures” series. No audio or video this week.
Sermon Text: Jonah 1:1-17
There’s a satirical Christian news website called the Babylon Bee—it’s the Christian equivalent of the Onion, if you’re familiar with that purveyor of fake and funny news stories and headlines. But the Babylon Bee ran a story last week entitled, “Church Attendance Spikes Nationwide Due To Influx Of Pokémon Go Players.” You’ve probably heard by now about Pokémon Go… It’s a so-called “augmented reality” app on your smartphone that directs you to different places around the world to capture animated Pokémon characters using your smartphone camera. It’s pretty cool, I’ll be honest. But if you see someone walking down the sidewalk, holding their phone out like this and bumping into park benches and fire hydrants and other people, chances are, they’re playing this game. It has become a huge sensation.
Indeed, before I had even read this article in the Babylon Bee, I saw a United Methodist church sign, which read: “Our church is a Pokéstop. Feel free to come inside.”
Has anyone checked to see if our church is a Pokéstop?
Anyway, this fictitious article quotes one pastor who said: “We just open the doors and let them wander in unaware. Then, when they’re busy catching a Pokémon or taking advantage of our Pokéstop module, we lock the doors behind them and fire up the worship songs. Poor guys don’t know what hit ’em until it’s too late.”
For all I know, the Pokémon Go craze may get unchurched people through the doors of a church. But if you really want them to get religion, and fast, try sending a life-threatening storm their way. That’s what God does to the prophet Jonah and a boatload of seafaring Gentiles in today’s scripture.
It begins: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” Jonah is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In fact, his hometown is near Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. He even gets a mention in 2 Kings chapter 14.
So… The word of the Lord came to Jonah.
Actually, that’s not quite what scripture says: despite the way the NIV and many other modern translations put it, it doesn’t simply say, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” In the Hebrew, there is a little conjunction in front of the definite article: It literally reads “And the word of the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” That’s a strange way to begin a story. It’s as if the the author of this little book is throwing us into the middle of a story that’s already in progress. He’s signaling to us that Jonah is already a prophet—he’s already been called by God. He’s already been given a purpose in his life. He’s already answered the call sometime in the past. And he’s already busy doing whatever he believes God has called him to do. But now God is calling him to do something radically different.
Something that represents a major disruption to his life. It’s not what he planned. God is interrupting his plans. It’s not what he expected to be doing. And guess what? He doesn’t want to do it.
Remember in last week’s scripture when the Commander of the Lord’s army—who, I argued, was a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ—appeared to Joshua on the eve of the Battle of Jericho? Suddenly a mysterious man appears with his sword drawn. Joshua doesn’t yet know that this man is the Lord. And so he asks this mysterious man, “Are you for us, or are you for our adversaries?”
And the Lord said, “No.” In other words, he said, I reject the premise of your question: I’m not on your side or on your enemy’s side. What you need to worry about is not whether I’m on your side; what you need to worry about is making sure that you’re on my side! Don’t worry about whether I’m for you or against you. Your only concern in life is whether you’re for me… whether you’re living your life to serve me, to please me, to glorify me. Otherwise—if you’re not doing these things, Joshua—then I will become your enemy. And I promise I’m a much, much more powerful enemy than any soldier on the other side of that Jericho wall.”
What about us? Are we hoping that our Lord is on our side—or is our main concern in life making sure we’re on his?
A few weeks ago, on the public radio show This American Life, the host of the show, Ira Glass, interviewed a British author named Alain de Botton, who has recently written a book about marriage. So the host, Ira, asked him what advice he would give to couples who would be tying the knot during this June wedding season. And here is the advice he gave:
Be incredibly forgiving for the weird behavior that’s going to start coming out. You will be very unhappy in lots of ways. Your partner will fail to understand you… Of course you will be lonely. You will often be in despair. You will sometimes think it’s the worst decision in your life. That’s fine. That is not a sign your marriage has gone wrong. It’s a sign that it’s normal, it’s on track.
And many of the hopes that took you into the marriage will have to die in order for the marriage to continue—that some of the heaviness and expectations will have to die.
We go into marriage expecting way too much of our our spouse, he said. We have to let our expectations die. We have to let our hopes die.
Show of hands: If you’ve been married for a while—at least fifteen years—has marriage been at all what you expected? Of course not! Why should it be what we expected? How often is life what we expected? How often does life go according to our plans? Have you noticed this fact?
And have you also noticed that so much of your unhappiness in life comes not so much from bad things happening as things not happening according to your plans?
If you’re going to be truly, deeply happy in life—happy in a lasting sort of way—it’s only going to happen by surrendering your life to Christ and following him, trusting in him, living for him. It’s only going to happen by letting many of the hopes and plans and expectations that you have for your life die.
And that’s O.K.—because your main concern in life isn’t what’s going on with you. Remember what C.S. Lewis said: Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. You’re thinking of yourself less because you’re thinking much more about what you’re doing to love God and love neighbor. And if your own plans don’t come to pass, you have the confidence of knowing that God’s plans for your life are always better than your own!
Not that I often live as if I believe this! I’m constantly being upset when things don’t go my way. But that’s my problem! So I’m a lot like Jonah.
Needless to say, what the Lord called Jonah to do in today’s scripture wasn’t at all what he expected or planned or hoped to do. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which was an enemy and a threat to Israel’s own political ambitions. In fact, later on, Israel—at least the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom—was defeated by the Assyrians. But in today’s text Assyria was only a “cold war” enemy of Israel.
And Jonah was in a no-win situation. Say he does what the word of the Lord tells him to do—he preaches a message of God’s judgment against Nineveh, and the people don’t believe him and repent? They’d be so angry they’d probably kill him! So he was afraid for his life, as any of us would be.
But what if something even worse happened? What if he preached this message of God’s judgment against Nineveh so effectively that the people receive the message—wholeheartedly—and repent of their sin? Then God would probably have mercy on them and forgive them. Because that’s just the kind of God that God is—“gracious… and merciful,” as Jonah says in Chapter 4, “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” But Jonah doesn’t want them to repent! He’d rather have God destroy them!
So Jonah disobeyed God—and tried to run away from God, run away from his commission, run away from his call. He boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, which many historians believe was on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain.
But what happens next is incredibly good news, perhaps the best news of all in today’s scripture: Out of God’s love for Jonah and the Gentile sailors who were navigating this ship, and because of God’s amazing grace, God sent Jonah and these sailors into a life-threatening storm—perhaps a hurricane—the likes of which these brave and experienced sailors had never seen before.
Does it surprise you that I call this storm an act of God’s love and grace? What’s so loving and gracious about a deadly storm?
Because it reminded Jonah that he couldn’t run away from God; that despite his sin, God loved him too much to let him go. It also reminded Jonah of his mission. And because of Jonah’s witness, these Gentile sailors—who had worshiped their own gods and had never before heard about the one true God—these Gentiles came to saving faith in Israel’s God—our God! So, yes, there was a lot of love and grace in the midst of this storm.
It’s fashionable these days for preachers like me to tell you that God never sends us storms—literal storms or metaphorical storms. It’s fashionable to say that God never does anything to cause his children pain or suffering. It’s fashionable to say that plenty of bad things just happen in our world, and God has nothing to do with them—that there’s no reason or purpose for them.
Well, I’m not one of those preachers. Because this idea not only flies in the face of the Bible—including the Book of Jonah—it flies in the face of logic.
In a recent blog post, for example, a pastor described sitting in a prayer group with a young man who, he said, “begins to offer a litany of unexpected hardships, bouts of anxiety, his own version of a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day. He concludes by saying, ‘I just don’t know why God is doing this to me!’” It turns out there was a seminary professor in the prayer group, and he spoke up: “I am sick and tired of all the devil’s work being laid at the feet of God. Quit blaming God for your tough time.”
While I’m the first one to tell you that spiritual warfare is real and that Satan causes great harm in the world, he can’t do so without God’s allowing him to.
For example, did the man in the prayer group who was having the terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day—did he pray that God would deliver him from it? If so, did God grant this man his petition? It sounds like he didn’t. In which case we have three options: One, God didn’t grant the man’s petition because God is incapable of doing so. Maybe he’s not powerful enough to answer our prayers. Or, two, God didn’t grant the petition because whether or not God does so is completely arbitrary—as if God flips a coin. If God answers your prayer, it’s because you just got lucky. Or, three, God didn’t grant this man his petition because, after considering his prayer request alongside all other prayer requests and everything else happening in the world, God had a good reason for not doing so.
It seems to me like the third option is the only option for us Christians who believe in God’s Word. If so, there is a reason God allows some bad thing to happen, even when he doesn’t cause them directly—and in today’s scripture, God causes the storm. Indeed, Satan may cause many of the storms in our lives. But God created Satan and allows him some measure of freedom to operate. And God allows Satan to do this because God has the power to transform even the bad or evil things in our lives and in our world into something good.
I’ve said it plenty of times before, but it’s true: If God can take the very worst act of evil, suffering, and injustice that the world has ever known—the cross of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good the world has ever known—which is our salvation—then God can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil, suffering, and injustice.
“All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28. All things including even life-threatening storms that God sends our way! All things work together for good… It’s nearly my favorite Bible verse.
Because, brothers and sisters, here’s what it means: It means we live our lives with a safety net. We will be O.K. No matter what happens to us, we will be O.K.! Do you believe this?
I hope I’m not a hypocrite in saying this. Because while Jonah was understandably afraid of going to Nineveh and getting himself killed, I get scared of far lesser things. My mind has a hard time convincing my heart that everything will be O.K. But I believe it up here. And at least some of the time, this brings me great peace.
We live our lives with a safety net…
Here’s some more good news: As far as prophets go, Jonah is terrible screwup. Seriously… If Jonah hadn’t run away from God in the first place, this storm wouldn’t have happened. If this storm hadn’t happened, these sailors wouldn’t have been afraid for their lives. If they hadn’t been afraid for their lives, they wouldn’t have asked about Jonah’s God. And if they hadn’t have asked about Jonah’s God, they wouldn’t have learned who this God is, how he works—how much power he has. And if they hadn’t learned all those things, they wouldn’t have placed their faith in him and been saved—not just from the storm but for eternity. Because when it says that they worshiped him God and “made vows” to God, that implies that these Gentiles were converted to saving faith!
Which goes to show that God can do a lot with a screwup!
I think many of us Christians have this idea that can’t work with screw ups—that unless we do this, that, and the other thing just right—unless we’re praying every day, reading the Bible every day, having our daily quiet time, going to church, tithing, serving—then we won’t be any use to God. We have to get our act together first and then… then maybe God can use us. As if grace is this one-time gift we receive when we first become Christians, and after that we’re on our own. We better not mess up anymore! God’s already given you grace once. How much more do we need?
But notice Jonah: He’s probably the most successful prophet in the Bible—in terms of all the people who repent and believe as as result of his ministry—but his success only comes through his screw ups. God uses even Jonah’s failures to make him successful. Remember what I said about living with a safety net? Jonah is living proof of that! Grace after grace after grace!
So there’s hope for us, right? God can even use us at Hampton United Methodist, right? If we’ve messed up in the past, that doesn’t mean God can’t use us in the future to accomplish great things, right?
We’re like Jonah in other ways, too. For example, how many of us church people—how many of us “saved” people—are asleep while so many unchurched people all around us—people who haven’t yet received Christ—are facing death—and eternity without Christ. Like Jonah, we need to wake up. We need to pray for them. We need to save them!
And we’re like Jonah in this way, too: Apart from the free gift of salvation available through Christ, it’s as if we’re the ones on board that ship, which will soon be destroyed by a violent storm. Like Jonah, we’re facing God’s wrath because of our sin. And like Jonah, we’re about to be thrown into the deep, dark abyss—which for us means hell, eternal separation from God. It’s what our sins deserve.
Unless someone steps forward and volunteers to take our place, to suffer the death penalty that we deserve—and that someone, of course, is Jesus Christ, our Savior, God in the flesh. Like Jonah, Christ chooses to sacrifice his life to save ours, except it’s not for his own sins he’s making this sacrifice, but for yours and mine. By doing so, he turns away God’s wrath so we can have peace and reconciliation with God. And, like Jonah, after three days, he was given new life—so that we could have eternal life both now and on the other side of death and resurrection.
Brothers and sisters, if you believe this, will you say Amen? If you’ve received this free gift of salvation through faith in Christ, will you say Amen? If, like Jonah, you’re ready to go and share this this good news with others through both your actions and your words, will you say Amen?