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Stories of Hope: Jonah

July 29, 2018 Sermon
Stories of Hope: Jonah

First Scripture Reading: Jonah 1:1-4

1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.

Second Scripture Reading: Jonah 4:1-3

4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Stories of Hope: Jonah

After a week of break from our sermon series on hope, we return this morning to the topic of hope.  And as I prepared to share with you God’s message to us from the prophet Jonah’s story, I kept sensing that I need to first offer to you a word of warning…a word of warning before I begin, so I will.  So far in this series about hope, I’ve sensed that this congregation has found the messages to be uplifting and invigorating – hopeful, you might say. And while I guarantee today’s message IS a hopeful one, it is also something else.  I sense that this message will be the single most challenging message to hear, perhaps even the most difficult message to hear, that I’ve preached in my almost 6 years here. Really, it just might be….but it’s the message God starting placing on my heart back in May to deliver to you now.  However, even as this message might be the most difficult for this congregation, for you, to hear, it is also the SINGLE…MOST…IMPORTANT message for you to hear if you want to live into God’s hope for you, for us as First Christian Church. This message is THAT important. So, if you find yourself squirming, if you find yourself being challenged, please don’t tune out.  This message is absolutely CRITICAL to our hope. Let’s begin.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which what you wanted differed from what God wanted?  (I told you this would be difficult.) I’ll repeat: have you ever found yourself in a situation in which what you wanted differed from what God wanted?

If your answer is “no – what I want is always in line with what God wants”, I would suggest you’re either not being very honest with yourself OR you’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that Almighty God decides what God wants based on whatever it is that YOU want…something that I hope you’ll agree is just NOT very likely.  Personally, I can think of TONS of situations in which what I wanted differed from what God wanted:

  • There was the time when, in my late teens, I wanted more than anything to become a millionaire before my brother became a millionaire.  I am absolutely CERTAIN making millions of dollars wasn’t as much a priority God had for me as it was a priority I had for me.
  • Even after I gave up my worldly aspirations of wealth and responded to God’s call on my life to minister for God, there was the time – actually, there were a great many times – when I wanted to pursue a PhD so I could both devote myself to books and research (which I love) and receive the prestige that comes from having a PhD.
  • Oh…and there’ve been so many times when I desperately wanted all kinds of STUFF: a great big house, a fast sports car, a full wardrobe of amazing clothes, the ability to dine out at the nicest restaurants every night after long days of work, a computer that can play real video games (so that my kids will stop teasing me about how I try to play video games on what they refer to alternately as a “toaster” and a “potato”), even a truck that can haul a decent trailer and said trailer so that Susan and I could tour the country the way we’ve always wanted to.
  • And there’ve even been times when I wanted God to prevent people I love from getting sick…or dying…even many times when I’ve wanted God to cure me of the various maladies that afflict me.  With regard to these things, I’m not sure they’re actually DIFFERENT from what God wants – I don’t think God wants us to be sick or to die…but I do know God allows it…and that’s different than what I want; I don’t want God to allow it…sometimes.
  • There have even been times when I wanted God to reach down and smite some people…or at least teleport them far away from me or somehow render them silent.  God never seems to want those things.

Y’all, the reality is that sometimes I want things that are different than what God wants.

And, it turns out, that puts me in some pretty good company.  No less than one of God’s great prophets of the Old Testament, a man through whom God saved more than 120,000 people in the one instance of which we’re aware, desperately wanted something very different from what God wanted.

That’s what the story of Jonah is all about.  God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city full of wicked people, and cry out against it to save the people there.  Jonah wasn’t a fan of wicked people, and Jonah didn’t want to have ANYTHING to do with God saving wicked people, even though that is at least SOMETIMES what God is about, so Jonah ran in the opposite direction.

So…Jonah’s story as presented in scripture BEGINS with Jonah wanting something different from what God wanted.  Three chapters later, after Jonah had relented and done what God asked of him, Jonah once again didn’t want what God wanted.  That’s what chapter 4 is about. Instead of being happy about God saving 120,00 people, instead of Jonah being happy that God had acted in a way that continues to bring glory to God thousands of years later, Jonah was angry, Jonah was so ticked off he said he’d rather be dead than to have to live with what God wanted.

And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

All because Jonah wanted something different than what God wanted.

Ready for the difficult part of the sermon?

Y’all, sometimes Church – sometimes congregation – can be like Jonah.  Sometimes, WE can be like Jonah. God sets before us a great vision of hope, God provides us the opportunity to do something grand, to be a part of something so amazing people will be talking about it thousands of years in the future.   Three weeks ago, when I mentioned that God has something so grand and amazing and hopeful in store for us, there were “Amens” echoing throughout this sanctuary, and rightfully so. But, guess, what? Sometimes, God sets before us the grand vision that will turn this congregation upside down and save lives in ways the human mind can barely fathom, and we get excited with the thought that God’s about to do something amazing and miraculous, but…once God reveals what that is, instead of embracing it and running with it and pouring our lives and energy into it, we say something like, “God, I’d rather be dead than live into THAT.”

Actually, if we did what Jonah did at the end of the story, if we went along with what God wanted despite our own desires, our own objections, and after all was said and done and God’s vision was successful and we were still upset about it and THEN we asked God to die, that would be a ton BETTER than what we do.  What humans, even Church, have a tendency to do is more like what Jonah did at the BEGINNING of the story, in chapter one; we say, “God, I’m so opposed to your vision I’ll make sure IT dies before I do.” That’s what Jonah did in chapter 1. If God’s vision required Jonah to pull it off, Jonah thought he could kill God’s vision by running in the opposite direction.  And that’s what I see so often in Church, in congregations, when people want something different than what God wants.

I told you this was going to be difficult.  And, if the sermon ended here, it would be both a very difficult sermon and a very BAD sermon…at least as far as hope is concerned.  But this sermon series is about hope, and Jonah’s story includes a lot more than JUST Jonah trying to kill God’s hope for Nineveh…so let’s keep going.

As I mentioned before, Jonah’s story is bookended – meaning it begins and ends – with Jonah absolutely, completely opposed to what God told Jonah to do; Jonah’s story is bookended by Jonah wanting something different from what God wanted.  God offered a grand vision of hope for the people of Nineveh; Jonah wanted only death and destruction for the people of Nineveh. HOWEVER, by the end of the story, God’s grand vision HAPPENED…and Jonah played a crucial part in God’s vision for Nineveh becoming a reality.

Remember the story of Gideon from a couple of weeks ago?  We really don’t know if Gideon wanted to send 300 troops into battle against 135,000 troops.  We don’t know what Gideon wanted. I’m guessing Gideon wasn’t real thrilled with what God asked of whim.  What we DO know is Gideon listened to God and did what God wanted Gideon to do. And then, with Jonah, we are absolutely CERTAIN Jonah didn’t want to do anything to help save Nineveh, but Jonah heard God telling him to go and share God’s words with Nineveh, and, eventually, Jonah went along with it and Nineveh got saved.  Do you see the connection between these two stories…in terms of hope?

Y’all, when it comes to being Church, it doesn’t matter AT ALL what WE want.  It just doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what we want individually or collectively.  We could be a hundred different people with a hundred different ideas about how we want to do church, how we want to be congregation.  And…it…just…doesn’t…matter. We might think it matters. We might kick and scream and shout to be sure everyone else around here knows what we want and will say along with us that what we want matters…but that doesn’t change what REALLY matters.  Because there’s just ONE thing that matters, and it’s this: what God wants.

If we do ANYTHING else, anything other than what God wants, WE…WILL..FAIL.  Jonah started doing something else. He bought a ticket for a sea voyage to Tarshish.  If you consult an ancient map, you’d discover Jonah was trying to go in the exact opposite direction of where God wanted him to go, and Jonah was going about as far as was known that he COULD go in the opposite direction.  And Jonah FAILED in doing what he wanted. Jonah wasn’t very far along at all in that journey before he found himself caught in a storm akin to what we’d call a hurricane, and shortly after that he found himself sinking to the bottom of the ocean, about to drown.  I’d call that “failure”.

It wasn’t until Jonah prayed to God on his way down and said he’d be willing to do whatever God wanted him to do – even though Jonah disagreed with what God wanted him to do – that Jonah’s mission as a person of God turned from failure to success.

Y’all, that same lesson repeats throughout scripture.  There are a great many themes that run through the scriptures, and one of them is this: whenever God’s people pursue what THEY want instead of what GOD wants, the results are BAD for God’s people; the results are MUCH LESS than what God desired and what God offered, if only God’s people would have listened, trusted, and obeyed.

Which brings me back to hope, back to us.  As I look around this place, this building, this group of people, I see signs that we’re not always listening to God, that we’re at least a little bit pursuing what we want instead of what God wants.  I’m not saying we’re doing EVERYTHING wrong, so please don’t hear it that way. But I do see signs that we’re struggling some, signs that we’re pursuing what WE want or what WE think will help this congregation grow, even signs that how WE think growth should be measured is more important than how God thinks growth should be measured. Y’all, if we keep doing things OUR way, the trends that might be troubling some of you will continue.

HOWEVER, if we want to succeed, to succeed in the eyes of God, there’s just one thing to do – and that’s what Jonah did as he was sinking to the bottom of the ocean.  Jonah returned his focus to God and what God wanted; Jonah told God he would do what God asked.

Y’all, it’s that simple.  Or rather, it would be that simple, if, like Jonah, we were approaching this as individuals.  Where things get tricky is when we try to do this as congregation. Because we all know what happens when we try to seek and implement God’s vision.  For starters, there will be some disagreement about how we know what God’s vision is. And this could present some difficulty; it almost always does. But I sincerely believe that if enough of us pray that God will show us God’s will, God’s vision for our future, it will become clear to MOST of us what God’s vision is.  Which is where the second problem, the second disagreement comes in. And it is this: even after we’ve discerned God’s will for us, there will most likely be some people who don’t want what God wants, some people who would rather NOT go to Nineveh and save the people there. Why will there most likely be some people who stick to what THEY want over what God wants?  I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know why Jonah wanted what HE wanted instead of what God wanted, but he did…and he was one of God’s called prophets, a person who had a special relationship with God. So, we’ll probably encounter people who want what THEY want…and that doesn’t make them bad people. In fact, they’ll still be the same people you’ve loved for as long as you’ve known them; they’ll be members of our FAMILY…which makes the next part of our job extremely difficult…but necessary.  Notice how God handled the situation with Jonah. God NEVER…backed…down…from what God wanted! God even allowed Jonah to go his own way and accept the consequences. Sure, God tried to persuade Jonah, but, ultimately, God left the choice up to Jonah.

Y’all, when we try to discern and implement God’s will for us as a congregation, there WILL be people who don’t want to go along, people who try to take all the rest of us to Tarshish.  When that happens, once those folks have made it clear they’re NOT going where God is leading us, we have two choices: we can let them go their own way while we go God’s way, or we can ALL abandon God’s way and head toward Tarshish with them.  And you KNOW where that second choice leads, right? It most definitely leads to a place devoid of hope…because the way of hope is God’s way…and THAT’S why most of us have got to get in line with God’s way, God’s vision. It truly is our only hope.

So…what’s it going to be?  Will we stand as a congregation before God and demand we get what we want…are we prepared to say it’s better that we die than that we live…or are we finally ready to listen to where God’s calling us and then do what it takes to live into God’s great and hopeful plan for our future?