Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sermon on Jonah 1:1-3, for Ash Wednesday; Jonah, The Survivor Series: Part 1: “God is Calling!”

The following Lenten series I will be preaching on is taken from Dr. Reed Lessing's series on Jonah the prophet. Dr. Lessing is professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. 

            Do you ever wonder what it would be like if God called you? I mean directly spoke to you in audible and unmistakable words? How would we respond? How would we treat the call? Would we take our cue from everyday life and “screen the call” or let it go to voicemail? Most of us can relate to avoiding our calls at one point or another. What if we found we were doing the same thing to God?
            Welcome to the world of Jonah! Let’s begin at the beginning! When God calls Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, Jonah high-tails it in the opposite direction. The author highlights the irony of this effort to run away in a way that we wouldn’t catch—that in their time, boarding a ship for Tarshish was the cultural equivalent of boarding the Titanic for its maiden voyage. A trip doomed for disaster. Yet blind to this fact, so great is Jonah’s disobedience and eagerness to escape God’s call that he finances a whole ship and crew to sail away. The last call Jonah wanted to answer was this one from the LORD!
            Just like other Israelites, Jonah is called to go beyond his borders (p. 82). But this call was to Nineveh, “the chief of sinners” (pp. 85-89). The Assyrian army was the epitome of brutal war tactics, designed to degrade, humiliate, and terrorize their enemies. This is not a friendly nation or a friendly city, not exactly on the top ten holiday destinations of the day! In fact this is the nation that eventually invades and destroys Israel in 722BC (cf. 2 Kings 17). And it’s to this group of people, to this great enemy nation, to this enemy city that God calls Jonah to go. That’s right, it’s an overseas assignment to Kabul in Afghanistan or Tehran in Iran or to Mogadishu in Somalia. He was being sent right into the heart of enemy territory with a message that was sure to raise scorn and persecution—or so he thought.
            Jonah received a call that he would rather not get! You know the feeling. The phone rings and you just know it is your aging aunt who wants to come over and check her mailbox for the third time today. Or maybe you’ve had the experience of being “between jobs” and both the car payment and the mortgage are a few days late. You thank the heavens that you can screen your calls with caller ID!
            Calling Jonah to go to the Ninevites was like asking a Jew in 1942 to go from New
York to Hitler, and tell him that God loved him, and that everything he did would be forgiven if he would but repent. So the Jew got on a train, all right, and went to San Francisco, then got on a ship to Antarctica! He wanted nothing to do with it. So Jonah actually hung up on God! Have you ever had someone hang up on you? It doesn’t feel very good, and you likely experience a bit of anger. Who in the world would want to hang up on God and make God angry? The answer is in Jonah’s name (pp. 80-81). It means ‘dove’—like the bird. And the use of the word dove in the OT is often as a silly and brainless creature that flutters back and forth in fear. Jonah had a ‘dove moment.’
            So Jonah boards a ship going to Tarshish, which is not only Tarsus, the home-town of St. Paul (p. 72), but represents a pleasant place of security, a “distant paradise” (p. 73). A ship bound for Tarshish is bound to have enormous problems (cf. p. 76). Jonah’s “going down” (v. 3) begins a slow decent toward death (p. 74). And this is just what happens when we run from God’s call on our lives. Like Jonah there are times in life where we want to run from God’s call. The situation where we have been placed in life seems too difficult to face or accept.  The opposition or hurdles seem too great. We seek an easy way out, a short-cut, an escape. To back away from our problem instead of face it with God’s help and strength. Or we leave the call unanswered, or the phone off the hook, so to speak. We shut God’s call on our life out. But this path is a path of dust and ashes. Running from God is fraught with disaster, as all too many lives can testify. It is a path of slow descent towards death, as we turn away from God’s call on our lives.
            In the Bible, “to stand before the Lord” is equivalent to serving him (e.g., 1 Kings 17:1; 18:15). The opposite, “to be removed or to flee from God’s presence,” is to refuse to serve him. It can also carry the idea of being removed from his service (e.g., Gen. 4:16). The person who therefore “runs away from the LORD” or “flees from the presence of the LORD” is the one who is refusing to serve God in the task he knows he has been called to do. This is what Jonah is doing, he is refusing to serve God, even though he knows what his word says (cf. 73-74). It is like Jonah was on Mission Impossible, and he smashed the message device instead of accepting the mission!
            But God’s word will have its way (pp. 77-78). Jonah couldn’t so easily escape God’s call on his life. So also for us God will work to accomplish His purposes. The name of another prophet shows us how – Jesus. His name means “the Lord is salvation” because Jesus would save His people from their sins. No reluctant prophet, He willingly goes beyond his borders (p. 82) for us! He lovingly pursues a wayward and rebellious people. He comes after those who have run from God. He turns hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. He turns fearful and fluttering hearts to hearts of faith and courage. Listen, God is calling again. Through the Word inviting. He is calling us to confess our sin. But all the more he is calling us to confess the name of Jesus. Offering us forgiveness, comfort and joy! This is our path home from our wandering. He is our hope of survival! 

For Next Week: Read Jonah 1:4-16 and ask yourself:
1) Even when God, in his grace, has sought me, how have I dug in my heels, refusing to hearken to him?
2) How has my acting in such a fashion caused trouble for others?
3) How was Jonah’s sacrifice similar to as well as different from that of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?

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