Thursday, March 08, 2012

Sermon on Jonah 1:1-17, Lent 3, Jonah-The Survivor Series: Our Providing God

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

Consider Fallon, Nevada. The EPA has found that Fallon’s water system delivers more arsenic to its customers than any other large town water system in America. Folks there even joke about it: “Arsenic? It only bothers you if you’re not used to it.” One resident who has lived in Fallon all his life, jests, “Arsenic is no biggie. I’ll die of something. It’s called life. Once you’re born, you start dying.” The arsenic levels remain high, not because people like drinking arsenic, but because they don’t want to pay for the solution, a $10 million treatment plant. One local official said, “This is Nevada. They don’t want to feel government is intruding in their lives.” Talk about being obstinate! These people would rather serve arsenic-laced water to their children than allow the government to “intrude” into their lives with a water treatment plant. Their stubborn choice to dig in their heels is repeated time and again by humans across the country and throughout the globe.
What is God’s response to stubborn people like us? Need an example? The prophet Jonah! The LORD sends the storm and the wind, and now the great fish or whale to put Jonah’s runaway plans to a screeching halt. Have your runaway plans from God ever met with frustration? God seemed to hem you in behind and before? (Ps. 139:5). Or have you tried digging in your heels like a donkey, and fought mightily against being pulled where you did not want to go? And then finally your stubbornness was overcome by God’s persistent calling on you? “We can either do this the hard way, or the easy way…” One of the biggest realizations we come to about God from the book of Jonah, is that God “has not retired from the world” (143). He’s still active in creation, working things to accomplish His plan and purpose, despite our futile efforts to thwart His purpose. But as we’ll learn, God is not after mere resigned, reluctant compliance. This would be of no advantage. He wills to create joyful obedience in us, and to have a heart that follows after His. For Jonah, He was working toward the point where Jonah would be filled with a compassion for the Ninevites, and desire their salvation. What is God working to accomplish in your heart? Where is He moving to turn your heart from stubborn resistance or even reluctant compliance toward joyful obedience? What compassion for the lost or needy is He awakening?
Such a change could not happen apart from God’s gracious providing. While we are running from God, the futility and frustration that we run into shows us the emptiness of all the poor substitutes that cannot provide for us, love us, or satisfy us. But then in a paradox, it drives us back into His gracious arms. To bring us back to the giver of all good gifts (cf. Hosea 2). The great whale or fish that swallowed Jonah was a miraculous provision for his life—not his death. The process was pretty gruesome and unpleasant, if you can imagine the suffocating and cramped quarters of the belly of a whale. But in those distressing days and hours, beneath the turmoil of the deep sea and hidden within the groaning darkness, Jonah was moved to call out to God in prayer. This was one of the greatest turning points in Jonah’s story. At times in our lives, we are cast down to the depths, and feel as though we are hidden in a swirling darkness. And we’re moved to call out in prayer. In those turning points in life, God alone is able to answer.
“In, with, and under” the provision of the storm and the whale (and later in the story through other provisions) the LORD is delivering law and gospel to Jonah. Law to break his stubbornness and disobedience, and Gospel to soften his heart and show that God had appointed Jonah for life and for His calling. God’s provision for us includes gifts of creation, just like the feeding of the 5,000 involved a square meal. His provision can come through events in our life that turn us back to Him. When we’ve run out of His loving arms, the return, though humbling, is filled with His grace. His provision for us also includes gifts of redemption—the Word of His gospel and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. In, with, and under ordinary earthly gifts of water, bread, and wine, God delivers His care and provision for us. He works forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. In these He further works our sanctification—making us Holy by His Holy Spirit—producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. Did Jonah deserve his provisions? No! Do we? Absolutely no! But the cross is God’s greatest provision of all for our disobedience and waywardness—because one day we’ll need deliverance from the narrow chamber of our grave—and that is promised to us in Jesus’ cross, His three-day rest in the grave, and His rising from the grave!
When we are angry, frustrated, depressed, or even “thrown overboard” for our behavior, it is God who provides. A fall from favor in our human relationships, and even from our relationship with God due to our disobedience can be the turning point of humbling and repentance that God uses to bring us back into His favor. It is by His undeserved gifts and love that He draws His humbled children back into His loving arms and puts them back into His service. And so His “means of grace” are the key to survival, because they bring us His forgiveness and favor. Jesus takes on our guilt, and washes us in innocence in return. For all this we can give thanks that our God will never cease to be a providing God! (Philippians 4:19)

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