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The persistence of love - Jonah 1

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 1st February 2004.

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Have you heard of the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who lay awake at night wondering, ‘Is there a Dog?’ Well, for those who can sleep and read straight the answer to the question: ‘ Is there a God?’ is- yes. Opinion polls taken in the UK reveal that something like 77% have some affinity with the Christian faith and between 80-90% do believe in God. But things become a little more undecided when it comes to answering the question: which God do you believe in? One thing you can be pretty sure of is that many would say that they don’t believe in the God of the Old Testament. In the popular mind at least this is a deity which thrives on instilling fear into his beleaguered subjects, who comes over as a rather dark and forbidding figure ,capricious and whose temper is so unpredictable. Not so the God of the NT, the God Jesus preached who is love. The one is a vicious tyrant, the other caring a parent. And maybe that is what you think. Well, I used to think that too. That is until I started to read the Bible properly for myself. And then I came across verses like these: ‘ I have loved you with an everlasting love, I have drawn you with loving kindness’; ‘The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.; ‘ I do not desire the death of a sinner, but that all turn and be saved.’ Where are those words found? They are taken straight from the Old Testament. But then I came across other verses: ‘ He will cut him into pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’; ‘ Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’; ‘ It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and thrown into hell where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ What surprised me was that these were not the words of an OT prophet, but of the son of God himself the Lord Jesus Christ. Now of course the fact is that in both parts of the Bible you can find passages which speak of an angry God and a loving God for two reasons. First, love and anger are not opposites. I have been very angry with my children on many occasion as no doubt you have been with yours, but I still love them, indeed it is because I love them that I have been angry with them. The opposite of anger is not love, but indifference. But secondly , it is the same God. The God who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son in the NT is the same God whose heart yearns for the lost in the OT. And there is one small book which perhaps more than any other portrays the longing heart of God for men and women who simply don’t know any better to come to their senses and that is the Book of Jonah. This is a story which we tend to associate with a great fish, when in fact it is more to do with a great God. A God whose love is as wide as the world he has made. So if you have not done so already, do turn with me to Jonah chapter 1 as first of all we meet a contradiction in the prophet.

Allow me to let you into a secret, I am a great fan of the early Walt Disney films and to show you what a softy I really am I remember taking Heather to see Dumbo during our courting days. And one of the big hits from that film was of course the song - ‘ I've never seen an Elephant fly.’ The crows who sang this couldn’t get their little black heads around the thought that an elephant could soar through the air, no matter how big its ears. In short it was a contradiction in terms. Well, here is a contradiction in terms -a prophet who rebels against God. You see by definition a genuine prophet of God who heard the word of the Lord was meant to heed the word of the Lord. However, in v 2 we read that Jonah is told to get up and go, but he got up and ran. God said that he was to travel East to Nineveh, but he went West to Tarshish. That should not happen. In fact such a contradiction is encapsulated in the very name the prophet bore- Jonah son of Amittai. Jonah -means dove, - a bird which is easily put to flight, securing peace and refuge when trouble occurs. That is one aspect of his character. But on the other hand he was son of Amittai- meaning son of faithfulness, so no matter what his natural inclinations might be to flight , he is still called to be faithful to the God whom he serves. This is not the sort of behaviour we have come to expect from one of God’s heroes is it?

So why did he do it? Well to answer that question, we need to translate verse 2 properly, which is not the way the NIV has done it. It should read : ‘ Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach to it for its trouble is of concern to me.’ The word translated ‘wickedness’ is the same word translated ‘calamity’ in v 7 and ‘trouble’ in v 8. Now that makes sense, because as the story unfolds it is pretty obvious that the one thing Jonah does not want is for these people to be shown mercy. Had God said to Jonah, God and preach fire and brimstone and the finality of judgement to Nineveh because I am about to reduce them to cinder, he would have been out there like a shot. You see, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a vicious world super -power that was threatening Israel. One writer describes them in this way: ‘ The Assyrians were the Nazi storm-troopers of the ancient world. They were the pitiless power crazed foe. They showed no quarter in battle, uprooting entire peoples in their fury of conquest. They extinguished the Northern kingdom of Israel.... (this actually happened after these events in 722 BC, this is about 40 years earlier). For Jonah, Nineveh, then was no ordinary city; it carried doom -laden, tragic memories, it stood as a symbol of evil incarnate.’ And that’s right, that is what the Assyrians were like. Now obviously Jonah is more morally sensitive than God, because he knows that to a city like that you do not offer a second chance, you carry out a pre-emptive strike. God had got it wrong. If he wanted to send a message offering forgiveness and an opportunity to repent, then he can do it without Jonah. Because Jonah was a good nationalistic Jew. These people had given his country nothing but grief- they didn’t deserve forgiveness. So what that they were in trouble and on the verge of suffering God’s judgement -it is no more than they deserve. And who knows, maybe he thought that by running away he would force God’s hand, time would run out for the Ninevites and it would then be too late-he would have to act in judgement. And maybe you have some sympathy with Jonah. You look out on a world where evil seems to be triumphing. We see the effect the drug pushers are having in our city, the misery dictatorships around the world are inflicting and we too cry out to God for judgement. Perhaps a well placed thunderbolt from heaven on a place like Bogota with its rampant child prostitution might work wonders in restoring that city to its senses. The trouble is, whenever we point one finger at some one else we have three fingers pointing back at us. And that was the case with Israel. She was not exactly in a position to claim the moral high ground when she too was steeped in idolatry and immorality- disobeying God’s commandments at every turn. And what we see in Jonah is the behaviour of Israel in microcosm. Just look at what Jonah claims for himself in v 9 ‘ I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord ( literally ‘ I fear the Lord’) , the God of heaven who made the sea and the land.’ But what did fearing the Lord mean for Jonah? So what that he was a Hebrew- a descendant of Abraham? So what that he was a member of God’s covenant people if it meant deliberately turning his back on what God had said? The calling of Israel was to be a light to the nations, to be so different from any other society that other countries would look at them and say- ‘We wish we were like that? If only we had their God!’ They were never meant to be an insular society enjoying the privileges of being known as God’s people without at the same time exercising their responsibilities to bring others to know God too. And what was true of Israel is even more true of the Church. This is not a cosy club into which people can retreat from the world, it is a God’s missionary agency which penetrates into the world with the Gospel of forgiveness. And when the church forgets its primary calling, then it is living a contradiction. The church does not win the world by being like the world, any more than Jonah could win the Assyrians by being like them- full of hatred and vengeance- it is only when we are different in our beliefs and behaviour that we will have an effect. Which means first and foremost obeying God’s call- not running from it.

But in the end turning a deaf ear to God’s clear word is both stupid and self-defeating, we simply lurch from bad to worse.

Just look at what Jonah does in v 3- he heads for Tarshish. No one knows exactly where Tarshish was, but its name literally means ‘the open sea’. That is mistake number one. The very name should have rung alarm bells for Jonah, because throughout the Scriptures the sea is symbolic of rebellion and death, its dark, conveyed by the dark, murky depths throwing up driftwood and the like, as well as dragging people down. So in the Book Revelation, and the final scene of a new heaven and new earth it is declared ‘there was no sea.’- that is everything which stands in rebellion against God is no more. Why, the very destination of Jonah screamed trouble and was a picture of the rebellion and turmoil which existed in his own heart. And what we see here is Jonah being caught up in a downward spiral. So, he went ‘down’ to Joppa- v3, he went ‘down’ into the bowels of the ship- v 5, he went ‘down’ into a ‘deep’ sleep- v 5, then he went ‘down’ into the sea in v 15, and eventually ended deep down in the belly of a fish. That is always the way it goes when we run from God. It is stupid because it is impossible. Jonah himself declares that he believes in the Sovereign Lord , the God of heaven who made the earth and sky in v9 - so how can he possibly think that he can outrun this God- v 2- as if there is some pocket of the universe from which he is absent? He is the supreme ruler who will bring all the resources at his disposal to get our attention, bring us back and enact his will. So he sends a great wind whipping up a violent storm in v 4, he overrules the casting of lots in v7, he provides a great fish in v 17- you can’t outsmart or out manoeuvre this God. But you know, sometimes we are so foolish as to think that we can. What is the process by which a Christian backslides into sin? -but what we see here with Jonah. The Christian knows what God’s law teaches but he finds himself in a situation where the teaching of the Bible is no longer convenient and so tries to rationalise it . So an opportunity arises for cheating on their spouse or their firm. It can’t be chance- just like there is a boat waiting for Jonah at Joppa- that can’t be chance either, so off he goes. And after the initial sense of relief that a decision has finally been made, there is a fleeing from the presence of the Lord as with Jonah in v3. So one moves out of a church which teaches the Bible faithfully to one in which one feels more comfortable, until eventually there is no contact with church at all. But then the backsliding Christian sinks deeper and deeper into the mire. You know, the backslidden Christian is more miserable than the non-Christian because he knows what he has fallen from and is caught between two worlds. He can’t enjoy sin like he used to, his conscience won’t let him, but he can’t enjoy God’s presence either- God won’t let him. And maybe that is your situation, or someone you know. I tell you it is one of the most tragic and tormented situations ever to be in, and sometimes like with Jonah in v 12, it looks easier to cop out altogether when he says, ‘Thrown me overboard.’ He’s had enough. But you know hard and painful though it is there is only on thing to do- stop rebelling, turn around and come back to God- and you will find him more willing to show you forgiveness than you are willing to admit you have done wrong. That was the lesson Jonah was to learn.

And sometimes God uses strange means to teach such lessons, including the challenge of the pagans. The contrast between the pagan sailors and God’s prophet could not be more striking- they show more religious nous than he does. They recognise how desperate the situation is, they know they are on the verge of being capsized. What do they do? Well, everything can think of. They try to lighten the load and start praying in v5. And just in case they have missed out on a god, the captain goes down to wake up their mysterious passenger to get him to pray. Still frantic to find out what might be the cause of their misfortune, they cast lots for guidance and lo and behold- they find out the cause of their trouble is none other than Jonah, not that they needed to do that because according to v 10, they had already been told by Jonah that he was on the run from God, the lots simply confirmed this. You see, when you are desperate then you will resort to desperate means won’t you? And I always find it interesting that even amongst those who would claim no formal connection with a religion, when the chips are down they pray to the God they say they don’t believe in Sure, such instincts might not raise much above the level of superstition, but the instincts are right that this world is not run on chance, but there is some personal, divine agency behind it all..

But what is also interesting is that even for these pagan Philistines ( for that is what they were), there are limits to what they will do. There is a God- given sense of morality which draws boundaries of what is and is not right- v 11. ‘The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, "What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?" "Pick me up and throw me into the sea," he replied, "and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you." Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the LORD, "O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased." Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.’ Back in v9 Jonah claimed to fear the Lord but his actions showed that he really didn’t. He was in a privileged position to have the revelation of the one true God. These men on the other hand knew next to nothing, but they did act on the basis of what they did know. First, they did not intend to commit murder to save their own skins, even if Jonah colluded with it. Instead they tried to row to land. They were not going to take the easy way out-like Jonah wanted. He may have decided to act irresponsibly but they weren’t. However, when through circumstances they felt they had no option but to give Jonah up to the sea, they had the humility to ask for forgiveness- v14. And when they were eventually delivered they offered a sacrifice and made a vow to the LORD , Israel’s God in v 16. Why? Because unlike Jonah for all his talk and privilege they really did fear him.

Isn’t it sometimes the case that it is the unbeliever who shows up the believer, who acts more Christianly than the Christian? I was recently challenged by something Brother Andrew from the Open Doors mission wrote in the context of Christians who suffer under brutal regimes he said: ‘Years ago, in the early eighties, I wrote: "Communism has all the ingredients of a worldwide religion, which can lay claim to the allegiance of all the people in the world. They have a holy book ((Marx), they have martyrs, they have a worldwide vision, they have a plan, they have plenty of people who believe in their cause and are willing to lay down their lives for it." And now I have to say that Islam has all these ingredients. But Christianity, as we know it, has not. It lacks the last item on my list: dedicated people who are ready to lay down their lives.’ When the church is being inconsistent in its beliefs and ways, like Jonah is here and Israel he represents, it will sometimes take the actions of unbelievers to show them up and to shame them into getting their act together. These Philistine sailors were sinners, they too needed to be brought into a relationship with the covenant God of Israel, to experience his mercy, just like the people of Nineveh and the irony is that as a result of Jonah’s rebellion, inadvertently that is what happened. Jonah was resolute that God should only show mercy to Israel- but here God uses even the sinfulness of his prophet to be a means of bringing light to pagans- because that is the kind of God he is-the God who will have his way, who will show mercy to whom whoever he will, and will even use us to do it whether we like it or not or intend it or not.

But finally we have a contrast in the person. Let me ask :how do we know for sure that God longs for poor, muddled but responsible sinners like these sailors , like the Ninevites to taste his mercy? Because we see it being worked out fully in the person of Jesus, the New Testament counterpart and contrast to Jonah. Did you know that according to 2 kings 14:25, Jonah came from Galilee, a place called Gath-Hepher, a couple of miles from Nazareth? And several hundred years later someone else was to come from there, upon whom God’s Spirit had descended like a dove, who was the true son of faithfulness who would proclaim a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all who would turn to him. He too one night found himself caught in the middle of a mighty storm and like this captain his disciples found him at the bottom of the boat fast asleep and wondered whether he cared if they perished. he didn’t have to pray to God for assistance, he just had to command the storm to stop for he was God. What is more he offered his life over to pagans to be killed. Not as a cowards way out of doing God’s will like Jonah but as a sacrifice to fulfil God’s will by calming the storm of God’s anger towards sinners as he bore their sin on a cross and spending three days and three nights in the depths of the earth as Jonah was to spend three days and nights in the belly of a fish.

So yes, the God of the OT is the God of the NT because there is really no other God. And the same passion for the lost which is the burden of God’s heart is the same passion that we his people are to share and it is the same message we are entrusted to proclaim- that Christ came into the world to save sinners.

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