Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jonah - Week 4: Jonah's Anger

This week we are continuing the sermon series that we've been working on together for the past few weeks--it's the third installment, to be precise, of a series on the book of Jonah.  

I believe that the very heart of this book is about understanding and doing the will of God, which is not an easy task.  I asked this question last week, but it bears repeating.  How many of you here have struggled sometimes to understand to do the will of God?  Maybe you just struggled trying to figure out what God is up to... I feel you.  

When we last left Jonah, he had answered God's call to do God's will and had prophesied to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them if they didn't repent.  

This was a huge shift for Jonah, because when he was FIRST told by God to go prophesy to the city of Nineveh to tell the people there to repent.  Instead of doing God's will, he got in a boat heading the other direction, and the boat is nearly sunk by a storm.  

The sailors draw straws to see which person on the boat ticked off one of the gods, and Jonah draws the short straw.  He tells them that he serves the God who made heaven and earth and the only way they are going to calm the storm is to throw him over board.  This is how much Jonah didn't want to do what God wanted him to do.  He was trying to get as far away from God and God's will as he could get--even if it meant sinking to the depths, the realm of the dead.  

But God makes a large fish or a whale swallow him, which sort of spoils Jonah's plans, and Jonah finds himself in the worst situation anyone could have ever found themselves in, and he finally gets honest with God and repents of trying to do things his own way.  

And then God makes the whale vomit Jonah on to the beach, which left him goopy, slimey and probably encrusted with sand.  

Some time after this, the word of God comes to Jonah a SECOND time and this time Jonah answers the call and goes to prophesy to the people of Nineveh.  And what Jonah discovers after he prophesies to the people of Nineveh is the subject of our talk today.  

What Jonah discovered and what I want you hold on to today, the one simple thing that I want you to remember above all else, is simply this:  In order to fully embrace God's will, you have to surrender yours.  

We've all experienced that moment.  The moment when you realize that whatever is going on in the universe is completely not at all in any way about you.   I had such a moment a few years ago.  I suddenly realized that I was the twenty first head pastor of this church.  There were twenty other dudes before me.  And there will probably, God willing, be twenty other dudes after me.  

On the day that those other twenty dudes stopped being the pastor at this church, people started looking for another one.  

The day I realized this was a day when I crashed pretty hard.  I'd been feeling particularly proud of myself up until then.  I'd had a good few weeks of high fives and compliments over a lot of stuff that was going right in the church.  But then something went south, and people got mad and I got emails and phone calls of complaint.  

I happened to be reading my Bible that day as I was feeling sorry for myself, and came across a Bible verse in the book of Joshua chapter 1.  It reads, "Now the word of the Lord came to Joshua son of Nun, and the Lord said: "Moses my servant is dead..."  

This hit me like a ton of bricks.  "Moses my servant is dead."  Moses did all these amazing things, faced up to Pharaoh, parted the Red sea, led the people of Israel in the wilderness, and all he gets at the end of his gig is this:  Moses my servant is dead.  It's not like God said to Joshua, "Hey, we are going to have a huge sendoff for Moses to thank him for everything."  Nope.  "Moses my servant is dead--NEXT."  

I printed those words into a poster and hung it on the wall across from desk.  I look at it every day to remind myself that none of this---is about me.  

Maybe you've had an experience like that before.  You received a word or a note or a blast from the past from someone in a moment when you thought that all of your hard work, your good deeds, your dedication, elbow grease and such were really going unnoticed that no one seemed to care all that much that you were spilling your life's blood to make the world or your workplace or your classroom, home or church a better place.  

And this note says something like, "I wouldn't have come to faith without you..."  or "I wouldn't be half the person I am without you..."  or "I just know that because of you, I have purpose and meaning..."  And then you realize that it was never about you.  It was never about your accolades... your affirmation... your success... You were a cog in the wheel, you were right where you were supposed to be.  

You just didn't see it at the time. 

Let's read Jonah chapter 4--the final chapter in this fascinating book: 

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah basically is saying "I told you so!"  He recalls the "rehem" the grace and compassion of God--which incidentally is a use of feminine imagery because this word actually means the maternal love and compassion--as to a newborn.  He also recalls the "hesed" of God, the lovingkindness, the love that never runs out or fades away.  

4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

What Jonah has essentially decided is that if the Assyrians were in on the love of God, Jonah wanted out.  The idea that God would redeem these people after they repented was anathema to him.  He seems embarrassed that Yahweh could be bought--by others, that is.  Especially these people whom he hates. 

5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

Seriously?  This guy seems to always be wishing for death, right?  Every single time Jonah is confronted by the call of God, or the justice of God or the mercy of God he finds himself being put out.  At this point he wants to simply escape God's presence completely.  

Interestingly, the words here in Hebrew for anger and slow to anger are actually the phrases "short of nose," and "long of nose."  A person with a short nose widens the nostrils to breathe heat in and out.  This phrase is also translated "burning of the nostrils."  So to be long of nose, to have a long nose that doesn't open wide to heat all that easily was a good thing. 

10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah cares more about his comfort than he does the lives of thousands of people.  It's more important for him to feel this personal care by God, that the whole world revolves around him.  When the worm comes to eat the plant--which is a not-too-veiled reference to the Garden of Eden story--all Jonah knows is that his own comfort is gone.  God may as well kill him if God's not going to provide for him.  

What he misses here is the entire point.  God's purpose for Jonah was not comfort.  It wasn't ease, either.  God's purpose for Jonah was the uncomfortable business of showing grace and proclaiming the love of God.  

The story is open-ended.  The question hangs in the air, unspoken to the reader:  What will you do?  

And what I feel is going on here, what God wants his people to know is that in order to fully embrace God's will, you have to surrender yours.  You have to be willing to give up what you think matters to you for what truly matters to God. 

Do you see yourself in Jonah?  

Think about this question:  

Who or What is beyond redemption in your estimation?  I hear a lot of talk in Christian circles these days about how everything is going to hell in a handbasket.  Look.  There's nothing wrong with believing in a just God--a God who will make things that are wrong, right.  

BUT what happens when you get to a point in your life where your views on religion, politics, social worldview, race, gender, sexual identity and class lead you to a place where you kind of rejoice that God might ran down judgement on certain people, those people, the people who don't think, act, believe or look like you?  

Or how about this very challenging question:  

How often do you think you might be missing opportunities to embrace God's will in the moment, because you are too focused on what you can get out of it?  You find yourself becoming less and less interested in the working for the kingdom, because you sometimes feel like the kingdom isn't working for you.  

Or you miss out because you see strife, anger, hatred, war, poverty, disease...  and you feel a little disillusioned with a God who doesn't do some serious smiting.  So, you back away from doing the will of God because you feel like God is backing away from all of us. 

I get it.  

The only problem is, these are all just really bad excuses for selfishness and lack of courage--the courage that it takes to step out in faith and believe that God is going to do amazing things in you, around you and through you if you are faithful.  

Jesus told two stories that really illustrate his teaching to his disciples on this subject.  In Matthew 20:1-16 he tells the story of workers in a vineyard.  The owner hires workers in the morning and agrees to pay them a denarius, or a day's wages.  Then he goes out at noon, three and then five o'clock and hires people for the same wage. 

Of course the guys in the morning are bummed because they got paid the same as the guys who went to work at 5PM.  I can't say that I blame them.  But the master essentially says to them, "What is it to you how I tend this vineyard?  You agreed to work at that wage, and in the end the most important thing to me is that the vineyard gets tended."  

Of course there is also the famous story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 where a man with two sons is basically told by the younger boy that he wishes the father were dead and wants his inheritance.  Some time later, after he's wasted his life and ends up in a pig sty, the young man returns home seeking mercy.  The father gives him much more than that, and restores him as a son. 

The older brother is so mad about this that he refuses to go into the welcome back party for his brother prepared by the father.  The father pleads with him to come inside and tells him that everything he has has always been the son's, and the older boy had been working for the good of the family all along according to the father's good will.  

At the end of these stories the hearer is left with a question of sorts.  "What will you do?"  Will you embrace the will of God and surrender your own?  Will you give up the things that you think matter so much to you in order to embrace the things that matter most to God?  

What would this look like for you and me?  

Maybe it would look like a more open handed faith---where we hold our opinions about God, faith, Scripture and discipleship a bit more loosely.  Maybe it would mean that we would serve with no expectations other than the increase of the kingdom of God here on earth.  Maybe we would seek peace instead of personal gain.  Maybe we would stop arguing over the rules and regulations and spend more time serving the Ruler who gave himself to set us free from the rules and regulations.

And maybe it would mean just remembering that in order to fully embrace God's will, you have to surrender yours.    

Friday, August 26, 2016

Four Hundred and Ninety Reasons To Forgive

While it seems to go without saying that forgiveness should be a huge part of what it means to be a Christian, most of us struggle to forgive those who have wounded us. And sometimes, even when we do forgive, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of having to offer forgiveness to the same person or persons more than once.  

When it comes to forgiveness, it's hard to know exactly how many times you should offer it to someone--especially when they keep hurting you.  There's a moment in the Gospel of Matthew when the Apostle Peter finally decides to ask Jesus just how many times he should forgive someone.  

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Some ancient rabbis in the first century taught that forgiving someone more than three times was useless.  In other words, if someone is so untrustworthy that they break faith with you more than three times, it's not worth your time or energy to keep forgiving them.

Peter thought he was being a big shot by upping the ante to seven times, but then Jesus blows his mind by saying, "Seven?  Not even close.  Try four hundred and ninety times."  Does this mean that Jesus was putting limits on forgiveness, too?  Not at all.  He was simply using an exaggeration to demonstrate the lengths we should go to forgiven one another. 

In his excellent book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey tells the story of a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that sought to bring unity to a country torn apart by racism, bigotry and oppression.  A South African policeman had to recount how he and other officers murdered an eighteen year-old boy and then burned his father alive in front of the boy's mother.   

The woman was asked what she wanted from the policeman.  She said she wanted the policeman to go to the place where her husband's body was burned and to gather up the dust to give him a decent burial.  Then she added, "Twice a month, I would like for [the policeman] to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him."  

She went on to say that she wanted the policeman to know that he was forgiven by God and that she had forgiven him, too.  The man fainted in the witness stand, overwhelmed by the grace he received at the hands of a woman who could have demanded his imprisonment.  

Pastor and author Rob Bell once wrote: “Maybe forgiveness is ultimately about me and about you – it’s about us. Because when I forgive somebody and I set them free, it’s like I’m really setting myself free.”  

May you find new strength and courage today and every day to forgive those who have wounded you.  May you realize that by forgiving them, you are releasing yourself from the burden of those wounds, setting yourself free to be the person God dreams for you to be. 

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Strange & Destructive Allure of Egypt

When my family moved to Florida in 1982 we rented a small house not too far away from the church and Christian school where my dad would be serving as a schoolteacher.  

We had been filled with hope and excitement when we made the cross-country trek from Colorado to Central Florida.  My parents believed that God had been in the middle of their decision, and I was eager to make new friends and start a new life in what seemed like an exotic and awesome place. 

But the house was small and hot--my room didn't have air conditioning.  One evening, as I was reading a book for school on my bed, a huge cockroach crawled across my chest.  I didn't sleep well that night, or for the next several.  

The house didn't have a washer or dryer either.  My mom and I had to carry our laundry to a dirty laundromat every week.  We were sufficiently poor enough that my dad had to get a part time job driving a bus at Disney World to make ends meet.  

All of our hope and excitement started to fade.  We all longed for our old house in Colorado Springs, and our old life there.  I pined for my old friends and old school on occasion.  It was a hard time for us in that first year.  

It's easy to second guess your decisions when the path you've chosen suddenly becomes a lot harder to see, and the way forward gets difficult to tread.  

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Hebrew people were poised to go into the Promised Land--the land God led them to with a promise to go before them and be their shield against the rival tribes who lived there.  Instead, they became scared of the daunting task ahead of them.  It was going to be difficult--more difficult than they had imagined.  
"That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.  All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, 'If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword!'"  (Numbers 14:1-3)
It's hard to imagine a group of people who had lived in slavery to long to return to it.  But when faced with the uncertainty of the unknown, most of us would choose the relative safety of what is known even if it isn't the best thing for us.  And in so doing, we risk missing out on the blessing and joy that comes from doing God's will and fulfilling our purpose. 

If we had never moved to Florida, I would have never met the love of my life and my wife of these past twenty-five years.  My three boys wouldn't exist either.  

That part time job my dad took at Disney has turned into a thirty-five plus year career with great financial, and emotional provision for my parents and for our whole family (I have never paid to take my family to Disney World--ever).  

All of these things would have never been possible had we walked away when things got difficult.  The way forward was unclear back then, but we kept moving forward, trusting that Jesus was somewhere out there in the distance beckoning us to follow.  

May you find the strength to keep moving forward when the path is hard to see.  May you find the courage to leave behind your longings for what was and trust that what is to come is even more amazing.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The God of Second Chances - Pt. 2

When I was in my early twenties, I was driving back to my apartment very late after hanging out with my friends to the wee hours.  My car broke down in the middle of nowhere, but luckily not too far from a gas station and a pay phone.  

I was not living my life very well then, to be honest.  I drank too much, partied too much, smoked too much and generally did too much of every other bad thing you could think of--all of which made my poor parents worry.  

For about a half an hour I tried everything I could think of to get the car moving again, but to no avail.  I had one quarter in my car, which I found underneath the floor mat.  That's all the money I had on me, which meant that I had one phone call to make. 

So I called my dad.  

My dad disapproved of me big time.  He and I didn't get a long very much at all.  We disagreed on everything, mostly as it related to drinking, smoking, and other assorted poor behaviors on my part.  

But what I didn't know what that my dad also held some hurt in his heart, and had been holding it there for years.  He'd tirelessly served as a Christian school teacher for years in churches that slowly drove his son away from the Christian faith.  

And I have come to know that what he wanted most of all was to have another chance to do things differently.  

So when I called that night, he just got dressed and drove out into the night to find his son.  And when he finally did locate me an hour or so later, he pulled the broken belt that enabled my power steering out of a tangled mess, and we started my car.  

He didn't yell at me, he didn't judge me.  He just asked me to follow him home.  

So, I followed him back to my old house and ended up going to bed in my old room and sleeping for what seemed like a week.  As a parent to an adult child, I now know how that must have felt for him to have me back in that room, sleeping and safe.  

One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 40, which reads like this: 
1 I waited patiently for the Lord;    he turned to me and heard my cry.2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,    out of the mud and mire;he set my feet on a rock    and gave me a firm place to stand.3 He put a new song in my mouth,    a hymn of praise to our God.Many will see and fear the Lord    and put their trust in him.

Both my dad and I needed a second chance that night.  It took a broken down car to bring us together.  Each of us in our own way had found ourselves bogged down, lost and searching for our footing, and we needed a firm place to stand.  

Maybe you are in a situation in your life where you are longing for another chance.  Or maybe you are longing to give one.  Sometimes in those moments it can feel like you can't find your footing.  Be at peace, though.  Wait patiently.  The God of second chances in on your side.  

May you be overwhelmed by the grace and forgiveness that you have been given as a child of God and follower of Jesus.  May you discover anew what it means to give that same grace in return.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.  

The God of Second Chances - Pt. 3

Twenty six years ago,  I heard my wife Merideth's voice on the answering machine after not speaking to her for nearly five years, and I thought I was dreaming.  

We had been high school sweethearts, but circumstances, pride, dumb decisions and a host of other factors had separated us and kept us apart.  Both of us had experienced hardships during those years.  We were broken inside, hurt, tired and resigned to the fact that we probably weren't going to ever be as happy in life as we once hoped we would be. 

An old classmate of ours ran into me, and was so concerned about how terribly sad I seemed that she called Merideth to ask her if she'd seen or heard from me.  Merideth was three weeks away from getting married to her fiancee of four years.  I was busy drinking, and smoking myself into numbness.  

And then she called me, and I heard her voice on the answering machine. 

Six months later we were married.  

There is a verse that I have come to appreciate very much from 1 Peter 5:10.  It reads:  
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
When you are in the middle of suffering because of a bad decision, mistake or transgression it is difficult to see any benefit to it--particularly when the bad decision, mistake or transgression was not your own.  But sometimes suffering helps to put things in perspective for you.  

I know what it's like to live my life without true love.  By contrast I also know what it's like to live with my true love.  And I have come to believe that no broken moment is beyond redemption, suffering doesn't last forever, and ultimately God gets what God wants, which is resurrection, restoration, reconciliation and redemption.  

If you are suffering right now through a season of regret, pain, loss or the aftermath of wrong decisions, actions, etc., know this:  It won't last forever.  God is still in the business of raising the dead.  He will "restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you."  

May you find the courage and strength to endure through the tough times, and have hope in the midst of suffering and struggle.  May you look forward in hope to a future filled with incredible healing and victory.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.