Sunday, November 27, 2011

my sermon from this morning: jonah 1

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year--Happy New Year! As the secular year draws to a vibrant gaudy and showy close, the church year dawns dark and quiet and sober and fresh. The single reed like voice of John the Baptist cries out in the still darkness as a sliver of golden light burns bright along the horizon. "Repent" the voice calls out, "the Kingdom of God is at hand." "Behold, the King is coming." 

It is the same call of God to Jonah to go tell Ninevah to repent, to turn from the violence of their ways to the mercy of God, it is exactly the same message you will hear throughout this month as the prophets are read, as the light grows stronger, as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus.
Turn with me to Jonah chapter 1. Last week we saw Jonah very busy, bustling, frantic to go away from the presence of the Lord. He gathered his stuff, he purchased passage on an boat, he got on the boat, and then he went to sleep in its depths exhausted from all the busyness. In verse 4. Jonah paid the fare and "went down into it", that is, the ship. this "going down", "went down", "down" is like a drum beat in this chapter and the next. Already, as he boards the ship, Jonah is going down into death. The going down is precisely chosen to describe the kind of death spiral he is in. And that is the mark of our whole text today. Where everybody else on the boat is trying to live, trying to survive, Jonah has pinned his way to destruction. He would rather die than live. He would rather die than obey God. He would rather die than turn around and face God.

So, Jonah gets on the boat and immediately, look at verse 4, the Lord hurls a great wind upon the sea, and there is a mighty tempest, and the ship threatens to break up. 
This is the opposite of the great wind stilled by the voice of the Lord on the Sea of Galilee. There, the tempest obeyed our Lord's mere word to "be still". Here, the Lord hurls the storm in the path of Jonah and the sea and wind obey in ever increasing violence.

The storm is immediate. There is no pause in the text between Jonah getting on the boat and the wind being hurled. So eager is the writer to let us know about the storm that we only find out in the middle of the paragraph that Jonah went straight down into the guts of the ship to sleep. You can almost hear the scary foreshadowing music sweeping over the scene as Jonah climbs the ramp to board. There's like 30 seconds of ordinary calm weather as the ship pushes away from port into the sea and then blam, the Lord hurls a great wind. The ship careens back and forth so terribly that there, in the middle of the sea, it "threatens to break up." You can see the boards creaking and straining away from each other, great gaping holes filling with water as wave after wave pours over the side of the ship. Everybody is completely soaked. Now a days, and of course I have in mind here those brave shipping boats in Alaska trying to catch crab, Matt says every year that he's just going to chuck it all and go sign up because it looks so cool, the captain rushes to his instruments and starts radioing for help and trying to get the coast guard. But here there is no coast guard. These are isolated sailors in the middle of a great expanse of water. There is no radio. There is no hope. The only hope is to cry out to whomever you think is bigger than you are--the god of the sea, perhaps, the god of the sky, the god of the sun, the god of keeping people out of danger. There's got to be someone bigger who can hear and do something. The captain and the sailors undertake to pray on a scale they themselves have probably never imagined possible. The kind of prayer wherein your whole soul, your whole being cries out for help. They pray and cry out and throw all the cargo overboard. Great beautiful clay pots of oil or dates or wine or spices or beautifully dyed cloth. All that money, all that profit, gone, flung into the raging depths. The whole enterprise is a total loss. The captain leaves his sailors above and goes into the depths of the boat to find Jonah. He's sleeping the deep sleep of the wicked, numb  from the business of running from the Almighty. He's spent every ounce of his intellectual energy rationalizing his run, abusing the mercy of God to himself, demonizing the people of Ninevah, inflating the potential of a new life in Tarshish. His feet are weary from his hurried journey from the interior of Israel all the way the coast. The longer he sleeps the less time he will have to stare into the great depths of God's unfailing undesired presence. The captain finds him and shakes him and shouts at him to wake up. Jonah grudgingly comes to life. "Arise, call out to your God" shouts the captain, matching the word of the Lord, "Arise, call out against that great city." Jonah does not call out, he does not pray. He follows the captain to the deck where the sailors are preparing to cast lots. A couple of dice thrown down, or a bundle of sticks, held in the hand, the ends hidden. One stick is short. Jonah draws it at his turn and the crowd turns to him in desperation. "Who are you? What are you doing? What have you done?!"

Verse 9 Jonah says, " I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." I fear God, so matter of fact, which sends the sailors into terror, into real fear and awe at the power of this man who can stand on a rocking breaking ship and calmly say, I fear the God who made all this. As they talk the sea grows even rougher, the wind whipping the waves into a stinging rage. "What shall we do to you!?" they ask in horror.
"Throw me into the sea," demands Jonah. Nevertheless, the men cannot imagine such a remedy and try, now, to pick up oars and row to shore. But the God of the sea increases the wind and the storm and they finally give up and cry out, again, to God to spare them for such an act. "This isn't murder. Its not our fault. Its your fault." And they pick Jonah up and throw him in, and immediately, as quickly as the sea was whipped into a rage, it falls into a placid dead calm. Blue sky. Blue water. Its the Mediterranean after all. Its beautiful. And the men fall to their knees and fear, that is reverence or honor or belief in, the God who has such immense power.

Jonah, meanwhile, sinks into the depths of the ocean, and there we will have to leave him, along with his appointed fish, until next week. In the meantime, there are a few matters to consider.

First, observe the amazing contrast between the sailors and captain together and Jonah. These men want to live. They want to survive. They appeal to what divinity they have heard of. They pray and pray and pray. In this chapter, Jonah never prays. He doesn't cry out, he doesn't appear to have any emotion, he doesn't even seem a real character. He is wooden and stubborn. Even when he tells them to throw him in the sea, it is very matter of fact. There are at least three possibilities for Jonah's motivation at this moment. He might feel repentant and be trying to obey God. But I don't really think so. He hasn't anywhere given an indication of wanting to turn around up to this point. He might feel bad for the sailors and be offering himself up as a sacrifice to save them. But if that were the case he wouldn't have bothered with the sham of the lots and all the questioning. He could have offered a solution at the first sign of wind, like, let's go back to shore, guys, I'm going the wrong direction. No, I think the third option is most likely, and that is that Jonah would rather die than turn around and obey God. So deep is his rebellion that he is practically suicidal. Look at chapter 4 verse 3. By this point he has preached to Ninevah in chapter 3, they have cried out to God and turned from their wicked and violent ways, and Jonah has left the city and gone to wait for God to go ahead and destroy them anyway. When he sees that God is going to have mercy he says, in verse 3, "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." Jonah would rather drown, at this point, than admit that he's going the wrong direction.

Second, look at verse 10, even though he is in complete defiant suicidal rebellion, he doesn't feel comfortable about it. "Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, "What is this that you have done?" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them." Like, Hi, I'm Jonah, I'm from Israel, I want to go to Tarshish, because I'm running away from God. In the few minutes he is on the ship not sleeping, the main thing he tells everyone is that he's running away from God. Who does that? Well, we all do. What is the first thing you tell everyone when you see them or meet them? What kind of things do you find yourself talking about all the time--your own goodness? The badness of everyone else? The greatness of God? How you have gotten the short end of the stick? Its possible to gain some real insight into your own soul by listening to your own words, the repeating themes of your own conversations, facebook statuses, journal entries, blog posts, things you think about while you drive from place to place in your car. You may think you're a hard cold steely eyed go getter like Jonah, but if you're on some path you shouldn't be on and you think its just a secret between you and yourself, its also possible your speech is giving you away.

Third, there is the little matter of the storm. There are two things about the storm. One, if God wants to get your attention, he's going to get it. If God wants you to turn around and go in another direction, you're eventually going to turn around and go in that other direction. If he wants you to stop doing something, don't kid yourself, eventually you're going to stop doing it. He might send a raging storm, he might allow all the circumstances of your life to come completely apart, he might allow you to be in pain or illness, he might open all the doors in one direction and bang them shut behind you as he pulls you kicking and screaming through them so that you can't run back, he might frustrate every single plan you have all day, causing whole tidal waves of traffic to rise up before you, moving other people's shopping carts into your path, bringing every little irritating request of your children into your kitchen as you try to make one tiny phone call, all to have you in the right place at the right time. Do you think that you organize and plan your own day? That you are the master of your own destiny? Than you are seriously deluded. God made the sea the land and the sky. He isn't going to be thwarted by you--either your basically reasonable ideas of what's important, neither your sin, neither your rebellion.

Two, you might like to think that God is extravagantly out of balance to be sending such a great storm to bring one person to repentance. You might say, "I'm not that important. God's got a lot to worry about, why would he care about this very small thing in my life." "It doesn't matter if I am disobedient in this one small area because its just me. I'm not that consequential." Or you might say, "I'll pray for others but not for myself because I'm not that important. I can just bear with this trouble, its not that big of a deal. God has bigger things to worry about." To both of these kinds of 'humility' but really 'pride', the Bible says: The Lord God created the whole earth and cosmos and then bothered to create and design you. And he cares very much what you do. He cares very much about your attitude. He cares very much about the choices you make. He cares very much about your needs. You cannot escape his notice. There isn't any moment where he is not fully cognizant of what you're doing and why. And because he is sovereign, because he is big enough and powerful enough to be over all things and have things go the way he intends them, he knows what you're doing and what everyone else is doing too. In these verses, the life of Jonah, the attitude and obedience of Jonah is the focus, but the lives of all the other people on the boat are in view. Not a single one of them misses out on God's care and discipline and attention. In fact, they are saved. They meet and believe in the God Jonah would rather die than obey. 

No comments: