Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Sermon for July 17

Faith Moves: Jonah and the Famished Fish
Jonah 1:1-17

There was this young minister who was serving his first church in a rural area. Let’s call him “Bill.” One day, while out visiting, he saw a major winter snow storm coming toward him and within minutes Bill was in a whiteout condition. Wondering what to do, the words of his father came back to him: If you get caught in a storm, just follow a snow plow and the road will always be clear before you. Sure enough, a plow came along and Bill followed it. He turning when the plow turned. He stopped when the plow stopped. After a while the plow parked and the driver got out and walked back to the car that had been on his tail. “Are you following me,” he asked? The young preacher admitted that he was following. Bill said, “My Daddy always said: If you get caught in a storm, just follow a snow plow and the road will always be clear before you. “Okay,” said the driver. “Just to let you know that I’ve finished the Mall parking lot and now I’m heading over to Wal-mart!”

Sometimes we need to be careful who we follow!

Clarence Jordan was a prophet for racial integration in the South. In 1942, after receiving his doctorate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he returned to his native Georgia and established Koinonia Farm. Koinonia Farm was an experiment in Christian interracial communal living. Jordan envisioned an interracial community where blacks and whites could live and work together in a spirit of partnership. You can imagine how scandalous this was in Georgia in the 40’s. Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, Koinonia Farm remained a witness to nonviolence and racial equality, as its members withstood firebombs, bullets, KKK rallies, death threats, property damage, excommunication from churches, and economic boycotts. On one occasion, after preaching to a Southern congregation on the spirit of equality found in the New Testament, an elderly woman stopped Jordan. She cried, “I want you to know that my, grandfather fought in the Civil War, and I’ll never believe a word you say.” Jordan replied, “Ma’am, your choice seems quite clear. It is whether you will follow your granddaddy or Jesus Christ.”

I want us to answer a simple question this morning. When God asks you to do something outside of your comfort zone, who do you follow? Do you stick to what you think you know, or do you follow Jesus? Are you led exclusively by tradition ‑ by what you’ve always been told is the right way ‑ or do you follow Jesus? Do you only listen to the voices of your family and friends, or the voices of your past, or do you follow Jesus? I already know my own answer. I think of all the people who have become MY enemies because of what they believe, or say, or do. I think of the people I criticize, dismiss, and want to have no contact with. I think of those who have disappointed me. I think of all the people I’ve decided are unlovable, and I want nothing to do with them. Sometimes I hear the voice of Jesus telling me to go beyond my preconceptions ‑ to love and serve the people I’ve rejected, and I’m presented with a choice: obey Jesus, or stubbornly cling to my prejudice. Quite often, I am adamant in my intolerance. How about you? Who do you follow?

Why is it that we find it so hard to go beyond ourselves and do the challenging things God asks us to do? I think it has to do with a failure of faith. We fail to trust that God is sovereign and has a broader vision of what life and salvation really mean. It is hard to have faith when God’s plans go against our expectations of how we think God is supposed to act. The prophet Jonah struggled with the same problems. In today’s reading, Jonah God calls Jonah to extend God’s good news to the gentile city of Ninevah -- the capital city of the Assyrian empire. Jonah disagrees with God’s plan from the very beginning. Even though God says he loves Ninevah, Jonah wants nothing to do with this city. He tries so hard to resist what God wants, even while he clearly understands that God is open‑hearted and merciful to the enemies of Israel.

Last week I said that when faced with any situation there are two ways of handling it: Our way or God’s way. Jonah decides that God’s way is no good. God chose Jonah for this specific assignment, and Jonah thinks he has a choice to say no. Verse 1 begins by telling us that the word of the Lord came to Jonah. God’s voice must have stirred Jonah with a sense of awe and a profound experience of God’s presence and power. It is a life‑changing event to hear the word of the Lord. Yet, in the next sentence, before Jonah can even enjoy his encounter with God, shock waves begin exploding in his mind. His heart sinks when he hears God say, “Go to Ninevah.” I can just imagine Jonah’s inner protests. “God, you can’t really, mean Ninevah, the capitol city of Israel’s avowed enemy! They are scum. They capture and torture their enemies. Prisoners of Assyria pray for death to come and relieve their suffering. You aren’t going to use me to preach forgiveness to these cruel and violent people! I am a prophet for Israel.”

So, instead of traveling 500 miles east to Ninevah, Jonah turns the opposite direction, trekking to the seaport city of Joppa on the Mediterranean. From there he heads toward Tarshish, on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Just to get to Tarshish by ship meant a year and a half journey to the straits of Gibraltar. Jonah figures he’s escaped the Lord and has all the time in the world. What Jonah is really doing is abandoning his obligation to minister to the people of Ninevah. It’s an act of sinful rebellion. Jonah is a faithful prophet as long as God wants what Jonah wants. But when God’s command goes against what Jonah wants, Jonah decides he knows a better way. He is finally put out of commission. In the midst of a turbulent storm, the sailors are scared out of their wits. The boat is about to be pulled underwater because of the storm. The men toss the faithless Jonah overboard. Instantly, the sound and the fury of the storm, and the yelling and crying, and praying, and screaming cease. The sea is peaceful. The sailors shudder with wonder and praise God. But not the reluctant prophet. Not yet, at least. Jonah’s going to get some time to find new perspective in the belly of a great fish.

Let me ask you again, who do you follow? We should show some sympathy for Jonah before we get carried away with judgment. We shouldn’t condemn him without facing our own failure of faith. At one time or another we will all be faced with a command from God that’s difficult to hear, an instruction from God that sends us into a panic, an assignment that will cause us to run in the opposite direction, a calling that will prompt us to say, “Anything but that, Lord!” It is tragic for each one of us when we refuse to obey God’s clear command, because the result is that it puts us out of commission spiritually. Disobedience robs us of our credibility. Others see us and wonder why the “Christian” can’t get it together enough to carry out what he or she talks about. Disobedience puts us out of commission because if we call ourselves Christians, but we don’t have the faith to be totally obedient to God, our words and actions are hollow to a lost world that sees the church as a bunch of self‑absorbed hypocrites who are out of touch with the world and its problems. When we call ourselves Christians, but show lack of faith in God by doing things our own way, then the world has every right to question our credibility. Who do you follow? If you are afraid to follow God, then those around you, those who are looking at your words and your life for some glimmer of hope, will have no reason to put their hope in the Lord.

I think it’s interesting how God responds to disobedience. Let’s turn again to Jonah’s story. God responds with action. God doesn’t ignore Jonah’s rebellion. He doesn’t just sit by and allow Jonah to drift in his sins. Jonah is God’s chosen agent for a specific purpose, like it or not, and the Lord is prepared to offer correction. However, God also offers affection. I love verse 17: God arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. The Lord doesn’t allow Jonah to drown in the sea as a punishment. God keeps Jonah alive. He pursues and protects Jonah in his time of need.

Eating lunch at a small cafe, Mark Reed of Camarillo, California saw a sparrow hop through the open door and peck at the crumbs near his table. When the crumbs were gone, the sparrow hopped to the window ledge, spread its wings, and took flight, It was a brief flight. The sparrow crashed against the windowpane and fell to the floor. The bird quickly recovered and tried again. It crashed in to the window. So, it tried again and crashed in to the window. Mark got up and attempted to shoo the sparrow out the door, but the closer he got, the harder it threw itself against the pane. He nudged it with his hand. That sent the sparrow fluttering along the ledge, hammering its beak against the glass. Finally, Mark reached out and gently caught the bird, folding his fingers around its wings and body. It weighed almost nothing. He thought of how powerless and vulnerable the sparrow must have felt. At the door he released it and the sparrow sailed away. The sparrow only found freedom when it was lead to flight by Mark’s hands.

God’s response to our disobedience is twofold. Yes, there is discipline. But God is also compassionate. God understands our fear and our frailty. He sees our inability to go beyond our own plan. He knows how hard it is for us to recognize the reality of his love. And in those times he not only corrects, but God takes us in his hands, as if we are little birds, and God protects us from ourselves. God guides us with caring hands to the truth of what wonderful things can happen when we are obedient to God’s voice. God takes opportunities to confront us, to redirect us, to let us know that his ways are best, and to fill us with faith enough to trust his plans.

So, let me ask you again, who do you follow? Let me tell you about a man who did just the opposite of human nature. On January 3, 1865, King Kamehameha V of Hawaii issued a decree that obliged all lepers to make themselves known so that the incurable patients could be sent to a leprosarium on the island of Molokai. Despite their protests, victims of Hansen’s Disease were tracked own like game animals and captured and sent to the island. Contrary to newspaper reports there was nothing prepared for their reception. There were no beds or doctors in the hospital, and not enough huts for the people to live in. Those who died got neither a coffin nor a proper burial, and no one attempted to alleviate their suffering. The people gave up all sense of dignity and any desire for cleanliness or order. They had been treated like mangy animals, and being no longer respected as human beings, they proceeded to make beasts of themselves. By 1873, the public began to find out what was going on. One paper wrote, “Those whom the lepers most need are a priest and a doctor who would sacrifice themselves for the lepers by imprisoning themselves with them.” Until that time, the Catholic Bishop had set up a rotation of priests, to visit the island once a year. And while he knew that the lepers needed more pastoral care, he did not want to sentence a priest to go to the island as a full-time resident with the risk of catching the contagious disease. One priest volunteered to go. His name was Father Damien. He told the Bishop, “I want to go there! I know many of these unfortunate souls, and I ask only to share their lot and their prison. The Bishop gladly accepted the young priest’s offer.

Despite his quirks, Damien gave the lepers new a new church, an improved hospital, better living conditions, and a sense of dignity. He shared the love of God with these men and women. He went to the place where everyone else feared to venture, and he turned it around by obeying Christ. In 1889, 16 years after his arrival at Molokai, Father Damien died of leprosy. But thousands of men and women found healing through his sacrificial touch.

Jonah chapter one demonstrates the consequences when one fails to trust in God. Father Damien is an example of one who went to the Ninevah of his time, and obediently served the Lord. I encourage you to think of the Ninevah’s in your life, and to know that God may be calling you there. It may be a place. It may be a person or a relationship. God calls us, in faith, to trust him when as we go out as agents of reconciliation. So, go to Ninevah, following the Lord who wants all his people to know his mercy and love.

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