On The Run - Jonah
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On The Run - 06.25.2023
Dwight L. Moody, very famous evangelist from a long time ago, once told this story. One day a young man came into one of their meetings and said he wanted to become a Christian. And the man asks, “That sounds great, what’s the problem?” And the young man sort of “hem’d” and “haw’d” - he didn’t really want to say, but eventually it came out that he had been stealing from his employer. And the minister said, “Wow, how much did you end up taking?” And young man wasn’t exactly sure, but he said, “something like $1,500 last year” The minister then says, “Alright, here’s the deal - I don’t believe in sudden work; so what I want you to do is this: this year you stole $1,500 dollars, so next year - try to do better. Try to only steal a thousand dollars, and then the next year, steal only $500, and in the course of a few years you will get to a place where you won’t steal anything. And if your employer catches you, just explain to him that you are being converted, and you will eventually get to the place that you won’t steal at all. Then Moody looks at the people he’s telling this story to and says, “My friends, this is a perfect farce!” The bible says in Ephesians “let him that stole, steal no more.”
Moody tells another story, here comes a man and admits that he gets drunk every week. That man comes to a meeting, and wants to be converted. Should we say to him, “Don’t be in a hurry. I believe we should do the work gradually. Don’t get drunk and knock your wife down more than once a month. Wouldn’t it be nice for his family to go a whole month without getting knocked down. Once a month, but that’s only twelve times a year! And then after a while you can reduce it, and only get drunk on your anniversary and at Christmas. It will be more effective, because it is gradual. Moody says, “I detest all that kind of teaching. Let’s go to the Bible and see what that old Book teaches. Let us believe it, and go and act as if we believed it, too. Salvation is instantaneous. Repentance is a complete turning around. Christian growth is gradual, just as physical growth is; but a man passes from death unto everlasting life quick as an act of the will. He that believes in Jesus Christ has everlasting Life.”
Today we are diving into one of the most famous stories in the Bible - Jonah and the whale. It’s an incredible parable of repentance, even for us in the modern world. Sometimes in life we find ourself in a place, and we know it’s not the right place to be. Sometimes where we are at, we know it’s not right, we know it’s not good - but we don’t know how to fix it. Sometimes we have to do a complete 180, and go back the way we came to find ourselves back on God’s path. Let’s dive in.
Now, I know most of y’all know the story of Jonah. But I have two key notes as we start out. First, we’re not just reading the story of Jonah. This is our story too. You will be amazed how much you can find yourself in these pages - which is kind of surprising for a story about a dude getting swallowed by a giant fish. Second, I want to be very clear from the beginning - Jonah is not the hero of the story. (And neither are we). I don’t want to ruin it (you know - spoiler alert), but Jonah is actually the bad guy. It’s not just Jonah’s story, it’s our story too - and we are not the hero. It starts out, [read. v1-3a]. I love this because it’s just so blunt. There’s no discussion - we are not even a full three verses in, and Jonah is doing the OPPOSITE of what God asked for. God says “go this way,” so Jonah slaps his knees and says, “whelp” and goes in the exact opposite direction. We finish the verse [read v.3] Hoping to escape from the Lord. Good luck with that, buddy. You know - it reminds me of my youngest trying to escape during bath time. Now most of the time, Asher LOVES bath time - toys, water, splashing - it’s a great time. But every now and then, he gets this mischievous look on his face. Like he’s going to run away from me - and I think it’s about as well thought out as Jonah trying to run away from God. “Come here buddy, it’s time for bath” - and he just takes off around the coffee table. And it’s like - where does he think he’s going to go? What are you thinking? You can’t reach the doorknobs, you only know us - there’s no toddler getaway car - think it through my friend, think it through. So Jonah tries to run away from the all powerful God who is everywhere, knows all things and holds together the very fabric of the universe with his will. But you know, Jonah must have heard God just can’t get to Tarshish - so off he goes.
Now here’s the thing, I think it’s fun to poke fun at Jonah - because running away from God is a really, really dumb thing to do, it’s hilarious. But remember what I said - this is not just the story of Jonah. This is our story too. Trying to run away from God is really stupid, but we all do it - don’t we. Running away from God is the silliest most ineffective little thing that each and every one of us is going to try at some point in our life. When our will bumps against God’s will we have a choice - obedience or try to run away from God. And this is not just Jonah, and it’s not just us. We see it all throughout the Chronological readings from this past week. 2 Kings chapter 15, verse 23 [read v.23-24], and then down five verses later, [read v.27]. Chapter 16 verse 2, [read v.2], Chapter 17, verse 1, [read v.1-2]. You get it, right? Just like Jonah, over and over the Kings of Israel try to run away from God. And I’ll give you a hint - it doesn’t work out for any of those guys either. They didn’t all get swallowed by a whale, but God’s punishment came.
Now bring it into the modern world for a second. God gave Jonah instructions, and Jonah literally ran in the other direction - but in the modern world we use a different method. The greatest way we try to run away from God in the modern world is a very advanced technique called, “not thinking about it.” That’s what we do! We just don’t think about it. We FILL our lives with a fire hose of distraction. It’s not even just watching TV that’s distracting, we watch TV, while scrolling our phone, WHILE trying to have a conversation with someone. The modern generation is absolutely terrified to just sit in silence. To just dwell in solitude for a moment - turn off the noise and let the feelings come. So many people who grew up in the church call themselves “agnostic” - they believe that maybe something is out there, but I just don’t want to think about it. Because if I think about it, I would realize I’m walking in the wrong direction. We are well trained to stick our heads in the sand, and let the timeline fill our mind so we never have to slow down, and pause and wonder if we are actually running away from God with the way that we are living. Running away from God is a silly little thing that each and every one of us just HAS to try out. Jonah did it, the old kings did it, and you and I do it.
But, of course, you know how well that works. God sends a giant storm after Jonah’s little boat, they throw him overboard, and he gets swallowed by a whale, or a big giant fish. Then we get to chapter 2, which is Jonah’s inside the whale prayer - and that was our actual scripture lesson that we heard earlier. It reads, [read v.2-6a]. Cheerful stuff. But it never stops there, [read v.6b-10]. See here’s the thing - trying to run away from God, always seems to wind us up in variations of the same place. Crushed. Lost. Over and over again we find ourselves in a place where it feels like there is no hope. But when we repent, God relents. Forgiveness is waiting for those of us who can be honest about our shortcomings. Now, remember that repentance is not just saying “sorry.” You know that whole thing when you hit your brother and mom forces you to say sorry, “so you scowl at him and mutter, “sorry”” - that’s not repentance. Repentance is saying sorry on the inside. It’s saying sorry where you’re going to go and change your behavior. And repentance leads to the relenting of God’s wrath. And not just in Jonah’s life, but also in Nineveh too. Chapter three it says, [read v.6-10]. The people repented, they changed their ways - stopped doing all the evil stuff - and God did not carry out destruction. Repentance leads to avoiding God’s wrath.
And honestly, the book could have stopped there. That’s a fairy tale ending right there. But the fact that the writers included chapter four is absolutely wild. Okay, see if this tracks - when I was kid, we would watch various cartoon versions of the Jonah story. And almost always, Jonah is depicted as afraid of Nineveh. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid they would hurt him or something like that. That was the motivation that I remember when I was a kid. Jonah didn't want to go because they were mean. But listen to this, chapter 4, [read v.1-2]. Hold up, what? Jonah didn’t WANT them to repent. He WANTED God’s wrath to pour out on the city. Jonah didn’t run away because he was afraid, he ran away because he hated them and did not want them to experience God’s grace. Do you remember when I said that Jonah is not the hero of the story? Jonah is kind of a monster. I mean, who on God’s green earth would ever have good news, of God’s grace and God’s forgiveness and how to avoid judgment and disaster.. who, if they had that information, who would ever hold back and not tell everyone about that - I mean, besides every single one of us. Ooooh. Do you remember how I said this is not just Jonah’s story, but our story too? Running away from God is a silly thing that always leads to disaster. But God’s goodness, God’s grace is there - right there in the forgiveness of Jesus, and yet here we are, the hero, not telling anyone about God’s grace.
Sometimes it feels like God is more eager to forgive people than we are eager to tell people about that forgiveness. Listen to what Jonah says, [read v.2b] It’s like he’s sticking his finger out at God. I knew it! I just knew it - that you would go ahead and be all loving and forgiving - ugh. [read 2c-4]. [laugh] Jonah’s just melting down because God is super loving and compassionate, and God’s just sitting there (like watching a toddler throw a tantrum) and he says, “is it right for you to be angry about this?”
Here’s what I want you to grab from this - God’s judgments are intended for deliverance. God is actually very consistent and there’s a process you can see. First, God is slow to anger, but he still gets angry. Nobody gets away with sin, ever. The results of sin is death and an eternity away from God. God is slow to anger, but he still gets angry. That’s the first thing we see, but the second piece is that before God judges, he warns. Last week I mentioned that the function of the prophets is to be the voice of God to the people, and that their job was to smack the Kings upside the head when they do something wrong. But one thing I didn’t mention is that prophets are almost always bring warning before judgment. The basic message is, “hey, please stop being evil - so you can avoid God’s wrath. And if you don’t, the wrath will look like this: [insert very colorful descriptions].” Over and over we see it - God always gives a warning before judgment, and Jonah lays out the reason. God is merciful and compassionate, filled with unfailing love and He is eager to turn back from destroying people. God is slow to anger, but he does get angry. Before judgment comes, God sends a warning. And finally - when people repent, God relents. God is eager to forgive when we repent. It’s weird, I think a lot of people have this picture of God up in heaven, like he’s this sadistic angry God with his hands on the lever to open up the trapdoor to judgment, and drop us down into the fire. But that’s not what we find in the actual bible. You know who that sounds like? Jonah. Jonah is the one who was eager for their destruction. God is eager to offer salvation. God’s judgments are intended for deliverance.
The good news that just jumps off the page of this story is that God is eager to deliver you. Jonah says it with his finger wagging in an accusatory tone, but these are actually beautiful words. Hear them, really hear them, [read v.2b] God is merciful and just, eager to turn back from destruction, eager to deliver us. Let me see if I can explain it like this - encouragement is equal parts challenge and comfort. If you’re trying to encourage someone, some people need to be challenged. They don’t need to be comforted, they need someone to kick them in the butt and get them off the couch. At the same time, there are other people who are giving it 110% and they’re overdoing it and they’re exhausted and anxious and burning out. They don’t need to be challenged, they don’t need you to push them - they need to be comforted. Encouraging someone is equal parts challenge and comfort and specific need will change as people go. In the same way judgment is equal parts justice and mercy. Our God is a God of justice (that’s the challenge part, that’s the kick you in the butt and get you off the couch part). He will not abide evil and he hates sin. He created us for something better and so he’s not going to let sin and evil hang out in our life. But at the same time our God is a God of mercy, who is faithful to forgive. The people of Nineveh - first they needed a kick in the butt. But that judgment led them to repentance, and then they were ready for mercy. We worship a God who is just - he is righteous and fair, but we also worship a God who is merciful and forgiving. The good news is that God delivers us, and that takes both sides of the judgment coin.
So the book of Jonah is a really quick read. It’s four chapters, and bam - done. Remember what I said at the beginning of the sermon - 1.) This is not just Jonah’s story, this is our story. And 2.) Jonah is not the hero of this story. And so my challenge for you this week is “Don’t be like Jonah.” I think there’s a lot of different directions we could go with this - but I think the most important one is “love your enemies.” Don’t be like Jonah, love your enemies. I think a lot of us, maybe we won’t admit it, but the truth is - sometimes we want enemies. Hatred can be a lot of fun. Judgment can make you feel good. Even more than judgment, righteous indignation (how dare you?) - it gives us a self-satisfying feeling of superiority, doesn’t it? We watch someone destroying their life and we think - “oh, that’s so sad, if only they knew better like I do.” A lot of Christians fall into something I call the “I Told You So” syndrome. We LOVE to tell people I told you so. I mean, is there anything sweeter in life than watching someone, who ignored your advice or didn’t even bother to ask your advice, to watch them make a mistake and then to be able to turn to them and say, “I told you so.” You don’t even have to say the words, right? You can just make that face. And of course, what we mean by that is “you deserve it.” When we say “I told you so” to someone, what we mean is “you deserve it. It’s your fault.” We like hating our enemies. We feel a sense of perverted joy when justice rains down and their life starts to fall apart. It’s the alternative to accountability. Instead of rejoicing when someone comes back into the light, like we’re supposed to - like Jonah was supposed to. There’s a part of us that wants to watch them burn. Not all the time, but every now and then, in our lives - we want to see our enemies fail. We think, “if our enemies, who we hate, want to destroy their own lives - why is that my problem?
But then God shows up. God’s forgiveness is bigger than your hatred. Let me say that again - God’s forgiveness is bigger than your hatred. God forgives those who repent. He forgave us, for all of our sins - so who are we to keep that forgiveness to ourselves? Don’t be like Jonah, LOVE your enemies. I have a dear friend who is a pastor down in Indiana, and he once said, “The way we treat the people we hate is the measure of how much we believe in God’s grace. The way we treat the people we hate is the measure of how much we believe in the power of God’s forgiveness.” Look, this is what the world will tell you: pick a side and draw your lines. Republicans And Democrats. Liberals and Conservatives. Progressive VS Traditional. Michigan State VS UofM. There’s always a reason to hate someone, a way to create enemies in the modern world. It’s not even hard. Would you like to know how to make an enemy in the modern world? Express an opinion. The world says, love your friends, hate your enemies. Be happy when they fail, and fall apart and burn. Because you won and they lost! Celebrate at their failure, rejoice in their misery. This is the world’s perspective. This is Jonah’s perspective. But Jesus teaches us, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. It’s the words of Jesus, but God has been trying to teach us this lesson all the way back since the world of Jonah. Love your enemy.
You know what - I’m tired of saying those words at you - let’s get a little congregational participation. I’m going to say, “What do we need to do? And I want you to say, “Love your enemies.” So what do we need to do? Love your enemy. I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, what do we need to do? Love your enemy. Nope, I still can’t quite hear you because the entire world is screaming at me to hate my enemy. When the world tells me again and against to hate my enemy, one more time - what do we need to do? Love your enemy. Think about it this way - Christians don’t really have enemies. The Christian definition of an enemy is someone that we have not reached yet. God’s instruction to love your enemy is a push to invite the world into forgiveness, to invite the world into God’s grace. Love your enemy, because someday - hopefully - they might be your brother, or your sister. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not because he wants us to be a doormat that gets stepped on - but because he wants you to reach them. And hate never brought anybody home.
The greatest way to destroy an enemy is to make a friend. This is the highest and most difficult thing Jesus calls us to - forgiveness. God’s judgment comes to us all, and when we repent God’s mercy is there. It was there for Jonah, and it’s there for each of us. So don’t be like Jonah - hoarding God’s love. Love your enemy. We have all accepted God’s mercy, and so now we need to share it with everyone else. And so let me leave you with this - three things. First - may you love your enemies. Second, because I think some of you in the back missed it - May you love your enemies. And third, because seriously - love your enemies. Amen.