Sermon 07-07-13: “Summer Vacation, Part 2: Set a Course for Adventure”

July 11, 2013
In part 2 of our series, we're going on a cruise with Jonah.

In part 2 of our series, we’re going on a cruise with Jonah.

The prophet Jonah doesn’t get a lot of respect from most of us. But why? If you simply look at what he accomplished, he might be the most successful prophet in the Bible—however reluctant he might have been at first. In this sermon, I talk about the surprisingly good news of God’s wrath toward Jonah’s disobedience and what that means for us today. Curious? Watch the sermon!

Sermon Text: Jonah 1

Ed. note: I’m aware that it looks like my head is floating above the altar in the video! We’ll fix that next time!

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Like many of you, I was inspired last week by the examples of those 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who gave their lives fighting a dangerous wildfire in Arizona. As President Obama rightly said, “They were heroes… who, as so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect… fellow citizens they would never meet.”[1]

arizona_fire

bob

Bob risked being eaten by a tiger rather than let his fellow soldiers come to harm.

Hero. What makes a hero? I presided over a funeral last year for a hero named Bob. Bob was a career army officer—an Airborne Pathfinder—who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for heroism. Once he ran through a hail of bullets to save the life of an injured soldier. He received a couple of Purple Hearts.

I shared a story at Bob’s funeral, which will stick with me forever. Once, when Bob was in Vietnam, he and two other soldiers were setting up an ambush for 20 Viet Cong. Bob and the other two were lying in their respective positions—silently watching the enemy, waiting to strike. When suddenly, Bob sees a man-eating Bengal tiger walking toward him! A tiger—as if war weren’t dangerous enough without the threat of being eaten by a tiger! Well, even a tiger is no match for an M-16, and Bob was tempted to use his and high-tail it out of there. But doing so would have put his fellow soldiers’ lives in danger. So he refused. He would rather be mauled by a tiger than to put the lives of other men in jeopardy! So he lay there motionless, sweating it out, as the tiger sniffed him and wandered away. Good kitty!

Good kitty!

Good kitty!

Bob, like those 19 firefighters, was a hero who was willing to lay down his life for others… Speaking of heroes who are willing to lay down their lives for others, we have Jonah in today’s scripture. Right? Some of you probably disagree that he’s much of a hero. And I know why. The word of the Lord came to Jonah: ‘Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.’ So Jonah got up.”

So far, so good., right? The word of the Lord came to Jonah. The Lord said, “Get up and go.” Jonah heard the word of the Lord and got up and went… in exactly the opposite direction from the one in which the Lord wanted him to go!

We wag our finger at Jonah because we would never hear a word from the Lord and fail to act on it.

We wag our finger at Jonah because we would never hear a word from the Lord and fail to act on it.

This is that point at which all of us good Christians are supposed to give Jonah a wag of the finger, to look down on him, to place ourselves above him, because, “After all, unlike Jonah, none of us has ever heard a word from the Lord and resisted it. Or heard a word from the Lord and ignored it. Or heard a word from the Lord and acted as if the message weren’t clear. Or heard a word from the Lord and postponed it indefinitely.” None of us has done that, right? Yeah, right!

Who am I to look down on Jonah for refusing to do what the Lord wanted him to do? I am Jonah. We are Jonah!

Besides, when we find out why Jonah didn’t want to go preach judgment against Nineveh—which is revealed in Chapter 4—it ought to make us even more sympathetic with him. See, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which was an enemy out to destroy Israel. In fact, later on, this is exactly what Assyria did. So Jonah would have been happy to go and preach God’s judgment against Nineveh if God would actually follow through and destroy Nineveh. But you know God… If Jonah preached to the Ninevites, the Ninevites would probably repent and turn to God, and God would probably have mercy on them and forgive them. Because that’s just the kind of God that God is—“gracious… and merciful,” as Jonah says in Chapter 4, “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

So who are we to judge Jonah for not wanting to go to Nineveh? Many of us remember how we felt in the days after 9/11. I know how I felt. I’m a pretty big coward myself. But in those days and weeks after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I was like, “Give me a gun and show me where to point it, Mr. President.” I would have answered that call! At least I hope I would! But you know what call I wouldn’t have answered? A call from God to go and preach to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda—I mean, assuming that were possible. And if I suspected, as Jonah did, that God’s secret plan in sending me there wasn’t to destroy them, but to enable them to repent so that he could forgive them and save them from the destruction that I believed they they had coming to them…? Like Jonah, I would have said, “No, thanks, God. I’ll pass.”

I’m all for God saving people that I like… I’m not sure how I feel about God saving people I hate.

So Jonah disobeyed God—and tried to run away from God, run away from his commission, run away from his call. He boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, which many historians believe was on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain.

Now what happens next is incredibly good news, perhaps the best news of all in today’s scripture, and it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually really good news: The good news is that God got angry at Jonah for his sin—so angry, in fact, that he hurled a violent, life-threatening storm in Jonah’s direction. The biblical word for God’s anger is wrath. Some of you are like, “How is God’s wrath good news? That sounds like bad news to me.” It’s not!

Perhaps an illustration will help: See, when I think of wrath or anger, I can honestly say that few things make me more wrath-ful or angrier than my dog Neko.

Few things in life make me more wrath-filled than this dog!

Few things in life make me more wrath-filled than this dog!

True story: Two years ago, I was scheduled to go to the Holy Land with our bishop, Michael Watson. I was going with a group of my fellow clergy who had recently been ordained. A couple of weeks before I was scheduled to leave, Lisa and I went out on a date and left the kids at home with a babysitter. Now, my passport was in a basket on the kitchen counter, where I usually keep my wallet and keys. It had accidentally fallen to the floor. You see where this is going? When Lisa and I got home, we discovered that our beloved dog was chewing up my passport—and this was literally two weeks before I was scheduled to go on my trip! I was angry at the dog. Dogs are not permitted to mutilate passports! It was very expensive for me to order and expedite a new passport in time for the trip, but I did. And I’m obviously “gracious and merciful and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing” because that dog is still living and breathing to this day!

The worst thing that Neko does is that she likes to escape the house or escape the fence and run away—and she won’t come when she’s called. We say, “Come, Neko,” and she gets just within arm’s length and when we try to grab her, she runs away again. We’ve tried to fix the problem, but we can’t. So we’re thinking about getting one of those shock collars. So when Neko incurs our wrath we can send a lightning bolt from on high in her direction—just like God sends lightning bolts and storms in Jonah’s direction in today’s scripture.

Now, someone from PETA might say, I suppose, that it’s cruel to punish a dog with a painful jolt of electricity when the dog gets out of line. To which I say, “Maybe so. But you know what’s even crueler than that?” Letting Neko get run over by a car. That’s really cruel. The shock collar might hurt a little, but not nearly as much as the front end of a Ford Expedition. See, the crazy thing is, I love that stupid dog. I do. I love Neko. She drives me crazy, but I love her. Because I love her, I don’t want her to get run over by a car. Because I love her, I’m unwilling to sit by and watch her destroy herself. Because I love her, I’m angry when she does something that risks harming herself. Because in harming herself she’s harming someone I love!

God’s wrath is good news because it means God loves us! We have this wrongheaded idea that God’s wrath is, like, the opposite of love. But no… God’s wrath is a consequence of God’s love. The two go hand in hand. If God were indifferent to us and didn’t care about us and didn’t care what we did and didn’t care about our sin, he wouldn’t care enough to be angry. But he does care—he cares enough to punish Jonah for his sin; he cares enough to hurl a violent, life-threatening storm in Jonah’s direction in order to motivate him to repent.

And because he cares about us, he punishes or disciplines us as well. He’s unwilling to simply leave us alone while we harm ourselves or others. Because he cares. And that’s good news! I sometimes hear this slander against the Bible, usually from atheists and skeptics, but even sometimes from fellow Christians, who complain about an “angry Old Testament God,” as if that God were somehow different from the God who loved us enough to send his Son Jesus to save us. Don’t believe it for a moment. If God is sometimes angry in the Old Testament, as he is in today’s scripture, it’s because he loves us.

I began this sermon talking about heroes. And I said that Jonah was a hero because, like those 19 firefighters last week, or like Bob who risked being eaten by a tiger to save his fellow soldiers, Jonah was also willing to lay down his life for the sake of the people on board the ship. However reluctant he may have been, Jonah was a hero. I shared this with a friend last week, and she said, “Yes, but the rest of the people on board the ship, the captain and the crew, are only in trouble in the first place because of Jonah! Sacrificing his life to save them was the least he could do!

And she thought she won the argument, but she was wrong. I mean, I get what she’s saying: the people on board the ship were facing the trouble of this life-threatening storm because of Jonah. And Jonah brought this terrible trouble upon them. That’s true. It’s very modern of us, however, to think that the threat of dying was the worst thing that people could ever possibly face! See, the people on board the ship were Gentile pagans who worshiped idols. They hadn’t yet heard about Jonah’s God—the one true God, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” So their biggest problem was hardly the threat of losing their lives; their biggest problem was the threat of losing their souls!

Brothers and sisters, we need to understand the difference! Aren’t we surrounded in our community by thousands of people who are like the people on board the ship. They don’t yet know the Lord—and they need people at Hampton United Methodist Church to show them and tell them who he is. They need us to invite them to come and experience this life-saving, life-changing love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen?

See, Jonah, despite all his many flaws, bore witness to these people about this God. And guess what? They repented. They believed. These men who previously didn’t know the Lord “worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.” These “solemn promises” are meant to indicate that their conversion stuck. For the rest of their lives, they would continue to worship the Lord and abandon their idols. And that was made possible by God’s grace through Jonah’s witness.

Don’t you think that the Lord Jesus Christ is calling us to do the same in our own way for the people of our community?

I said earlier that we’re a lot like Jonah, and that’s true in more ways than one. Apart from the free gift of salvation available through Christ, it’s as if we’re the ones on board that ship, which will soon be destroyed by a violent storm. Like Jonah, we’re facing God’s wrath because of our sin. And like Jonah, we’re about to be thrown into the deep, dark abyss—which for us means hell, eternal separation from God. It’s what our sins deserve. Until someone steps forward and volunteers to take our place, to suffer the death penalty that we deserve—and that someone is Jesus Christ, our Savior, God in the flesh. Like Jonah, Christ chooses to sacrifice his life to save our lives, except it’s not for his own sins he’s making this sacrifice, but for yours and mine. By doing so, he turns away God’s wrath so we can have peace and reconciliation with God. And, like Jonah, after three days, he was given new life—so that we could have eternal life both now and on the other side of death and resurrection.

Brothers and sisters, if you believe this, will you say Amen? If you’ve received this free gift of salvation through faith in Christ, will you say Amen? If, like Jonah, you’re ready to go and share this this good news through both your actions and your words, will you say Amen?

May we all be as successful at our task as our hero Jonah was at his. And the people of God said, Amen.


[1] Fernanda Santos, “Fast-Moving Blaze Kills 19 Firefighters In Central Arizona,” New York Times, 1 July 2013, A11.

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