Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Can you handle the word of God?

JONAH 1:1-16, Reading CU cell leaders weekend 2007 (session 1)

Welcome to cell leading. Some of us feel we don't belong here. Some feel we've made it. But our foundation is God's grace, so you're welcome. This weekend begins a years training – we'll give you some skills but the key thing is deep roots in God's grace, deep foundations in God's word. And that begins with three studies into Jonah, one of my favourite books of the Bible.

THE LORD WHO SPEAKS - THE PROPHET WHO DISOBEYED

Normal start in v1. God speaks. The Word of the LORD to the prophet. Straightforward and clear. It's a true story, from the time of King Jeroboam II. Jonah is in the history of Israel in 2 Kings 14 and Jesus treats these events as history. Jonah is an odd prophet. A short book. Mostly narrative and psalm with minimal prophesying. Full of suspense and surprise, a classic tale like all your favourite films. The story of a rebel on the run from God... a man about to be ruined by the grace of God. Someone we'll grow to love.

God gives him a simple message, v2: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” - Straightforward and simple. But then, v3. A problem. The word “But”. It should say “And Jonah obeyed and went to Nineveh”. But it doesn't. It says “but”. It says “But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish from the presence of the LORD”.

Jonah goes extreme. Offer him a Salad and he'll go to McDonalds for a large Burger meal. In the immortal words of Natasha Beddingfield:
If you're gonna jump, then jump far, fly like a sky diver
If you're gonna be a singer, then u better be a rockstar
If you're gonna be a driver, then u better drive a race car

To see his rebellion – check the geography. He was sent to Nineveh. Genesis 10v11 tells us that Nineveh was built by Nimrod the first Mighty Man. The mighty city of the mighty Assyria, in todays Iraq. And it was full of evil, see what Nahum says to a later generation:

...Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses- all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft....

Israel were hardly better. And neither are we. Everyone was doing evil in the sight of the LORD. Jonah is sent east, he goes to Tarshish. Where? Over the Med. Spain. The ends of the earth in the opposite direction. And Jews didn't really do sea-travel...

But why? Why run? The ultimate answer is in chapter 4... so wait for that! For now v3 says enough. He's trying to run from the presence of the Lord. God says go. Jonah says no.
We might imagine that Jonah simply misunderstood. But he could have asked for clarifications, and he could have just stayed in Israel. But he runs, and the doors open for him to go down to Joppa, down into the boat, down into the land of nod.

THE LORD WHO IS SOVEREIGN. THE PROPHET WHO WAS SELF-DECEIVED

Jonah's asleep as a storm hits. A storm from the LORD, v4. God lets him run for a bit, but now he's gone far enough. The hardy sailors are terrified. V5, they chuck their cargo overboard and they cry out to their gods to save them – their pagans with many gods. But none of it works. Eventually, v6, they want to try Jonah's god. Then v7, they cast lots to see whose god is at fault for the storm – and it falls to Jonah, v7. They confront him, v8 – tell us who your God is? And Jonah proclaims the Word of God. The prophet does some prophesying – announcing who God is! He says:

“I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD,
the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land”.

This is our God. The LORD. God of Everything! Heaven and earth, land and sea. Wherever you go, God is sovereign there. How terribly self-deceived Jonah was! The sailors are petrified, v10 – they understand. They know Jonah is running from this god. Bad idea. Jonah is trying to run away from this God? How exactly was he expecting to be able to do that?

The LORD is the God of everywhere. There are 400,000 CCTV cameras in London. You basically can't move without being filmed. Jonah's God is God of everywhere and yet he thinks he can find somewhere where God wont be looking?? Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper said: There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Our God is the Sovereign Lord of everything. Land and sea. Heaven and earth. Our God is the one from whom you cannot run and hide. Jonah gives theology in story. Do we have a big enough view of our God? He looks at our heart and mind and says 'mine'. At our bank account and our hard drive and says 'mine'. Our study and our shopping and says 'mine'. Our friendships and politics and says 'mine'. Our hopes, dreams and ambitions, our greatest passions and says 'mine'. This is our God. And we can't run away from him. We can't hide from him. Sure, the LORD let Jonah run for a bit but he's got no-where. It was like him being on a treadmill – he thought he'd travelled a long way away from God, but actually he was right back where he started. Jonah is as much within God's universe as he was when he started.

This is the evil of God's people at that time. They viewed God as small. Unseeing. Unaware. They were self-deceived. And Jonah is caught in the act with many witnesses. We all do it in different ways. Some of us have more cunning than even Jonah. But, everyone will spend forever with God. No-one will ever escape him. Either we spend forever experiencing the intense personal anger of God forever. Or we can face an eternity in the loving personal favourable presence of Jesus.

The LORD. Unavoidable. Inescapable. Yet Jonah cons himself into thinking he can hide from God... running from the favourable comission of God into his wrath. Example: Relationships. We know the truth – it's simple. Christian's should marry Christians... sex is so important it's to be kept in marriage. Yet we con ourselves by praying about things, and by anecdotal evidences that it's ok. Everyone has a story of a time when 'flirt to convert' worked. God's grace in our disobedience doesn't stop it being disobedience.

The human heart is expert in justifying sin. It could get a degree in self-deception. And a PhD. My heart is deceitful above all things. It's world-class at it. Left to it's own devices it sins for the shear fun of it. "The heart is a factory of idols" as John Calvin said. And so we have to rub the word of God into our hearts... and others. Exposing our disobedience and self-deception to God's word. Putting our hearts to death – exposed for the sewer of evil it is. Confronting ourselves with one question: Who rules – me or God?

And in the sight of God we stand guilt on all accounts. Guilty of disobeying God by failing to worship him in everything. Guilty of self-deception and half-heartedness. Of imagining that we're not as bad as we are. Hopeless in and of ourselves. Deserving his judgement. Jonah tells the truth and they want his counsel. He's self-obsessed and just wants away out of this embarrassing situation. They want to stop the storm – v11, and Jonah says – kill me. The death wish is how Jonah deals with getting in trouble.

Jonah wants a Darwin Award. The Darwin Awards named for Charles Darwin, father of evolution commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it. He runs from God... no chance. Now he suggests that killing him will solve the problem of the storm. He always tries to run away rather than face up to his sin... rather than face up to God. But he just preached the gospel – the sovereign rule of God – to them. They're not all that inclined to kill him. V13. They aim for land. But when that too fails, v15, they follow Jonah's instruction – pleading for mercy from the LORD. And the storm stops.

THE LORD WHO SAVES. THE PAGANS WHO BECOME DEVOTED

They loved worthless idols but now they believe God. Saved through a man who doesn't even believe his own message. Their idols couldn't save them... a 'god' has to exist to be able to help you. Their livelihood has gone. All that remains is to trust the LORD, God of heaven, land and sea... God of the Hebrews. They fear the LORD. And the camera stays with them... it abandons Jonah. Jonah's name is on the page, but grace has a different priority. The real action is on deck. They're devoted to the LORD – v16. Jonah said he feared the LORD, v9, but they really do. Jonah hears from God direct and runs, they hear from God through the dodgy prophet and believe. What grace. What good news.

This would be abhorrent to Jonah, but whatever he wants God is leaving a trail of grace behind him. The sailors aren't self-confident – they don't have enough evidence to know if God will save them. But they trust that he can, and that's enough. Being able to recite God's name isn't enough, taking him at that word is the key...

None of us is spotless. None of us lacks weakness. None of us has not and will not fail. Not me. Not the committee. Not you. We're at least as bad as Jonah, at least as disobedient and self-deceived. But God speaks grace to the disobedient and the self-deceived. This year I'll screw up. I'll write bad bible studies. I'll make pastoral blunders. I'll convince myself that I'm better than I am. I'll want to quit and run away. We'll do terrible evil... all the worse because we know Jesus, we should know better. Be a sinner! Admit you can have no confidence in yourself. Admit you're doing infinitely better than you deserve. Throw yourself on the grace of God at the cross. Take him at his word.

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