Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 27, 2014 A Much-Needed Vision

Acts 10:9-18

A Much-Needed Vision

This morning we are studying a sermon by Peter.  It would be easy to read this passage and think well, it’s a sermon, nothing unusual about that.  The Bible contains plenty of sermons.  But this is a sermon that almost didn’t happen.  It almost didn’t happen because God had to give Peter a vision in order to open Peter’s heart and mind to an important truth that enabled Peter to preach that sermon.  Let’s retrace the events leading up to this sermon.

Turn with me to the beginning of chapter ten.  Chapter ten opens with a man named Cornelius.  Cornelius was a centurion - a centurion was a Roman solider in command of 100 soldiers - and as a Roman he was a Gentile. 

The relations between Roman soldiers and Jewish people were generally not very good at this point in history; in fact, the relationship was generally very bad.  But there was something different about Cornelius.  Verse 2 tells us that Cornelius was a God-fearer, which was a designation given to someone who had attached themselves at least partially to Judaism. A God-fearer was a Gentile who rejected the religions of the Roman Empire and accepted the one God of Israel and attended worship at a synagogue.  Imagine that our country is under occupation by a foreign power, mistreated by the soldiers of that occupation, and when you come into worship one of those soldiers is sitting next to you.  The bottom line is, Cornelius was exactly the kind of person someone like Peter would have been taught to avoid. 

Verse 3 tells us that Cornelius receives a vision and is told to send for Peter.  Cornelius dispatches two of his servants to find Peter, and while they are on their way Luke shifts the scene to Peter, who also has a vision.  Peter, at the home where he is staying, goes to the roof to pray, and while on the roof he becomes very hungry, and God gives Peter this vision – the sky opens and a great sheet is lowered and the sheet is full of all kinds of animals.  A voice tells Peter Arise, Peter, kill and eat!”  Listen closely to Peter’s answer, because he is speaking to God.  Peter answers by saying By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean (verse 14).  Peter has been so trained to think a particular way he cannot accept a direct command from God.  Think about this for a moment; this is really an unbelievable point we are reading.  It took three instances (sounds like another series of three, doesn’t it?  See John 21:15-19) of a direct command from God to begin to open Peter’s mind to the fact that he was freed from his dietary regulations and could eat whatever he wanted, but Peter still wasn’t entirely convinced.  Look at verse 17 - Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be...  Greatly perplexed?  Could God have made it any more plain for Peter?  He shouldn’t have been perplexed at all!  But Peter’s mind was so conditioned by certain beliefs he couldn’t open his mind to what God was telling him.

Remember who we are talking about.  This is Peter.  Peter was, arguably, the one human being who was closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry.  Peter was a part of all the significant moments of Jesus’ ministry and was one of three – along with James and John – that comprised the inner circle of Jesus.  Peter walked with Jesus for three years, he saw him crucified, he saw him resurrected, and yet, he still struggled to understand God’s desire to welcome all people to himself.  If this can happen to Peter, it can certainly happen to us as well.

Let’s be honest about ourselves – we are not where God wants us to be.  Peter – for all his talent and ability – has some pretty big shortcomings revealed in the Bible.  Are we closing our hearts and minds to what God is trying to reveal to us?  Have we stopped growing, stopped moving forward in our faith?
Sometimes we have to overcome what we have been taught; sometimes we have prejudices and stereotypes ingrained in us that keep us from being open to welcoming people and from loving certain kinds of people.  We don’t always free ourselves of these attitudes just because we are followers of Jesus, and Peter had not yet freed himself from some of his prejudices and attitudes.

This vision was to open Peter to the visitors he was about to receive and to open him to the gospel being for the Gentiles.  The barriers between people in the time of Peter are essential for us to grasp if we are to really understand this passage.  A very observant Jew in the time of Peter would not have contact with a Gentile, but notice what Peter does – when Cornelius comes to the home where Peter was staying, Peter invites them in and gives them lodging (verse 23).  That seems like such a small thing to us, but it was an enormous step to take in that day.

While Peter was puzzling over the meaning of the vision the servants of Cornelius arrive.  The Spirit of God tells Peter to Go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself (verse 20).  Peter goes downstairs, welcomes them, and asks why they have come.  The men say they are there to take Peter to the home of Cornelius so that he might hear a message from Peter (verse 22).

The fact that Peter welcomed these men and then agreed to travel with them back to the home of Cornelius was a remarkable step.  There were probably many people who saw them traveling and wondered what’s Peter doing with those people?

Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius and makes an amazing confession – you yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean (verse 28).

That’s a remarkable statement.  God has finally broken through to Peter with the truth that God’s love is for all people.  This was a tough issue for Peter.  Peter struggled with this so greatly that he was even confronted publicly by Paul (But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face; because he stood condemned – Galatians 2:11).

Here was the essential question for Peter – is the gospel for all people?  Would the gospel remain captive to the law that is reserved only for some, or open up to grace that is for all?

Over and over again, the gospel broke down human barriers that divided people.  It is typical of human nature to erect walls and barriers that separate people; it is typical of God to tear down those walls and barriers.  As the church – the people of God; those who bear the name of Jesus – we can be a part of tearing down those walls and barriers or we can be a part of building them.

  As Peter moves into his sermon listen to how he begins – I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality (verse 34).  It’s rather remarkable to hear Peter confess that he has now grasped this foundational truth of the gospel.

In Peter’s day everything was about separation and partiality.  God was more partial to males than females; to Jews than Gentiles; to healthy people; to rich people.  Righteousness was demonstrated by withdrawing from certain groups of people rather than loving them and demonstrating compassion to them.  It’s no wonder then, that people reacted so strongly to the vision of Peter, and that he struggled with it himself.

The central aspect of God is love and compassion.  In one way of looking at the world it becomes a virtue to be separate and to separate one’s self from people; in the other it becomes a virtue to love and associate with those very people.  When Jesus touched a leper, when he touched a woman who was hemorrhaging, when he entered a graveyard occupied by a man full of evil spirits – these were actually sinful activities in the eyes of people of the day who thought themselves righteous.  This is also one of the points of the parable of the Good Samaritan – the priest and the Levite had bought into religious rules that allowed them to elevate exclusion over compassion and then be rewarded for their failure to be compassionate.  They didn’t avoid that injured man because of a fear they would be robbed and beaten; they avoided that man because of who that man was – their religious rules would not allow them to have anything to do with that man.

We are tempted to separate ourselves and to believe that God plays favorites.  Certain people don’t qualify as righteous because they don’t go to church; certain people don’t qualify as righteous because of their activities.  We go to church and we avoid certain activities so we are meet our own invented scale of righteousness while others don’t.

Who are the Gentiles of today?  Who are those to whom we need to love and demonstrate compassion?  If God were to give us a vision with the same purpose as the one he gave Peter, what would be in the sheet he would lower in front of us?

The table around which we will gather in a few moments is a very real repudiation of the separation of people.  One of the great symbols of separation in the day of Jesus was the dinner table; you simply didn’t eat with certain kinds of people.  Those who gathered around a table to eat told who was considered righteous and who was considered unrighteous.  It is interesting, then, that a table and a meal became one of the central elements of Christianity.

So here is the question to ask this morning – what’s in your sheet?  If God were to give you a vision of a sheet, who or what would be in your sheet?  Are there people – or kinds of people or groups of people – to whom you don’t want to extend the love and compassion of God?  This table is a repudiation of any separation we desire to make.  Jesus died for all, and he asks that we love all.

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.
12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.
13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.
18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 20, 2014 A Vision of Faith, Hope, and Love

July 20, 2014
I Corinthians 13:1-13

The Beatles were pretty close.

When the Beatles sang all you need is love, they weren’t far from the truth.  Love is the greatest element we need in our lives, but coming in a close second are faith and hope.

The realists among us would remind us that we also need food, clothing, shelter, and some other things to get us through life – and they would be correct – but today, let us think in terms more lofty and grandiose.

Many of you probably had this week’s Scripture passage read at your wedding, or perhaps it was read at a family funeral.  You probably know most of the first and last verses of the chapter by memory, and could fairly accurately guess some of the others. 

For all the beauty of the passage, it is also one that is extremely challening.

This morning’s message is one of vision.  It is not a vision that provides specific details of what we need to do, but rather a vision of who we are.  You have to be something, I believe, before you can do something.

If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Have you ever read anything that is so beautiful and at the same time so challenging?

I believe that one of the reasons why this chapter is so beloved is because it speaks to the hope we all have of living up to the ideals of love.  Not that we accomplish such a lofty goal, but we try, and we know we need to try.

At the end Paul writes, in verse 13, And now these three remain:  faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  In that verse is a vision, I believe, of three gifts we are given, and these three gifts are the foundation of all we are called to be.  These three gifts define who we are as the people of God.  These three are the qualities of who we are called to be before we do anything.

Faith has been a great gift in my life.  I can’t imagine life without faith.  Though we live in an age of growing skepticism, I continue to believe faith is a great gift to the world.  It is my hope we can present an image of faith that is far more appealing and far healthier than those narrow and dogmatic versions we see far too often.

When I think about faith, it is not in abstract terms.  When I think about faith, I think about the people who helped to plant faith in the heart, mind, and soul.  Faith is not merely an abstract concept, but a living reality that is transferred through flesh and blood individuals who have exercised great infuence over our lives.

A 12th century theologian by the name of John of Salisbury wrote we are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.  We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

My faith, like yours, rests on the shoulders of many people.  My faith is not mine alone.  I have faith because I was raised in a household of faith.  My parents modeled faith to me.  Other people modeled faith to me.  My faith has been strengthened by people who were, and who are, living demonstrations of faith to me.  Some of them are still among us, while others form part of the great cloud of witnesses spoken of in Hebrews 12:1. 

It was through my family and others that I learned not only the value of faith but also the importance of being a part of the church.  I have served in churches where saints modeled faith to me and taught me what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Many people have invested in my life; many people have had faith in me.  I have not arrived at this point in life on my own or by my own doing.  And I am grateful I have not come to this point in life on my own, and that I do not continue from this point on my own. 

At camp I thought a lot about people like Bob Mack, Joe Bliffin, Karl Marshall, and Gene Carter, individuals who were so important in my faith development.  I thought about the saints in my home church who invested so much into my life, such as Mrs. Poland, my junior high Sunday School teacher.  We wanted to hurry out the door to get to Wilson’s Grocery to buy some candy between Sunday School and church, but Mrs. Poland stood at the door and took each of us by the hand and told us of how she believed God would use each of our lives.

When I came home from camp and announced that I felt called into ministry my mom told me two things – one, there is never any shame in leaving the ministry.  Isn’t that an interesting response?  That might tell you something about my home church.  My mom had seen it all and knew what I was getting into. Two, I should spend a week with Reverend Norris, our minister at the time, to see what the life of a minister is like.  I never did the second, spending a week with Reverend Norris, unfortunately, but I haven’t done the first either.  I haven’t quit, although there have been times I have sure thought about quitting.  But even when I thought about quitting, even when I really wanted to quit, I couldn’t, and it was because of hope.  There has always been hope that continued to pull me along. 

Where would we be without hope?  If you’re a golfer you understand hope.  I am not a very good golfer.  Some of you have invited me to play a round of golf, so I've been trying to get my game in decent shape so that I won't embarrass you.  Let me say something this morning - I generally don't get a second invitation to play golf, after accepting the first one.  Don't feel bad if you don't want to invite me to play again when you see how poorly I play.  I did have one great shot though, back in the 1980s.  I was playing in Harrodsburg and made my only eagle.  It was the 18th hole, a par 5, and my second shot landed about six inches from the cup.  I think I took half an hour to line up that put!  I was not going to miss it, because I knew it would probably be my only shot at an eagle, and because the restaurant in the clubhouse looked out to the 18th green and I wasn't going to miss an eagle in front of that audience!  Although I had a terrible round overall, I had one great shot, so of course, I was convinced I was becoming a good golfer.  Now that's hope!  

Hope, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
What a beautiful way to phrase the reality of hope – it perches in the soul.
It is my prayer that hope is so deeply embedded in your heart and soul that it never stops at all.  Never let go of hope.

So much has been written, so much said, about love, that it’s easy to ask what else is there to say?  Whatever I can think of to say about love, someone has already said it, and said it better.

My task is not to find something new or earthshaking to say about love, but to remind us of its centrality in our lives.  Love is the foundation to everything that we do and everything that we are.

When I lived in another community I used to drive by two houses that were situated side by side along a highway in the countryside.  They were the only two houses within sight of each other along that part of the highway.  There was something very striking about these two houses – both were surrounded by very tall privacy fences, one slightly higher than the other.  Every time I drove by those two houses I wondered what took place between the two families to cause them to erect those fences.  Why was the first one erected?  And was the one that was slightly higher, as was my guess, the second one erected?

I see those two houses with their high fences as a metaphor of our world.  Those fences represent the brokenness and alienation between people.  Those fences represent the fractured relationships that litter the landscape of humanity.  Those fences are present in real and in spiritual ways in our own community, in our own families, and perhaps our own congregation.

Today, tragically, religion sometimes contributes to the fractiousness of our world.  Sometimes religion functions as a wedge between people rather than as a bridge or a bond.  Sometimes religion concerns itself more with building fences rather than lowering them.

We are living in a truly transformational time, and we struggle with how to stay relevant and with how to capture people’s time and attention.  People no longer look as quickly or look at all to churches for their answers.  But the needs of people have not changed, and these three gifts – faith, hope, and love – are still much-needed by humanity.  They are the answer.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 13, 2014 The Importance of the Minority Report

July 13, 2014
Numbers 13:25-33

It was a great experience at camp last week, although I am really feeling it this morning.  Today, and next Sunday, I am doing something that I rarely do – I am recycling old sermons.  I don’t like to reuse sermons, just as I don’t like to eat leftovers, because once I’m done with a message I move on.  As we are between sermon series, however, and as I was at camp all of last week, it seemed to be the prudent thing to do.  As usual though, when I use an older sermon, I find that I spend a good deal of time changing and rewriting it. 

In our nation, we have a time-honored tradition of the dissenting opinion on our Supreme Court.  And we can recognize how important those dissenting opinions – those minority reports – can be.  The Dred Scott Decision, for instance, handed down on March 6, 1857, in a 7 – 2 decision, ruled that African-Americans could not be citizens.  That ruling is widely considered to be the worse decision in the history of the Supreme Court.

That was a time that needed a blistering dissenting opinion.

There are times when we need a dissenting opinion, and those dissenting opinions generally come as a “minority report.”  Imagine where we would be as a nation if not for the minority report.  The Abolition movement, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement all began as a “minority report.”  Today, there are still voices – too often in the minority – that continue to call upon us to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality.

This morning, our Scripture reading tells us about a “minority report.”  The passage comes from the Old Testament, where we have been spending a good deal of time as of late.  One of the reasons why I have spent a good deal of time in the Old Testament in recent months is because we too easily ignore so much of what it has to teach us.  We are, we often say, “people of the New Testament” and forget the many valuable lessons found in the pages of the Old Testament.

Numbers 13:25-33 –
25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.
26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran.  There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land.
27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!  Here is its fruit.
28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.
29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”
30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”
32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak) come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

In three brief points, I want to share with you about the importance of the minority report –  

Caleb and Joshua were an important voice for the minority report.  They were part of a group, sent by Moses, to spy out the land of Canaan – the Promised Land.  Most of us know the Hebrew people spent forty years wandering in the wilderness before entering the land, but you may not know the people were on the borders of the land not long after gaining their freedom from Egypt. 

It is not a long journey from Egypt to Canaan.  Even traveling by foot, the Hebrew people were able to reach the borders of Canaan in a relatively short period of time.  Upon their arrival at the borders, Moses sent in the group of spies.  When they returned, their report was very discouraging.  The land was, as promised, flowing with milk and honey and other bounty, but the majority of the group felt they could not enter the land because of the power of those who lived there.  Caleb and Joshua provided the minority report, convinced they could – and should – enter the land.  But the people went with the majority, which condemned them to a generation of wandering in the wilderness, and with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of them would enter into the Promised Land.

We often talk about the principle of majority rule in our political system, but we must always remember that the majority is not always correct.  This is why the majority is not permitted absolute rule, because there is such as things as the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the minority can be trampled upon.  The majority rules in terms of our electoral process, but the majority cannot infringe upon the rights and freedoms of the minority.  This is an important point to remember when we hear the voices that criticize activist judges who overrule certain majority decisions.  If the majority wields their power to infringe upon the rights of the minority, that minority must be protected.

Sociologists tell us about something called the plausibility factor.  The plausibility factor is a tool that helps us to understand the ways in which groups of people think.  Because we tend to reflect the thinking of those with whom we surround ourselves, we might not realize when we take upon ourselves a way of thinking that is harmful to others.  This is when we need the minority to remind us that the majority is not always correct.

In one church I served we never had a unanimous vote.  If it appeared an issue was going to be decided unanimously one hand always went up in opposition.  Once, when the issue was so innocent and innocuous – and with the traditional, single no vote – I was amazed that anyone could vote against the issue.  A few days later, when I asked him why he voted against everything, he said I’m not opposed to most of it.  I just don’t think anything should be unanimous.  Everything needs a little opposition.

In retrospect, I understand his point, because, as I have said, sometimes we need to hear a voice of dissension.  I should hasten to add, however, that just as the majority isn’t always correct, neither is the minority.  Some people just don’t like change and they’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it.

When I was in seminary, a professor gave us some helpful advice.  He said there will be 5% of the people in the congregation who will think you walk on water.  Another 5% will think you don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.  The other 90% just want to get out of church on time.  After all these years I’ve decided that outside of perhaps quibbling about the percentages, he was correct.  I also have learned that you can apply that formula to just about anything in the church.  About 5% will be out on the leading edge, pulling the church forward, and another 5% will be against just about anything that is proposed.  Sadly, many churches play to that 5% or less who are always trying to stifle progress and forward movement.

So if the majority isn’t always correct, and neither is the minority, how do we discern the difference between what is right and what is wrong in the life of the church?

As people of faith we say that there is a standard by which we measure truth, but who gets to determine that standard?  We will turn to the Scriptures for guidance, but who gets to determine the proper interpretation of Scripture?

The answer, I believe, is working it out in community, as the body of Christ.

How many of you, if I asked to give me three occasions when you were wrong could do so in five seconds?  You might be able to tell me when you acted incorrectly, but how many could tell me when your point of view was wrong? 

We all say I’m not always right, but the reality is, we have a very hard time figuring out when we’re wrong about something.  This is why I am not much on solitary faith.  Although I believe we can worship on our own, and should, I don’t believe it leads to a healthy faith if we do not gather with others.  It is in the give-and-take, the living and striving together, that we discern what the Spirit is calling us to be and do.  There is a pull and pull, a give and take that exists among a group of people, and it is a healthy and needed dynamic.

At camp last week I witnessed an interesting moment.  When you spend a week with junior high students there is always the potential for some kind of crisis, especially with the boys.  One day, something happened that required discussion at the daily staff meeting.  We wondered if something should be said or if it would be best simply to ignore it.  We decided to let it go and not say anything about it.  The next day, it happened again.  We couldn’t ignore it the second time, so Rob, the camp director, gathered the guys together.  Rob was not a happy camper, so to speak.  He told the boys they had to work it out and sent them off by themselves. 

After thinking about it for a few moments, I thought that it might be best if one of the camp staff was nearby, just to keep an eye on them.  I stood at a distance where I could still here, but most of the guys didn’t notice me.  It was interesting as one of the guys – who could be a challenge – rose to the occasion.  I was worried that the group might unfairly blame one of the campers and take it out on him in an unhealthy manner, which is how it appeared might happen.  There were some recriminations being offered, but the one young man rose to leadership, pulled them together, and they worked it out very effectively.  I was impressed with the manner in which the problem was handled.

It was a minority report that saved the day for the young men, and reminded me that sometimes all it takes is for one person to speak up and an crowd of people can be directed in the proper direction.

As we worship together as God’s people, may be strive together always to be under the leadership of his Spirit.

July 6, 2014 Jonah: Letting God Be God

July 6, 2014
Jonah 4:1-11

For many years I thought of myself as being fairly literate when it comes to technology.  I’ve realized in more recent years that if I ever was, I am no longer.  Part of it may be my impatience at learning new things.  I don’t like to read manuals and I don’t like to spend time learning how to operate a new device.  I learn a few basics and that’s about it. 

So I’m often surprised when I learn something new.  Nick and Tyler recently showed me a feature about my phone that I did not know existed.  If you push the home button twice it shows all the apps that are running in the background.  I checked it the other day and there were 33 different apps running, using power and memory.

I had no idea.

I think there is a mental and spiritual parallel to those apps running in the background.  I believe there are, for lack of a better word, “apps” that run in the back of our minds, operating like a software program telling us how to act and think.  They determine how we see people, how we see the world, and how we think about things in general. What this means is that you and I may not be the independent thinkers that we believe we are.  We have been conditioned to see ourselves, others, and even God in particular ways and we may not even be aware that it’s because those “apps” are running in the background of our minds. Those apps – or influences – are tremendously powerful.  Not all of them are negative; but not all of them are positive either.

As we conclude our series of the book of Jonah this morning, I think it’s fair to say that Jonah had some very faulty “apps” at work in his heart and mind.  They were “apps” that caused him to look upon the Ninevites in a very tragic manner.  But it wasn’t just the Ninevites; it was also God.  Jonah wanted God to deal with the Ninevites in a way that suited not God, but Jonah.  Jonah was not at all pleased with the way God dealt with the people of Nineveh.  What Jonah needed to learn was to Let God Be God.

1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 
He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”  “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.
11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Chapter four begins by telling us that Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  With whom was Jonah angry?  God.  Now, I can understand when people become angry at, or disappointed in, God after the very difficult loss of a loved one.  Anger at loss is understandable in some circumstances.  But why was Jonah angry?

Jonah was angry for a really, really bad reason.  Here’s what he says in verse 2, and you can almost see him stamping his feet and throwing a fit as he says it – is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Jonah is angry about God being a God of love.

Jonah did not flee to Tarshish because of fear or anxiety about the task God gave to him.  It was not the thought of personal hardship that caused Jonah to flee.  It was not because he felt ill-equipped for his task.  Jonah fled because he did not want to see God demonstrate love and compassion.  Think about that for a moment.  Jonah wanted, not compassion, but a ring-side seat to a Sodom and Gomorrah style destruction of a people he detested.  I have to admit that I’ve not always had the most positive attitude about some people, but I try to keep that to myself, because I recognize it’s wrong to feel such a way.  But poor Jonah didn’t even have the good sense to keep quiet about how he felt.  He blurted out his feelings to God with no hesitation and he lacked the good sense to be embarrrassed about it.

Jonah’s complaint is especially tragic because he’s doing more than simply objecting to God’s actions.  The folly of Jonah’s complaint is that he is objecting to the very nature of God.  It is God’s nature to be compassionate and loving, and Jonah knew this, and because God was prone to compassion and love, Jonah wanted nothing to do with the mission he was given.  Sadly, it wasn’t that Jonah did not understand the nature of God; he understood it very well – he just rejected it.

I have stated a couple of times during this series that Jonah is not a very sympathetic character, and we become painfully aware of what a tragic figure Jonah is as we read chapter four.  This chapter gives a very stark comparison between God and Jonah.  God is loving and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, while Jonah gleefully anticipates the destruction of the large city of Nineveh. 
So, as we wrap up our brief study of the book of Jonah, here are a couple of thoughts to remember –

We don’t get to determine who is worthy of love and compassion; God does.

If you’re a parent, at some point you’ve dealt with an angry, petulant child.  Perhaps it was in a check-out line or other public place, where the child decides to have a fit that comes complete with the stamping of feet, crossed arms, pouting lips, and an angry outburst.

Maybe one of the reasons why humans have such a proclivity to separating ourselves from others is because when we get to know people we find they aren’t always that scary, or that different.

No one is outside the circle of God’s love.
However much we want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.  In Christ there is no east or west.  I think we can extrapolate that out and say there is no black, white, Hispanic, right, left, American, Russian, Iranian, South African, gay, straight; pick a category of people who make you uncomfortable and know that God loves them as much as he does you or me.

Jonah did not approve of the manner in which God loves.  He wanted judgment and punishment, not grace and mercy.  Jonah wanted to shrink the circle of God’s love, allowing in only those of whom he approved.  There are still too many people who want to shrink the circle of God’s love, but however much they might want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.

Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all on in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).  Those were the divisions of Paul’s day, and they were very deep divisions between people.

If love is foundational to the nature of God, so it should be for us.
Jonah has been gone for many centuries, but in some ways he is still with us.  Jonah’s closed mind still occupies the heads of many people who cannot open themselves to God’s inclusion of all people as his children.  His cold heart continues to beat in the chests of far too many who cannot – or will not – love other people, especially people who are different.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.
Albert Schweitzer

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
Thomas Merton