I begin this morning by saying that I am indebted to Pastor Timothy Keller for some of the thoughts that are in this message. They have come to me through his book Counterfeit Gods and Pastor Keller’s insights have been a blessing to me and I hope that they are to you also.
Several years ago when I was a young boy, I decided one day that I would run away from home. So I told this to my mom, and to my surprise and amazement, she did not try to talk me out of it. Instead, she said, “Well before you go, would you like to have some lunch?” That seemed like a pretty good idea to me, so I stuck around for lunch. Then after lunch, she said, “We are going to be having supper in a little while, so do you want to have some supper before you head out?” Well, that seemed like a pretty good idea to me also. So I stuck around home until supper time and had some supper with the family. After supper, my dad and I talked about me running away from home, and my dad said, “If you want to run away from home, that’s fine, but you have this nice warm bed here and it’s dark out, so why don’t you stay the night and have a good night’s sleep, and then, if you still want to run away, you can leave in the morning?” So I did that. And the next morning when I woke up, I wasn’t thinking about running away anymore.
I know that there was some reverse psychology going on, but I also think that there was some wisdom in the things that my parents said and did. At least on a surface level, they were willing to let me run away from them. And God is like that too. He lets us run away from him. A perfect example of this is found in the Old Testament prophet of Jonah.
Jonah served as a prophet of the Lord in the Northern Kingdom of Israel from 800 to 750 BC. This time period was, in political terms, a golden time for that nation. Previously, the neighbouring nation of Syria dominated Israel and took away much of her territory. But in 757 BC, the Assyrian Empire, came from the East and attacked the capital of Syria, Damascus, greatly weakening the country and allowing the king of Israel, King Jeroboam II to recapture all the territory Israel had previously lost.
Jonah unconditionally supported King Jeroboam and his nationalistic policies even though there were spiritual issues that called out for a prophetic voice like his. For example, flushed by her success, the nation took the blessing of political success from God for granted and looked down on her neighbours with religious arrogance. Also, the king and the people continued to worship man-made golden calves instead of the one true God. Fellow prophets, Amos and Hosea, warned the Kingdom of Israel that God would no longer tolerate her unfaithfulness and would send her into exile beyond Damascus into Assyria. But Jonah remained silent on these issues. For Jonah loved his country more than he loved God.
So it must have seemed strange and somewhat ironic to those who knew Jonah that God should give to him the command that he did: “2 “Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria and the Assyrians were much-feared enemies of Israel. The Assyrians loved to fight. But they were also dirty fighters. And they showed no mercy to their victims. One could say that they were the Chris Pronger’s of the Ancient Near East.
So when God called Jonah to go to Assyria, he did the exact opposite of what God called him to do. He ran away from God, booking a ship going in the opposite direction as far as he could go. To put it in contemporary terms, it would be like telling a Canadian army doctor to go to Afghanistan to bandage up the wounds of the Taliban fighters, and instead that doctor books a flight to Australia.
But even though Jonah ran away from God, God still pursued him. And this was in spite of the fact that Jonah was now acting more like an atheist than a believer. While on the boat during the storm that came up, Jonah, the renowned prophet of God who had the king’s ear in Israel, showed no fear of God, offered no prayers to God, made no sacrifices to God and wanted to destroy himself. At the same time, the sailors, who were pagans, feared God, prayed to God, made sacrifices to God and wanted to preserve Jonah’s life.
In spite of Jonah’s faults, God still loved him with a relentless, passionate love. And so God continued to pursue Jonah. And as one peels away the layers of an onion, so God began to peel away the layers of misdirected love in Jonah’s life.
It was God who sent that storm. And, after doing everything they could to avoid it, the sailors finally, reluctantly agreed to Jonah’s request and threw him overboard. At that point, Jonah’s destiny was certain death. In the Hebrew culture, the sea was a feared symbol of chaos and no one in that day and age knew how to swim. So it was inevitable that Jonah would drown in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea.
But God, in his mercy and grace, sent a fish to swallow Jonah. Now, for us, going from the depths of the sea to the belly of a fish may not seem like a step up. But God had saved Jonah, and Jonah knew it. In Jonah, chapter 2, we read:
1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. 2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. …
5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit…
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God’s love for them. 9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’” (Jonah 2:1-2, 5-6, 8-9)
Jonah has changed. Now Jonah, even while he was still inside the fish, was praying and believing and following God. And after three days, the fish vomited Jonah onto dry ground.
In a way, Jonah was back from the dead. And this time, when the call to go to Nineveh came a second time, Jonah obeyed that call. He traveled to the heart of enemy territory and warned the people of Nineveh, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
The people of Nineveh, from the poorest of the poor to the king of the land, took Jonah’s message to heart, repented of their evil ways and looked to God for mercy. And God, because he loved all the people of Nineveh with the same relentless, passionate love which he had for Jonah, he relented and he did not bring upon the city of Nineveh the destruction he promised.
But God’s mercy and grace towards the Ninevites was a big problem for Jonah. 2 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. 3 Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3) You see, Jonah had another misdirected love that God needed to address. Jonah had another layer of the onion that God was going to peel away. You see, Jonah loved his religion more than he loved God.
That might sound like a strange thing to say, but idolatry is common in religion, even in Christianity. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Timothy Keller notes that idolatry can creep into churches in several ways. When people begin to trust in their doctrine instead of God, they have a religious idol. When people begin to value ministry success more than God, they have a religious idol. And when people try to manipulate God and others by being good, they have a religious idol. Because Jonah loved his religion more than he loved God, Jonah felt that the Ninevites were spiritually inferior to him and he did not want them to be saved.
So God gives Jonah a little object lesson. He causes a gourd vine to grow and it provides some comfortable shade for Jonah. But the next day a worm chews through the stem of the gourd causing it to wither and die.
When the hot east wind begins to blow and the blistering sun beats down upon him, Jonah’s white-hot anger rises to the surface once again. Again he says, “it would be better for me to die than to live.”
9Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.”
10Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight.
11“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11)
As individuals, we are always prone to valuing someone or something more than God. The Bible calls that idolatry. But an idolatry can also be shared at a corporate level. Groups, communities or even nations can have idols. And when corporate idolatry happens, it is particularly insidious, because we tend to be blind to the idols that we hold in common with others. It is all around us and everyone is doing it so it seems like there is nothing wrong. But corporate idolatry is also dangerous because it empowers our personal idolatry and makes it more poisonous than it would otherwise be. It was national idolatry that fuelled the National Socialist movement of the 1930’s and 40’s in Germany. And religious idolatry may something to do with our culture’s drift away from God. Tim Keller writes:
“Why did our culture largely abandon God as its Hope? I believe it was because our religious communities have been and continue to be filled with these false gods. Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ. These toxic effects of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.”
You see, you and I, with our corporate idols and our tendency to run away from God, we are Jonah. But just like Jonah, God loves us with a relentless, passionate love. And just like Jonah, God pursues us, even when we run away. And God’s pursuit of faithless, fickle people like us has continued throughout history.
For 7 ½ centuries after Jonah came a man who was also like him, but in a different way than we are. This second Jonah was also asleep on a boat while anxious sailors faced a dreadful storm.
But this Jonah got up and calmed the storm with the sound of his own voice. While the first Jonah went to a people whom he feared would harm him. The second Jonah went to a people whom he knew would kill him. While the first Jonah was thought to be dead for three days, the second Jonah really was dead for three days. The second Jonah is Jesus and even though he had the power to control all the forces of nature, he willingly went to the cross to suffer and die for all of humanity’s misdirected love. And he did that so that our love would be filled and formed and directed by Jesus’ unconditional love.
So during this Advent season, let us respond to God’s great love for us by asking him to peel away our onion layers of misdirected love. Let’s ask him to give us eyes to see our corporate idols, those idols we share with our culture. And maybe we can say it is time to turn away from our culture’s passionate love for possessions. Maybe we can say that it is time to turn away from our religious tendencies to be self-centred. And let us love all people in the world just like Jesus does, with an unconditional, passionate pursuit, even of those who are running away from God.
Let’s suppose that God asks us this question, “You are so concerned about the little things in your lives. Shouldn’t I be concerned about the 6.8 billion people in the world who are broken and are hurting and who need my love?” And then following that is a second question, “Will you join with me,” he asks you, “will you join with me in sharing my love with them? Will you be my hands and feet in this dark world? Amen.
(shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 5 Dec 2010.)