Monday, July 28, 2008

Self-Imposed Exile (Jonah)

July 27, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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oday we’re continuing to talk about exile and redemption, and the God who does not wait in Heaven or in holy places for us to fix ourselves up and come find Him, but who plunges into the mess of exile to come find us and call us home. Today we are going to use a rather famous story to better understand exile and God’s character. I’m referring to the story of Jonah. While the most obvious feature of that story is Jonah’s being swallowed by a whale, that’s not really the point of the story so much as Jonah’s self-imposed exile in running from God’s command and then the salvation of a city of exiles through Jonah’s obedience.

Each week we have seen that God’s story of exile and redemption has a personal challenge and a community challenge. Today’s story will be no different.

Self-Imposed Exile

We’ve talked about Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the resultant exile from the Garden and God’s intimate presence. We’ve talked about Moses’ crime and resultant exile from his people and community. In both these examples human beings did something that God told them NOT to do. Jonah’s exile takes on a slightly different feel as he refused to do something that God told him TO DO.

It’s the very first sentence in the book of Jonah: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Ammittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.’” (vv. 1-2) Ninevah was one of the great international cities of the known world and the Babylonian Empire – comparable to New York City or London. It was also corrupt, pagan, and as far from God as could be imagined. And God was calling on Jonah to serve as prophet and take a message of judgment to Nineveh.

And Jonah’s response could not have been any clearer. It’s there in the very next sentence: “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the lord.” (v. 3) He set sail in the opposite direction from the task to which God had called him. His shipmates soon learned what he was up to – there in verse 10: “…the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” Talk about a poor witness – not only was he specifically and intentionally disobeying God’s will, he was trying to get as far from God as possible and telling everyone around him about it along the way.

Now comes the familiar part of the story: a storm, tossed overboard, and swallowed by the whale. The whole of chapter two, which you heard some of in the call to worship, is a prayer from the belly of the whale. Jonah hits bottom, as the saying goes, and realizes he is dead apart from God’s mercy. I pray you’ve never reached that point, but some of you have and know what that is like. If so, this story is for you.

I imagine more of us relate to the first chapter – having a pretty clear understanding of what God is asking of us, and avoiding it, disobeying it, or outright running from it. If that’s you, this story is also for you.

The bottom line is this – you are free to choose exile. You are free to do what Moses did and “settle” for exile, far from God’s plans and purposes. But God always comes after us. Remember Psalm 139 that we’ve used for several weeks running? “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (v. 7) Will we remain in exile or turn back towards God? Moses turned back after 40 years away. Jonah turned back and cried out at the point of death, and God delivered him.

That’s the personal challenge of this story: you may well have turned away from God – not so much committing overt acts of sin, but realizing what God wanted from your life, and heading the other direction. Know that God does not and will not leave you alone. You can tune Him out, make exile your home, and drown Him out with noise and distractions. But here’s the recurring theme in Scripture: God is there with us in exile. I pray that we would turn to God far sooner than did Jonah or Moses. It is a lie that there is any better place to be than in God’s will. As the Psalm and the song says, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” (Psalm 84:10)

Jonah finally realized that it was no good to flee from the presence of the Lord, and he turned his face toward Nineveh. And God called him once again at the beginning of chapter 3: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.’” (vv. 1-2) Jonah was back where God wanted him to be, though we will see that challenges still remained. Again, this is proof that God can and does use those who have messed up!

Going to the Exiled

Chapter three is the story of what happened in Nineveh. Remember that this was a “wicked city” and Jonah’s instructions were to go preach about God’s judgment. What happened was surprising, and certainly beyond Jonah’s imagination. The people responded to the Word of the Lord and began showing signs of spiritual repentance and turnaround. Jonah thought he was announcing the vengeance of God and instead he ushered in the transforming power of God’s Word and Spirit.

Again, this is a reminder that God does not just dwell in holy places and await us in the heights of Heaven. God is out among the exiled – in the darkest and most wicked of places. And God is stirring human hearts even there. If you do nothing else this week, ponder what it means that God redeemed the New York City of the ancient world. His Spirit blew through there – through the brothels and the businesses and the pagan cults and the politics and changed human hearts.

Are there people and places you and I have written off as too far from God? Too hopeless? Too far gone?

Have we given up on the city? Have we given up on the gangs? Have we given up on the poor? Have we given up on this generation of youth? Have we given up on the school system? Or the government? Or the politicians? Have we given up on the institutional church and our own denomination?

If so, what is left? Will we huddle and cluster with like-minded folks and watch the world wind down or blow itself up? Is that all that’s left – holy huddling? The story of the Bible from start to finish says otherwise. It says that God is out among the fallen world restoring and redeeming and rescuing His creation, to the glory of His own name.

And remember that God used Jonah’s washed up faithfulness to accomplish this! That’s two huge lessons: that God cares about the lost and exiled, and that God uses imperfect people like you and me to accomplish His will.

A Challenge for Us

So what will we do? The same two questions from past weeks remain for us today. Are you feeling far from God? If so, know that God would not have it so, but invites and calls you back to Himself. His invitation comes through the various invitations of Jesus Christ, “Come, believe, follow me, and I will use you for God’s glory.” (e.g. Mark 1:14-18)

What does that look like? Well, there’s no magic formula or prayer, but prayer is a good start. Use your own words or use the prayer of confession when we pray it later in the service. The gist of it is to say to God, “I’ve been running; I’ve been tuning you out; and I’m sorry; I’m ready to listen.” How do you know what God wants from you? For one, I think most people have a general idea – it’s what we’re running from. But, specifically, it is through reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping that we learn what God wants. Again, it’s not magic – it’s not the next set of lottery numbers you should pick, but it’s faithful choices that come out of the godly character that develops in those who turn towards God.

And what shall we do together? I have become convinced that we have become too insular. We too easily draw into the “holy huddle.” And God is here when we gather! But God is on the move out among the exiled. If we want to be obedient to God and responsive to His Word and Spirit, then we must go where God is and join in what He is doing. I see us doing this more and more, so this is both cheerleading and challenge. Be creative; be responsive; be out of the box, because God is out of the box. I believe we are to begin in our little corner of Nineveh – the streets, neighbors, and gathering places right around us, here at the church and near your own homes. What is God doing? What would He do through you? Near the end of our text, God asks Jonah, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know… right and left?” (Jonah 4:11) God would ask us the same question: “Should I not have compassion on your neighborhood, where there are more than 10,000 persons – many of whom who do not yet know me?”

Postscript

Chapter four of Jonah is a fascinating and piercing postscript to Jonah’s story. I say piercing because it is all to close to my own heart. Jonah is disgusted with God for showing mercy on the wicked people of Nineveh. Jonah has grown up with God and has been faithful and religious (except for the recent escapade)… how dare God show mercy on these wicked people?!

God uses a plant to teach Jonah a lesson, but the bottom line is that you and I are no more deserving of God’s mercy than anyone on the planet. No pedigree, education, status, background, and especially no track record on our part qualifies us for God’s love and mercy. It is only God’s generous love and grace that rescues a soul from death, and God has proven Himself generous to a fault. As we grow in godly character and see God on the move and at work in people’s lives, we may wrestle with a sense of fairness and what is due (whether us or others). Jesus made it clear through parable and teaching, as does the Apostle Paul throughout the rest of the New Testament: none is righteous, not one. That is to say, not one of us deserves anything but immediate judgment and death. Remember the lesson from the Garden? It was God’s first great mercy to delay universal judgment and death and only exile humanity. And it was God’s first great grace to then come wading into the mess of our exile to offer rescue and a way back home.

That is the good news of Jesus Christ, who is God come to offer us rescue and invite us back home. Amen.

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