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Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Risky Waste of Time (John 11.1-16)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 24, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "How Firm a Foundation" (Liszt/arr. Bean)
Hymn of Praise: "Sing Praise to God" (MIT FREUDEN ZART)
Hymn of Praise: "How Firm a Foundation" (arr. Austell)

Offering of Music: "The Silence of God" sung by Katie Meeks (Andrew Peterson)
Song of Sending: "How Great is Our God/How Great Thou Art" (Tomlin, Reeves, Cash)
Postlude: "Cortege" (Malcom Archer)

"A Risky Waste of Time"
(Click triangle to play in browser; Left-click link to play in new window; or right-click to save)
Text: John 11:1-16

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are beginning the story of Lazarus, which will take us all the way up to Easter.  For the most part, the story of Lazarus is told over two chapters (11-12) of the Gospel of John.  We’ll look at a portion of that story each week for the next five weeks or so.

Today the story opens and we learn about the close friendship Jesus had with Lazarus and his family.  We also learn a little about the context and setting of the story, which is not insignificant.  If I had to name one main idea for this portion of the story, it is the glory of God, and particularly how a certain kind of waiting and a certain kind of risk-taking relate to the glory of God. 

We’ll look first at waiting on God’s timing, then at risking through godly obedience, and then consider how we might participate in bringing glory to God (and why that is important).

Now a Certain Man Was Sick… (vv. 1-2)

So even if you’ve never heard of Mary, Martha, or Lazarus, the first two verses explain the closeness they had with Jesus.  We read here that this is the Mary who anointed Jesus with oil and wiped his feet with her hair, an act of extreme love and devotion.  In verse 3 we hear Lazarus described as “he whom you love.”  Down in verse 5 we read that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” You may also know the story at the end of Luke 10 of the time Jesus visited the sisters and Martha was cooking in the kitchen while Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening intently.  We don’t normally read or think about Jesus having personal friends, but if anyone qualified for that description, surely it was this family.

And so the chapter begins by telling us that a man was sick, not just any man, but a certain man – Lazarus of Bethany, who was this close friend of Jesus.  We aren’t really told how sick or what kind of sick, and if anything, we and the disciples may be put at ease at first, for Jesus’ first response is to say, “This sickness is not to end in death.” 

The other piece of context I want to mention is Jesus location, which comes with a backstory.  You realize as the story unfolds that Jesus is not in Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live; rather, he is somewhere else, described only mysteriously at the end of verse 6 as “the place where He was.”  To find out where that is you have to back up to the preceding chapter (10:40), where you find that he had been in Jerusalem, which is near Bethany, but after some trouble there he and the disciples withdrew beyond the Jordan to the place where John the Baptist had carried on his ministry.  

Here’s a map to help you visualize these places.  The asterisk marks the approximate area “beyond the Jordan” and you can see that Bethany is right outside Jerusalem, only a mile or two and easy walking distance.  The location beyond the Jordan was more like 20 miles away.

That’s the setting and context – Lazarus was sick in Bethany, Jesus loved him and his family, and Jesus was some 20 miles away because of trouble in Jerusalem.  The other piece I want you to hear is that Jesus was doing something with purpose in all this.  Whether a miracle or a teachable moment, these aren’t just events passing by, but something more that had to do both with the glory of God and Jesus being glorified. (v. 4)

Ultimately, that’s what we want to keep our eye on as we move through the events and the emotion and the reactions, not just today, but in the weeks to come.  Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the dynamics of godly waiting and risk and then we will return to the topic of the glory of God.

Waiting and God’s Timing (vv. 3-6)

One of the surprising twists this story takes comes in verse 6.  We’ve just heard how close Jesus is to this family: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  And then abruptly we read verse six: “So when He heard that [Lazarus] was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.”  What in the world?!

On the one hand, Jesus had said the sickness wouldn’t end in death, but if you were a disciple you’d probably assume that Lazarus was sick and would get better or was sick and Jesus would heal him when he got there.  Either way, from their perspective, death was not in the picture.  We will see over the next two weeks that Mary and Martha struggled greatly with the delay, because Lazarus did die in the meantime.  But we will take that up the next two Sundays.  Today let’s stick with the immediate context and perspective.  There is really no hint given that Lazarus will die, particularly when Jesus doesn’t rush right off.

At this point, there are several things to observe.  For one, neither the disciples nor Mary and Martha had the full picture.  The disciples probably believed the delay signaled that things were not serious; Mary and Martha were very grieved when Jesus didn’t show up in time.  Neither actually lined up with the reality of Jesus’ plans for Lazarus. 

In those observation, hear several things as you find yourself waiting on God.  First, we probably never have the full picture, even after things have unfolded.  Second, it is appropriate and right to pour out grief and even question God.  We’ll see Martha and Mary both do that in the coming weeks.  In a way, we are let off the hook emotionally in this story because Lazarus lives.  But have I seen God be glorified in sickness?  Absolutely!  Have I seen God be glorified even when the sickness resulted in death?  Yes, I have.  I’ve seen it in this church and in the wait and struggle many of you have endured.

Did God make Lazarus sick?  No.  But was God’s timing a factor in Jesus delaying?  Apparently so.  What I do know is that God can be glorified, even when we have to wait.  And it is possible for us to SEEK God’s glory in that difficult time.

Risking and Godly Obedience (vv. 7-10)
There is another significant and unexpected element to this story, and that is the risk involved.  I mentioned chapter 10 and the trouble that took Jesus and the disciples some 20 miles away to the other side of the Jordan river.  What had happened is that Jesus was teaching in the Temple court in Jerusalem and enraged the religious leaders.  They asked him to say plainly whether he was the Messiah and in his answer he said, “I and the Father are one.” (10:30)  They picked up stones to kill him but he slipped away and went beyond the Jordan to the area I showed you on the map.

So you can understand the context when Jesus suddenly announces after two days, “Let us go to Judea again.” (v. 7)  What the disciples know is that Jesus said Lazarus would not die and that he had not rushed off to heal him.  Now, two days later, Jesus announces plans to go see him and the disciples are incredulous: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Not “are we going there again?” but “are you going there again?”  It was a fool’s errand.  The disciples knew he (and they with him) were among Jerusalem’s Most Wanted.

Jesus responds with what probably seemed like one of his usual mysterious sayings.  It was not, “yes we are” or “I’ll go by myself.”  Rather, they got this: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  I don’t know if they understood that or not.  I sure didn’t the first (or second or third) time I read it.  But here’s what I think he meant.  This is the Gospel of John.  John records lots of language about light and dark.  And John calls Jesus the “Light of the World.”  I think Jesus is making a point about godly obedience.  There is only so much time left to follow the Light God sent into the world.  If they are following him, whatever the outcome, then they will not stumble, because they will be following the path God has set before them.  They must make the most of the daylight – their time with Jesus.  To do otherwise – to walk without the light – is true foolishness, for that person will stumble and fall.  If he says they are going to Jerusalem, that is the path of godly obedience, whatever the risk might be.

It is at this point that he tells them what is really going on with Lazarus.  And you have to chuckle at this exchange.  He first uses a figure of speech, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.”  That was a gentle way to say someone had died, like we might say someone has “passed on” or “is no longer with us.”  Whether just not understanding or still dumbfounded that he wants to return into such danger, the disciples don’t hear him.  So he tells them outright, “Lazarus is dead.”  And then we get a little deeper glimpse into the dynamic of waiting on God’s timing: “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” (v. 15)  Clearly, the glory of God is still in view and Jesus intends for the disciples to witness whatever he has in mind.

Finally, you get a real sense of the disciples’ perspective with the last quip from Thomas, who says to the others, “Let’s go then, and we’ll all die together.” (v. 16)  We’ll see that God not only uses godly obedience, but will even take begrudging obedience, though surely the former is better. 

We will also see that this risk pales in comparison with the one that immediately follows, when Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified.  But the glory of what God does with Lazarus similarly pales in comparison with the glory of Easter morning.  So keep your eye on God’s glory as we move toward Easter!

The Glory of God (vv. 11-16)

Finally, having explored the context of waiting and risk, we get back to the purpose of all this from verse 4, which is twofold: the glory of God and the Son of God being glorified.   What is the glory of God? 

Glory is hard to wrap our minds and even our hearts around; it is not an intellectual or philosophical category.  Perhaps one of the words that best gets at it is that glory is BEAUTY.  The expansive view over the Blue Ridge mountains is breathtakingly beautiful; it is glorious.  The thunderous power of ocean waves crashing on a pristine beach is awe-inspiring; it is glorious.  God is said to be glorious because God’s goodness, love, wisdom, justice, power, and all of God’s character, being, and actions are glorious.  Something is glorious if it is more radiant, more weighty, more true, more real than anything else; and God is the most glorious of all. 
I won’t rush ahead to the sickness and death of Lazarus.  We have several weeks ahead to ponder that whole story.  What I will tell you is that in order for the disciples to experience God’s glory through Lazarus, they had to WAIT (along with Mary and Martha) and they had to RISK.

I was at a conference recently and heard Gary Haugen speak.  Gary is the President and CEO of International Justice Mission, which “seeks to make public justice systems work for victims of abuse and oppression who urgently need the protection of the law.” (ijm.org)  Of particular note, IJM works to help women and children who are victims of human trafficking in the U.S. and around the world.  Mr. Haugen was speaking to a group of American pastors and elders and challenging us to take godly risks.  He reminded us that we know little of persecution in the church in the U.S.  He went further to say two things that have stuck with me: “The church does not thrive in safety” and “If your work [as a Church] can be handled without desperate and dependent prayer, maybe you need a new work.” 

Ponder those things in light of today’s text.  If the disciples had remained in relative safety beyond the Jordan, they would not have seen God’s glory in what Jesus was about to do.  That’s a bit of the dynamic underlying our lighthouse/searchlight challenge.  If we simply meet week after week, safe and secure from scrutiny to study scripture and if we isolate our spiritual lives from the outside world, will we thrive?  I don’t think so.  Getting out means taking a risk, interacting with the world, engaging with those who are struggling apart from God.  It’s risky, but it’s a godly risk worth taking.  Gary Haugen certainly is walking that walk, going into place far more risky than South Charlotte to engage the darkness of the world.  Are there risks we need to take for Jesus?

And what about that second statement?  If we are cruising along doing our thing and don’t need desperate and dependent prayer, does that not also mean we don’t really need God?  Are we just “handling things?”  Is there a challenge or a vision or a mission big enough for us to be drawn to our knees in desperate and dependent prayer?  I’d like to think so.  I’m pretty sure the disciples thought the risk of going back toward Jerusalem, much less doing anything with a dead Lazarus, were beyond serious contemplation.  And yet, they followed Jesus toward both those things. 

What are we willing to trust to God’s leading?  What risks are we willing to take?  What risks are you willing to take for God?  Where might God lead us?  I’d like to find out!  Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

== Jonah Series Index ==

Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
January 20 - February 17, 2013

Something > Jonah (Matthew 12.38-42)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 17, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "All Creatures of OUr God and King" (arr. Jan Sanborn)
Hymn of Praise: "All Creatures/Give Glory" (Dawson/Austell)
Song of Praise: "We Walk by Faith" (Alford/McFarland)
The Word in Music: "Fill-A Me Up" (Pepper Choplin)
Offering of Music: "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" (Susan Slade, flute) (arr. Powell))
Hymn of Sending: "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (SOLID ROCK)
Postlude: "'Jig Fugue' in C Major" (Buxtehude)

"Something Greater than Jonah"
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Text: Matthew 12:38-42; 16:1-4

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Last week we finished going through Jonah. I still maintain that the high point of that story is the extravagant, wide-as-the-sea mercy of God exemplified in the mercy God showed to the repentant people of Nineveh.  More than once we were reminded of the character of God – merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful – toward all the people of the world.  Along with that we got a good look at the power and authority of God, demonstrated in command of wind, waves, sun, plants, creatures, and more.  We saw more than a few unlikely people put their hope in God – from the sailors on the ship to Tarshish to the King and people of Nineveh.  And we were left with something of a sour and sobering look at an angry prophet who would rather run or die than see some people receive God’s mercy.

After the service last week, and in relation to Jonah’s seemingly extreme response to God, several people mentioned Les Miserables, which is playing on the stage in Charlotte right now and in the movies.  One of the main characters in Les Mis is Javert, a policeman who pursues the other main character the whole length of the play, wanting to exact justice and not understanding the mercy, compassion, and forgiveness he witnesses along the way.  In the end, though we want Javert to have a change of heart, he responds like Jonah, angry to the point of despair and death.  Rather than simply be disappointed at the lack of a Hollywood happy ending, we should be challenged to look inward at the Jonah and Javert lurking in the shadows of our own hearts.  That’s the question we asked last week: are there those for whom we do not want God’s mercy?  A tough question, indeed!

Today we look at one other mention of Jonah and Nineveh in scripture.  It is in the Gospel of Matthew, in a scene between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The scribes and Pharisees have asked Jesus for a “sign” – another miracle or display of power to prove he is who he says he is.  He responds with a reference to Jonah.  I want to look at that with you, to see how Jesus interpreted and applied the story with which we have just spent a month.

Craving a Sign (v. 39)

Let’s start with the scribes and Pharisees asking for a sign.  Jesus had been doing miracles already and crowds were flocking to him.  It is unlikely that the scribes and Pharisees were just waiting to believe.  In fact, knowing the way the story goes, it is likely that they were looking for something to use against him.  We heard two passages from Matthew, one in chapter 12 and one in chapter 16.  In both cases the same group asked for a sign.  We are told in chapter 16 that they were testing him.  Maybe he would give them something they could use against him.

It makes sense, then, that Jesus more or less calls them “an evil and adulterous generation.”  They were evil, for one reason, because they were looking to trap him.  Adulterous here should not be understood literally, though there was plenty of that going around.  Rather, God uses the image of adultery throughout the Old Testament to describe the unfaithfulness of His people.  Here the scribes and Pharisees are demonstrating that unfaithfulness.  They, of all people, should already know the signs and the prophecies.  They should be eagerly awaiting God’s Messiah and salvation.  But they are set against Jesus instead. 

Interestingly enough, “an evil generation” brings to my mind the city of Nineveh.  It does so partly because we have just spent a month on the story of Jonah and Nineveh, but also since Jesus will bring up Jonah in this exchange.  The people of Nineveh didn’t respond to a sign, but to the Word of God proclaimed through Jonah.  That is named in verse 41.  And what came about in them as they responded was repentance.  That is what an evil and adulterous generation needs: not signs, but repentance in response to God’s Word and Spirit, in response to God’s Son, Jesus. That is still true today!

The Sign of Jonah (v. 40)

With all that being true, in both passages Jesus does mention and offer a sign.  He calls it the “sign of Jonah.”  What is that?  He spells it out in Matthew 12, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  He’s speaking in advance about his own death and resurrection.  Talk about preparation for Easter!  And though he doesn’t say it, part of that sign is also emerging alive by the power of God after three days. 

I would also remind you of something we realized a few weeks ago.  While it is easy to think of the great fish that swallowed Jonah as punishment, it was actually God’s salvation plan in action, that Jonah would emerge and a great city be saved.  Jesus’ crucifixion and burial sure looked to all the world like punishment and death, and indeed he bore the weight of judgment there.  But it was God’s power at work to accomplish salvation for the sake of the world.  What a sign!

That Jesus was talking to scribes and Pharisees makes this reference all the more potent.  This sign was already the subject of all their study and learning and religion, but they were blind to it.  That God could and would work through death and judgment to accomplish salvation was an integral part of their faith and story, but even with Jesus connecting the dots, they could not see.

Unlikely Judgment (vv. 41-42)

Jesus goes one step further.  He holds up the people of Nineveh for their repentance and faith.  They did not demand signs or power, but responded in humility to the Word proclaimed in their midst.  The scribes and Pharisees had spent a lifetime reading, memorizing, and studying God’s Word, and they were hardened, blind, and deaf to God’s Son standing before them.  Jesus also speaks of the Queen of the South, a pagan ruler in King Solomon’s time who traveled a great distance to meet Solomon and hear his godly wisdom.  The scribes and Pharisees attributed great wisdom to themselves – they were the “experts in the Law” – that is, God’s Word.  But they could not hear or understand godly wisdom when spoken in their midst.

So Jesus tells them that the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South would serve as condemnation of them at the judgment, for those people believed without proof; they trusted without sign.  The people of Nineveh repented in hope of God’s mercy.  If an evil people with no knowledge of God could repent in hope, should not those who had the privilege of God’s Word and revelation their whole life believe without more demand for signs and wonders?

Something > Jonah and Solomon (vv. 41-42)

Again, we church folks are challenged by the story of Jonah.  Are not those of us who have grown up in the church like the scribes and Pharisees?  We have heard the stories of God’s faithfulness, compassion, mercy, and love all our lives.  We regularly attend the worship of God and hear the scriptures and bow our heads in prayer.  And yet we also struggle to believe, much less repent and yield our lives in the kind of all-out discipleship that Jesus deserves.

The people of Nineveh heard Jonah; the Queen of Sheba heard the wisdom of Solomon.  But we have something even greater than either of those.  We have the life and teaching of Jesus, and we live after the greater “sign of Jonah” – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

There is no greater witness than Jesus; there is no greater sign than the cross and the empty tomb.  What is your response?  Many of you have heard the stories of God since you were children.  What is your response?  Is it, “God, just give me one more sign!” and then I’ll really believe?  Is it conditional faith? 

What it takes is not convincing proof, but a repentant heart.  That’s the lesson of Jonah and the word from Jesus.  Ponder that as we move to our prayer of confession and have an opportunity to speak our repentance to God.  Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Really, God? (Jonah 4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 10, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "O God, My Faithful God" (Karg-Elerg)
Hymn of Praise: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (FAITHFULNESS)
Song of Praise: "God of This City" (Boyd et al.)
The Word in Music: "Sea of Mercy" (Fettke)
Offering of Music: "Psalm 145: The Lord is Gracious" (Shane Barnard)
Song of Sending: "As You Go" (Altrogge)
Postlude: "Tocatta on 'Amazing Grace'" (Pardini)

"Really, God?"
(Click triangle to play in browser; Left-click link to play in new window; or right-click to save)
Text: Jonah 4

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are in Jonah 4.  We left off with God relenting and showing mercy on the people of Nineveh after they all, from the king to the least of them, humbled themselves in repentance before God.  That was the last verse of chapter three; then we have the beginning of chapter four: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.” (v. 1)  With that we are back to Jonah and his seeming laundry list of foibles and issues with God and His ways.

This chapter has one of the stranger scenes in it, with God growing and then destroying a plant around the sulky prophet.  And we have some dialogue between God and Jonah.  We could continue to focus on God’s extravagant mercy and compassion, which are worthy of our contemplation and thanks.  But we also see Jonah striving against those things, providing at least two piercing object lessons for us in this chapter: one having to do with anger and compassion and then one deeper yet.  Today I want to look at those object lessons together with you.

An Object Lesson on Anger and Compassion

What jumps out at us in this chapter is Jonah’s anger!  What is he angry about?  It’s right there in verse 1.  He is angry about God’s compassion – God RELENTING and not destroying the city of Nineveh.  They were a cruel people, literally and figuratively far from God and His people, Israel.  Jonah began with God saying that the wickedness of the people of Nineveh had come up before Him.  No doubt, Jonah also was angry to have come so far, risked so much, and not seen the “fruit” of his message fulfilled.  (Though surely we can see that it was; just not in the way Jonah imagined!)

So Jonah went out of the city to look down upon it and the lack of destruction and judgment.  And the object lesson ensued.

Last Wednesday night, in the sermon preview class, we were noting the attributes of God demonstrated in this passage.  We were quick to identify the ones named, like “gracious… compassionate… slow to anger… and abundant in lovingkindness.”  What we also see as this object lesson unfolds is that God has power and authority over all creation.  Not only did God command the wind, waves, and fish earlier in Jonah; here God commands a plant, a worm, the wind, and the sun for His divine purposes.  And again, it all is brought to bear on Jonah.  We also noted the similarities and differences with Job; with Job, God simply declared His power over creation as justification for His actions.  With Jonah, words were apparently not enough and God had to whack him over the head with it more than a few times.

So God appointed a plant, which grew to provide shade over Jonah, who was hot and uncomfortable.  And we read in verse six that “Jonah was extremely happy about the plant.”  Then God appointed a worm to attach the plant and it withered, meaning that the hot sun and wind beat down on Jonah, who grew weak and pitiful.  For the second time in this passage, Jonah says something along the lines of “I’d be better off dead.”

Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?”  And Jonah said, “I DO have good reason to be angry… even to death!”  A third time… “I’d be better off dead.”  Jonah is clearly not a happy man.

So here’s the object lesson which, as far as I can tell, was lost on Jonah.  But it need not be lost on us.  Jonah had compassion on a plant, lamenting its “death” when it was gone.  And that was simply because it offered shade.  How much more – TIMES TWO – should God have compassion on the people of Nineveh?  For one, because they were more than 120,000 living and lost persons (far more than a plant).  And for two, God didn’t benefit from them, but loved them as human beings created in His image.  It’s not unlike Jesus’ teaching on worry – that if God cares enough for the birds of the field to provide their basic necessities, how much more will a loving Heavenly father care for you, His children!

Well, we don’t find out what Jonah made of that.  But surely we don’t have to have such a significant lesson lost on us.  It’s spelled out in Psalm 86, which we heard as our second scripture reading.  Not only is God gracious, good, ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call on Him, but God has a heart for all the nations and people of the world.  As I have said many times, that scope of God’s love runs through all the pages of the Bible, from start to finish.

A Deeper Lesson on Selfishness and Sin

But there is a second lesson embedded in Jonah, and in many ways it is a deeper and more personal one.  Anger, for all it is visible and destructive, is often the manifestation of something deeper down.  I want to try to uncover what that is for Jonah – in a couple ways – and then ask how we might respond to that deeper lesson and challenge.

First, the best way I know to focus us on the question in the text is to ask this: We’ve talked about why Jonah was angry, but why, according to this text, did Jonah flee to Tarshish?  It’s in verse two; see if you see it.

Was not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
    …for I knew that You are gracious… compassionate… slow to anger… abundant in lovingkindness     Therefore, IN ORDER TO forestall this, I fled.
Ponder that while I try to illustrate in two ways.  The first is a clip from the hit PBS show, Downton Abbey.  In the clip I want to show you, a relative of the aristocratic Crawley family (who live at the Downton Abbey estate) has taken in a wayward young woman as cook at the nearby “Crawley House” in town.  Finding out about this, Carson the Butler from Downton Abbey forbids any other employees from going to Crawley House and associating with the woman.  In this scene the head cook from Downton, Mrs. Padmore, shows compassion on the woman, Ethel.  Then, in a later scene, we see the Butler condemning her for her actions.  See if you can see the connections to Jonah.
[Downton Abbey clip]
And then for a second illustration of Jonah’s attitude, consider the older brother in what is better known as the story of the “Prodigal Son.”
21 “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ”  [Luke 15:21-32]

What is going on with these folks: Jonah, the Butler, and the older brother?

It is not that they don’t know compassion; it is somehow that there are some they view as beyond the reach of mercy and grace.  There is a sense that some people are not fit for their “present company.”  It is a deadly mix of selfishness, jealousy, and sin.  And in Jonah’s case, it is most extreme.  Not only did Jonah flee in order not to witness or be a part of a wicked and foreign people’s redemption, he would rather die than be a part of it.  That’s stark and ugly and tragic.

Oh that he could have heard the lesson from God or understood his own salvation from judgment through the great fish! Oh that he could have been stirred to compassion at the salvation of the sailors, the repentance of the king, and the humble prayers of an entire city! Oh that he could have received the words spoken to the older brother: “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found!"

What Does Jonah Have to Do with Me?

So is there more to take from this than sadness (and a bit of finger-wagging) at Jonah and joy at the redemption of the people of Ninevah?  There is, but I think it’s a hard lesson to hear.

Is there a part of us – a part of you – that gives lip service to sharing the Good News of Jesus, being a good neighbor, or helping others; but that isn’t ready for just anyone to walk through the doors of this sanctuary?  Are there those who are ‘outsiders’ and ‘foreigners’ to us that we’d just as soon see be saved somewhere else?

We’ve been talking for years about getting outside the walls of the church and being a good neighbor right here in this neighborhood.  It is a neighborhood filled with an amazing range of ages, races, lifestyles, and economic realities.  How does one grow a church?  Many these days just build better and better programs and swap sheep with surrounding churches.  But we are surrounded by THOUSANDS of people who have no church connection – within a mile of the church.  What would we do if they started surging in, moved by God’s Holy Spirit to venture into this lighthouse church?  Would we celebrate?  Would we rejoice at the compassion and mercy of God?  Or would we sulk in the corner?

It is a piercing question.  And it is one we must figure out if we are to truly become the light of Christ in this place, inside or out, because what we would do in here reflects how we carry on out there. The good news is that it’s a work God longs to help us with.  It is already the heart of God – for the nations; is that something we can envision?  With God’s help, surely so!  Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Unexpected Change (Jonah 3)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 3, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go" (Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go" (ST. MARGARET)
The Word in Music: "Merciful God" (choir) (Getty & Townend/Courtney)
Song of Confession: "Shine into Our Night" (Sczebel)
Offering of Music: "Minuet in G" (Bobby White, piano) (Bach)
Song of Sending: "Praise is Rising/Hosanna" (Brown/Baloche)
Postlude: "Praise the Lord, Rise Up Rejoicing" (Wood)

"Unexpected Change"
(Click triangle to play in browser; Left-click link to play in new window; or right-click to save)
Text: Jonah 3

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today’s text is full of unexpected change!  After Jonah’s wide-ranging flight from God’s mission and the supernatural pursuit, capture, and redemption of Jonah, we left off with Jonah being spit up by the giant fish back on dry land.  Finally, we get to the original mission: Jonah goes to Nineveh to speak a Word from the Lord.

But not so fast.  I had always imagined the great fish spewing him forth at the gates of Nineveh.  I think I mistook the “three days’ walk” for how far he had to go to get to Nineveh.  But remember the geography from the first week?  [I illustrated using the entire front of the sanctuary for scale.]  Israel is on the southeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.  Nineveh is some 500 miles inland near modern day Mosul, Iraq.  Jonah had taken off towards Spain and though the fish brought him to shore – at the closest he still would have been very far from Nineveh.  I mention all that to say that he had to face all over again whether or not to listen to and obey the Lord.

What was the “three days’ walk” about then?  We’ll get to that in a moment.

As we read through all the unexpected change in this chapter, I want to highlight three pairs of message and response to help us follow the flow of the story.  Let’s start in Jonah 3, verse one…

Message and Response #1: Go and Tell (vv. 1-4a)

The first message is fairly obvious to spot because we read that the Word of the Lord came again to Jonah (v. 1). And here it is: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” (v. 2)  The contents of that message are actually our second message and we will look at that in a moment.  But this first message is from God to Jonah and it is (again) to GO AND TELL.  The first time Jonah ran from this task.  But this time his response is different.  He obeys and does what the Lord commands.

There are several unexpected changes here.  One is that Jonah got a second chance.  Did you see that highlighted in verse 1?  The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.  And maybe it’s expected that Jonah will obey the second time around… or maybe not.  I’ve certainly known people who have blown a second chance.  I have blown a second chance.  But Jonah didn’t disobey again.  He changed; he obeyed; he went.

And this was no easy obedience.  I’ve already mentioned the great distance to get to Nineveh.  And I’ve mentioned the “three days’ walk.”  What is that?  It’s a measure of how large the city of Nineveh was.  Once Jonah made the long journey to Nineveh, he wouldn’t be able to simply shout the message once from the city gate.  The city and surroundings of Nineveh were so large it would take someone three days to cross it.  That’s big!  It was a “New York City” of the ancient near east.  And you get some sense of that in verse four, when Jonah goes through the city for a whole day proclaiming God’s message, and after one day he has only “begun to go.”  His task was to traverse this great city speaking God’s message over and over.

Indeed, God has saved his life and given him a second chance at a difficult obedience.  And I would say, unexpectedly, Jonah obeys.

Another subtle unexpected change is the charge given to Jonah.  The first time around God told him to go “cry against” Nineveh because of their wickedness (1:2). This time God indicates there will be a specific message and God will provide it.  I’m not sure of the significance of that change, just noting that God seems to be intent on delivering a specific message to the people of Nineveh and has gone to great lengths to do so.

Message and Response #2: Judgment is Imminent (vv. 4b-6)

The second message is the one God gives Jonah for the people of Nineveh.  It’s there in verse four: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  In other words, judgment is imminent.  Apparently, Jonah did not elaborate, and perhaps that was the change between the original charge and this new message.  It was simply “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  Given the size of the city and the brevity of the message, it reminds me of the folks who walk the streets of New York with the signs that say “the end is near!”

It’s not my idea of effective communication.  And there was not even the modern-day, “REPENT, the end is near!”  It was just “the end is near!”  That’s what I find so unexpected about this message and response.  It really sounds to me like a straightforward, unpleasant, announcement of the end.  That context makes the response all the more unexpected because the ENTIRE city was moved by the message.  I’ve got to think that the Spirit of God had been at work in advance of Jonah and was moving powerfully as he passed through the city.  It sure wasn’t the complexity or winsomeness of his message. 

Just listen to the depth and breadth of response described in verses 5-6.  First the people believed in God.  Not just they believed the message; but they believed in God!  And they demonstrated outwardly what God was stirring inwardly.  They stopped eating and declared a fast.  They put on sackcloth, a sign of mourning and repentance.  All of them did; even up to the king.  His response gets its own description.  He arose from the throne, the sign of his power and authority.  He laid aside his robe, also a sign of his power and authority; and he covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes – signs of his personal mourning and repentance.  That the king would do this and it be known so publicly was an indication of the profound response in Nineveh to the Word and presence of the Lord.

It is so unexpected that it should be mind-boggling.  An entire major city responds to a short sentence of judgment.  One of the most powerful rulers in the known world humiliates himself in public mourning and repentance.  A people known for cruelty and evil turn to the Lord.  Although maybe that is not the most unexpected thing; sometimes those at an extreme are more aware of judgment than those who are so-called “good people.”  At any rate, the complete humbling, mourning, and repentant response of Nineveh was as miraculous and unexpected as anything that happened in Jonah 1-2 with the storm or the great fish, though perhaps finding some parallel in the pagan sailors turning to God in faith.

Message and Response #3: Repent in Hope of Mercy (vv. 7-9)

A third message comes in the form of a proclamation from the king of Nineveh.  Having himself been overcome by mourning and repentance, he nonetheless uses his authority to spread the word.  Even in his humiliated posture, he remembers that the city is his responsibility and he does what he can to protect it.  We could probably spend some time trying to unravel and understand his actions.  But I take it as a sign of his authentic repentance that he proclaims the fast for the whole city.  And what a motivation!  I’m pretty sure it did not come from Jonah, who only was to announce judgment.  Could it have come from the Spirit of God, like the sailors moved to faith and sacrifice in chapter one? 

The king proclaims a fast for the whole city and entreats the people to “call on God earnestly” as they turn from their wicked ways.  Why? It is IN HOPE that “God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” 

Talk about unexpected…

  • A king and city being led to REPENTANCE!
  • A king and city being led BY THE SPIRIT OF GOD to repentance
  • A FOREIGN, PAGAN, WICKED, VIOLENT, POWERFUL king and city being led by the Spirit of God to repentance
  • A foreign, pagan, wicked, violent, powerful king and city being led by the Spirit of God to repentance IN HOPE OF GOD’S MERCY
Unexpected… by us; foreseen, planned, desired, purposed by God.

Remember last week?  We talked about the holy God who persistently pursues to save?  This is God being God!

What about the foreign, pagan, wicked, violent, powerful part?  God announced His desire to save the nations of the world from the beginning and throughout redemptive history, Old AND New Testament.  This is God being God!

Really, for all the unexpected change in Jonah 3, the one thing that should NOT be unexpected is the character of God, who is holy and just, but full of compassion and mercy.  What is so surprising here is not God being God, but the degree to which the Word, power, and presence of God can so completely transform the human heart and the world in which we live.

Have you heard that Word, witnessed that power, and experienced that presence?  Know that it is God’s character and desire that you would.  That is Good News!  Amen.