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Drowning Without the Truth

A few years ago, comedian/commentator Steven Colbert coined a word to describe how issues of truth and falsehood were being handled in our culture. The word was “truthiness.” It became Harvard Dictionary’s “Word of the Year.”

“Truthiness” is truth without backbone, sentences without meaning, words that mean, as the famous “Cheshire Cat” said, “exactly what I want them to mean.”

How do we move, think, and even communicate in a culture where the foundations have eroded so badly?

As we have lost truth in our culture as a solid reality, everything else around it becomes liquid. Today, young people speak of being “fluid” in their sexuality. The word “sex” or “gender” now mean “exactly what we want them to mean.”

The truth that Jesus spoke about, however, was robust. Unchanging. Life-altering. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” There is a power that comes with truth.

Truth tears down strongholds, and sets captives free. Falsehood erodes our minds, our relationships, and our country. Russia learned this in their failed effort to hide the truth about the Chernobyl disaster from their own countrymen and the world. Boris Gorbachev, in a later memoir, said the Chernobyl disaster and resulting coverup led directly to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

A nation without the truth drowns in the resulting “liquidity.” An individual without truth drowns in their own falsehood and efforts to cover the lie. When we reject the truth, Paul said, “we believe a lie.” And we believe many lies today.

“The truth is out there,” the old X-Files television series would repeat. It is. Not in outer space, but much, much nearer.

It is found in Him Who is “the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life.” The truth, not “truthiness,” can be found in a relationship with one person.

His name is Jesus.

Don’t Miss The Joy! Chapter 12

Holding on to Contagious Joy

Philippians 4:10-23

With this message, we will bring our series on Philippians to a conclusion.  It’s been a very odd time to preach on joy.  Every news headline seemed to fly in the face of the text I would be preaching the next week.

Life was normal when we started this series in February:  The coronavirus was something that barely got a news headline.  It was, at that time, happening “over there” in another world.  The economy had not upended.  We were able to gather in our church sanctuary without masks and meet in our Bible studies face-to-face.  Students were in school classrooms, not at home working from the kitchen table.  Or maybe now, YOU’RE working from the kitchen table at home and that’s your “new normal.”

But we’ve been talking about contagious joy over these months of drastic change.  In Philippians, there are 14 uses of the word JOY:

  • I always pray with JOY because of this
  • I REJOICE
  • I will continue to REJOICE
  • your progress and JOY in the faith
  • your JOY in Christ Jesus
  • make my JOY complete
  • I am glad and REJOICE
  • you too should be glad and REJOICE with great JOY
  • REJOICE in the Lord!
  • my JOY and crown
  • REJOICE in the Lord always I will say it again: REJOICE!
  • I REJOICE greatly in the Lord

Now if you are tending to get down, read those fourteen verses out loud to yourself and I can almost guarantee they’ll get you in a better frame of mind.  I say that because I’ve done it!  It works, even writing them out.

If we’ve learned one thing, I hope it is that we understand joy has nothing to do with our emotions or our life circumstances.  Joy comes independently of those things, although our emotional mindset or distressing circumstances will choke our joy out if we let them.

And to a degree we must CHOOSE joy, remembering that it is not just a decision we make.  The joy that Jesus offers is something He wants to give, and we must want to receive, but there are some things we must do to hang on to it.  So, let’s hear Paul’s closing words to the Philippians today in the last 13 verses of Chapter 4.

Hanging on to joy means:

We must learn to prize contentment

Let’s remind ourselves one last time that Paul was not writing this from the deck of yacht or a cruise ship in the Caribbean.  He was in prison, either in Caesarea Philippi or Rome.  He was awaiting possible execution and chained by the wrist to a Roman guard all day long.

. . by great endurance, by afflictions, by hardship, by difficulties, by beatings, by imprisonments, by riots, by labors, by sleepless nights, by times of hunger . . . (2 Cor 6:4-5)

Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced . . . hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger, and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing. (2 Cor 11:25-27)

He could rightly have said, and we would have understood, that, “under the circumstances I’m doing alright.”  Now I hear some folks “catch” us when we say something like this: “Well the Christian shouldn’t live under the circumstances.  You should live OVER them.”

That is a Christian cliché.  How do you live OVER circumstances? You are IN your circumstances.  Now we shouldn’t live washed away by the pain and tribulation of life.  God never intends that.  But humanly speaking, your circumstances are where you live, and sometimes what you must endure.

A more authentic reply is, “I’m pressing on in spite of my circumstances, and learning to find victory in them.”  Joy is not about learning how to “float above” life without being affected by it.  That is what Buddhism teaches is possible.  It isn’t.  You’re going to be swamped by the waves of life sometimes.  But you don’t have to drown in them.  WE read a moment ago in verse 13 I can do all things through Christ Who gives me strength.

By the way, that verse is probably one of the most misquoted verses in the New Testament.  In context, the verse is saying “after learning to be content in little and learning to be content in much, and even now sitting in a prison cell on trial for my life, I now know that Jesus is enough.”  The Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day taught the virtue of self-sufficiency.  Paul was teaching the contentment that comes with CHRIST-SUFFICIENCY!

It’s not saying “I’m going to go be a Christian athlete…I can do all things…”  It’s not saying, “I’m going to go be a brilliant and wealthy Christian businessman or woman.”  Those statements still rest a lot of the heavy lifting on you…what YOU are going to do…. what YOU are going to accomplish.  He is saying “whether my life circumstances are good or bad, high or low, rough or easy, Jesus is all I need.”  “I can do (bear) all things through Christ Who strengthens me.”  This is Christ-sufficiency.  Jesus is always enough.

Contentment, we learn here, is independent of what we are going through in the moment.  I have learned to live with plenty, and with nothing.”  Later in 1 Timothy 6 we pick up on contentment again where Paul tells those with plenty that “godliness with contentment is great gain.”

Three things that might help us:

  1. Contentment must be LEARNED.  It doesn’t just fall on you.
  2. Contentment is a SECRET.
  3. Contentment is independent of our circumstances or possessions.

Again, Christian joy and contentment do not come through what we have, or through what we lose.  Now understand, this is not about becoming stoic and phlegmatic or just learning to be self-sufficient.  It’s about becoming fully dependent upon the sufficiency of Christ, and nothing and no one else… because everything, and everyone you have…can be taken from you.

If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Tim 6:8)

We must learn to practice gratitude

A part of the motivation for the Philippian letter was to thank the church for a financial gift they sent.  By the way, your gratitude to God at some point will take the form of what you give.  Giving should never be about fund raising for the church.  It is always about worshipping as an expression of our gratitude.

They were showing their gratitude for what the Apostle had done for them.  They understood the cost he paid for starting their church.

But from this, Paul helped us understand the importance of our giving.  We never give because God needs our money.  We never give to “pay” someone’s salary.  And we don’t give so we can get our way.  We give…. get this…. because we NEED to give:

1). To overcome the grip of covetousness that money has on us.  Jesus said our life does not consist of the things we possess.   The bottom line in our bank account does not guarantee quality of life, or absence of it.

2). To demonstrate our gratitude for what God has done.  We’ve been able to help keep our mission partners moving forward by your generosity.  But God keeps the records.  “I want a gift that will be credited to your account,” Paul said.

I am incredibly grateful for your faithfulness to continued stewardship during this time of being separated and shut down by the pandemic.  It is not the case in every church.  I am encouraged and blessed that you are continuing to demonstrate mature stewardship, which partly means you don’t just give when you are here.  You give even when you can’t be.

We also need to take heart in understanding the verse that says, My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. When we give gratefully, we are saying “I believe that God will supply all my needs and will continue to do so.”

We are laying hold of that truth that our income, our possessions, our needs are not simply met because we work hard or have a great job or a great boss.  We have a great God Who owns everything!  “It is He Who gives us strength to get wealth.” If we really believe that we will not struggle with giving.

So, gratitude is not about simply being polite.  It is not just a nice habit to build into our children or into ourselves, although I really hope you are teaching that to your children.  I look at a child that is grateful and, without even knowing the parents, I think, “That child is being raised well.” Folks we are either living as grateful people, or as entitled ones.  Giving is a lifestyle choice that involves everything we have.

“When I survey the wondrous cross” contains a stanza which states,

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so Divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all. 

We must learn to prioritize community

We need each other.  We truly cannot, nor should we try, to do this alone.  Circumstances may shut us up alone; lockdowns may keep us at home to avoid illness, our groups may not be able to meet face-to-face.  But all of us have learned through these hard days that community is essential.  We need each other!   Paul mentioned “the brothers with me” and “those of Caesar’s household” in his farewell.

Rushing Fall

I’ll admit it. I’m over summer. It’s been terrible in many ways for some, and intolerable for others. Who would have thought that we would go through summer breathing through cloth masks?  So usually by the first week of August or so, I’m ready for something to look like fall.

Guess I’ll have to settle for pictures though. I don’t have a “leaf trip” to the mountains planned. And nothing changes in Florida, except the daytime highs drop to the upper eighties instead of the mid-nineties.

Maybe it’s not just fall I’m rushing. I’m kind of over 2020. I’m trying to be optimistic that 2021 will be a much better year, but it may have its own level of awful too.

But I want to see kids buying school supplies, and I’m actually kind of excited to have to be waiting on big yellow school buses to start picking up and letting off their eager payload of students. I want to see ONE leaf turn! Just ONE! Anything to say we are moving forward and making progress. Bring on the pumpkin spice scented face masks!

Ok that’s my rant. It’s wrong. We shouldn’t wish our lives away like that. Every day we have on God’s earth is precious, even though not always easy. Each day has its own “new mercies” if we’ll stay tuned in for them. (Lamentations 3:23)

And, as Christians, we are to “redeem the time,” not wish it away. We have an opportunity TODAY, whatever our circumstance, to make Christ known; to enjoy the grace of living in our Creator’s world; to serve a person in the Name of Jesus.

Who knows? This may be our last day… or many, many more years lie ahead of us. Whatever God chooses (since He has “numbered our days”), let it not be said we wasted or wished one away.

Let’s live for Jesus

Don’t Miss The Joy! Chapter 11

The Enemies of Contagious Joy

Philippians 4:1-9

A precious family in our church suffered the death of their husband and father.  He died unexpectedly from a heart attack.  The family, of course, is shattered by this.

It led me, once again, to asking questions about this current series on Contagious Joy.  Particularly with the text, “Rejoice in the Lord and again I say, rejoice!”  Here’s my thought…my question.  Is the joy we’re talking about robust enough to be present even for a family whose life has been dashed on the rocks?  Can it survive the civil unrest and Covid 19 and political uncertainty and all that flows out of this?

My conclusion is this.  If it can’t I am either preaching it wrong or we are understanding it wrong.  The joy of the Lord is not restricted to our circumstances being rosy.  We don’t need the joy of the Lord when everything’s going our way.  We need it when our lives are shattered.

So, I read our text today with fear and trembling.  I do not want to misspeak or overstep anyone’s pain in this time.  I am not saying that Christ followers don’t hurt.  They do.  They die.

IN the face of all of that there is joy.

Enemies to our spiritual walk abound.  John speaks of our unholy trinity of enemies as, “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  The enemy of our joy can be disunity…in our families or in our church.  But often our enemies are much closer to home and do their work within us.

Today I want us to take a look at three hindrances to our joy.  They are joy-stealers and joy-killers if we do not confront and deal with them.  We hear about the first one as Chapter 4 opens.

ATTACK YOUR ANGER

Philippians 4:1-3

One of the most dangerous enemies to our joy is anger.  Sometimes we keep our anger bottled up inside.  Other times it creeps out say, on the golf course.  One golfer came to play with a new putter. He said the other one didn’t float.  Sometimes, sadly, it can be released on our families and people we care about the most.

Anger itself is not wrong.  Anger is a defense mechanism, and every person on some level deals with anger regularly.  But some allow it to build up and spill out in domestic abuse and conflict in homes, and churches and the workplace.

Dads, your hand is on the thermostat of the home.  You can turn the heat up in your home by not dealing with your anger properly.

What we are seeing in Philippians 4 is a conflict between two women who had a difference of opinion that had damaged their relationship, and then spilled over into the church.  It threatened the fellowship and the unity of the church.

Paul gives us three keys to resolving conflict in these verses.  The first is we CHOOSE to live in harmony.  It begins with your choice that relationships are far more important than always getting your way.

Secondly, we need to CONFRONT the problem.  At some point, if you’ve injured another or you’ve lost your joy because of a broken relationship, you have to confront the problem.  If needed, find a trusted friend who can stand with you as you do this.

One Wednesday night we had a service of prayer for racial reconciliation.  At some point, the church needs to take a stand… not make a political statement… but to be a “fellow laborer” and do the Gospel work of reconciliation.

Finally, we have to show the CHARACTER of Christ as we deal with this conflict.  “Rejoice in the Lord, let your reasonableness be evident to all, the Lord is near.”

Dads, back to you.  Are you gentle in your relationship with your family?  You have a position of Divinely appointed leadership in the home.  That means your voice has a constant amplifier with your wife and your children.

Did you know that almost 90 percent of conflicts in the home happen because someone uses the wrong tone of voice?  Not the wrong words… the wrong intonation.

ARREST YOUR ANXIETY

I have spoken about anxiety already several times in 2020 and began the year with a message on it.  The world has changed since January, but the need for dealing with anxiety has only accelerated in the face of everything that is happening in our world.

Anxiety-related problems are usually rooted in fear.  We fear an unknown future, a declining economy and loss of jobs, an uncertain political climate stoked by civil unrest, and an unseen virus that has killed almost 120,000 people in America and now…its numbers are increasing again.

Anxiety is a joy stealer.  There are no joyfully anxious people.   Some anxiety is a physiological symptom of a deeper problem.  Most anxiety is simply a matter of our being tossed like a cork on the waves of the sea.

It clutters our thinking, obscures our ability to see Jesus clearly, and generally saps our energy and drains us of joy.  It is an enemy that must be arrested!  It needs to be stopped from doing its destructive work.

PRAYER IS ADORATION:  We have a good, good Father!

Easy for me to transition to that.  I had a great, godly, faithful father.  Some folks choke a bit to pray, “Our Father…” or to sing, “Good, Good Father.” I never saw my Dad get angry…

The most frequent word in the New Testament for prayer is the word “proscheuo” which is an act of worship.  Prayer is worship.  When we worship, we don’t worry.  When we worry, we aren’t worshiping.  A part of every prayer time should be our adoration of Who God is, of What He is like, of the things He has done for us.

PRAYER IS SUPPLICATION:  We ask.  Indicates intense asking.

Pray about everything, be anxious for nothing.  “Nothing is worth worrying about; everything is worth praying about.”  E. Stanley Jones used to say, “To worry is to live against reality.”  Only 8 percent of the things we worry about are real.  The other 92 percent are imaginary, “what if” scenarios.  Anxiety clutters our thinking by importing things from our past that we cannot do anything about or imagining the worst-case scenarios of our future which probably aren’t going to happen.  We pray about everything.  “With prayer and supplication, we make our requests known to God.”

PRAYER IS APPRECIATION:  We give thanks.  “With thanksgiving make your requests known…”.

We need to stop anxiety in its tracks.  Let me say again.  There are some realities unfolding in our day that will drive us over the edge if we do not master this.  You can let this blow past you, or you can decide today to arrest anxiety and not permit it to make itself at home inside of you.

Paul said if we will simply do these things, then “the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.”

ALTER YOUR ATTITUDE

My grand darlin’ McCail has now moved in with me for a few months while her Mommy and Daddy build a new house.  They came with her.  She had a new doll that looked real…creepy real.  For some reason unknown to all of us, she threw it downstairs and its head broke off.  Last night, after we had gotten ready for bed, she looked at me and said, “Poppy why did I throw my doll down the stairs?”

The things we do have mostly to do with the things we think.  Negative thoughts lead us to do negative things.  In fact, in an article I read last week, persistent negative thinking actually can lead to dementia!

But Paul doesn’t just say, “Stop thinking negative things.”  Instead, he gives us a list of positive things to replace them with.  “Think positive” is better than “don’t think negative” …if we remove something from our thoughts, nature abhors a vacuum.  Something will fill that void.

What we dwell on in our minds shapes us and is reflected in our external person.  In other words, we will always act and do like what we think about.

Biblical transformation does not come until we enter that process of “renewing our minds.”  Romans 12 tells us we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Recovery groups refer to our negative and wrong thinking as “stinkin thinkin.”  This is the core of most addictions and substance abuse issues.  We think ourselves into it.  Nothing is more influential to human life than our thoughts.  So, the Gospel goes after how we think.  Gospel-transformed people think differently.

One person said, “we need to let the mind of the Master become the master of our mind.” What does that look like?  Paul shows us here:

You may be thinking, “well, that’s all well and good.  I’ve tried to think good thoughts.  I’ve tried to stop thinking bad thoughts.  But nothing changed.”

Ok, here’s the thing.  Everything in these verses, first of all, is addressed to Christian people.  That means not just religious people or people who go to church and try to be nice folks.  Let me go back to a phrase I used a moment ago:  Gospel-transformed people.  You notice phrases in these verses: “whose names are written in the Book of Life.”

“Rejoice IN THE LORD…”. “guard your hearts and minds in CHRIST JESUS.”  “The God of peace will be with you.”’

All of these benefits, all of these promises are available within a relationship with the Son of God Who is Jesus Christ.  Apart from that relationship they won’t work.

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 10

THE CONTAGIOUS JOY OF A PASSIONATE PURSUIT

PHIL 3:12-21

“Not that I have already obtained this (vv 10-11) or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own (“apprehended”  “laid hold of”) .   Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.  Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim the English Channel, decided in 1952 that she wanted to swim from Catalina Island to the California coast, about 26 miles. No woman had ever done that before. It was very foggy when she started her swim, and she couldn’t see. After 15 hours in the water (yes, you read that right), she looked up at her mother in the little boat beside her and said, “Mama, I can’t make it; I can’t go any further.”

Her mother tried to encourage her, but, after swimming for another 55 minutes, she gave up and got in the boat.  A couple minutes later, she discovered she was half a mile from the coastline.  When asked later why she quit, Chadwick said, “It was because I couldn’t see anything. If I could’ve just seen the coastline, I know I would have made it.”

Two months later, she got back in the water, and not only did she swim from Catalina Island to California, but she also beat the women’s world record for that distance.

And the men’s.  By two and a half hours.

Interestingly, the second time she swam, it was even foggier than the first time. She could not see anything. When reporters asked her about it afterward, she said, “I was ready this time. And it’s really simple: I kept a picture in my mind of the shoreline. Even though I could not see it with my eyes, it was ever before me. I never lost sight of the California shoreline, and so I felt like I was always closing in on it. As long as I lived for the picture in my mind, I could keep slogging through the fog of my challenge.”

What is “the picture in your mind” that you are running toward?  Is there an overarching goal, an all-consuming passion that encourages you when you are weary, and picks you up when you’re discouraged?  What’s awaiting you when you get where you are going?  Goal… life not just journey

In this part of Philippians, Paul is telling us what it was that drove him forward through trials and difficulties and pain and deprivation and persecution.  It was what kept him focused on the race when a normal person would have dropped out.   One author called this paragraph “an explosion of spiritual longing.”

Sometimes the fog of our circumstances, or even our being blinded by pain or seduced by the pleasures of the flesh or of this world, are enough to keep us from the joy God has for us; from the glory of finishing the race God has called us to run.

From this part of the letter, God’s Word points us to three things that need to keep us oriented to the goal set before us.

First, we see the importance of:

Pressing On:  This One Thing

We have notoriously short attention spans.  Microsoft research discovered that human attention span has dropped from 12 second to now about 8 seconds.  Your little goldfish flitting around in its bowl, on it’ way ultimately to that great white Bowl in your bathroom, has an attention span of 9 seconds!  You know why?  Because goldfish don’t own cell phones!

We cannot focus.  We have become spiritually ADD.  I am rushing this morning because, well, I’ve already lost some of you.  Our sermons, due to moving to digital services, have to kind of wrap up in about twenty-five minutes.  Let’s be real.  If you’re sitting down in front of your computer screen or gathered around your radio while you’re watching us this morning, you’re a minority.

But the price we pay for trying to give attention to so many things at once has a spiritual consequence.  It is the inability to find the ONE THING God wants us to focus on.  This one thing…   Paul said, “I press on…”. I am running toward one goal, not many.  His goal?  “The high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”  Few men were more productive than Paul, but he was productive because he knew what his priority, his “one thing” was. We try to do so much in an anxiety-ridden hurry.  CS Lewis said, “the future is something every person reaches at 60 minutes per hour, no matter who he is or what he does.”

Paul was reflecting back on the day in his life when the risen Christ “seized” him; “apprehended” him like one who was running away; but it is stronger.  He “seized me” with the intent of “owning” me.

Paul could be joyful because he knew his “one thing.” He did not chase squirrels.  He did not get distracted.  When you know the “one thing,” that allows you to say yes to important things and no to things that are just distractions.  When you know the length that God went to pursue you, to “apprehend you” and then to “own you,” it pushes every other priority out of your heart.

Maybe you had that at one time.  You were awe-struck that God would “seize” you and “own” you, but you’ve let other priorities and other problems and struggles squeeze the wonder out of you.

Letting Go:  What Lies Behind

Moving forward in the way Paul describes for us is dependent upon our ability to do one thing well.  But doing one thing well-meant letting go of a lot of other pursuits, and labors, and even some of earth’s joys.  Our brains really don’t forget anything.  We are capable of creating 80 memories per second for 75 years.

If you are going to pursue Olympic gold, you have your goal set clearly before you.  But pursuing that goal means you have to let go of a lot of other things that distract.  Olympic athletes do not participate in much of normal life that a middle or high school young person would know.  You “let go” of that.  You don’t go binge on pizza, or attend prom, or kill a Friday night at a ball game.  When you find that one special person in your life, you “let go” of all the other options and opportunities.

So, you set your goal.   You run.  You swim.  You ski.  You practice and give up sleep to do that.  You eat an Olympic diet, not filled with junk food.  You let go of the things that would hold you back.  You say “no” to things other people say “yes” to.

But it’s not just that.  Paul was talking here about letting go of accomplishments from the past, and of pleasures in the present, but also of past regrets and disappointments.

“Besetting” sins are sins that entangle you and keep you from running the race well.  (Hebrews 12). Sometimes it’s the guilt of those sins that hampers us. When we drive, at least when we drive cars that don’t have backup cameras, we use the rear-view mirrors. But if we spend too much time looking back it will wreck you as you go forward!  What does the runner do?  He “forgets as he runs.”

REACHING FORWARD:  A Worthy Goal

This is the picture of the runner about to reach the finish line…victory is just a few strides away…the goal line is less than ten yards and a touchdown is about to happen…. what does the athlete do?  He “leans forward….” straining toward the finish line.

Paul’s heart was set on heaven.  CS Lewis said, “If we aim at heaven, we get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth, and we get neither.”

What are you “aiming” for?  Paul was pressing toward a heavenly home where his citizenship was, and toward receiving a glorious body, (“who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory…”).  The Bible says, in 1 Corinthians 15:53 (NLT): For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. The way that it is now is not the way that it shall be.

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 9

THE JOY OF KNOWING JESUS.  

Philippians 3:1-11

What a season this has been!    And if all the other things going on didn’t get you, I killed my first cicada of the season last Sunday…only 999,999 more to go!”.   It is Hurricane Season.  As one meme posted online had it, “Welcome to Jumanji Level 6.”

It all makes us grateful though that our joy does not depend on everything going our way, right?  Philippians is a book that shows us how to have a joy that surpasses our circumstances and transcends even our sorrow and problems.

Joy does not occur because of our circumstances, but in SPITE of them!

Jesus gives us a contagious joy that spreads more effectively than the Covid-19 virus we have been facing.  It is more powerful than the racism and hatred that is tearing our nation apart; more abundant than one million cicadas; and stronger than a Category 5 hurricane.

“In conclusion… (so then) …rejoice in the Lord.” (3:1-2).  How do we do that?

Relating Well to God

The Futility of Religion. (Philippians 3:3-8)

Paul here is painting a clear contrast in the ways we seek to relate to God.  Some try to relate to Him through RELIGIOUS PERFORMANCE.   But that truly does not bring us confidence or joy, no matter how sincere.  There are two contrasting sources of our confidence before God—

Where the confidence of our joy in Christ is NOT found:

  1. In our religious heritage:
  2. In our personal pedigree
  3. In our prideful accomplishments

NONE of those things brought Paul lasting joy.  RELIGION is incapable of doing that.

Religion and Racism

(In the sermon I used a water bottle placed on the platform.  Some letters I could ready, but I could not read what was on the front of the bottle.  I had to “walk around the bottle” to do that).

Hosea 4:6. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

We do not understand.  I am a middle class suburban white male.  I’ll never really understand what it’s like to be black or Hispanic or Asian or another ethnicity.  All I can do is try to get a different perspective.

I do not know the experience of being ostracized  because I opened my home and heart to a child who is not racially like me or of seeing my adopted black son running down the street I live on being chased by a white neighbor with a cell phone videoing.  And I don’t know the pain of burying a child killed because of his skin color.  I haven’t walked far enough around the bottle yet.  I don’t know what it is like to feel the need to take to the street in protest of unfair and unjust treatment and simply to have my pain heard.   I don’t… and I can’t understand those things.  Not standing where I am

What We CAN Know

But I do know some things:

  • Racism a sin problem not a skin problem that resides in our hearts.
  • Racism despises the image of God…every man, woman boy and girl … “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.”  (Acts 17:26)
  • Racism diminishes the Great Commission and the Great      Commandment…If you dislike or distrust people from other races… it is a sin against the One Who made them.
  • Racism detracts from our calling to be ministers of reconciliation
  • Racism distorts the intention of God that “every language, people” and “tribe” be represented in eternity around Gods throne. we will not be just one color in heaven.  (Revelation Chapter 5:6-7)

Racism is Evil

Racism is unvarnished evil that will hide in church buildings and places of worship among those who are religious but who “deny the power” of God.  It is often clothed in righteous garments, but racism is self-righteousness that is sometimes imbedded in churches and sometimes in political systems. It has no place in government, in education or in business.  And it certainly should not be named among those who wear the name of Jesus.  RELIGIONS feed on prejudice and considers an ethnicity or class of people as “less than” they are.

Biblical Christianity as presented in the Bible is NOT a religious system.  IT IS A LIVING AND VITAL RELATIONSHIP with the living God made possible for us through Jesus Christ.  But until we know Him and begin to love Him, it is just a joyless religious performance that amounts to dung.

Where our confidence IS found:

1).  In the PERSON of  Christ: LIVE PERSONALLY. “That I may know HIM….”

It is safe to estimate that almost thirty years had passed since Paul met Jesus on the Damascus Road.  He was still in that eager search to get to know Him!   I think the idea that he could actually KNOW Christ personally was the most radical and life-altering thing that ever happened to him.  He had tried religious performance sincerely.  It left him empty and angry.  And he truly did not KNOW God.

Pam and I were together for 42 years; dating 2 and married 40.  And yet even in all that time… literally a generation together… there were still things I was learning about her, and she was learning about me.  When you love someone, you just want to keep learning about them!  Paul said, “I want to KNOW Him…”.   Some of us are far too easily satisfied with a superficial, casual, Facebook-friend kind of level of relationship with Jesus.  We never get to the joy because we never really get to know much about Jesus.  Paul is saying, in essence, “I want to know Jesus on a deeper, experiential, intimate level.”  And it was to know Him and then keeping on growing in that knowledge.  This is not about research and biographical knowledge.  This was, “I want to know Him on the deepest level possible.”  Right here is where many of us miss it.   We just need to fall in love with Jesus again…or perhaps for the first time.

2).  In the POWER of Christ: LIVE POWERFULLY “…and the power of His resurrection…”

But Paul also wanted to know Jesus through the POWER of the resurrection.  It is the resurrection event that sets Jesus apart from every other religious figure and leader and, in fact, every other person Who ever lived.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life….”.  Now. Present tense.  Not tomorrow.  Not when you die.   When you come to Jesus eternal life begins for you and resurrection is assured!

Jesus really died on that Friday at Golgotha.  He really went into the depths of the abyss of the grave.  And He stayed in that place for three days, as “Jonah was in the belly of the fish” as a foreshadowing of the resurrection.

And when Jesus came back from the dead, He not only had the keys of death, and hell, and the grave with Him, but there was more.  Everything changed because of His resurrection.  God changed everything by this one sacrificial and powerful action.   That is why tolerating a sin like racism in our hearts is in such conflict with being a resurrected person.  It just doesn’t fit.

Death was overcome.  The grave was overwhelmed by victory.  Sin no longer had a death grip on us.  Sin’s chains were broken by the resurrection of Jesus.   Paul was saying, “I want to know the power of the resurrection….”. That power.  Not the power that the world brings.  I want to know “the explosive, transforming power of His resurrection.”

3).  In the PASSION of Christ: LIVE PASSIONATELY  “…and share in His sufferings…”

Now most of us, so far, would say “I’m in.  I’d like to get to know Jesus.  I’d sure would like some of that resurrection power in my life too!”. But this part usually slows our steps a bit.  We’re inviting suffering?

Actually, what Paul was saying was, “I want to be united with Jesus in His death so it becomes effective (from Heaven’s perspective) as MY death….to His burial so I can overcome the grave like He did…and His resurrection…that I may walk in newness of life in Jesus.”   But as our brother and friend Nik Ripken reminds us, “There is no resurrection without a crucifixion.”

I remind you here that this is exactly what we are showing when we are baptized.   We are outwardly and visibly showing that these invisible and inward things have happened.  I am identified with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  As Paul said in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I no longer live…. but Christ lives in me.”  We are showing, not just the passion of Jesus: His death, His burial, and His resurrection—but our fellowship in that; our sharing in it; our being united and one in it.  A oneness or uniting with it as God makes that happen.

Our joy, our hope, and our confidence is found as we become one with Jesus Christ through His death on our behalf….do you believe He died for you?  Through His burial…that He experienced the grave for you?  Through His resurrection…that He overcame the greatest enemy—death—for you?   Our confidence is not in our accomplishments or religious practices, but in His accomplishments and our belief that His victory is ours… His death became our death… and now, His life is our life!

That is where our confidence lies.  That is where our joy comes from…As we live personally in knowing Jesus and powerfully in His resurrection and passionately in our connection with Him.

“That I may know Him…!”

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 8

The Joy of Gospel Friendships

 

We live in a day marked by loneliness.  It is, by most accounts, one of the most pressing emotional needs of our day.  Most people who take their own lives through suicide are not simply depressed.  They are alone.

While they might live in a house filled with people or work in a workplace buzzing with activity, they are isolated and feel that no one knows or cares whether they exist or not.  It is a devastatingly painful thing to be alone—the ONE thing God saw in the perfection of the Garden and world He created that was “not good.”  He said, “It is NOT GOOD for the man to be alone.”

Well, what is true of men is also true of women.  While some are uniquely created to survive life alone, the vast majority are not.  We need people.  We need each other!

Nowhere is that truer than in Christian fellowship.  In fact, it is very clear that we cannot please the Lord without serving others.  We have no call to retreat into monastic existence and never interact with other souls God has made in His Own image.

In fact, it is arguable that you can’t even know yourself by yourself.  Much of our self-understanding comes in our interaction with others.  One of our first impressions in the world as infants comes as we see the face of our mother and father.

Of all the isolating experiences in life, (and we can think of nursing homes, hospitals locked down by Covid restrictions, and even college dorm rooms), one of the most difficult is the enforced loneliness of prison.

There is a social structure in every prison.  There is a hierarchy of people, and even a grouping together of different crimes and convictions, that those imprisoned used to identify with others. But even in that, there are the outliers; the lonely; the solitary confinements.

 

A JOYFUL COMMUNITY

Caesar’s Household

Even though imprisoned, Paul was not alone.  Never, from what it sounds.  Paul was constantly accompanied in his jail cell by members of the praetorium guard.  These were usually soldiers retired or retooled from the battlefield.  They were hardened, crude, and probably hated the work they now had to do.

But Paul saw each of his guards, as their shifts came and went, as opportunities for the Gospel of the Kingdom to advance.  Rather than complaining about having to be chained night and day to one of these rough Roman soldiers, Paul began leading them to Christ one-by-one.  They thought Paul was their prisoner when, as Paul began preaching to them and as they overheard Paul preaching to others, they were the captives!

“Many of Caesar’s household” greet you, Paul would later say.  Many of these soldiers came to the hope of Jesus Christ on their shifts in the prison cell.  And when conversion came, Paul began to disciple them one-by-one.

Think about people that God has, by His sovereign design, brought into your life.  The rough, crass, crude, the hardened, the profane.  Why do you think you moved next door to them, or work in the next cubicle or on the same team beside them?  God didn’t put them there for you to ignore and avoid.  They’re your mission field.

Here is a plan.  Start with the worst person.  Spend time with them, coffee breaks, maybe a lunch time.  Befriend them.  I know this works; I have seen it!

When she worked at Mayo Clinic, my wife Pam was the “patron saint of lost causes.”  She drew the hardest, most difficult people into her circle.  She brought them little gifts.  She loved on them, prayed for them.  And some came to Christ through that friendship she brokered—a friendship few others would pursue.

I did not realize until her funeral what an impact she had on her workplace.  Person after person came to tell me what she had meant to them and what she had done for them.  I knew a little before then.

We can be contagious with joy in our workplace or classroom, or a little dark cloud that rains on everybody!  Which would you rather be known as when your life is over?

 

Paul’s Workforce

Paul did not accomplish what he did alone.  A team of people supported Paul.  It was not a lot of people, but each was significant.  Remember, Paul did not work alone. His community of friendships included Barnabas, Luke, Silas, Titus, Euodia and Syntyche, Lydia, Tychitus, and Aquilla and Priscilla. Paul led a work group that changed the gentile world for eternity in only 20 years!  What made it so effective and what made it joyful? Obviously, Paul had joy in what he did.

You need a team.  I’m not saying a work team, but you need team mates to walk through life with you.  People who can cheer you, and encourage you, and stand with you when your life is turning hard.

As I write this, I just finished engaging in a group prayer email to a friend in Virginia.  He served a ministry I’m a part of, and was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor that was already metastasized when they discovered it.

He is a team builder.  He is an encourager.  He spreads joy.  And now, the team he helped build is turning inward to encourage him and his wife; to bring them the same joy that he helped others find.

Who is on your “team?” You cannot do all that God wants you to do alone.  We need each other.  We need a team.

 

Paul’s Gospel Friendships

Paul had two friendships in particular that he takes time to mention in detail in this letter.  Timothy and Epaphroditus had touched Paul’s life deeply, and in so doing helped in the sharing of the Gospel.

1). Timothy

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.”     Philippians 2:19-24 ESV

I am always struck by the things said about and to Timothy because, obviously, that’s my name!  I have always taken the words of the two letters called by his (my!) name to heart.  I hear them personally and have for the entirety of my Christian walk.

Paul had poured his life into Timothy.  From earlier years, he met and was impressed with the young Greek man.  Paul did for Timothy what we need men to do for other men today.

One of Timothy’s problems was a spiritually absent father.  He did not have a godly father to look to as an example and model of the faith.  So Paul’s willingness to take Timothy on as a protege has served as the basis for countless discipleship ministries through the years.

But as important as Paul was for Timothy as he grew in faith, and walked with Paul in some hard places, at some point the relationship became more collegial and friendship-based.  A true Gospel friendship.

It was Christ Who united Timothy and Paul, and knit them together in Christian fellowship.  But as Paul aged and became more limited in what he could do, Timothy was able to step in and be there for him.

In one of his last written works, 2 Timothy, Paul requested that Timothy come and stand with him in prison and even to the day of his “graduation” to heaven!  Timothy was the last person Paul wanted to see on earth.  That is not a negative statement.  It is the greatest compliment Paul could pay.

Whose eyes are the last you would want to look into before saying goodbye to this world?  That is the person Timothy was to Paul.  “I have no one like him,” Paul said, “who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.”

Paul saw a selflessness in Timothy that was unique.  Timothy did not have his own personal agenda.  Paul could trust him with an assignment like no other.  He knew Timothy’s priority was “the things of Jesus Christ.” He cared for people, but he cared first for Jesus.

Obviously Timothy knew personally about the Philippians.  “You know…” Paul said.  You personally have seen with your own eyes how he cares for me as a son for a father.  You have watched him as he did it.

But Paul really did not want to release Timothy too quickly.  He wanted to see “how it would go with me.”  Again I suspect that Paul’s wish was not to face death without Timothy there if possible.  So his reluctance was borne of how important Timothy was to him as he was in prison.

I truly hope you have someone like that in your life.  You won’t have a lot.  Some will not have anyone.  But great joy comes in knowing someone like Paul had in Timothy and, I’m certain, as Timothy felt about Paul.

2). Epaphrotidus

“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”    Philippians 2:25-30 ESV

Paul mentions Epaphroditus by name as well.  Epaphroditus was likely a well-known and much trusted layman in the Philippian community, and was the carrier of their gift to Paul in prison.

Seldom do we hear Paul heap more praise on a man than he does on this relatively unknown individual.  He called him “my brother,” “my fellow worker,” “my fellow soldier,” “your messenger,” “a minister to my need,” and his sacrificial ministry “risking his life” to complete this assignment.

Apparently the rigors of the trip to Paul’s place of imprisonment almost took the life of Epaphroditus.  Paul said “he was ill, near to death.”  And though news did not travel quickly in Biblical times, the church had obviously heard of this illness.

“But God had mercy on him, and on me…” and brought him to recovery.  The Apostle also knew that they were anxious to hear about his well-being and so Paul said, “I am more eager to send him…” that they might be relieved to see him doing well.

There must have been dozens or perhaps hundreds of people who came alongside Paul in his ministry.  They would come in and out of his life and become life-giving friends to the Apostle.  These were not trained ministry professionals, but Christian lay men and women.

It was not their ability that commended them to Paul, but their availability to be used by God.  Some, as with Epaphroditus, paid a steep price for their sacrifice.

“Honor such men,” Paul said.  The Gospel cannot go forward without them.

Maybe, like Timothy, you are called to ministry at some point or in some fashion.  If so, serve well as he did.

Maybe, like Epaphroditus, you are a person with a different vocation but look for ways that God can meaningfully use you.  Serve faithfully, both in your daily work, and in opportunities provided for you to encourage and serve a missionary or a pastor or your local body.

“Honor such men,” Paul said.  There are few greater honors than being recruited in the Kingdom as “a fellow soldier and fellow worker” in Kingdom matters.

And beside all else, find a way to be a friend!  The world needs a lot of those.  Pastors, ministry professionals, missionaries are crying out for a Timothy or an Epaphroditus to come alongside them.

I pray you can find one…and I pray you can be one!

02 Jonah: The Strom-Tossed Prophet

Jonah: The Storm-Tossed Prophet

(Jonah 1:7-16)

 

It is not difficult to see in the early verses of Chapter 1 and now as we continue further, that Jonah’s mess was of his own making.  Rebellion always leads us into a storm.

And Jonah was in one.  A GREAT storm, the Bible calls it.  Jonah, you remember, was running from the clearly revealed and spoken will of God.  Jonah was sent by God to bring light and hope to a GREAT city. Jonah went the other way and found himself in the middle of a GREAT storm.  Few of us receive as clear an assignment as Jonah received.

But to Jonah, this assignment seemed impossible.  It was impossible first, because Nineveh was a GREAT city.  I’m sure most reading this have been in some of our national urban centers like New York, or LA, or Miami.  The sheer number of people are overwhelming and intimidating if you don’t live around it.

Growing up in a city with a population of about 38,000 even Jacksonville is an overwhelmingly large city.  It is the second metropolitan location I have lived near, including Louisville, Ky.  But neither Jacksonville or Louisville look large next to Manhattan, or Dubai, or Dallas or Guatemala City.

Jonah lived in a very parochial setting, surrounded by people like him and people he liked.  He knew many of them and if not, they probably knew him.  Going to Nineveh was way out of Jonah’s comfort zone.

But not only did it seem an impossible assignment from God to go and preach in such a large city, but it seemed an implausible one as well.  Jonah was being asked to go and offer grace and an opportunity for repentance to some of Israel’s most hated enemies!  They likely didn’t even speak the same language.

It would be like a Jewish rabbi being sent to talk about the God of Israel in Tehran!  “I can’t go there!  They hate Jewish people there!” And that was Jonah’s conundrum.  He hated the Assyrian people.  And they reciprocated their hatred.

But Jonah had forgotten the forbearance and mercy of God.  When Moses saw the back of God’s glory as he was hidden in the cleft of a rock in the wilderness, the word he heard as the Lord passed by was,

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34:6)

God’s nature had not changed since that proclamation.  And it still has not changed!  God loves your enemies as much as He loves you!  Jonah was to be an emissary carrying that message to an idolatrous people.

 

The Fleeing Prophet

But Jonah ran from that opportunity. He fled west when God clearly told him to go east.  Jonah’s intention was to book passage on a ship carrying him, literally, to the end of the world as far as the Jewish thought of that day was concerned.  He was going to Tarshish, and probably bought a one-way ticket.

With this act, Jonah was retiring from the vocation of prophet.  He quit.  It was too hard, too unreasonable, too confusing.  He hung up his prophetic mantle and ran.

Jonah is about God shaping a prophet.  The story ends in Chapter 4 without a concluding word.  We leave Jonah stewing on a hillside under a withered castor oil plant.  We don’t know if he re-embraced his calling or not.  Jonah may have been finished with God, but God was not yet finished with Jonah!  Romans 11 tells us “the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.”  When God calls, God never changes His mind…even if we change ours.

Before we get there, however, we go on an incredible journey with Jonah.  And that’s where our present text finds us.

Jonah had found a boat.  Again, in his effort to escape from “the Presence of the Lord,” Jonah saw his ability to book passage on a ship out of Joppa that just “happened” to be going to Tarshish as good fortune to him.  “You’re lucky:  There’s one boat left and it’s going to Tarshish!”

It’s interesting, when we find ourselves in rebellion and disobedience, and we seem to “get lucky” and take a job we shouldn’t have, or leave our family for another person (“surely God must have sent this person to me”), that we see these as signs of our good fortune.

The Proverbs tell us “there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end are the ways of death.” The Tarshish-bound vessel seemed “right” to Jonah, but it was about to transport him into the middle of a fight for his life!

 

The Sleeping Prophet

Jonah was sleeping when he should have been praying.  It took a frightened ship’s captain shaking him awake in the hold of the vessel during a “great” storm.  Jonah was physically exhausted, no doubt to sleep through a storm like this.

But more than that, Jonah was spiritually asleep.  Here is a word for the church in a fearful time.  The men on this vessel were terrified, out of control, and frightened for their life.

And in the bottom of their vessel lay a man, sound asleep, who should have been awake, and on the deck, and telling these sailors to call out to the Lord of the heaven, sea, and earth.

One of the influential voices from the Jesus movement in the 1970s was Brooklyn-born Keith Green.  His prophetic songs still haunt me today.  One song, called “Asleep in the Light” has a refrain which says

The world is sleeping in the dark,
which the church just can’t fight
Cause it’s asleep in the light.

The sailors on the deck above were living in spiritual darkness.  They were crying out to non-existent pagan gods which could offer no relief for their situation.   Jonah meanwhile slept through his opportunity to be light in the darkness of their situation.

Before we start throwing stones at Jonah, however, we need to take a look in the mirror.  We are living through a time, in this generation, that will define the human race from this time forward.

In the midst of the craziness of people’s responses in this fearful, anxious time…what will history say the church did?   The sailors on the deck of Jonah’s ocean-going vessel were terrified for their lives.  They were ready to try anything, and more receptive to truth than they had ever been.

And yet, the church’s voice is ominously silent.  Are we fearful of the storm?  Do we not know the God of the virus?  Are we beholding to human definitions and limitations and the rebuke and fear of “political correctness?”

Or is this our hour to wake up?  We’ve been “asleep in the light” for longer than I can remember.   Our message no longer has relevance to a broken world. They think we have nothing to say that must be heard.

I wonder if it’s possible that, like the frightened sailors, the world is now searching for a true word, a hopeful word in this storm?  And if they are, can we rouse ourselves from our slumber?

I find myself convicted by this passage.  I see myself in Jonah’s face, wrinkled by blankets of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to be inconvenienced by the cries of despair around me.   More often than I’d like to admit, I hear the cries and roll over and go back to sleep…always wrapped in the comfort of my excuses.

When will we stop dickering over our petty political posturing and step up to be the church?  When will we prioritize the message of the cross over any other message?  When will we rouse from our sleep and ask the Lord of Heaven and Earth to still the storm and show His power to the fear-blinded world around us?

A fearful, sin-blinded, and storm-tossed world is waiting for a word from the sleeping church.  If God has truly placed us here “for such a time as this…” isn’t now the time to rouse from our slumber and speak and live for Jesus?

Jonah never found his identity, never let the sailors know who he was as a prophet.  He never embraced his identity as God’s man in that situation.  He hid in fear…in apathy…and turned a deaf ear to the despairing cries of the sailors on the ship.

The Hiding Prophet

When Jonah was awakened in the belly of the ship, not by the storm but by an insistent, pagan ship’s captain.  I don’t know how it goes for you, but there have been times that I have been awakened and didn’t know I had been asleep!

The problem today with the church is, we think we are awake.

But in reality, we are asleep.

 

The Waking Prophet

Whether or not Jonah knew the despair of his situation was unclear. He had slept through the storm.  Jesus did the same in the Gospels.  When Jesus was awakened tough, He calmed the storm.

When Jonah awakened, he did the same, though in a different way.  Jonah had already missed a lot of the action:

“But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So, the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” Jonah 1:4-6

Jonah was awakened by a pagan sailor throwing question after question at his passenger:

“How can you sleep through this?”

“Get up and call out to your god.”

One of the awkward moments for a backslidden, disobedient Christian is having someone ask him to pray for them.  “Everyone on this ship is calling out to their god, Jonah.  Why won’t you?”

Jonah could have honestly responded, “My God and I aren’t on Speaking terms at this time.”  But he climbed wearily to the deck and saw the peril of the storm.

“And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So, they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.”   (Jonah 1:7-10)

The men in desperation did the best they could spiritually.  They knew they were at the mercy of a power greater than they themselves could control.

And so, they cast lots.  This was a common way of seeking answers and solving problems in that day.  They were superstitious, like most people are who reject the truth of the Living God.

We may not resort to “casting lots” per se but a world that flounders spiritually will consult fortune tellers, Ouija boards, palm readers, horoscopes and other occult and voodoo and Wiccan approaches to try and find answers for life.

Paul tells us in the New Testament that when we reject the truth, we are susceptible to believe any lie.  The more we push the truth back, the more appealing a lie will seem to us.  We see it happening all the time in the media, and in entertainment, and even in politics and government.

These men were doing all that they knew to do.  And the lot, interestingly, fell to Jonah.  He was the problem.  He was the reason for the storm.

Immediately questions began to come:

“Who are you?”

“Where are you from”

“What is your nationality?”

“Who is your god?”

“What did you do to make him angry?”

When he answered their questions, they were terrified!  “What is this you have done?” He had already told them that he was running away from the presence of the Lord.

And so now, they are left with a quandary.  They know who is to blame for the storm.  They know he is from the Hebrew people and they had obviously heard of the God of Israel and were terrified by that knowledge!

What are we to do to stop this storm?  The answer surprises them.

And repels them.  Jonah said, “Throw me overboard and the storm will stop.”

 

The Sinking Prophet

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So, they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

Jonah’s suggestion that they throw him in the raging waves did not appeal to the men.  As desperate as they were, they still sought to escape the tempest by their own strength.  The men “rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not…”

They feared the Lord of the storm.  They were afraid of what His wrath might do if they injured one of His prophets.  Their confession and their statement “…for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you” was an expression of theological confidence that Jonah should have demonstrated.

It’s an embarrassment to Christian people at times when the world speaks more truth about God than we do.  Certainly, it seems at times that unsaved, worldly people have a more certain moral compass than those who claim to know the Lord.

These things are cause for embarrassment for those who named the name of the Lord as their God.  We should be proclaiming truth to a lost world, not the world repeating things to us about God.  We should be shining out in our lifestyles and moral choices, reflecting God’s light to the world.

And yet far too often it is the case that we are outlived and sometimes, out-thought spiritually by a world that has no access to the Holy Spirit.  These things should not be true of us.

After praying to the God of Jonah to forgive them for casting His prophet into the stormy waters, they threw Jonah overboard.  Immediately, the waters calmed…the winds ceased…the boat returned to normal…the skies cleared.

And they did the unlikely…the unexpected.  They worshiped.  They truly worshiped the Lord of Heaven and Earth and the sea and offered sacrifices.  Once again, these are things Jonah should have done, but would not do.

In his backslidden, disobedient state Jonah bore witness to the greatness of God in spite of himself!  God accomplished His greater purpose even without the positive help of Jonah, and even more in spite of Jonah’s efforts to frustrate God’s will!

But now, Jonah was adrift in an ocean, and truly in the hands of God.

 

A Concluding Application

All of the little Book of Jonah is an incredible well-told, artfully written literary work.  It takes on so many themes and so many important subjects that one time reading it will lead to many others.

But a question that arises time after time is this:  Did this really happen?  Is this (as some have said to me) a “preacher story?” In other words, is it some made-up or hyperbolized anecdote or is this a recounting of an actual event with a real person?

It is certainly a true story (actual event, historical rooting) as far as the Lord Jesus was concerned.  He referred, not only to the Jonah account, but read Himself into it!

In Matthew 12:39-40, Jesus spoke of being “three days and three nights” in the ground as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish.  Jesus saw Himself as the fulfillment of Jonah and of Jonah’s ministry.

Now there are certainly some hard things in that to understand.  Jesus was not comparing Himself with a disobedient, fleeing prophet.  By no means.  But there are two things we need to pay attention to in what Jesus said.

First, Jonah was cast into the sea as a means of appeasing the wrath of God being demonstrated in the storm.  His sacrifice saved the ship and the men aboard from perishing.  He allowed them to offer his body as a sacrifice for the sake of their salvation.

Like us, the men sought first, in vain, to save themselves.  They worked.  They tried hard.  They were genuine and sincere in their effort, but without the sacrifice of another their efforts were in vain.

Second, Jonah was swallowed (next chapter) by a “gedola” or great fish.  Not necessarily a whale, though it could have been.  The question that lingers in the Jonah story, especially since Jesus points to it as a type of His coming death and resurrection, is “did Jonah die?”  We will come back to that in the next session.

But clearly, we see in Jonah an Old Testament telling of the Gospel that would not be preached by the church for many years after Jonah walked on the earth.  How beautiful that, even before Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem, the Gospel story was being outlined and told by a soggy, Old Testament prophet named Jonah.

Only.  God.

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Finding Joy in Living Out the Mind of Christ. (Phil 2:12-18)

It is a wonderful and even transformative thing to spend time thinking about the mind of Christ, reading books about how to “be transformed” by the renewing of our minds, and listening to music to help us imbed these thoughts within us.  But the Christian life is not just about our thinking.  It’s about our living out what we’re thinking.  That is where the reality of the Christian life really meets the road.

We live out what we put into our minds.  Our thoughts drive our actions.  We do not do anything, at least anything of significance, if we haven’t thought about first, (unless we are toddlers).   If you are parenting a toddler (and really, even older children) it’s an act of futility to ask them “why did you do that?” when they do something disobedient.   They will look at you with either impish or innocent eyes and say, “I don’t know.”  For some reason that escapes me we think that children are rational in their actions and thoughtful in their behaviors.

But maturity should bring a certain intentionality and thoughtfulness to our actions.  We act a certain way as thinking people because we are thinking a certain way before we act.

During a training event in our church done for our local community, a law enforcement agency came and walked us through an “active shooter” event.  They taught us a number of helpful and fascinating things, but one of the things that stuck with me was the comment “your body will never go where your mind hasn’t gone first.”

Now the implication of that comment was to encourage us to plan an escape route and even practice it.  We all did that before we left the building.  It was a very practical lesson in human nature.

We are always acting out something that is pre-programmed into our minds.  When Paul tells us in Romans 12 that we are to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds,” he was pointing to something like this.  We need to think through our behaviors, our actions, and our “living out” the Christian life.  Then, our bodies will follow what our minds tell us to do.

In Philippians 2:12-18 we see the implications of living out thinking like Christ.  Our joy comes as we connect thoughts with actions.  According to this text, we are to live out of faith, as we:

  • Work out our own salvation
  • Hold out the Word of life
  • Pour out ourselves in service

 

WORKING OUT OUR SALVATION

Now before we react to this on the basis of “we are saved by grace through faith and not our own works,” let’s carefully hear what Paul is saying, and not what he isn’t saying.

Paul ISN’T saying that our salvation depends on us.  It does not.  “It is God Who is at work in you to will and to do His good pleasure.” The very fact that you WANT to work out your salvation is evidence that you have a salvation to “work out!”

Richard Melick in his commentary on Philippians says that this phrase is actually a play on words.  We are to “work out” what God has “worked in.” (NACC, Melick, p 111)

So, this isn’t God leaving it up to us to get ourselves to the “finish line” of eternal life.  That was bought and paid for on Calvary.  It is a completed work of redemption and the ransom has been paid.

IN fact, Paul’s presumption of the Philippians faithfulness in obeying Christ is stated in verse 12, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed…” He assumes their past obedience.  This is just carrying it forward into real life.

The New Living Translation says, “Put into action God’s saving work in your life.” That captures the idea of this passage with simplicity.  “Working out” salvation simply means, “don’t leave what has happened to you in the realm of theory.” One commentator has it, “put boots on what you know.”  Walk it out.  Live it out.  Work it out.

There are two aspects that need consideration to understand this relationship between what God does and what we do.  First of all, this is about our RESPONSIBILITY.

Now there is something about that word that makes some recoil.  “Responsibility? Are you going to talk about my duty now?” Well, actually, yes.  We have a responsibility, a duty if you will that we must keep in tension.

Yes, there are places in the Bible that makes us sound like passive instruments in God’s hands.  We “abide” in the Vine.  He is the Potter, we are “clay.”  Doesn’t sound like vine branches or lumps of clay have much of an active role in the process really.

But then the other side of this is while we are branches attached to the vine and clay in the Potter’s hand, we are also ambassadors, soldiers, watchmen, children. All of these are positions of responsibility.  (Briscoe, p 71)

Alongside the word responsibility we see the REALITY of working out of salvation.  Paul was a realist about the Christian faith.  We move it into fanciful or casual categories.  We want to emphasize Jesus’ word telling the disciples (and by inference, us) that we are His “friends.” But if we treat Jesus with the same level of casualness that we treat our friends, then our relationship with Him will bear no fervor, no great Spirit-empowered deeds, and little or no life at all.

The reality, we are reminded here, is that our salvation is to be worked out like a runner works out on the track, or by laboring for the Lord.  “Running” and “laboring” define Paul’s understanding of what it means to “work out” our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Another word in this phrase that needs some attention is the personal pronoun “your.”  Work out “your own” salvation.  That means how it is going to look for you to do that and for me to do it are two different realities.  We need to be careful not to judge another person as they are “working out” their salvation.  There is a lot of latitude and liberty in the Christian life, and what may be an important part of your own spiritual discipline may not be applicable to other believers.

So, we are to “work out” salvation.  Second, we are to

 

HOLDING OUT THE WORD 

Now in thinking about the translation and meaning of this phrase, I have leaned back into some different versions of the Bible.  “Holding out” the word of life can mean several things is the translation that most agree on.  It can mean:

1). “Hold it out” as an offering to those without life

2). “Hold it fast” as in clinging tightly to it

3). “Hold it forth” as in allowing it to be reflected in your lifestyle.

While each of these have warrant, I tend to lean on the latter translation as the better of the three.  I do so, actually, because of what occurs before the command to “hold forth” the Word.

Tying back to the first imperative to “work out” our salvation, Paul now shows us what that should look like.  As God works salvation INTO us, we are to be “lights that shine” in a “twisted (crooked, perverse) generation.”

In other words, our lives should look very different since we came to Christ.  Of the ways we demonstrate that difference, we see three:

1). Don’t complain and argue

Complaining says, “I didn’t get my way.” Arguing says, “I’m going to get my way.” Both are rooted in selfishness and self-centeredness.  While you may argue for your rights, you sacrifice your light when you do so.

Now this is not to say you shouldn’t complain if there’s a fly in your salad at a restaurant.  You shouldn’t just eat the fly.  But neither should you make the waiter feel like a fly!

2). Don’t murmur and dispute

 “Murmuring and disputing” has a lot to do with how we relate to each other, which in turn has a great deal to do with how the community around us perceives us.  Churches for too long have been known as centers of conflict, and personal vendettas, and pools of gossip.

Frankly, nothing dims the light of the Gospel and steals our joy like conflict and broken fellowship in the church.  We have nothing to say to a lost and broken world.  Jesus said, “They will know that you are My disciples when you love one another.” When we are “murmuring and disputing” we deny the witness of the Risen Christ among us.

3). Be blameless and pure.

This was the goal of completion of the Philippian’s and of our character.  We are not hearing this as Paul asserting perfection among them, but a striving toward being “blameless” and without reproach from outsiders.  But further they were to be “pure” in the privacy of their own hearts before God.

A life lived like this will truly shine and light the world in a “crooked and depraved generation.”  We are to stand out more and more as different from the world we live in.  We are not crooked.  We are not depraved.  We are not morally bereft or bankrupt.  They were to “cling tightly” or “hold fast” to the Gospel which saved them, and their joy would come as they become known for that.

So, they were to “work out” their salvation with fear and trembling.  They were to “hold out” the Gospel through their relationships with each other and with God Himself.  And third, we are to

 

POUR OUT OUR LIVES 

Paul continues to clearly lay out the pathway to joyful and contagious Christian living.  It stands is tremendous contrast to the way many seek to live and orient their lives.

The remarks in this last section seem to indicate and look toward Paul’s impending martyrdom.  He knew his life was on the line as he waited in prison.  His appeals were over and if it was the desire of the court, he would be executed.

Paul lived every moment of every day with the executioner’s sword poised over his head.  Some of us feel that way, I think, in our current crisis with COVID-19.  But Paul said “even if…”  Even if I am “poured out” like a drink offering.

A drink offering was always poured over a sacrifice already given to God.  It was a done deal before the drink offering was poured.  Paul’s “sacrifice” was his Gospel-centered service to the Philippians.  His service was his sacrifice.

And it was one he made gladly…. even (his words) joyfully!  He said, “Even if I am poured out…”  This is a very interesting Greek word that he uses.  In Greek it is “spendo.”  It sounds just like “spend” in English.  When you go shopping you “pour out” (“spendo”) your income.

Paul saw life as he possessed gladly “spent” on the Philippians.  Jesus was His joy.  They were his life. His pride was in their continuing steadfast in the faith.  His ministry to them was his offering.  Paul said, “whatever happens (even if) I rejoice” and then he turned to them and said, “and you should rejoice and be glad with me.”

If the orientation of our lives is getting and keeping, we will miss the joy.  Every time.  Philippians teaches us that joy comes, not from our abundance, but from our willingness to release all on the sacrificial altar of ministry to Jesus Christ as we pour out (remember, “spendo”) our lives for others.

As we look for the true source of joy, this is a large part of the puzzle.  Are you giving…pouring out your lifetime, energy, resources—for others?  Or are you hoarding and keeping these gifts God has given you to spend on yourselves.

If your answer is the latter, this explains why nothing you do brings joy.  We work out our salvation; we hold out the Word of life; we pour out of lives in service to others in Jesus Name.

And God will make certain that joy is “worked in” to our hearts.  Matt Redmond wrote a song called “Shine” inspired by the words we have looked at in this section.  His song says,

“We will shine like stars in the universe,
holding out your truth in the darkest places.
We’ll be living for your glory.
Jesus, we’ll be living for your glory.
We will burn so bright with your praise, O God,
and declare your life to this broken world.
We’ll be living for your glory, Jesus.
We’ll be living for your glory.
Like the sun so radiantly sending light for all to see,
let your holy church arise. We will shine” (“Shine,” Matt Redman, © 2006 Thank You Music).

 

01 Jonah: The Storm-Tossed Prophet

JONAH, THE STORM-TOSSED PROPHET

(Jonah 1:1-6)

JONAH text. (Jonah 1:1-6)

We make some common mistakes as we read Jonah.  Only 48 verses in Hebrew, it mentions a “great fish” 4 times.  It mentions a “great city” (Nineveh) 9 times.  Jonah’s name comes up 18 times.  But God is mentioned 38 times in 48 verses!  Now just doing the math, what is Jonah about?  Well, we might correctly say “a GREAT GOD!”

It’s a great story to tell children, but we miss the “grown up” message of Jonah.  Jonah raises some of the toughest questions we wrestle with as Christians in the 21st Century:  Questions on racism, and nationalism, and death, and judgment, and God’s mercy and compassion, and God’s sovereignty.  Jonah deals with our call to missions, and evangelism, and our problems with idolatry.

I want to deal today, not so much with the storyline and narrative of Jonah, but to talk about some very serious mistakes that Jonah made…mistakes we also are prone to make.

First, Jonah underestimated how FAR God’s love reaches

Jonah went down to Joppa….

(NOTE:  You might remember Joppa from the New Testament.  It was in Joppa that Peter led a soldier named Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert, to faith in Jesus.  But this was after God sent Peter a vision in Acts 10 to teach him “call nothing unclean that I have called clean.”  Peter had to overcome his prejudice. It’s maybe just ironic that it was the same Joppa where Jonah had gone to run with his own prejudice.)

The Biblical storyline begins with Jonah running “away from the Presence of the Lord” to the city of Joppa, to book passage on a ship to Tarshish.  One of the things that happen through the Book of Jonah is that we see the character, or attributes of God either plainly stated or implied in the story.

One of the first we’ve already encountered.  God is merciful and compassionate.  His call to Jonah is proof of this.  Jonah was not a philanthropist.  Nothing in this prophet could indicate he had an ounce of compassion toward Assyria.  God had to forcibly impress on him His desire for a message to be sent.

Jonah also was about to learn of an attribute of God’s nature called “omnipresence,” or “God is everywhere.” Conversely, it means we cannot go anywhere God is not.  God is not local.  He is not regional.  He is not national, nor does He belong to any political party, race or culture of people.  God transcends all of this and stands over it.

God sent Jonah to warn and testify to the Assyrian people…ruthless enemies of Israel.  They were an unusually cruel people and were considered a “terrorist state” people Jonah had been conditioned to hate; people that were beyond Jonah’s capacity to love, given his history with them.

Jonah was a prophet to Israel’s northern Kingdom and served King Jeroboam.   We read about him in 2 Kings 14:25 where he prophesied that Israel would regain territory lost to their enemies.  It came to pass as he predicted.

Jonah was a nationalistic, gung-ho, pro-Israel prophet.  He was a patriot to Israel and to his king in every sense of the word.  But God was about to take him from his pedestal of popularity and place him in the deepest struggle of his life.  Jonah was about to go into a storm that left him wondering about this God with Whom he claimed to speak.  Did he really know Him at all?  Had He been forsaken by Him?

Jonah is also about God’s will.  God has a desired will for each of our lives.  The debate is usually about just how detailed the plan is.  But most would agree, if God is our Creator, and He is Sovereign and in control of all things created, as well as the time we are living, then He has some intention for us to live out.  Sometimes elements of that plan frustrate us.

Jonah didn’t want to go where God was sending.  Sometimes the greatest opportunities for life begin just outside of your comfort zone.  But we don’t immediately see these times as opportunities.  We see them as a problem.

Jonah’s problem was his love was limited, as yours and mine tend to be, to include only those we like.  Or those who like us.  Or those who ARE like us.  Jonah couldn’t understand how God could love the Assyrian people.  In Jonah’s religion, God blessed good people (meaning Israelites) and judged bad people (meaning non-Israelites).  He couldn’t reconcile God’s mercy and God’s justice as he saw it.  How can a just God forgive and allow a horrible nation to repent and come back to Him?  It didn’t fit Jonah’s theological paradigm.

Eric Mason said that Jonah let his SOCIOLOGY overrule his THEOLOGY.  He allowed RACE to trump GRACE.  Racism and nationalism make the mistake of saying that if we hate someone or refuse to love them or think they don’t deserve to be loved, God must feel the same way.

It’s our duty to hate them too.

But Who does God love?  And Who does God hate?  And how do we know?

Second, Jonah underestimated how BIG God is

God HURLED a storm….

There is an interplay in Jonah with the adjective “GREAT,” or, in Hebrew, “gedola.”  The same word is used interchangeably to describe a “gedola” (great) fish, a “gedola” (great) city, and a “gedola” (great) storm.

The word “gedola” has to do with immensity, dimension, intensity and size.  We use the English word “mega” in much the same way.  “Mega” could describe a hit movie in a theater, a city, a shopping center, a sale in a store, and other uses.

As Jonah ran from the will of God, which was specifically to “go and preach to Nineveh, that “gedola” city.  But Jonah’s refusal to go and do as God desired led him directly into the path of a “gedola” storm, and later into the belly of a “gedola” fish!

That is exactly what happens when we run from the revealed and clearly stated will of God.  We run from God’s best into our mess.  We abandon the glory and joy of working with God to accomplish His purposes in the world, and squander them on the confusion and chaos of trying to do things our own way.

The little book of Jonah also stood as a stark message to the people of Israel.  While I believe Jonah really happened (so did Jesus by the way, if you’ll check out Matthew 12:39-40), it is presented as a larger working parable for the people of Israel.

Jonah had simply been sent by God to do what God had intended for Israel to do all along:  Being a light to the nations; being a missionary people to a lost world.

But Israel had squandered their opportunity by emphasizing the privilege of being the people of God and refusing to embrace the responsibility that goes with that.  Lest we think we’ve ironed that out, we haven’t.  God grafted us in (Romans 9) to be a new growth on the vine of Israel that would hopefully bear fruit, since the original vine did not.

We find ourselves doing the same thing, however.  We would much rather emphasize our privilege as the people of God.  We have grown complacent in the thought and belief that we are saved, so that should be enough, and that’s all God expects.  Now, let’s enjoy the privilege of the people of God.

But God is still seeking a people to be the light…to be the missionaries who will go with His Presence and bless ‘all the families (nations) of the earth’ as Abram was called to be a blessing in Genesis 12.  The Great Commission that Jesus left us in Matthew 28:19-20Sadly, like Israel we miss it.  Like Jonah, we run from it.

Jonah kept going down…an interesting metaphor that occurs throughout Jonah.  The further Jonah ran, the further down he went.  He actually thought he could get somewhere that God couldn’t see or know where he was.

You see, Jonah thought God’s “jurisdiction” as God ended at the border of Israel.  That God was not even God of the oceans, and that he could go there to hide from the face of the Lord.

David the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 139,

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:7-12)

Assyrians, like most cultures of the day, were idolatrous.  They had their own religions and their own deities.  They worshiped the god Marduk.

One underlying message of Jonah, though, is that he also was idolatrous.  He had created God in his own image…made Him an Israelite…believed He hated Israel’s enemies and only really loved the Jews.  And He stayed in Israel!  Blessed to be a blessing to the nations.

Whether we acknowledge God as God or not, He still is.  Though none in Assyria named the name of Yahweh in worship, He was still their Creator and their sustainer.  He was about to become their REDEEMER.  It was God’s grace for His creation that kept them alive.

You know when the Bible says, “Every knee will bow, and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…”  that’s what this is saying.  Whether we acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all or not doesn’t change the reality that JESUS IS LORD!  We will either acknowledge this and bow before Him or resist Him and be judged by Him.

And we will never take missions seriously until we understand and acknowledge this reality.  God loves other nations as much as He loves America.  Now if you are trapped in nationalistic thinking, that statement will give you some heartburn.  You may say you believe it, but your heart recoils from it.  There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, until it becomes nationalism which means you believe your country, your nationality, is the only one God cares about…or the people He loves most.

The problem with a theology that is nationalistic in nature is that it reduces God.  As long as we see God as the God of only nation, one people group, one culture…we reduce not only God, but we reduce ourselves.  Nationalistic religion is self-absorbed, and self-centered.  And when the chips are down, it is easy to kick a nationalistic God to the sidelines.

We will never take God seriously as long as we reduce Him to a size we can comprehend, explain, or relate to.  If you can understand all of God, you are not truly understanding God at all.  Our sin is making God too small in our eyes.  Jonah made God small in his own eyes by believing He could only be the God of Israel.

We are guilty of making Him smaller than our problems.  We think, “God is big, but obviously the coronavirus is bigger, right?”  Well of course it’s not, but we can drift into thinking that way.

Is God bigger than cancer?  Than your marital problem?  Than mental illness?  Than addiction?  Is God bigger than the grave?  And we make Him smaller than our passions.  We make Him smaller than our causes, or our agendas, and even our nation.  We use God to serve what we want or what we think is best.  That’s what Jonah was guilty of doing. That’s what Israel had done.  And if we aren’t careful, we will repeat the same sin.

God is sovereign. He is bigger than this universe.  Over every problem, and bigger than every issue you confront.  In our Milky Way galaxy, there are over one hundred billion STARS.  Our sun is among the smallest of all stars.  In our known universe, as far as we can see and estimate, there are no less than one hundred billion GALAXIES!   This awe and wonder made the Psalmist David reply,

“When I consider the heavens, the handiwork you have made what is man that You are mindful of him…?”

Trust me, God is more than enough to handle any issue you are dealing with right now.  With David the Psalmist, we’re amazed to know that God knows us…and cares.  He is God of the farthest-flung star in our universe.  And He certainly reigns as God of every nation, every ethnic group, and every piece of ground on earth.

Third, Jonah underestimated how DEEP God’s mercy will go

God pursued Jonah into the depths, even in Jonah’s disobedience.  You know, whenever you run from God’s will or God’s command or God’s presence, you always go “DOWN.” You never go “UP!”

The story of Jonah is the story of God giving a rebellious, disobedient prophet a second chance.  Jonah was confronted in the belly of the very ship he had booked passage on by a pagan sailor who was showing more devotion to his false God than Jonah was to the One True God!

How far will God go to get our attention when we’re in a state of rebellion?  Well first, we need to be very afraid when God leaves us alone!  Here is an amazing act of a merciful God Who would not let go of His rebellious child’s hand, no matter how hard he tried to pull away.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me… (ruthlessly pursue) me” (Psalm 23)

God in grace doesn’t turn His back on us, even when we are determined to turn our back on Him.  Like the story of the prodigal son, (which parallels Jonah on many fronts), maybe you’ve found yourself running “away from the face of God.”  He’s calling you back…calling you home today.

No matter how hard you’ve run or how far you’ve gone…

…He wants you back.

But now, in our day of heightened racial tensions and Black Lives Matters and White Supremacy and everyone in between Jonah is taking a brand-new bounce.

Jonah was a racist prophet.  He was a man who put his nationality as a Jew above every other race on earth.  He blamed the Ninevites for what they had done, not to him personally, but to his forefathers and to other nations.

Jonah despised the Assyrian people so much he was more than ready for God to wipe them off the map.  People he’d likely never met, never sat with for tea; people with whom he’d never shared a meal.  But he hated them.  How much?  Enough to rejoice if God wiped them out!

But the large fish is only mentioned four times in the book.  Jonah is not about the whale.  And it’s not about the great city.  Nineveh is mentioned nine times.  It’s not about the prophet either.  Jonah is only mentioned eighteen times.  But GOD is mentioned 38 times in a book that just has 48 verses!

You know that the MAJORITY of our Bible’s 66 books were written from right to left?  Every OT book was written…God’s Holy Spirit inspired people who read from right to left, and people who think from right to left.  That is one of the main reasons we struggle so much with Old Testament books, and why we miss so much of it while we try to make it make sense as people who read and think from left to right!

Now I know that some of us, as modern, scientifically-minded left to right thinkers, believe that it would be unlikely that this is a REAL event…that it actually happened…that JONAH was swallowed by a fish.  C’mon pastor.  Sounds like a scene from Pinocchio or something.

But you may never have seen the video clips of a whale shark or even a great white that could swallow a person!  So maybe it was something much bigger than a whale that swallowed Jonah.  We don’t know.  The Bible says it was a “great fish” I’m pretty sure there wasn’t enough space inside the fish to set up a little table and chair like Geppetto had in the Pinocchio cartoon.  It would have been dark, smell like dead fish, and Jonah would have been marinating in gastric juices that probably started bleaching his skin.  And I’m sure that some of our fishermen in here have a “great fish” story at least that big that got away!

We do need to understand that the Lord JESUS believed it really happened!  In fact, He used the story of Jonah’s being swallowed as a way of explaining His time in the grave before resurrection came.  “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish…” (Matthew 12:39-40)

But ultimately Jonah’s story is about God calling Israel back to their intended purpose:  To be a light to the nations who do not know Him…  A missionary people, carrying the Good News to the world.  But the story  was repeated time after time and the Israelite’s chose over and over again  to emphasize their “chosen nation” status and neglect their duty to evangelize and do missions and to tell the nations about the God they served!  They thought God chose them to bless them.  But God blessed them to be a blessing to the nations, not to keep Him to themselves.

Church be careful.  Christian, listen up.  You were “grafted in” to the vine of Israel to do what Israel would NOT do…go to the nations and share the Good News of Jesus!!  Let’s not fail in that task as they did.

Jonah failed.  This is the story of a man called to do exactly what was in his job description:  Represent the God of Israel to a lost nation—in this case the Ninevites.  But Jonah did exactly what we do:  Eric Mason reminds us that Jonah put his SOCIOLOGY above his THEOLOGY.  He put his RACE above God’s GRACE.

The God Who Sends

This is actually an amazing beginning.  Most of the prophets, especially the minor prophets, began and finished their ministry calling Israelites back to covenant obedience to Yahweh.  Some of the prophets were sent to the northern Kingdom of Israel, and some to Judah in the south.  But it is rare to unheard-of for a prophet’s ministry to turn to a pagan people…especially despised people like the Ninevites…maybe God could find us some NICE unbelievers to love, right?

The Assyrians were an unusually cruel and wicked people.  Their evil was notorious.  It would have been an easy assumption that God would simply want to wipe them out for their sinfulness.

But instead, God sent a prophet.  An emissary to warn them and give them opportunity to respond to Him in repentance and faith.  This is where we encounter the radical mercy and grace of God.  “And…”

It was a difficult assignment for Jonah.  He had been taught all his life to hate Assyrians.  He had been taught all his life to believe GOD hated the Assyrians too.  Isn’t it interesting that we assume that because we hate someone, that God must hate them too?

The God Who Sees

Jonah went DOWN to Joppa, bought a ticket going DOWN to Tarshish (away from God’s presence), went DOWN into the bottom of the ship ….away from the place God had called him to go…to flee from the assignment God had given him.

Jonah’s story is one of going down…down to the ship…down in the ship…down in the sea…. down in the belly of the fish.

Now before we shame Jonah, let me ask this question.  Have you ever tried to run from the call of God?  Has God ever clearly told you to do something, and you just pretty much said NO?   We find our life in a downhill spiral when we do this.  We don’t ever help ourselves…we only hurt ourselves.

Maybe like our children sometimes do, we say OK, but LATER.  That answer normally aggravates parents.  Because the next thing they’re going to hear is I FORGOT.  Some smart Moms and Dads have learned to say NOW.  If you have people working for you, and you supervise them or own the company that writes their check, and you ask them to do something isn’t it  implied with your request…NOW?

Is delayed obedience enough?  Or is it, in reality, the same as rebellion and disobedience?  Jonah ran.  He didn’t want to do what God had said, and so he headed in the opposite direction.

Jonah had prophesied before about the fortunes and lands of the people of Israel being restored (2 Kings 14:25). He was obviously a very popular prophet, carrying joyful messages from God and getting applause.  He would only get God’s applause for doing this.  Some would think he was crazy doing this.  Some would think he was a traitor to the Jews!

So, he became, in the words of one book title, a Prodigal Prophet as he ran from God’s call.

The God Who Pursues

But God stubbornly pursued Jonah.  Listen.  The times we need to fear are those times when God STOPS pursuing us and leaves us to our own devices and our own destruction!

Jonah experienced and received the same mercy that he was willing to withhold from the Ninevites.  We learn in later verses that he was not fleeing God because he was afraid of what they might do to him.  He was afraid that God would do exactly what He did:  Show them mercy!

You see we want to help God decide Who He should save, Who He should show mercy to, and Who He should love.  Who are those people?  The ones we believe deserve it!   If God hates the people we hate, then He also has to love the people we love, right?  Jonah decided God should not be showing mercy to these Assyrians!  He hated them, and surely God did too!

God pursued Jonah.  From the moment he departed from Israel and headed south to Tarshish…but from that moment God was after him.  He made the mistake of thinking he could leave God behind in Israel.

His theology was wrong.  He believed God was the God of Israel exclusively. That was very common thinking among people in that day.  This God belongs to us!  He watches over everything that happens in Israel and the more land and nations that are captured, the more God can rule over.

But Jonah was about to learn an important lesson, and a hard one for him.  First, that God is the God of every people, every land, every nation, every culture, every people, every ethnic group.  God is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-national in His dominion.  God is omnipresent. He is universal in scope.  He created every person, not just those of certain races and nationalities.

Whether or not they acknowledge that does not change the reality.  Whether or not you believe in God does not change the reality one bit that He exists.  You don’t diminish Him with your unbelief.   He is still God.  You will either acknowledge Him as Creator and Lord, or you will be called to account for choosing to disbelieve.  But either way, the reality doesn’t change.  God is the God of all people.

As such, God is a lover of all people.  Every ethnos, every land, every nationality.  He doesn’t love us more as Americans any more than He loved Israel more than the Ninevites.  His heart, His love is for every person…because every person has the image of God stamped on them.  If you hurt or hate any person, you are doing the same to the God Who made them.

Third, Jonah was about to learn one of his most important lessons:  that the God Who called him also pursues him relentlessly.  This is such a powerful lesson of grace.  We don’t earn God’s love by our obedience or lose it by our disobedience.  We will know greater blessing if we obey, plus we get to partner with God in His redemption of the world.  We miss those blessings if we refuse to obey and live only for what we want.

—What is God calling you to do today?

—Are you thinking biblically about Who God is?

—Who is the hardest person…or group or race or nationality for you to love?

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