Thursday, 18 December 2014

Does atheism make you happy?

Remember the ad.  'There's probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'  A lot was made of the fact that they used the term 'probably' but then it is impossible to prove the non-existence of God.  However, it is not the 'probably' I want to contend with.  It is the implication that we all would be happier without religion.  That is simply not true.  Professor Andrew Simms, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, comments that
The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.  If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Is atheism dangerous?

A few years ago I was walking with a friend in a seaside town.  Being Northern Ireland the streets were litter-free, until we turned up a back-alley.  The alley had loads of dog litter along it.  Why did people clean up after their dogs on the boardwalk but not in the alley?  Because in the allay no one was watching.  As an atheist friend of mine admitted, we are all flawed human beings.  When no one is watching, our true nature comes out.  

Now I know my atheist friends deplore the horrors of the twentieth century's totalitarian regimes as much as I do.  I believe they do so because they have a God-given conscience.  And I can't expect them to believe in God simply because he is handy for keeping people accountable.  Yet, I do believe that at the root of the Holocaust, Killing Fields, Russian Pogroms and Chinese Cultural Revolution was a denial of divine accountability.

I was struck by the following words from David Berlinski (contained in John Lennox's 'Gunning for God):

"Somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.  Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner.  'God is watching what you are doing,' he said.  And then he was shot dead.
What Hitler did not believe, and what Stalin did not believe, and what Mao did not believe, and what the SS did not believe, and what the Gestapo did not believe, and what the NKVD did not believe, and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners,  nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts,  blackshirts, Gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe, was that God was watching what they were doing.
And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either."

Does religious fanaticism make us dangerous?

Are people who hold absolutist religious views dangerous?

The label 'religious fundamentalist' seems to assume that you are going to be a danger to society.  Many try to  lump all religious fanatics together.  So what matters is not the content of what you believe but the manner with which you hold your opinions.  Influenced by post-modern thought, people blame the world's troubles on those who hold to absolutist beliefs.  But this is far too simplistic.  After all no one lies in bed fearing that the Amish are about to launch an attack of Washington and the Quakers of the nineteenth-century had an unrivalled reputation for impartiality and compassion during the Irish famine.

The reality is that different religions affect the world in different ways.  Although I am not in agreement with the teaching of Bahai, I don't think that its growth in Ireland will lead to violent revolution.  Nor do I expect the Hare Krishna to storm government buildings any time soon.  So how does absolutist Christianity stand up?

Contrary to the opinion of many, I don't think that the Bible is a diverse book that allows us to simply pick and chose from it at will.  I acknowledge that there are portions of Scripture that are less clear than others, and that people have reached diverse opinions on some of its teaching.  But a great deal of Scripture is absolutely clear, including the fact that Christians are to be peace-loving people who are a blessing to whatever society they live in.

I am well aware that there is a great deal of violence in the Bible.  I also realise that some of the violence in the Old Testament is commanded by God, in judgement upon the wickedness of certain Canaanite cultures.  Assumptions about the nature and existence of God will determine whether you believe that God has the right to impose such a penalty upon his creatures.

However, we need to keep in mind that these Old Testament texts were a part of a unique narrative.  In the Old Testament God was relating to his people as a nation.  God's people no longer constitute a nation but are spread out as exiles among the nations (1 Peter 1:1).  As exiles among the nations we are to be obedient citizens (Romans 13:1-5) and desire to bless the land where we live.  Christians are to be a people who love their enemies (Matthew 5:43), live at peace with all people (Romans 12:18) and let God take care of vengeance (Romans 12:19).  Jesus forbids the use of force in defence of his cause (Mathew 26: 47-56, Luke 9:53-55, Luke 22:49-51).  John Lennox points out, 'to take the sword, gun, or bomb in Christ's name is to repudiate both Christ and his message.'

The fact that various people have tried to hijack Biblical texts, rip them out of context, and use them to justify their own corrupted ends does not mean that they have acted as genuine representatives of Biblical truth.  The fact that church history is dominated with a corrupted institution that perpetrated many evil deeds does not mean that they faithfully represent the teachings of scripture.  It simply proves the existence of wickedness in the core of humanity.  An atheist friend on Facebook admitted that he is 'a flawed human being like everyone else on the planet.'  I agree.  We are all flawed human beings.  It is this flaw in our human nature, rather than the teaching of Scripture, that explains the evil perpetrated in the name of Christianity.

Finally, isn't interesting that when a group like Westboro Baptist church (an embarrassment to those of us who use the label Baptist) propagate hate they are said to be acting in an 'unchristian' manner?  Why do people use the term 'unchristian' to define bigotry and spite?  Because the term 'Christian' has long been synonymous with love and justice.  Content matters.  Not all religions affect society in equal ways.  In an article in The Times, Richard Dawkins admitted, 'I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers.'  If there were to be Christian suicide bombers it would not be because they took an absolutist view of the text.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Scandal of Grace (Jonah 4)

In his book 'In the Grip of Grace' Max Lucado writes the following:
"Know what disturbs me most about Jeffery Dahmer?  What disturbs me most are not his acts, though they are disgusting.  Dahmer was convicted of seventeen murders.  Eleven corpses were found in his apartment.  He cut off arms.  He ate body parts.  My thesaurus has 204 synonyms for vile, but each falls short of describing a man who kept skulls in his refrigerator and hoarded a human heart.  He redefined the boundary for brutality.
The Milwaukee monster dangled from the lowest rung of human conduct and then dropped.  But that's not what troubles me most.  Can I tell you what troubles me most about Jeffery Dahmer?
Not his trial, as disturbing as it was, with all those pictures of him sitting serenely in court, face frozen, motionless.  No sign of remorse, no hint of regret.  Remember his steely eyes and impassive face?  But I don't speak of him because of his trial.  There is another reason.  Can I tell you what really troubles me about Jeffery Dahmer.  May I tell you what does?
His conversion.
Months before an inmate murdered him, Jeffery Dahmer became a Christian.  Said he repented.  Was sorry for what he did.  Profoundly sorry. Said he put his faith in Christ.  Was baptised.  Started life over.  Began reading Christian books and attending chapel.
Sins washed.  Soul cleansed.  Past forgiven.  That troubles me.  It shouldn't, but it does.  Grace for a cannibal?"

Max goes on to explain that his trouble in accepting Dahmer's conversion is inexcusable, because the same grace that saved Dahmer is the grace that saves any person who trusts in Christ.

Let's be clear, the moral distance that may exist between ourselves and Jeffery Dalmer is infinitely less than the moral distance that exists between ourselves and God.  He may have travelled a little further down the road of human corruption than we have, but we share the same essential guilt.  Our self-righteousness, respectability and pride may blind us to the reality, but we share the sinful nature that explains Dahmer's actions, like him we have resisted God's rule and done those things that he has expressly forbidden, and we have harboured perverse thoughts and murderous intentions.

What right does God have to forgive Jeffrey Dahmer?  What right had God to forgive Nineveh?  What right god forgive Jonah?  What right God forgive you?  Should he even care about sinful people like us?

1.  ‘How can God have compassion on those people?’ (1-3)

Shouldn’t people get what they deserve?  That’s what Jonah felt about Nineveh!  It was a notoriously wicked city that deserved God’s wrath. It was a city that was responsible for all sorts of atrocities.  As one preacher said, ‘Nineveh had been keeping undertakers in Israel busy for years.’  Yet God showed them mercy!  So Jonah complains, 'I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live' (2b-3).

What a hypocrite!  Jonah had run from God when God called him, he had gone in the opposite direction, fleeing the LORD in rebellion.  Jonah deserved the death penalty for his treason.  Yet Jonah did not get what his wickedness deserved.  Instead God was patient and compassionate towards him.  God persisted with him and rescued him from the Pit.

The LORD replies to Jonah, “Have you any right to be angry?"  God has shown us a kindness that we do not deserve, so how can we complain when he shows that same kindness to others?  Of course we delight when he shows his mercy to people we like but what right have we to complain when he shows that same mercy to those who may have wronged us.

There was a Christian woman in England whose husband treated her awfully.  Her husband was not a believer, they were married for some years and then he divorced her.  He behaved like a pig towards her, he trampled all over her.  But towards the end of his life he began to take an interest in spiritual reality.  Just before he died he became a Christian.  As far as it is possible to tell he seemed to have been genuinely converted.  And she found that really hard!  She wanted her husband to go to hell because of the way that he had treated her.  She knew that is what he deserved.  She wanted him to get what he deserved.  To her credit, over time, she did come to terms what God had done—but it was hard!

2.  Are we sinful or are we valuable?

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city.  There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.  Presumably he is hoping that the city will be destroyed—despite the fact that God said he was going to show compassion and relent from sending destruction on Nineveh.

God provides for Jonah—a vine to give him shade.  Jonah is very happy about this vine.  But God is going to use this vine to teach Jonah an object lesson.  He is going to use this vine to expose how wrong Jonah is in his attitude towards Nineveh.

'Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.  He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live" (6-8). 

Jonah is concerned for a plant that he did not grow, but questions the right of God to show compassion towards a city full of people that he created.  Will Jonah not even allow God have compassion on that place for the sake of the animals.   “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (10-11).

God explains that the the people of Nineveh did not know their left hand from their right.  That does not mean they were literally like infants unable to remember which hand was which.  Nor is this a suggestion that they were morally innocent—they have already confessed their guilt.  It means that they were morally and spiritually unaware and had not been told, until Jonah arrived, about the God could rescue them from their sin.

So, were the people of Nineveh wicked or valuable?  The answer, of course is both.  They were exceedingly wicked and immensely valuable to God.  They had offended his holiness, yet he had created them and loved them.  If Jonah could care about a plant he did not tend to, sure then it can't be morally wrong for God to care about people he created.  For people are worth more than plants.  This is so different than the world's message of self-esteem.  Every day our children are being encouraged to see the good within themselves, in order that they might realise their worth and love themselves.  The gospel allows us face the reality of the evil within us, with the realisation that our value, and God's love, is not dependant on our goodness.

3.  Does grace seem unfair to you?

The book of Jonah ends with an unanswered question.  Should God not pity Nineveh?  That was an exceedingly wicked city, but it was a valued part of his creation.  I want to finish with two thoughts that will put this question in perspective.

Firstly, you are more sinful than you realise.  It is hard for us, as sinful human beings, who have placed ourselves rather than God at the centre of the universe, to understand the depths of our own moral corruption.  We tend to view wickedness in terms of outward actions, but God views wickedness primarily in terms of our heart.  It is easy for us to judge those who have committed awful crimes, but he sees the same hatred and perversity within the recesses of our being.  We tend to view wickedness in terms of crimes committed against other people, but God judges wickedness in terms of resistance to him.  So the most devastating of all sins is to reject the offer of life in Christ.  Jesus explained to the people of Galilee, 'The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here' (Matthew 12:41).

Secondly, you are more loved than you have dreamed.  God created us and values us.  God is 'gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity'.  He made us and has the right to pity us.  In Christ we have seen the full extent of that love.  'Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends' (John 15:13).   'You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us' (Romans 5:6-8).  The cross reveals the justice of God's forgiveness; for God did not look at Nineveh's sin and say it did not matter, he looked at Nineveh's sin and said he would take the punishment for it himself in the person of his Son.  He is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

You are more wicked than you realised and more loved than you dreamed. All along Jonah failed to see the extent of his rebellion and that, like Nineveh, his only hope was the compassion and grace of God.  Should I not pity Nineveh?  Can he justify forgiving Jeffery Dalmer?  Can we be sure he is willing to forgive us?  He made us, we have offended him, it is his nature to have compassion, and he has dealt with sin so that he can forgive anyone who turn to him in repentance.  God is  gracious and compassionate, 'slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.'  

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Jonah 3 'The need for deep repentance'


In what ways is it easier to be a Christian in Ireland than in Vietnam?  In Ireland we can meet together as often as we want, to pray, worship and encourage each other; in Vietnam many Christians have to meet in secret.  In Ireland we can have a work/life balance that gives us the opportunities to practice spiritual disciplines; many Christians in Vietnam have to work massive hours in sweatshops or as subsistence farmers.  In Ireland we can share our faith without fear of being harassed; Vietnam is now rated eighteenth among countries that persecute Christians.

In what ways is it easier to become a Christian in Ireland than in Vietnam?  Ireland is a secular democracy that encourages freedom of information.  In Ireland there is free access to Bibles and information about the gospel.  Not many families in Ireland will cut you off if you are born again.  In Ireland you are unlikely to end up in prison for your faith.  Not so in Vietnam.

Given all the advantages, for the sharing the gospel and enjoying the church, in Ireland compared to Vietnam it would seem obvious that the church would growing and healthy here and stagnant and struggling there.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Why?  There are a number of reasons.  One of these reasons is the superficial nature of our repentance.  This chapter is all about repentance.

1. Jonah’s warning

‘Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah.’  These words are an exact repetition of the opening words of the book.  He is right back where he started.  God is so patient with his disobedient people!  Jonah had tried to foil God’s plan, without success.  As we will see in the next chapter, even at this stage Jonah’s repentance is fairly shallow.  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”  At last, Jonah obeys God’s call and goes to the city.

Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days.  On the first day Jonah started into the city.  He proclaimed: “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  The verb translated ‘overturned’ is ambiguous, it can mean ‘overturn’ but it can also mean ‘to turn around’.  Indeed that is what happens—in the face of God’s warning that he will ‘overturn’ the city they are turned around, turning from their evil ways in repentance.  Repentance is a key theme here.

What compassion God has on Nineveh that he would send to them someone with such a message - this notoriously evil city, whose wickedness has come up before the Lord!  God could have simply destroyed them without any advance notice but he sends someone to warn them.  He sent Jonah to warn them in order that they might repent.  You too have been warned.  God has given us plenty of opportunity to repent.  You sit here this morning with an open Bible that speaks of one greater than Jonah.  Through his word Jesus invites us to repent and live.  If you are not yet born again then what a great amount of opportunities you have spurned.  You are without excuse.  But it is not just those who have yet to become Christians that need to hear the call to repentance – those who are born again need to be reminded to live a life of repentance.

2. Nineveh’s repentance

I wonder what the reaction of Jonah’s people of Israel was when they first heard this story.  Their history had been tainted by many terrible acts of corporate sinfulness.  Yet never in their history was had there been such a corporate act of repentance as we see here in Nineveh.  Surely the people of Nineveh are putting God’s people to shame and showing them such deep sorrow for sin.

Look at how the people of Nineveh respond to God’s warning.  They believe God, taking his warning seriously (verse 5).  They mourned for their sin, declaring a fast and putting on sackcloth.

Look at how the king of Nineveh responds to God’s warning.  He rose from his throne, took off his robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.  He knows his responsibility as king of that wicked place.  He issues a decree and in it he urges the people to call urgently (or mightily) to God.  They are wholly depending on God.  They know that only an act of his God’s grace can save them from the disaster that they deserve.  In the decree we see the realisation that more than gestures of repentance are required, ‘Let them give up their evil ways and their violence’—true repentance always involves a change in the way we live!

And notice that the king does not presume upon God—‘Who knows?  God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’  While grace is always promised to those who truly repent we should not treat grace lightly.  We should not be presumptuous.  We should realise that we are asking for what we do not deserve.   

What about the depth of our repentance?  Have we experienced the godly sorrow that leads to repentance?  I don’t want you to be sad.  I want you to be happy.  But in the face of our moral and spiritual failings the path to joy is through godly sorrow.  According to the Book of Common Prayer we are to ‘weep and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions.’  Some of us our sad when we sin because our pride is wounded that we have failed again; that is not the sorrow God looks for.  The Christian should be sad because we have let down and wounded the most loving of all fathers.  While some of us are too glib to feel sorrow for our sin, others allow themselves to be swallowed up with feelings of guilt.  We must not stay sad about our sin, we must then move on to rejoicing in the fact that God delights to forgive.

3. God’s mercy

Jeremiah 18:7-10, which we written after Jonah’s time, appears to provide the pattern of God’s interaction with the nations:

‘If at any time I announce that a nation of kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.’

Well God has warned them, they have repented, and God does relent from sending the disaster he had planned. ‘When God saw that they did and how they had turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened’ (10)–the Lord is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents in sending calamity (4:2).

Conclusion

There is a principle is the Bible that teaches that the greater our opportunity the greater our guilt if we do not grasp that opportunity.  Jesus points the people of his day to the repentance of Nineveh and says, ‘the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here’ (Matthew 12:41). The risen Jesus, who has validated his message by emerging from the grave (rather than the belly of a fish), still speaks through his word today, so if you continue to refuse to be born again the people of Nineveh will rise up and judge you too on the day of judgement.  You really are without excuse.  Christians from Vietnam may also arise at the judgement and condemn you.  For turning to Christ was more difficult for them than you, yet they repented while you hardened your heart to God’s call to repent.

And if you are born again, then you need not fear, for no one will be allowed condemn you at the judgement.  But the Christians in Vietnam might rise and challenge us now.  ‘You have it so easy,’ they might say, ‘we had it so hard.’  ‘You can meet freely whenever you wish yet we have to meet in secret.’  ‘You have time and opportunity to grow in grace through prayer, but you allow so many things take your time.’  ‘You have such freedom to speak of Jesus but some of us are put in prison.’ ‘You have material wealth and are spiritually poor.’  ‘We delight to make sacrifices, but your faith costs you nothing.’

God calls every person in this room to whole-hearted and life-transforming repentance.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Jonah 2 'The compassion and control of God'

It’s no surprise that children love the story of Jonah! A big fish swallowing a man, how amazing! No wonder it is a favourite with Sunday schools. It’s a certain story to be included in any children’s picture Bible. But I want us to see that this is not just a story for the kids - this book has very important things that each of us need to take on board.

There are two great themes running through the book of Jonah that are vitally important to each one of us: the compassion of God and the control of God. God’s mercy and his sovereignty!

Think about how important both these truths are.
If God was not compassionate there would be no hope for sinful people. There would be no hope for Nineveh that wicked city. There would be no hope for Jonah the run away prophet. There would be no hope of people finding the forgiveness we so badly need.
If God were not in control there would also be no real hope for us. If God is not in control what is? If God is not in control then chaos really is chaos. If God is not in control then we may be helpless victims of our circumstances. If God is not in control then surely our lives are very insecure and very vulnerable. If God is not in control then there is very little comfort from his promise to work all things together for the good of those who love him - for if he is not in control then he is not able to deliver on such a great assurance.

This week, as we look at the second section of Jonah, we are again going to look at these central truths: the control and compassion of God.

The God of Great Control:

God is in control right throughout this little book of Jonah.
He is in control of the sea. He is after all, the LORD, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the land. ‘To the Israelite the untameable sea was a picture of chaos, the enemy of all settled order’. However, Jonah acknowledges that even there God is in control. At the end of verse 3 Jonah speaks of your waves and your breakers - the sea is God’s sea. What may appear chaos to us is not chaos to God for he is in control of everything.

He also is in control of the fish. In chapter 1, verse 17, he provides the fish to swallow Jonah. In chapter 2, verse 10 he commands that fish and it vomits Jonah onto dry ground.

He has control over Jonah’s circumstances. Look at verse 3: You hurled me into the deep . . . Does that seem odd to you? Chapter 1 tells us that it was the sailors that threw Jonah overboard. However, Jonah knows that in that action they are merely acting as God’s servants.

He is even in control over Jonah’s life and death. At the end of verse 2 we read, ‘From the depths of the grave I called for help . . .’ The Hebrew word translated ‘grave’ is Sheol - meaning grave, the netherworld - the lowest point in all creation. The descent into death is not beyond God. God rescues Jonah from death’s door.

Jonah describes his decent in verse 3-7: The currents swirl about him
The waves swept over him.
He feared he had been banished from God’s sight
The waters engulfed him
The deep surrounded him
He sank (verse 6) To the roots of the mountains - this is a picturesque way of talking about
the bottom of the sea - when the mountains hit the coast you know that their decent has not stopped.
The earth beneath barred me in forever Jonah thinks of the underworld as having gates, like those in the cities of his day, that enclose the inhabitants forever.

However, at the moment of Jonah’s greatest darkness and despair, at death’s door, when no one could save him, God rescues him - ‘But you brought my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.’

God is in control! When our life seems on the verge of chaos, when its very foundations are threatened, when our circumstances seem out of control - God is still in control! When Jonah rebelled - God remained in control. In his love and patience he did not give up on Jonah but brought him back in line.

The God of Great Compassion:

Jonah was a big time rebel. God had called him to arise and go to Nineveh, he went down to Joppa. God called him east, he went west. Jonah went to Tarshish to flee the LORD. However, in his compassion the LORD did not let go of Jonah.

What a stubborn rebel Jonah was! In chapter 1 we waited in vain for Jonah to pray. It seems that he would rather have died than conform to God’s plan, and he faces death as he is thrown overboard. This death penalty is what his rebellion deserves. But then helpless, unable to save himself, fearing that he had been banished from God’s sight and was so descending to a godless grave, he finally prays -

In my distress I called to the LORD . . .
From the depths of the grave I called for help . . .
Verse 7, When my life was ebbing away I remembered you, LORD . . . 
Only when he had lost all hope did his thoughts return to God. Here are the desperate of words of a dying man, the cry of an undeserving rebel.
And how does God respond?
. . . he answered me
. . . you listened to my cry for help.

The great fish which the LORD had provided had swallowed Jonah - Jonah was rescued. What grace! Surely Jonah has just experienced what he already knows, the LORD is gracious and compassionate . . . slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. So from the belly of a fish comes this psalm, this prayer of Jonah, thanking God for his rescue.

Do we thank God for his rescue of us? When we sing do we remember how he has rescued us through the cross? Like Jonah we have reason to declare God’s praises!

However, not everyone experiences such wonderful grace and love. Verse 8: ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.’ The word translated ‘grace’ in the NIV is the Hebrew ‘hesed’. A word which is translated variously as ‘mercy’, ‘loving-kindness’ ‘steadfast love’, ‘goodness’, or ‘favour’. It is a favourite word in the Old Testament for describing God’s character and his actions towards his people. Like the child who can’t get their hand out of the jar because they are clinging on to its contents, those who cling on to worthless idols miss out on God’s steadfast-love.

In our culture their may be very few who cling to idols in the traditional sense but there are many things that people make idols of. There are those things that people put in the place of God, things that hold people back from God, and so they forfeit the grace, the loving-kindness, that could be theirs.

Jonah does not think that he is like silly pagans clinging to their idols:
But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you,
What I have vowed I will make good.

There is a similarity here with chapter 1 verse 16. In chapter 1 the pagan sailors offered sacrifices and made vows. Jonah wants to put clear blue sea between him and the pagan sailors but our storyteller seems to want us to highlight the similarity between Jonah and them. Both were in danger of drowning, both cried to the LORD, both are rescued, and both express their gratitude in the same way. What is the point that the storyteller is trying to make? That the same loving kindness that rescues a prophet of Israel rescues pagan sailors who were previously ignorant of the one true God!

God’s great promise to Abraham said that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed through his seed (Gen. 12:3). God acts in line with this promise as he shows his compassion to these pagan sailors. In so doing he is pointing ahead to Jesus, through whom the promise is brought to fulfilment - for Jesus will extend God’s compassion to all nations, and gather to himself a people from every tribe and race (Rev. 7:9).

The prayer ends, Salvation comes from the LORD. God saved Jonah from drowning, but this mini-salvation is just a shadow of that which will come in Jesus!

Conclusion:

. . . The LORD, the God of heaven [the top God, the only God], who made the sea and the land is in control of all things. He is in control even when chaos surrounds us, in control when circumstances baffle us, in control over life and death itself. We can take comfort that the God who is in total control exercises this control for the good of his children - here bring Jonah back into line! ‘This is the God we see acting in the death of Jesus in the New testament, not giving us what we deserve but what we need.’
Those who cling to idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some of us put things ahead of God? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if some of us decided not to follow him because we loved what the world offers more? They would miss out on the wonderful grace [the hesed, the stead-fast love] that could be theirs!

For those of us who have been rescued, who have experienced God’s salvation in Jesus, we like Jonah have reason to be filled with thanksgiving and praise!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Jonah 1 'God is bigger than our bigotry'

Sometimes people make the assumption that this is a Christian country and that people from other religions should keep quiet about what they believe if they want to fit in.  However, I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe that the New Testament does not push for the church to have special status in any country.  Indeed, I want to belong to a nation that shows generous tolerance to people of many creeds (including tolerance towards evangelical Christians like us).  So I recently unfriended someone on Facebook because I felt that something they posted was aimed at stirring up fear of Muslims.  I don't believe we need to fear the Muslims in our community (who seem to be generally peaceful citizens), instead I believe we need to fear 'for' Muslims in our community (because there is a great deal of bigotry shown towards them).

Be honest, what groups of people do you struggle to love?  Some of us are too proud to face the tribalism that all of us have to battle with.  So imagine your son brings home his new girlfriend.  Like him she is a Christian, and you can tell that they are really good together, but she is from a traveller family.  What do you think?  Your new neighbours never cause trouble, they keep their property looking well, but they don't speak English.  How do you feel?  Do you make as much effort to become friends with the gay man at work as you would try to befriend anyone else?  Do you judge people by the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character (to quote Martin Luther King)?

The book of Jonah is designed to tackle our prejudices.  For Jonah was a bigot.  He would have wanted to go to a church that was filled with his sort of people.  He would have agreed with you if you said, 'we have enough of '"them" (whatever your them refers to) and we need more of "us".'  God calls Jonah to share his love with "them".  Jonah's "them" were the people of the city of Nineveh.  Jonah could have supplied a whole load of reasons why God should not bother with them.  Nineveh was a wicked city, belonging to an evil regime that had kept undertakers in Israel busy for years.  But God loves them.

Our God is more compassionate than we are (verses 1-3a)

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai ...

This book is not the only time that Jonah is mentioned in the Bible.  In 2 Kings 14 Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher, is ministering God’s word to King Jeroboam II of Israel.  It’s the eighth century B. C.

King Jeroboam was a very wicked man and his people were unrepentant. Yet Jonah comes to the king with a message of mercy and grace – Israel’s borders will be restored to what they had been during the era of prosperity under Solomon.  God shows them favour that they do not deserve.  These were Jonah's people and so he has no problem with God showing them undeserved kindness.

Now Jonah is been called to speak to a different people! "Go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”   So what does Jonah do?  He runs away!  

Nineveh was a feared and hated place.  Nineveh was responsible for all kinds of atrocities.  Jonah is being called to speak against this city.  Jonah is to warn them of God's imminent judgement.  And Jonah knows that warning people of God's judgement gives them the chance to repent and be forgiven.  He knows that God's intentions are actually merciful.  In the last chapter he complains, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents in sending calamity."  Note that warning people about God's coming judgement is actually an important act of mercy. 

Jonah was glad when God showed undeserved kindness to the people he loved, and sad when God showed the same undeserved kindness towards the objects of his bigotry.  The scope of God’s mercy was too great for him.
How do you feel about God’s mercy?

One morning in church a special visitor is invited to share their testimony. He tells the congregation of how he used to be a theif.  But he was introduced to the gospel when he was in prison.  Everyone is delighted.  But then you realise why you know his name.  He is the man who was convicted for robbing your parents' home.  Your dad is still a nervous wreck because of that break in.  Your mum no longer sleeps well at night.  Is it easy to accept this man as a brother in Christ?

Our God is always in control (verse 3-15)

As well as this being a story of God’s wonderful compassion (compassion in forgiving Nineveh and compassion in persisting with a rebellious bigoted prophet like Jonah) it is also a story about God’s absolute control.

Jonah heads for Tarshish.  While Nineveh is in the east (it was in what is now northern Iraq), Tarshish is west.  He heads in the opposite direction! God calls Jonah ‘up’ (verse 2 is more literally, 'Arise go to Nineveh...'), he went ‘down’ to Joppa.  He sailed to Tarshish, 'to flee from the LORD'.

So the LORD sends a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arises that the ship threatens to break up. All the sailors are afraid and each cries out to his own god.  The sailors do what Jonah should have done—they pray.  But nothing changes, because their gods don’t exist, they have no power.  Jonah who is the cause of this storm does know the one true God who can calm that storm.  But where is he?  He has gone below deck, where he is in a deep sleep.  All around him people are facing death and he is asleep—what a devastating picture of the half-hearted Christian and the sleeping church!  We know the way to rescue, but refuse to share it.  

The captain goes to him and says, “How can you sleep?  Get up and call on your god!"  But does Jonah pray?  It doesn’t seem so – he is still running from God.

By this time the sailors are convinced something extra-ordinary lies behind this storm and they are determined to find out what had sent it, and why.  So the sailors said to each other, 'Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.'  They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.  They bombard him with questions, 'Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?  What do you do?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  From what people are you?'

Jonah answers, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’  There is something very shallow in Jonah’s response.  He claims to worship God but he is running from his call!  There is so something inauthentic when we claim to be Christians but refuse to obey God and do things like forgive as we have been forgiven and love even our enemies.

Jonah's God is in control of all that is happening.  Jonah had sought to flee from his presence but the Lord was at work wherever he went.  Who sends the storm? God!  Who directs the lots in the story? God!  Who will turn up the volume of the storm when the sailors try to get Jonah to land? God!  Who will calm the storm when Jonah is thrown overboard?  God!  Even when we are the ones who have created the mess God remains in control and he is often working in hidden ways.  

The sailors' voice their astonishment that anyone who claims to know this God would have the audacity to defy Him.  The sea was getting rougher and rougher.  So they asked him, 'What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?'
'Pick me up and throw me into the sea,' he replied, 'and it will become calm.  I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.'
'Kill me' (surely that is what Jonah expects to happen when he is thrown into the sea).  So man rebellious man reluctantly goes to his death so a crowd of men could be saved.  There is an imperfect shadow here of Jesus' death.  Jesus is neither reluctant or rebellious but willingly goes to his death so that we might escape from the storm of God's judgement.

The sailors had been afraid of the storm (1:5).  They were terrified and asked Jonah 'what have you done?' (1:10).  Jonah had declared 'I worship (literally "fear") the Lord' (1:9).  Now, in verse 16, we read that as the storm grew calm the men 'greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him' (1:16).  As we encounter the God of compassion and control our fear of circumstances should give way to the reverent awe and worship ('fear') of God.

Conclusion

Thanks God that the one of absolutely control is the one of infinite compassion.  He even ordered events to ensure that his Son would die for the guilt of undeserving people.  He made a promise to Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through his people.  That is what is happening here.  Jonah, one of Abraham's people, is used in sharing the love of God with these pagan sailors (and is on his way to pagan Nineveh).  This blessing for the nations finds its fulfilment in Jesus who sends us with the good news to all people, and who is gathering to himself a people from every tribe and language group.  The compassion of God issues the call to repentance and the control of God guarantees that our mission is not fruitless.

Jonah's prejudices had deeper roots than most of the prejudices we struggle with.  They were based on real acts of violence against his people.  Nineveh had kept the undertakers in Israel busy for years.  And what if God decided to be prejudices against us?  The Bible tells us that we have been hostile towards God, the same hostility that pinned his only Son to a cross.  Yet Christ died for us while we were still his enemies.  He has shown us a kindness that we have done nothing to deserve.

So may we delight at the opportunity that is presented to us in the diversity of people that walk into those building; may we seek to share the good news of Jesus with all different types of people who live and work around us; and may we faithfully warn people of the coming judgement so that they may avail of the forgiveness and life that is offered as a result of the cross and resurrection.