The true and better Elijah

Elijah still has a place within Jewish worship and ritual.  Elijah receives mention when grace is said after meals: “May God in his mercy send us the prophet Elijah.  He receives mention at circumcision ceremonies and at Passover.  Ralph Martin tells us that “at the beginning of the celebration of the Passover a special cup of wine, called “Elijah’s cup” is placed on the table.  When grace is said after the meal, a child opens the door in expectation of Elijah’s appearance and biblical passages are recited which express the hope of Jewish people for deliverance from the oppression.”[1]

All of this points us to someone greater than Elijah.  When Luke opens his biography of Jesus, John the Baptist is said to fulfill the role of Elijah, inasmuch as John would serve “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17).  John would do this by pointing people to Jesus.  You see, in the first century world, religion had shot off in so many different directions that families would share the same roof but not necessarily the same faith.  The gospel became the answer to this sectarian problem, because the gospel united people under the banner of truth.

All this to say that Elijah’s story is theologically rich, to say the very least.  Because all of the Old Testament foreshadows the coming of Christ, how do we see Jesus reflected in the life of Elijah?  Naturally, we can answer this question in a variety of ways, but from our reading this week we can say three things in particular:

  • Jesus is the true and better Elijah

Elijah says: “My death will be the ultimate expression of my failure;” Jesus says: “My death will be the ultimate expression of God’s victory.”  Jesus is obedient—even to death by crucifixion—and in laying down his life he achieves victory over all the forces of sin and darkness and even over the “powers and principalities” that operate in today’s world by “triumphing over them in the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

  • Jesus is the true and better rock of Elijah

This isn’t a minor detail.  Remember the mighty wind that Elijah heard?  It was so strong that rocks tumbled away but Elijah remained shielded.  Jesus is the rock that bears the storms of God’s wrath that we might experience not God’s judgment but God’s mercy.  Because Jesus is our shield our lives are “hidden in Christ” (Colossians 3:3) and we can look to God not as judge but loving Father.

  • Jesus is the true and better Voice of God

John’s biography opens by telling readers that Jesus is the “Word” of God.  Jewish readers would instantly recognize this as representing the voice of God in creation and in Scripture; Greek readers would hear this as the voice of reason in secular philosophy.  But all truth comes from God, and now, in Jesus, that truth comes not as a set of ideas but in flesh and bone and sinew.  Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” and because of this we relate to God’s word not merely as a set of teachings to follow but a person to whom we may draw near.

 

[1] Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi,  p. 342

Not over; never alone (1 Kings 19)

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This is the question we still haven’t addressed.  Elijah, as we’ve seen, has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  He’d been a hero, so to speak, the man through whom God showed his supremacy over the rival worship of Baal.

So why does he now feel like such a failure?

He’d made a 40-day pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.  This isn’t a small detail.  No one travels forty consecutive days unless they have a purpose.  Why Sinai?  Well, isn’t it obvious?  Sinai had a special place in the heart of every man, woman, and child who called Israel their home.  It was there that—through Moses—Israel had encountered God in the most direct way possible.  But as many times as I read this I can’t quite decode Elijah’s emotional state.  Is he going to Sinai to try and get closer to God—trying to recreate some feeling or some memory of Israel’s past connection to God?  Is he like us when we try and recapture the emotional highs of our spiritual past, perhaps the “glory days” of youth group?  Or maybe he’s angry—deeply, and profoundly angry—and he’s gone to Sinai to shake his fist in his Creator’s face.

Perhaps there’s a little bit of both found here, for Elijah’s words sound almost like a prepared statement:

10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:10)

Success can only carry us so far.  Elijah had indeed accomplished much—yet felt so inadequate as he faced toward the future.  He had drifted, to use our summer-long image; he had anchored so much of his faith in his own achievement that when the memory of victory no longer sustained him…well, that’s just it: he had nothing left.

You and I face a similar danger: we base our identities on our performance.  Or, said another way, God seems only as real as he is spectacular.  God seems near to us when we experience his miraculous provision, or when we are drawn to his throne through the intensity of a worship experience.  When these fade—as emotions inevitably do—we are left with an endless search to recapture the emotional highs of the past.  Another worship album.  Another book.  Another spiritual project.  Another Church.  And another.  And another.  And another.  Until one day we’re stripped of anything left at all.  Unless we anchor ourselves to something else, our faith will flicker and die.

11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13a)

Elijah is surrounded by the spectacular.  But God is not “in” these events, we’re told.  Not in the winds, not in the earthquake, not in the fire.  He was found only in the “gentle whisper,” what other translations call the “still, small voice.”

There’s a powerful lesson here, about the voice of God.  Our faith is rooted not in the monumental experiences of life, but it is rooted instead on our devotion to our Creator’s voice.  The strength of our faith will invariably be a reflection of our connection to God’s Word—yes, the Bible.  For it is there, in those pages, that we find that the “still small voice” speaks across time and across cultures to peel back the layers of the obvious, and unveil for us the very heart of God.

God now repeats his earlier question to Elijah, and Elijah once again gives his same response.

And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14 He replied again, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:13b-14)

Hearing him repeat himself almost makes me imagine Elijah, during his 40-day trek to Sinai, rolling these words over and over in his head, perhaps fantasizing about his chance to confront God directly.  But God now consoles him with some concrete instructions:

15 Then the Lord told him, “Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. 16 Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet. 17 Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha!18 Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Kings 19:15-18)

Elijah isn’t alone.  He never was.  And neither are we.

You may feel like your best days are already over.  And, for some of you, maybe it feels that way because your kids are grown, and they may or may not have turned out the way you would have desired.  But God promises you there’s something more to be done, that the horizon will always be a moving target.  Elijah could stand confident knowing that 7,000 others had his back.  You and I can stand confident knowing that we are one of a “great cloud of witnesses.”  God gave us each other for each other, that through our fellowship he might be known.  No cultural crisis is so great that it overshadows the call to draw near.  It’s not over.  It’s not over.  It’s not over.

 

Elijah and mission in a world full of gods (1 Kings 18)

“What are you doing here Elijah?”

This is the question we left off on in yesterday’s post.  The reason God’s question is so apt is that up until now, Elijah had been a man of great success.  More specifically, he’d been a servant of God (his name literally means something like “My God is Yahweh”) during a time of great cultural crisis.  And he kept his cool, so to speak, even when his fellow Israelites were fanning the very flames of hell.

You see, during this period in Israel’s history, the whole nation—even often the leaders—blended their devotion to God with devotion to a whole host of other gods and goddesses, chief among them being a being known as Baal.  It was during the reign of King Ahab—the king during Elijah’s ministry—that a temple and altar are built for Baal (1 Kings 16:31-33).  This all forms the backdrop for Elijah’s mission: to show God’s supremacy over Baal.

It’s worth noting that in our own world we live in a culture of intense spiritual confusion.  Not long ago people tended to be Christian almost as a matter of birthright.  As Americans, we encountered few Muslims or Buddhists or other such faiths, so we concluded that we must be “Christian.”  But in the years since World War II America has seen a great deal of immigration, and the modern movement toward globalization has meant that you and I occupy a world that is significantly more diverse than ever before.  In the face of such diversity, Christianity has lost a great deal of its public force as the “default” American religion, and in its place we celebrate the fact that ours is a nation of great religious pluralism. 

What is pluralism, you ask?  It’s a word we use to describe the diversity of different religions that all operate within our nation’s borders.  If you travel down the highway, you may encounter a bumper sticker that looks something like the image posted here.  “Coexist,” it exhorts us, and the letters of course come from the religious symbols of several major world religions.

Lesslie Newbigin, former missionary to India, has written extensively on this very issue.  If Newbigin were to see that bumper sticker, he’d say that it can mean one of two things:

  • We should coexist because all religions are the same, or…
  • We should coexist because all people should have the freedom to express their own religion.

As Christians, what do we make of this?  Well, whenever we ‘re faced with something like this, we have to ask ourselves: What can I affirm about this?  What might the gospel call me to challenge?  Positively, we may affirm that it there is indeed something good about a culture of religious pluralism, because the freedom of my neighbor to practice Islam assures me that I am free to practice Christianity.  This freedom is a good thing.  But we might also challenge any notion that says that all religions are essentially the same.  Theology aside, I don’t know how to respect my neighbor if I tell him or her that our beliefs are basically the same, and the things that make his beliefs so unique don’t really matter.  That’s not respect; that’s not compassion.  So we can live in harmony with other religions, but we can’t possibly harmonize these other belief systems with Christianity.

I mention all this because this is the essence of the cultural war going on in Elijah’s day.  Elijah’s mission, however, wasn’t primarily about shutting the doors to Baal’s temple; it was about making Baal’s temple go out of business.

Baal, as we mentioned, was one of a host of ancient gods, but the reason he was so popular was that he was thought to be in control of things like the seasons, the crops, and even the power of life over death. If your money came from agriculture, Baal would be a good god to have on your side.  He was useful; he served you as long as you served him.  Who wouldn’t want to devote themselves to Baal?

Elijah had already shown that God was a greater god than Baal.  In the presence of a widow he’d miraculously multiplied food and brought her son back from the dead.  And in 1 Kings 18, we find the most famous story of all: Elijah and the showdown at Mount Carmel.  This was Elijah’s challenge:

20 So Ahab summoned all the people of Israel and the prophets to Mount Carmel. 21 Then Elijah stood in front of them and said, “How much longer will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” But the people were completely silent. (1 Kings 18:20-21)

In his careful study of this chapter, Roland de Vaux points out that Israel and the cult of Baal were thought to “share” this mountain.  So this was a test to see who would really triumph—God or Baal.

22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only prophet of the Lord who is left, but Baal has 450 prophets. 23 Now bring two bulls. The prophets of Baal may choose whichever one they wish and cut it into pieces and lay it on the wood of their altar, but without setting fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood on the altar, but not set fire to it.24 Then call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!” And all the people agreed.

25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “You go first, for there are many of you. Choose one of the bulls, and prepare it and call on the name of your god. But do not set fire to the wood.” (1 Kings 18:22-25)

Now, what follows is as fascinating as it is grotesque.  It was what was known as an “awakening” ceremony.  If the people were loud enough and worked themselves into a sufficient frenzy, then they could curry the favor of Baal and he would respond.  These rituals were known to a surprisingly wide array of ancient writers and historians, some of whom were openly repulsed by the sight of men and women cutting themselves in these ceremonies:

26 So they prepared one of the bulls and placed it on the altar. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made.

27 About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

28 So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. 29 They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response. (1 Kings 19:26-29)

Again, it’s darkly fascinating, but it availed nothing.  Now it was Elijah’s turn:

30 Then Elijah called to the people, “Come over here!” They all crowded around him as he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been torn down. 31 He took twelve stones, one to represent each of the tribes of Israel, 32 and he used the stones to rebuild the altar in the name of the Lord. Then he dug a trench around the altar large enough to hold about three gallons 33 He piled wood on the altar, cut the bull into pieces, and laid the pieces on the wood.

Then he said, “Fill four large jars with water, and pour the water over the offering and the wood.”

34 After they had done this, he said, “Do the same thing again!” And when they were finished, he said, “Now do it a third time!” So they did as he said, 35 and the water ran around the altar and even filled the trench.

36 At the usual time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet walked up to the altar and prayed, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. 37 O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.”

38 Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell face down on the ground and cried out, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!”

40 Then Elijah commanded, “Seize all the prophets of Baal. Don’t let a single one escape!” So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there. (1 Kings 19:30-40)

God—working through Elijah—came through in a colossal display of power.  Elijah had demonstrated the laughable weakness of the Baal cult, and had done away with the people who promoted this worship to continue.

This isn’t as hard a lesson to apply today as you might think.  Again, we have to recognize that our own religious landscape isn’t much different.  Our schools, our neighborhoods, or workplaces are more religious diverse than they were even ten years ago.  Our mission—like Elijah—is to show that Jesus is superior to other belief systems.  How do we do that?  By demonstrating through our lives and testimony to the amazing power of God.

In the next section, Elijah prays to God who ends a three-year drought.  The very thing that the people looked to Baal for would be found instead in God.  What is it people are looking to other religions for?  Purpose?  Community?  God doesn’t deny these impulses, but instead shows that these desires are fulfilled through him.  But unlike Baal, unlike any other religion, we don’t meet these needs by reaching out to God, but we have these needs met through God reaching down to us.

 

Beneath the broom tree (1 Kings 19:1-9)

How did it come to this?  How did it get so bad?

What goes up must come down, as they say.  But sometimes the fall seems so far and so unbearably long.

When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel everything Elijah had done, including the way he had killed all the prophets of Baal.

2 So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”

3 Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. 4 Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”5 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.

But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” 6 He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again.

7 Then the angel of the Lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”

8 So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. 9 There he came to a cave, where he spent the night.

But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:1-9)

God’s question must be one we’ve all asked ourselves from time to time.  What am I doing here?  How did it come to this?

For most of our series, we’ve looked at Godly figures whose drift from the faith came about through personal sin and greed.  Elijah’s story is very different—yet very, very human.

Christianity doesn’t always do well with suffering.  We usually greet it with a host of trite platitudes that never rise above the wisdom of a bumper sticker.  “You know, Elijah,” I can imagine someone saying, “God never closes a door without opening a window.”  Such statements, however well intended, fall flat in the face of those whose pain—like still waters—runs so deep no tears can seem to breach the surface.

We will explore more of what Elijah is going through in the days ahead.  For now I want us to sit and reflect on this story in all its rawness.  Live long enough, and you will bleed.  You will experience seasons in which you will wish you’d never been born.  You may even experience seasons where—like Elijah—death seems your only escape.

Suffering rips away the rose-colored lenses we wear and confronts us with the brute reality of the world.  Eljiah was at what seemed to be the losing end of a culture war.  He was despised, he was hunted.  His success—of which he’d had a lot—could sustain him no further.

In other words, Elijah is a lot like Jesus.

The story of the cross is, indeed, a story of God’s victory over sin, just as the story of the resurrection is a story of God’s victory over death.  But there, on the hillside known as Golgotha, we find the God of the universe hanging there in what the ancients knew to be the most wretched and shameful of deaths.  It is there that the relationship between Father and Son is strained past the point of breaking as Jesus cries, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?”  On the cross, Jesus experiences more than just death.  He experiences rejection.  He experiences ridicule. He experiences shame.   Through the cross, Jesus becomes the ultimate paradox: the God-forsaken Son of God.

Look at the story of Elijah again.  What do you notice?  For me, one of the things I notice is the absence of any sort of condemnation.  We might be tempted to respond to suffering by saying—to others or even ourselves—Don’t feel that way.  Cheer up.  It’ll get better tomorrow.  We might even be expecting God to give Elijah a hard time, as though he’d given up so easily.  But he doesn’t.  He feeds him—twice, as a matter of fact, sustenance for a forty-day journey ahead.

The gospel doesn’t attempt to wrest suffering away from us.  It reminds us that we have been provided for in the best way possible.  God provides blessings, he provides nourishment.  And most of all, he provides himself.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther wrote extensively on more topics than we might care to count.  But one theme that surfaces in his writings again and again is what we would call his “theology of the cross.”  For Luther, to “carry the cross” means something more than mere escapism or denial of life’s truest pains.  In fact, Luther would regard suffering as inevitable—but bearable, because of what Christ has already done for us.

In his famous “Sermon at Colberg,” Luther wrote:

“What makes this cross more agreeable and bearable for us is the fact that our dear God is ready to pour so many refreshing aromatics and cordials into our hearts that we are able to bear all our afflictions and tribulations….When the suffering and affliction is at its worst, it bears and presses down so grievously that one thinks he can endure no more and must surely perish.  But then, if you can think of Christ, the faithful God will come and will help you, as he has always helped his own from the beginning of the world; for he is the same God as he has always been.”

In the wilderness of our pain, God is indeed “the same God…he has always been.”  Jesus is enough for us—yesterday, today, and forever.

If you are in deep pain right now, take heart.  Cling to Jesus.  Participate in Christian community.  Worship—even if all you can sing is the blues.  And for those who might even be in a place of considering suicide I say only this: there’s not a soul on earth that would be better off without you.

God is good.  God provides.  And through the cross God also teaches us to suffer well.

The true and better Jonah

No scripture can be completely understood until we’ve learned how it points us to Jesus.  In the case of Jonah, Jesus makes it easy for us, because he actually describes himself in light of the “sign of Jonah.”  It seems that in Jesus’ day, many people were looking for a “sign,” something that would give his message credibility and authority.  Jesus will have none of it:

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them,[a] “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. ’You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Matthew 16:1-4)

In Luke, we read a similar account—if not the same account but a different perspective:

29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Luke 11:29-32)

Notice that Luke offers more detail about what is meant by the “sign of Jonah.”  In looking at these passages, how might we see Jesus as the true and better Jonah?

  • Jonah fled the Father’s will and in so doing became a man with neither mission nor purpose. Jesus obeyed the Father’s will—even to the point of death—and his righteous obedience is credited to our account.
  • Both men experienced the wrath of God. Jonah experienced the wrath of God in the storm; Jesus satisfied God’s fierce anger when he ascended the hill of Calvary—and it’s not for nothing that on that day we’re also told of darkness at noon.
  • Jonah spent three days inside a whale; Jesus spent three days inside the grave. Both Jonah and Jesus emerged because of the miraculous power of God.
  • Both men preached a message of repentance—Jonah to the city of Nineveh, Jesus to the entire city of man.

Matthew’s focus seems to be on the similarity between Jonah and the resurrection.  Luke seems to focus on the call to repentance and the coming judgment.

What application might we draw?  A simple, though powerful one.  Without Christ, we are all Jonah.  We are all rebellious, self-righteous, xenophobic cowards with neither purpose nor mission.  We are “out to sea,” if you’ll pardon the pun.  Jesus came to save men like Jonah, he came to save you and me, and he came to save the whole world.

I don’t know about you, but I find this reassuring—that in the midst of our storms and confusion we find a renewed sense of purpose and in the midst of our disobedience we have Christ’s righteousness credited to our account.  And most importantly, we can look to the fact that this “sign of Jonah,” this great promise of resurrection, teaches us that no one is ever beyond hope.

So no; Jonah is not merely a story we tell our kids.  It’s a story for all of us.  It’s a story of hope, a story of redemption.  And most of all it’s a story of a God who so graciously and so regularly makes all things new.

Fairness, love, and grace (Jonah 3-4)

The customer is always right, but then again so is everybody.

I’ve been reading two interesting books lately.  The first is the book of Jonah, in preparation for this sermon, and the second is a book by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt entitled: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion.  And no, the story of a pre-modern prophet is not as different from modern psychology as you might think.

We are wired to be righteous, Haidt explains.  People tend to think they’re right about most things.  One of the reasons I avoid things like Facebook lately is because every discussion seems to turn into a factory for self-righteousness, conversations in which people talk past each other in an effort to assert their viewpoint.

It doesn’t help that this is an election season.  Political divisions seem to get wider and wider every year, to the point that our politicians occupy the most extreme ends of conservative and progressive politics.  Which only means that we see our opponents not merely as different, but evil.

JONAH IN THE CITY

Slide4When God gave Jonah a second chance, Jonah agrees to go and call the city of Nineveh to repentance.  Loving others makes us uncomfortable.  Recall from earlier that the Assyrian inhabitants of Nineveh weren’t exactly friends of the Israelites.  Jonah would have had a natural fear of those who are different.  Yet he obeys by preaching to the city:

Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”

3 This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. 4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.

6 When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. 7 Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:

“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. 8 People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. 9 Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”

10 When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:1-10)

Jonah is successful.  He’s got the kind of success that most pastors only dream of.  A whole city?  This is the kind of thing that makes for a great book deal.  At the very least, it’s cause for rejoicing.

WHEN BEING “RIGHT” REPLACES BEING REDEMPTIVE

Jonah, however, isn’t having any of it.

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.2 So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. 3 Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

4 The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

Slide5Jonah is upset because he wanted the Ninevites to be punished instead of saved.  In Haidt’s book, he explains that our moral sense is like a tongue with six different kinds of “taste buds.”  People who are political progressives, he says, tend to rely on the moral sense of compassion and equality.  Conservatives share these senses, but also appeal to such things as authority and fairness.  Violate these categories, and an enemy is soon made.

I think something similar is happening with Jonah.  God’s grace seems wildly unfair.  He doesn’t want to see the Ninevites’ salvation; he wants the very fires of heaven to rain down on their heads.  They’ve done wrong, and God’s compassion is now a source of anger.

There’s a deep irony here—pun intended.  Jonah had disobeyed the Lord as well, running to Tarshish instead of obeying his calling.  If we were to read the original Hebrew, we’d find that the phrase “greatly upset” comes from the Hebrew yara.  Earlier the word (or at least a version of it) was used to refer to the Ninevites’ wickedness ( Jonah 1:2). Now the word is being used to refer to Jonah’s displeasure.  It’s as if the author is trying to remind us that Jonah has become the very thing he hated most.

Jonah had become so blinded by his personal sense of fairness that he failed to realize that the grace that had saved him could also save this city.  So God taught him a careful lesson:

5 Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 And theLord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

7 But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. 8 And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

10 Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. 11 But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:5-10)

The story ends here—quite abruptly, as a matter of fact.  The author is trying to prompt us to examine our own hearts and our own motivations.  Does our personal sense of justice outstrip our capacity for compassion?  Are we willing to extend grace to others?

Not as long as we insist that we’re right; not as long as we dismiss God’s grace as impractical or unfair.  Think hard on this, because, again, this is an election year.  When we yell at the “liberals” on TV (or on Facebook), are we truly communicating the love of God?  This is not to say that there can’t be room for civil disagreement and dialogue, but surely our allegiance to God’s kingdom becomes evident in how we treat one another.  For the real test of God’s grace is not how we treat our friends, but how well we treat our enemies and our opponents.  For all have sinned and fallen short of the grace that shines in the life of the lowly and the desperate.

So you’ve been swallowed by a whale…now what? (Jonah 2)

Some days you eat the fish; some days the fish eats you.

And of course, there are times when it’s hard to distinguish between personal suffering and God’s wounds of grace—and there are still other times when the two will be one and the same.

Jonah had previously ran from God’s presence and found himself in the belly of a “great fish.”  In Jonah 1:17, we read:

“Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.”

But here, in the darkness and the deep, we see a glimmer of hope, and we hear the gospel through the utterances of this wayward prophet.

DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?

First, let’s get something out of the way.  Can we really trust that this story is reliable?  The whole thing sounds like the legendary stories of a primitive, pre-scientific culture.  Sure, we tell our kids about “Jonah and the whale,” but then we grow up and we learn that there’s no such thing as Mother Goose or Cinderella or the other tales from the world of make-believe.

After all, tales of great fish were common in the ancient world.  The Jews often spoke of a creature called “leviathan” which typically symbolized chaos and disorder.  And, as a point of clarity, we should note that the text never tells us that it was a whale.  In fact, I somehow doubt that Jonah even knew what sort of fish it was, and I doubt he bothered checking once his ordeal was over.

Still, we probably shouldn’t waste time trying to parse out what kind of fish this was or what kinds of fish men can live inside.  The point is that Jesus appeals to the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16, Luke 11) and seems to take the story quite literally, and if it’s good enough for Jesus then I suppose I’ll throw my lot in with the One who came back from the dead.

Dr. William Lane Craig suggests that maybe what happened is that Jonah actually died after being swallowed, and he was resurrected after being spit back onto the land.  The prayer in chapter 2 may then be a literary device.  Interesting, though I don’t agree.  First of all, why would it be easier to believe that God preserved Jonah then to believe God resurrected him?  If one miracle is to be believed, why not another?  But more importantly, Jonah’s prayer is more than a mere plot device.  It is the lynchpin of the story, and in the belly of the beast, we find the very heart of the Christian gospel.

ROLLING IN THE DEEP

The second chapter of the book of Jonah is an extended prayer.  Imagine, for a moment, the darkness that this man was plunged into.  The sounds, the coldness of the sea—maybe even the scarring of stomach acids or the constriction of fish guts.  In the midst of all that, Jonah offers this prayer:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish. 2 He said,

“I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble,
and he answered me.
I called to you from the land of the dead,
and Lord, you heard me!
3 You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
4 Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’

5 “I sank beneath the waves,
and the waters closed over me.
Seaweed wrapped itself around my head.
6 I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.
I was imprisoned in the earth,
whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God,
snatched me from the jaws of death!
7 As my life was slipping away,
I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you
in your holy Temple.
8 Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
9 But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:1-9)

In this darkest of moments, Jonah pulled from his memory bits and pieces of the psalms to affirm his trust in the Lord in all circumstances.  Now, it’s not hard to imagine that maybe later an editor came along to “tidy up” Jonah’s language here.  But I doubt that anyone had to put words in his mouth.  This was a man who went to the deepest place on earth and affirmed his trust in God.  And this, as we’ve said, is the heart of the gospel.

THE TRUE AND BETTER JONAH

After three days, Jonah’s prayer is answered:

10 Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.

Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” (Jonah 2:10—3:2)

Please don’t miss what’s happening here.  Please don’t sweep this aside as a mere fairy tale or moral fable.  This is more than a morality play.  This is a powerful testimony to God’s grace.  Jonah had disobeyed God before, choosing to flee from his very presence.  Now he learns that not only is there nowhere to run from God’s presence, but when God catches up his attitude toward sinners is of mercy and a second opportunity to serve his kingdom.

You see the greatest danger that we face is not that we might experience suffering—because we will.  The greatest danger that we face is not that we will fail God—because we all have.  The greatest danger is that we not recognize the circumstances around us working together for our good and God’s glory, and we therefore let God’s grace slide past us unnoticed and unappreciated.

Jonah is hardly the first to descend to the low places.  Paul tells his readers in Ephesus that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

8 Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)  (Ephesians 4:7-10)

Jesus stepped from heaven to earth in order that he might show us grace and redeem mankind.  Jonah’s disobedience took him to the depths of the sea; Christ’s obedience took him to the surface of the earth.  And because of Christ’s obedience, because of God’s grace, there is no mistake we can make, no circumstances we can endure, that put us out of the potential reach of God’s redeeming love.

Jonah should remind each of us that God indeed does have a greater plan for his expanding Kingdom.  No, that plan may not always seem pleasant when sitting in a whale’s belly, but here we, too, might experience the loving embrace of a God who lovingly and gracious allows suffering to point us toward his mercy and his grace.

 

Runaway prophet (Jonah 1)

The image of “Jonah and the whale” has been plastered across so many nurseries and adorned so many children’s books that it almost seems trite.  Yet embedded in this story is the very heart of the Christian gospel as well as the foundation for Christian mission.

The book of Jonah is typically classified as a book of prophecy, but it reads so differently from the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.  While books like Nahum or Habakkuk contain long sections of instructions and judgments, the book of Jonah weaves together the story of a reluctant prophet, his drift from God, and the finding of God’s grace.

JONAH’S CALL

Jonah opens with God’s call to a man named Jonah:

The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” (Jonah 1:1-2)

Jonah’s name literally meant “Dove” or maybe even “Pigeon” (!).  He lived during the reign of King Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:25), placing him somewhere between 700-800 years before the birth of Jesus.  God called Jonah to be a prophet—that is, a messenger, someone who speaks for God.  But the people of Nineveh was among the last places that Jonah—or any Israelite—would ever want to set foot.  For its Assyrian occupants were known for preserving their culture through some of the most violent and oppressive means necessary.  The very mention of an Assyrian city would have sent a shiver along Jonah’s spine.  The closest analogy we can find today might be the attitudes we have toward radical Islam and ISIS.  Sure, we understand that God can save anyone, but deep inside us we might find a desire to see them bombed into oblivion.  And God says, “Go.”

In the time after Jesus, Christians find their purpose in what we call the “Great Commission.”  Before ascending back to heaven, Jesus tells his closest followers:

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Slide1All Christians are called to be preachers.  I don’t mean that we preach a sermon in the same way as a pastor on Sunday mornings, or finding a soap box and a crowded street corner.  I’m talking about the way we share the gospel with others, the way we open our mouths and tell the story of what God has done in our lives, and what he can do for others.

Still, we might be tempted to react like Jonah did…

JONAH’S FLIGHT

Jonah doesn’t exactly take to his assignment with a lot of enthusiasm:

3 But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.

4 But the Lord hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. 5 Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. (Jonah 1:3-5a)

Slide2.JPGAll of us have something we turn to when life becomes uncomfortable.  For Jonah, it was a physical place, a location that shielded him from the unpleasantness of his mission to the people of Nineveh.  Maybe for you it’s sinking yourself into a hobby, into career, into a relationship.  Maybe you sink yourself into the kinds of sins that numb you to the work of God.  In any event, we’ll see through Jonah that disobedience separates us from God and others.  Jonah disobeyed God by running away.  If you were reading this story in the original Hebrew, you’d see the repetition here of the word yarad.  It means “to go down,” to descend—the way that Jonah “went down to the port of Joppa.”  This movement downward will have some irony as the story unfolds.

But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. 6 So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”

7 Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. 8 “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”

9 Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

10 The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. 11 And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”

12 “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” (Jonah 1:5b-12)

Jonah is strangely fast asleep through all this.  The sailors were frantic.  Imagine the confusion and running about on the boat as they sought to figure out what to do.  Being deeply religious people, they sought to manipulate nature by appealing to their various gods.  But none of their gods answered.  Jonah explains why—he believes that the evil swirling around them is his fault.  But the sailors deny Jonah’s instructions.  Maybe in their minds they were thinking: If this is what his God is like when Jonah’s alive, how much worse might it get if he drowns? 

13 Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it.14 Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. “O Lord,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.”

15 Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! 16 The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. (Jonah 1:13-16)

Do you see the irony?  Jonah’s disobedience prompted their obedience.  The sailors are the only ones taking God seriously at this point.  And what about Jonah?

17 Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonan 1:17)

Jonah had started his journey by descending—first going down toward Tarshish, but now descending beneath the waves and into the belly of a “great fish.”  Was this a whale?  Some sort of sea monster?  We don’t know, but we do know that it happened because “the Lord had arranged” it.  Jonah was fleeing the presence of God, but he would never be beyond the reach of God.  No one is.  That’s the whole point.  Jonah’s about to learn a valuable lesson in God’s grace in the face of willful disobedience.

I don’t pretend to know whether the suffering in our lives always corresponds to some piece of God’s will.  But I do know that when we step back far enough and survey the events of our lives—both good and bad—we can see how God shapes and molds our character even during seasons when we think we know better than the Creator of both land and sea.  No rowing can outrun the will of the Lord, and no mistake we make can place us beyond the capacity for God’s forgiveness.  Jonah reminds us that even the most rebellious among us can have a place in God’s kingdom, for if God can use suffering then maybe—just maybe—God can also use our disobedience for his glory.

 

Moving Beyond Futility (Ecclesiastes 12)

Some of the best writing known to mankind has come from the pens of people in the latter stages of life, from folks who are able to look back over it all with a grand view from Mt. Perspective. From such a precipice, the thoughtful person is able to see in a glance all of the highs and lows, seeing beginnings and ends, visions and fulfillments … or lack thereof.  These words of perspective can be invaluable to the wise reader, to one who does not blow off their instruction as mere ramblings of an aged mind out of touch with the current modern world.

And our brief final words this week on Solomon will be to share the brief final words of Solomon. They are from Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 …

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

In the end, it’s really not complicated. Just obey God. That’s it. That is our duty.

The judgment being spoken of here by Solomon is not related to the afterlife. Scriptural truths about heaven and the resurrection that we know from this side of the cross and from New Testament revelation were not at all in the minds of Old Testament people. Solomon is essentially saying that God will in this life bless those who honor him and stand in judgment over acts that are not in line with God’s revealed word.

So when did Solomon write these words? We believe the Song of Solomon to be from early in his adult life, Proverbs to be in the prime of life, and Ecclesiastes to be from the final years. But was this before or after God’s anger at Solomon’s drift? In the historical accounts, it is as if Solomon is just put on the shelf at that point. We can’t answer the question for sure, but I am going to speculate that is was rather late in life and even beyond the time when God chose to move on from Solomon and the united kingdom.

In any event, not honoring God or truth never really works. It never has, not even for the wisest and most blessed person ever. Life is too short for drifting away from God. Just don’t do it.

NOTE: If you want to get a little jump on the sermon this week and on next week’s writings, read the Book of Jonah; it won’t take long.

The Anatomy of Infidelity (1 Kings 11)

When we hear the word “infidelity” it is an extramarital affair sort of thing that comes to mind. But the word has more generic meanings. The word “fidelis” in its Latin root means “faith” or “trust”.  Hence we have the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps of Semper Fidelis, or Semper Fi, which means “always faithful.”

And we much now hear the word “infidel,” most often associated with the view that Islamic extremists have toward those who are outside their true faith in the teaching they espouse from their holy book.rowboat-1541197_960_720

But some of the same elements that cause a person to drift away from faithfulness to a marriage covenant or loyalty to any commitment are the constituent parts of how a person drifts from an initial good and healthy relationship with God. It could involve taking things for granted, or disappointment that things are not going as well as hoped. There could be an attraction to other people or interests that seem to be more exciting and immediately fulfilling.

And this is what happened to Solomon over time. The biblical narrative that lists success after success, blessing after blessing, takes a sudden turn in chapter 11 of 1 Kings …

11:1 – King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. 2 They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. 3 He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.

7 On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.

9 The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. 11 So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. 12 Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.”

That is a lot of wives to try to please. Forgive me if I seem to go psychoanalyst on you here, but I do see Solomon as someone who liked to please others. I understand this from the inside-out. For those of us who don’t like to disappoint anyone, it is an impossible task to please everyone, especially those who have systemic belief and core values differences.

And over time, Solomon’s many foreign wives apparently wore him down. This accumulation was not a part of what God gave him at the beginning. This was his own collection. God really did not want Israel intermarrying, the very reason being what happened with Solomon. His heart softened. He drifted a little bit here and there. He built places for them to worship, even to such gods as Molech – particularly detestable because of the infant sacrifices that were a part of this association. To get to that point, clearly Solomon had drifted a long way from the point of beginning and the first dream and communication with God.

All relationships in the material world need occasional evaluations that recall the beginning point and fidelity to that point. Businesses have purpose statements, and a good company will occasionally review the current state of affairs with the overall purpose. A good marriage needs regular devotion and introspective analysis as to the total fidelity with the covenant promises made on the day it was initiated. And so likewise the nature of our genuine, core-level, heartfelt commitment to relationship with God needs regular evaluation and renewal for it to take us from a good beginning to a great finish.

That is what we want – a good finish. As Paul said of his desire to finish well, “I want to know Christ—yes … I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

You can’t do that if you let yourself drift. So don’t drift! Press on.