A Shalom Story (Lamentations 3-4; Zephaniah 3)

wyeth_christina

In 1948, Andrew Wyeth painted “Christina’s World,” portraying a woman whose degenerative illness deprived her of the ability to walk.  Instead of a wheelchair, she chose to crawl and drag herself across her house and farmland.  The painting shows her painstakingly making her way across a vast and barren field.  Each of us does this, in our own way.  In a barren land, it is a struggle to find our way home again.  With trembling hands we claw at the soil, inching our way closer, day in and day out.

Everything is broken.  We need look no farther than the evening news to recognize that we live in a world that is marked and marred by suffering.

So when we return our attention to Jeremiah’s laments, we find a picture that isn’t that different than what we’d find on our evening news reports:

How the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street.  2 The precious sons of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, how they are regarded as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!  3 Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young, but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness.  4 The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them.  5 Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps.  6 For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater than the punishment of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment, and no hands were wrung for her.  7 Her princes were purer than snow, whiter than milk; their bodies were more ruddy than coral, the beauty of their form was like sapphire.  8 Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood.  9 Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field.  10 The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.  11 The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations.  (Lamentations 4:1-11)

What can we possibly do to undo this level of chaos, this level of brokenness?  In the 1500 years since these words were written, there have been no political ideas, no social programs, no religious prayers, no clever distractions that have succeeded in untangling the web of hurt in which we’re all suspended.

A SHALOM STORY

To understand this web, we have to go back to the very beginning.  The story of the Bible is a story of shalom.  The word shalom means “peace,” yes—but it also means more than that.  Shalom refers to wholeness, to goodness, to prosperity, to wellbeing.  Shalom refers to everything being as God intended it to be.  And so when God created man and woman, He created a set of shalom relationships—different spheres in which we exist.

Shalom Story

We experience spiritual shalom—a direct relationship with God.  We experience social shalom—man and woman were originally “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25).   And we experience environmental shalom—man and woman were created to work and keep the garden (Genesis 2:15).

But a terrible thing happened.  We decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough, so we disobeyed.  Sin entered the world.  Now each of those shalom relationships would crumble, and from their ashes comes all of the pain and brokenness that we now experience.

This means that the primary (though not ultimate) effect of sin is estrangement.  Betrayal.  Unforgiveness.  Divorce.  War.  These are the fruits of social brokenness.  Disease.  Natural disaster.  Oncology reports.  Death.  These are the fruits of environmental brokenness.  And most significantly, we experience spiritual death.  Separation from God.  Without intervention, our eternal destiny is death and judgment.

A FUTURE KINGDOM

But even Jeremiah turns his trust over to God:

19 But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.  20 Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days?  21 Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old–  22 unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5:19-22)

Lament cannot be the end of the story.  Do you remember the idea of the Day of the Lord?  It meant at least two things.  In the days of Israel’s exile, it referred to the judgment of God over His people.  But it also referred to the future Day of the Lord, when Jesus would physically return to establish His kingdom on earth.

You see what that means?  It means that the story of the Bible—the very plans of God—are about putting the brokenness back together again.  Shalom will be restored.  Death will be a distant memory.

So now, we can finally return to Zephaniah.  Do you remember the message of Zephaniah?  Judgment precedes blessing.  We finally see that Zephaniah points us toward a kingdom without brokenness and without end:

14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!  15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.  16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.  17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.  18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.  19 Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  20 At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

But isn’t this just wishful thinking?  It was Marx who described religion as “the opiate of the masses.”  By that he meant that the best way to oppress people was to offer them a fairy tale about future blessings.  People are willing to endure unimaginable hardships if they’re promised a reward.

If eternity doesn’t exist, then suffering indeed is meaningless, and in the truest sense hopeless.  Christianity becomes reduced to Marx’s “opiate” or a fairy tale.  But the the resurrection of Jesus—an event that Zephaniah probably never really even imagined—tells us that these are not fairy tales or fables.  They are a reality.  And, to quote a writer named Os Guiness, the distance between God’s promise and God’s fulfillment is as close as the distance between the lightning and the thunder.

HEALING OUR WORLD

In the film Spitfire Grill, a young woman bandages the injured leg of her friend.  “You suppose some hurts go so deep that healing them hurts just as bad as the thing that caused it?”

Sin created an open wound on our world.  Healing this wound would hurt just as deeply.  But that’s the beauty of the gospel.  Jesus took on the hurt of our world when He went to the cross: “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  Do you hear that?  Let’s read it again—with the original Hebrew: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us shalom.”

The gospel tells us that because of Christ’s sacrifice, the world can be whole again.  You and I can be new again.  And that’s a beautiful thought.  In the meantime, our task is to live as sojourners in this broken world.  Why?  Because sometimes living with the ache is the only thing that reminds us of the healing to come.  It’s an ache that points us to a greater physician, a greater world, and a greater healing.

So if you are sick, then live with the ache of sickness.

If you are childless, then live with the ache of childlessness.

If you are alone, then live with the ache of loneliness.

If you are poor, then live with the ache of poverty.

If you are suffering, hurting, bleeding, in any way—then live with the ache of this hurting world.  Meet it not with clenched, angry fists but soft, mature tears.

We shall all find our way home again.

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Lament breaks in two (Lamentations 3)

Many churches have “praise teams.”  But how many churches have “lament teams?”  This was the question raised by author and musician Michael Card in his book A Sacred Sorrow.  Reflecting on 9/11, he came to realize that the church has no language to express its deepest grief, though it overflows with slogans to describe its greatest joys.

“Worship is not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If this were true, then according to this modern American understanding of worship, the poor would have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While Jesus would pronounce a blessing on those who mourn, we pronounce a curse. Those who ‘labor and are heavy laden’ can find no place in our comfortable churches to lay their burdens.” (Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow)

A major part of the reason we strain to understand suffering is we lack the proper vocabulary.  So long as the church values happiness over holiness, we will continue to slap band-aids on hemorrhaging wounds.  “Everything happens for a reason,” we insist—or, more likely, repeat from somewhere else.  “God never closes a door without opening a window.”  “Time heals all wounds.”  In the absence of the rich language of lament, we’ve come to embrace slogans.  And I can’t be kind about this, because we’ve exchanged the deep, mysterious nature of God’s word for a series of cheap, insipid, overly-simplistic bumper-sticker phrases that will not sustain you for the journey ahead.

JEREMIAH’S LAMENT

As we return our attention to Jeremiah’s lamenting speeches, it might at first seem as if we’re looking at more of the same.  That’s because in many ways, yes: neither Jeremiah’s nor Israel’s circumstances have changed.  And maybe that’s the point.  Sorrow—deep, true sorrow—is so rarely a passing thing.  It is a fever that settles deeper than skin and settles into your bones.

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or depression, then perhaps you can readily identify with the way Jeremiah describes the strange way that physical pain accompanies emotional anguish.  In Jeremiah’s case, this was a direct result of God’s judgment, but for us today, we don’t always know why we might experience such things.  And if you do struggle with anxiety or depression, it could simply(!) be that your own brain chemistry suffers from the same brokenness as the rest of creation.

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath;  2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;  3 surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long.  4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones;  5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation;  6 he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago.  7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy;  8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;  9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked.  10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding;  11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate;  12 he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow.  13 He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver;  14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long.  15 He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood.  16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes;  17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;  18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.”  19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! (Lamentations 3:1-19)

SHARED SUFFERING

The language of Lamentations 3 reminds me of yet another passage of suffering: Psalm 22.  It was  a song originally written by David—roughly 500 years before Jeremiah’s day, and about 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning…14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;  15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.  16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet–  17 I can count all my bones– they stare and gloat over me;  18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:1, 14-18)

It’s hard to read David’s words without picturing the crucifixion scene: Jesus’ bones being pulled from join to be nailed to the wood, surrounded by scoffers who gamble for His clothing, his mouth and strength dried from the intensity of the moment.  And in that moment this same psalm finds his dry lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

David couldn’t have possibly known that he was writing a hymn for a funeral.  But God did.  Christianity teaches that all scripture finds its origin in God’s heart (2 Timothy 3:16).  This means that God composed a song that would express the suffering of God himself.  A recent worship band—Caedmon’s Call—wrote the lyric: “You planted the seed that grew the tree that grew the cross that saved me.”  It’s all part of the larger plan, even though we don’t always understand what it means in the meantime.

JEREMIAH’S HOPE

In Lamentations 3 we see Jeremiah’s lament break in two.  He suddenly shifts gears in verse 20, turning his attention from his own infirmity to God’s ultimate sovereignty:

20 My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.  21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;  23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”  25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.  26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.  27 It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.  28 Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him;  29 let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope;  30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.  31 For the Lord will not cast off forever,  32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;  33 for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.  34 To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth,  35 to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High,  36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve.  37 Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?  38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?  39 Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?  40 Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! (Lamentations 3:20-40)

For Jeremiah, he could only trust in the larger character of God.   Thousands of years later, we have all the more reason for hope.  We have the testimony of Jesus and His Church.  On the cross, all lament breaks in two.  We see the reality of suffering, but we see that suffering was experienced by the God of all creation.  No other religion is like that.  Islam presents a god who is violently angry with sin—yet never steps into history to experience suffering on his own.  Eastern religions teach that existence is suffering—but the solution is to escape suffering by subjugating desire.  Only Christianity teaches us that God enters into history to experience suffering on our behalf.  And only Christianity teaches us that in our darkest moments, we have a God who leads us not around our difficulties, but through them.  We often lack answers, but we at least have the Answer.

And He is enough.

“Everybody Hurts” (Lamentations 1)

The thing about life is that no one gets out alive.  Live long enough, you bleed a little.  Live a bit longer, and you bleed all the more.  “Everybody hurts,” sings Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M.  For all the disparity of religious belief, political ideology, artistic expression, even physical appearance—could it be that the one thing that truly unites us as a human race, is pain?

Suffering is an affront to our “normal” way of life, and a challenge to our sense of “fairness.”  So much so that even before the birth of Jesus, writers and thinkers struggled to reconcile suffering with their own religious beliefs.  Even literature from ancient Greece began raising the question: Could the gods really be like this?  And in that same period, one writer raised an argument that would echo through the halls of philosophy ever sense.  If suffering exists (and it does), then God cannot be both all-powerful and all-loving.  Why not?  Because if suffering exists, then God is either not powerful enough to end it, or not loving enough to want to.

Fast forward to today.  Clearly a good God couldn’t allow suffering.  Perhaps there’s no meaning to be found at all.  Richard Dawkins, famous author of The God Delusion, says that nature doesn’t answer such questions:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice…DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden)

You don’t have to share Dawkins’ atheism for his thoughts to resonate with you.  Perhaps we are little more than the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore by the currents of an arbitrary, unfeeling universe.

JEREMIAH’S SORROW

We’ll return to Zephaniah in a few days.  Right now we’re turning our attention to another book—one you might have previously only skimmed through.  The book of Lamentations was written by Jeremiah—the same prophet of the larger book that bears his name.  Jeremiah would describe the conditions of Israel’s period of exile—that 70-year period where Israel found herself in captivity in a foreign land.  His prophetic career would not only make him an outcast among his countrymen, but it would rob him of the opportunity for a wife and family.  It’s for these and other reasons that history remembers him as the “weeping prophet.” His words read like something out of a personal diary:

How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.  2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.  3 Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.  4 The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.  5 Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.  6 From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.  7 Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and wandering all the precious things that were hers from days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was none to help her, her foes gloated over her; they mocked at her downfall.  8 Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns her face away.  9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter. “O LORD, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”  10 The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation.  11 All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. “Look, O LORD, and see, for I am despised.”  (Lamentations 1:1-11)

We rarely read words like that.  We’ve become far too accustomed to a lifestyle of comfort and security.  When happiness is valued more highly than holiness, today’s church becomes too preoccupied with the American dream to waste her time on lament.  But who will teach our people to mourn—and mourn well?  To grieve—and grieve well?  Nowhere in Scripture do we find promises of happiness—but instead we find promises of spectacular joy, even though (like Jeremiah) the path often leads through great suffering.

JEREMIAH’S PLEA

Later in this opening chapter, Jeremiah pleads with God on behalf of both himself and his people:

20 “Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death.  21 “They heard my groaning, yet there is no one to comfort me. All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it. You have brought the day you announced; now let them be as I am.  22 “Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many, and my heart is faint.”

Sometimes this is all we can do.  Try and figure it all out, and you’ll drive yourself mad.  “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?”  This is what C.S. Lewis asks in his private journal, after the death of his wife.  He suggests that trying to ask questions about meaning in suffering is like asking God “How many hours are there in a mile?” or “Is yellow square or round?”  Even our questions make no sense.

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

THE GOSPEL AND SUFFERING

Live long enough and you’ll shed just as many tears as Jeremiah—perhaps more.  The gospel doesn’t always give us the answers as to why.  But the gospel helps us understand what the answer can’t be.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

You see, if the gospel is true, then we know that the answer can’t be that God isn’t all-powerful and all-loving.  The answer can’t be that God isn’t all-loving, because He sent His Son to die.  The answer can’t be that God isn’t all-powerful, because He raised His Son from the dead.

We may not always find the answers we’re looking for, but the cross stands as a reminder that sometimes the greatest strength is found in the moments of greatest weakness, and that in a suffering world, only a suffering God can help.

“Catch me if you can…” (Zephaniah 2)

It’s bizarre, really—the way that pride can so blind a man.  I’m not just talking about the guy who insists that “I’m just big-boned” (as if anyone’s buying it).  I’m talking about any of us who allow our self-importance to shield us from reality.  In just the past week, Reuter’s published a story about a Texas man who posted his reckless motorcycle antics in a Facebook video titled—get this—“catch me if you can.”  Sadly, the Texas state police “can” and did—arresting the man in connection with several outstanding warrants.

Maybe we’re not so brazen, or at least so public.  Maybe we think we’ve “gotten away with it” because no one caught us in the “harmless white lie.”  Maybe we’ve gotten really good at hiding our internet browser history.  Maybe we assume that if even society approves extramarital sex, then God certainly can’t make it a big deal.

Can He?

A CALL TO REPENTANCE (2:1-3)

As we saw yesterday, the message of Zephaniah is simple: judgment precedes blessing.  The bulk of Zephaniah 1-2 is devoted to explaining the judgment that would be poured out.  Listen to the way God (through Zephaniah) describes His people:

Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation,  2 before the decree takes effect–before the day passes away like chaff– before there comes upon you the burning anger of the LORD, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the LORD.  3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD.  (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

They are “shameless,” he says.  There was an era when “shame” was built into our legal system.  Remember the “stocks?”  Chances are you have a family photo (or three) of yourself posing in these outdoor contraptions from a family vacation to colonial Williamsburg.  The point was simple: the shame of being publicly identified as a criminal was a deterrent against crime.

More recently, some judges are handing out unusual “shaming” sentences, in which criminals are sentenced to holding signs by the interstate with a description of their crime.  Such a “regress” has prompted many in the social sciences to question the value of such tactics.

In the film The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the remake), the lead character is brainwashed in a government program to become the perfect soldier—dutiful, obedient, and willing to carry out any order with no regard for morals or consequences.  “If you can eliminate shame,” the doctors say, “you can get a man to do anything.”

I don’t know if pride and shame are mutually exclusive, but I think we tend to feel one or the other more strongly.  When we are proud, we lack shame.  The danger—for Israel as well as for us—is that pride can teach us to smile at behaviors that should move us to shameful tears.  And that’s what God is saying to Israel, calling them steadily to repentance.

JUDGMENT ON NEIGHBORS (2:4-15)

The Israelites were not uniquely targeted, however.  God reminds His people that He is the God of all nations.  The next major section describes God’s judgment on Israel’s immediate neighbors:

  • Philistia (2:4-7)

4 For Gaza shall be deserted, and Ashkelon shall become a desolation; Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon, and Ekron shall be uprooted.  5 Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast, you nation of the Cherethites! The word of the LORD is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines; and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left.  6 And you, O seacoast, shall be pastures, with meadows for shepherds and folds for flocks.  7 The seacoast shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah, on which they shall graze, and in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the LORD their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes. 

  • Moab and Amnon (2:8-11)

8 “I have heard the taunts of Moab and the revilings of the Ammonites, how they have taunted my people and made boasts against their territory.  9 Therefore, as I live,” declares the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever. The remnant of my people shall plunder them, and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”  10 This shall be their lot in return for their pride, because they taunted and boasted against the people of the LORD of hosts.  11 The LORD will be awesome against them; for he will famish all the gods of the earth, and to him shall bow down, each in its place, all the lands of the nations. 

  • Ethiopia (2:12)

12 You also, O Cushites, shall be slain by my sword. 

  • Assyria (2:15)

13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert.  14 Herds shall lie down in her midst, all kinds of beasts; even the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals; a voice shall hoot in the window; devastation will be on the threshold; for her cedar work will be laid bare.  15 This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one else.” What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist. 

PRIDE, SHAME, AND THE GOSPEL

When defining the gospel, I often defer to pastor Tim Keller, who so famously summarizes it this way: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”  The gospel replaces pride with humility—because I am a sinner.  But the gospel also replaces shame with confidence—because I am a redeemed sinner.

Regardless of whether you struggle with habitual sin or feelings of inadequacy, the gospel has one cure: Jesus Christ.  The task of the Christian life is—to borrow a phrase from Luther—learning to “preach the gospel to yourself.”  In so doing, we replace the cycle of pride and shame with the abiding peace and joy that comes through forgiveness and transformation.

Wishful thinking? (Zephaniah 1)

No one likes the image of an angry God.  For some, the mere suggestion is downright tasteless.  In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins famously cites such Old-Testament imagery as a reason for his atheism:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)

The more we read some of the prophets, the more we might start to wonder if people like Dawkins might just have a point.  How can we believe in a God like this—let alone love a God like this?

But, like many other things, the answer is in the question itself.  We’re turning our attention now to Zephaniah:

“The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”  (Zephanian 1:1)

His name literally means “Yahweh hides” or maybe “Hidden in Yahweh.”  If Judah was ministering “in the days of Josiah,” it would mean that he was ministering in roughly the years of 640-609 B.C.  Some have suggested that Zephaniah may have even been a part of the royal family in some way—though this view has limited support.

His message was simple: judgment precedes blessing.  The first part of his book deals specifically with God’s judgment on the world in general and on His people in particular.

JUDGMENT OF THE WORLD

2 “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.  3 “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.

Again, we might be troubled by such harsh language.  Why would God be so angry, so swiftly vengeful?  Rebecca Pipert, author of Hope Has Its Reasons helps us make a little more sense of this:

“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships.  Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers?  Far from it….Anger isn’t the opposite of love.  Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference….God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.” (Rebcca Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons)

Let’s say it another way: God isn’t against sin as much as He’s for shalom—that is, for peace, prosperity, integrity, wholeness.  Anything—anyone—that violates that experiences the consequences.  In this case, God’s judgment is made quite clear.  And it’s not just judgment on the world, but also on God’s own people.

JUDGMENT OF JUDAH

God’s people have a unique privilege and responsibility.  They have received the fullest experience of God—which means they are all the more accountable to Him.  This is why Paul tells the Romans that the Jews are both at an advantage for their heritage, yet at the same time even more shockingly guilty before the judge (Romans 3:1-2, 9).  Here, in Zephaniah, we see that judgment is enacted against God’s own people:

  • Cause of judgment

4 “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,  5 those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom,  6 those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him.” 

  • Course of judgment

7 Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.  8 And on the day of the LORD’s sacrifice– “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire.  9 On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.  10 “On that day,” declares the LORD, “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills.  11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off.  12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’  13 Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” 

  • The Reality of judgment

14 The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there.  15 A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,  16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.  17 I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.  18 Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

WISHFUL THINKING?

Historically it’s been argued that man created a God to suit his own needs.  Sigmund Freud, one of the great fathers of modern psychology, argued that God’s judgment was a way of self-justification.  If I believe I am punished for my sins, I am strangely relieved.  Think of the last scene of the movie The Godfather.  The “Godfather” is in church, receiving communion.  But the camera cuts away to scenes of his henchmen, murdering people elsewhere in town.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, religious language can indeed “sugar over the devil himself.”  Religion can justify a wide range of sinful behavior.

The problem is that this eventually breaks down.  It ceases to make sense.  If God were a social invention, then why would we create a God so unattractively violent?  This is the case made by Mary Eberstadt in her satirical work, The Loser Letters:

“[D]on’t You see the problem here? The very character of the Judeo-Christian god that has given You such a romp with the adjectives actually turns out to be a pretty big problem for the Atheist side.  The point everybody’s missing is that this particular god is hard to live with – so hard that the Atheist idea of his having been made up just for the supposed ‘consolation’ of it all is just too LOL.  Even at his best, he’s not the sort of supernatural one can easily cuddle up to.  As Graham Greene’s fallen whiskey priest puts it in The Power and the Glory, making the point that even this god’s ‘love’ is pretty scary stuff, ‘It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark.  Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around,’ and a female Human like me too.” (Mary Eberstadt, The Loser Letters, p. 32-33)

Do you see what she’s saying?  No one would invent a God like this, a God who is so powerful, so glorious, and so terrifyingly real.  The result is a heart heavy and sick with grief, knowing that we, too, are just as guilty before God’s throne.  We can only count on and trust in the sacrifice of Christ to make our trembling hands worthy of resting at God’s feet.

 

Richard Sherman Nahum (Nahum chapters 2+3)

Perhaps there are a few of you today who are so tuned out to football that you don’t quite “get” the title today – “Richard Sherman Nahum.” What I am referencing is that the prophet Nahum has a communication style about like that of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who made the critical play in the recent NFC Championship game that sent his team to the Super Bowl. In an interview with Erin Andrews after the game, he had an outburst of loud trash talking that will be remembered for decades in the NFL. And like him, the prophet Nahum lays down some serious verbal smack about the coming fate of the Assyrian Empire.

Here a couple of examples: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle … Look at your troops—they are all weaklings.”  Nahum would get a 15-yard personal foul penalty in the NFL for taunting with words like that.

But he was speaking to a people with a serious pride problem. Never before had a nation or empire expressed an attitude quite so bombastic as had the Assyrians. One of their kings wrote of himself, “I am Ashurbanipal, the great king, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of Assyria. The great gods magnified my name; they made my rule powerful.” Another named Esarhaddon said, “I am powerful, I am all powerful, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal, I am honored, I am magnified, I am without equal among all kings, the chosen one of Asshur, Nabu, and Marduk.” (Those final proper nouns were the names of Assyrian Gods.)Nineveh1

So, to get his message of the reality of the Assyrians’ certain coming destruction, Nahum resorts to Richard Sherman-style lingo. He even prophesies of the nature of their destruction – which would come by the rivers flooding and undercutting the city walls to allow access by the Medes and Babylonians. Nineveh was a sort of Fort Knox in terms of the stashes of silver and gold from all the conquered nations like Israel and Egypt. Nahum depicts the nasty battle and destruction, along with the wealth all being carried away. At the end of chapter three, he concludes with the statement that everyone everywhere would clap with pleasure at Assyria’s destruction, in that all people had felt the pain of their cruelty (like beheading masses of conquered people and stacking their heads in artistic pyramids – stuff like that!).

The Old Testament prophets contain repeated themes such as are seen in Nahum’s writing: that God and justice prevail in the end, that current riches and power are not necessarily the blessing of God, and that God would be faithful to his covenant promises to his own people and restore them. And in these themes are timeless truths for us as we live, almost as if in exile in uncharted territory, as strangers in a fallen world where injustice and evil often seem to prosper. Righteousness and truth prevail in the end, and we may have a part in that ultimate success through relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Nahum Chapter 2

2:1 An attacker advances against you, Nineveh. Guard the fortress, watch the road, brace yourselves, marshal all your strength!

2 The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob like the splendor of Israel, though destroyers have laid them waste and have ruined their vines.

3 The shields of the soldiers are red; the warriors are clad in scarlet. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day they are made ready; the spears of juniper are brandished.

4 The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares. They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lightning.

5 Nineveh summons her picked troops, yet they stumble on their way. They dash to the city wall; the protective shield is put in place.

6 The river gates are thrown open and the palace collapses.

7 It is decreed that Nineveh be exiled and carried away. Her female slaves moan like doves     and beat on their breasts.

8 Nineveh is like a pool whose water is draining away. “Stop! Stop!” they cry, but no one turns back.

9 Plunder the silver! Plunder the gold! The supply is endless, the wealth from all its treasures!

10 She is pillaged, plundered, stripped! Hearts melt, knees give way, bodies tremble, every face grows pale.

11 Where now is the lions’ den, the place where they fed their young, where the lion and lioness went, and the cubs, with nothing to fear?

12 The lion killed enough for his cubs and strangled the prey for his mate, filling his lairs with the kill and his dens with the prey.

13 “I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will burn up your chariots in smoke, and the sword will devour your young lions. I will leave you no prey on the earth. The voices of your messengers will no longer be heard.”

Nahum 3

3:1 Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!

2 The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots!

3 Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses—4 all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.

5 “I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.

6 I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.

7 All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’  Where can I find anyone to comfort you?”

8 Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river was her defense, the waters her wall.

9 Cush and Egypt were her boundless strength; Put and Libya were among her allies.

10 Yet she was taken captive and went into exile. Her infants were dashed to pieces at every street corner. Lots were cast for her nobles, and all her great men were put in chains.

11 You too will become drunk; you will go into hiding and seek refuge from the enemy.

12 All your fortresses are like fig trees with their first ripe fruit; when they are shaken, the figs fall into the mouth of the eater.

13 Look at your troops—they are all weaklings. The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies; fire has consumed the bars of your gates.

14 Draw water for the siege, strengthen your defenses! Work the clay, tread the mortar, repair the brickwork!

15 There the fire will consume you; the sword will cut you down—they will devour you like a swarm of locusts. Multiply like grasshoppers, multiply like locusts!

16 You have increased the number of your merchants till they are more numerous than the stars in the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away.

17 Your guards are like locusts, your officials like swarms of locusts that settle in the walls on a cold day—but when the sun appears they fly away, and no one knows where.

18 King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber; your nobles lie down to rest. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them.

19 Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?

The Two Sides of God (Nahum 1)

We have all known people over the years who are a mixed bag of extremes – kind and loving one moment, yet in a short time triggered by some event into a violent rage. What makes such people difficult to deal with is the unpredictable nature of their personalities and expressions.

God’s character is expressed in two vastly different ways. Some people wrongly see God as merely a Father of love, love, love … who just loves everyone so much no matter what they do or values system they adopt – he just can’t help himself. Yet others see God as a nasty and vindictive despot who is always just waiting to zap the next person who steps off the straight and narrow. Both views are wrong … wrongly understanding love and wrath, or how God’s grace and justice work as two sides of the same coin.

Today and tomorrow we turn to the obscure little book of Nahum, and we have scheduled it for this week of study along with Jonah – the two books belonging together in their prophesies regarding the Assyrian Empire.

However, these prophets were not contemporaries and wrote about a century or more apart from each other. Jonah wrote in the mid 700s B.C. The fruit of his ministry was a short-term revival, but about 40 years late, Assyria conquered the northern 10-tribe kingdom of Israel. Another 20 years later in an attack upon the southern kingdom of Judah, God miraculously saved the nation by the deaths of 185,000 in the camps of the Assyrians. By the time of Nahum’s writing in the mid 600s B.C., Assyria was at its peak of power – having defeated the Egyptians, while also receiving tribute from Judah. Nahum predicted the demise of the proud Assyrians, which would happen at the hands of the Medes and Persians in 612 B.C. – with Jerusalem being taken by the same about seven years later, beginning the Babylonian Captivity of Judah.

1:1 A prophecy concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.

2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies.

3 The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.

4 He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither     and the blossoms of Lebanon fade. 5 The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it.

6 Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him.

So these opening verses display God’s anger, wrath, and great power to judge. God will judge his enemies and those who stand up against him through evil lives. His anger is slow – to allow repentance; but his power is beyond the most powerful displays of nature … like tornados, droughts that wither the most fertile areas of the Near East, and volcanoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters. But here is the flipside …

7 The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him,

But then again, the prophet returns to the first theme, identifying exactly whom God is particularly angry with – and it’s Nineveh …

8 but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness. 9 Whatever they plot against the Lord he will bring to an end; trouble will not come a second time. 10 They will be entangled among thorns and drunk from their wine; they will be consumed like dry stubble. 11 From you, Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the Lord and devises wicked plans.

The varied and powerful kings of Nineveh all had designs upon totally conquering Judah. There was the one particular incident of the 185,000 killed by God in one evening – sending Sennacherib back home. But they continued to threaten – and even held Judah’s King Manasseh in chains for a time. But the Assyrians were not to be the people to conquer Judah.

Here the Lord speaks through his prophet to the nation of Judah …

12 This is what the Lord says: “Although they have allies and are numerous, they will be destroyed and pass away. Although I have afflicted you, Judah, I will afflict you no more. 13 Now I will break their yoke from your neck and tear your shackles away.”

And now the word is directed toward the Assyrians …

14 The Lord has given a command concerning you, Nineveh: “You will have no descendants to bear your name. I will destroy the images and idols that are in the temple of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are vile.”

It is not a good thing to have God say that he is going to prepare your grave!  Nineveh was so completely destroyed and buried, that when Alexander the Great fought a battle near there a few hundred years later, he did not realize he was at that site.

15 Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you;     they will be completely destroyed.

So there is judgment against Assyria – demonstrating God’s wrath, and grace toward Judah – demonstrating God’s mercy. Those are the two sides of God.

It is a terrible thing to be on the wrong side of God, and that is where we are in our natural condition under the curse of sin. But God’s grace, and Christ’s provision as the substitutionary object of God’s judgment, makes it possible for our adoption as his own people on the good side of God’s mercy.

Would you want a God who ignored sin and injustice and was simply love, love, love? No! And would you want a God who was angry and vindictive? Of course not. The difference between God’s two sides and the multiple personalities we know to mark the behavior of certain damaged people is that God’s two sides are predictable and work in perfect harmony. He is angry and will judge sin, but he is gracious toward those who repent and trust in the provision for sin that he has provided.

Less Like Jonah, More Like Jesus (Jonah 4)

Though our published schedule calls for us to turn today to the book of Nahum, let’s cover that the next two days, while we add an additional thought on Jonah today.

God gets a bad rap sometimes from Bible readers – particularly about the Old Testament. There is just so much judgment and wrath against people groups and nations. And it is certainly not as if his own chosen people get off the hook. To the simple mind, God seems so angry and vindictive – nothing like this God of love that Christians talk about. And so, even scholars will sometimes talk about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, as if they are two people.

God cares about lost people.  And that is not just something God stumbled upon in the New Testament.  He has always cared about lost people… way more than His own redeemed people (in any era) have ever cared about the unreached.  Telling Jonah to go to Nineveh was a tough assignment.  Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire – the big bad boys on the block, and the enemies of Israel.  The Assyrians were bad people.  They were famous for doing things like impaling their enemies on a giant stick and making human popsicles out of them.  Going to Nineveh would be like being sent to Tokyo in 1943!  Or maybe like being told to have an evangelistic rally in Tehran or Baghdad today (or Mosul – the modern name for Nineveh!).  Or possibly, it might be more like the difficulty of taking the Gospel to that ungodly foreman at work who does not deserve God’s grace!

The fact of the matter for Jonah was that he did not really desire the repentance of the Ninevites.  Their destruction was cool with him… let ‘em toast!  When he saw that God had relented upon His plan to destroy them, Jonah was angry and basically said, “See, didn’t I tell you that this is exactly what would happen?”

So Jonah sat down to watch what would happen to the city.  It was blistering hot!  And God provided a fast growing plant with large leaves to provide shade for Jonah, which pleased him immensely.  But when a worm ate the plant and a sirocco (the actual word) came along and caused the plant and Jonah to dry up, he was immensely displeased.  God rightly pointed out to Jonah that he cared more about the plant (his creature comfort) than he did about the grace of God displayed to 120,000 people!

Is it possible for creature comforts to limit the zeal for outreach in our generation?  I think so.  We fear the repercussions of what people will think of us if we seek to speak intimately with them about their faith.  We may worry how it will impact our job relationship, or our standing in the community.  Who wants to be seen as a fanatic, or to be viewed as making judgments upon others’ beliefs?  Fear of not having enough material resources for our pleasures may prevent us from generous and greater involvement in the worldwide cause of Christ.

Maybe for you it is like what a famous person in Texas told me about pastors.  He said “Preachers are good, and I love them; but I love them in someone else’s family.”  I’m afraid a lot of Christians think, “Evangelism is good, and I’m glad it happens; but I’m happier if someone else does it.”  However, we all have a command to do it!  Let’s not be Jonahs who run in the opposite direction!

Contrast Jonah with Jesus, and not just the statement that Jesus made in Matthew 12 …

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 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.”

Beyond Jesus referencing the story of Jonah, consider the contrast of the characters themselves. Jonah set up shop outside the city of Nineveh to see it destroyed, whereas Jesus went outside the city of Jerusalem to give his life that others may live. And the heart of Christ is seen when he says of his city, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

As in all things, it is our goal to become more like Christ. Yet on the matter of outreach, it is so much easier to be more like Jonah – only doing it if you simply have to, and not possessing any compassion for people who are, in a word, lost.

This Thing Called Repentance – Part 2 – (Jonah Chapters 3 and 4)

Yesterday we read and talked about the first two chapters of Jonah, so we will finish this short four-chapter book today.

Again, here are four chapter headings to help you remember the story:

Chapter 1 – Jonah makes the sea sick.

Chapter 2 – Jonah makes the whale sick.

Chapter 3 – Jonah makes the Ninevites sick.

Chapter 4 – Jonah makes God sick!

The theme of our series through Jonah has been to talk about repentance. The prophet repented of his disobedience in running from God, and in chapter three we encounter the surprising result of the repentance of the heathen city of Nineveh.

Jonah Goes to Ninevehnineveh 1

3:1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”  3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.

Indeed, by ancient standards Nineveh was a huge city. The walls were 50 feet thick and 100 feet high. The diameter of the main city was two miles with a circumference of eight miles. A lower wall was extended out farther from the city, so the metropolitan area was quite sizeable with a six-digit population. To cover the city with his preaching took Jonah three days, saying …

4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

So why would the Ninevites believe and repent? Well, there is the work of God involved in this, of course. Beyond that, we know from history that there were two large earthquakes in years just before Jonah’s arrival; and we know from science that there was a solar eclipse on a specific date at this same general time. Ancient people saw such events as divine omens.

6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

So, in a different sense, God repented – changed from one disposition to another. We know from history that this revival must not have had lasting effect for successive generations. It would only be about 37 years later that the Assyrians would indeed conquer the Northern Kingdom. Their attempt to capture the Southern Kingdom of Judah was unsuccessful due to the intervention of God destroying 185,000 of the Assyrian army. The prophet Nahum – our readings for Thursday and Friday of this week – spoke a prediction of judgment against them because of their wickedness.

So the message Jonah shared made the Ninevites sick, but finally, Jonah’s reaction to this entire story makes God sick …nineveh_city_walls

Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Compassion

4:1  But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

Have you ever prayed to God like Jonah did here?  I have – as I’ve several times shared with you the story of my anger at God earlier in my life, when, living in Texas and training for ministry, I did not receive a ministry position in a church that sure looked like a no-brainer at the time … and it still does. I should have gotten the position by all measurements … but God came along a few months later with a far better opportunity that has impacted my entire life since then.

Jonah is a guy you’d want on your Bible trivia team… he gets all the right answers. Verse 2 is a perfect definition of the revealed character of God. Jonah knows the truth, he just hated God’s application of it in the real world.

3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5 Jonah had gone 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. 6 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. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 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.”

So Jonah finds a high spot that overlooks the city, and he there sets up shop to see what is going to happen – hopefully that God will destroy the place!

Along the way in this place of a dry dessert climate, God caused a large leafy plant to grow and provide shade, but also a worm to eat this overgrown vegetable. Jonah’s joy for his creature comfort far exceeded his joy for seeing people repent and turn from evil.

9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 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?”

The juxtaposition of Jonah’s attitude about a silly plant with God’s perspective on many thousands of people stands as a stark contrast with its own lessons (that we’ll talk about tomorrow).

But today, what else may we continue to learn about repentance? Here are three more points to add to those shared yesterday …

5.  God often does things in his sovereign wisdom that we do not understand and that do not make sense to us, but his desire for repentance / blessing is greater than his desire to judge.

I cannot tell you why God does what He does, nor can I explain why He does not do others things a whole lot faster! But I can tell you that God is more interested in our obedience than our accomplishments. God allows things to happen to us, so that things will happen in us, that things may happen through us; and when you get that 3-point thing understood and accept it in faith – you’ve really accomplished something!

6.  Though repentance for salvation is a once and done thing, repentance in the life of discipleship needs regular vigilance.

We talk about repentance in the issue of our salvation, and that repentance and change is a once-and-for-all life-changing directional shift where we move from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light. But in our present human condition on this side of Glory, we will have failings that require us to be vigilant about making matters right with God by turning from sin, and trusting in Him.

7.  Our constant need is a view of the sovereign work of God, that we may be blessed by being in alignment and agreement with it.

We constantly need to be looking to see what God is doing around us … in our homes and families, through our work, and together here through our church … that we may align with it. In the midst of routine faithfulness and service, we may not always see God’s plan – which may not at times look like much – but we persevere, and in the end are able to look back at His good work.

Summary – So what is repentance?  It is a change in us where we agree with God about sin (we call this confession) and then we turn from it in repentance and go in the other direction – not like Jonah away from God, but rather away from sin and toward truth.

This Thing Called Repentance – Part 1 – (Jonah Chapters 1 and 2)

We are all generally familiar with the story of Jonah the Prophet, who was called of God to go to Nineveh and preach God’s truth there. Instead, he went in the opposite direction toward Tarshish (Spain) and ended up creating a bellyache for the whale. Eventually, he got to the correct destination and completed his assignment, though with more than a wee bit of a grudging attitude. 

The book of Jonah is filled with the concept of “repentance.” And we asked in the sermon yesterday, “What does it mean to repent?”  While certainly a biblical word, repentance often concurs up in our modern minds some wide-eyed, hair-disheveled, twang-tongued, sweating, Bible-pounding evangelist yelling “REPENT, or burn in hell!”  Is it about fear? Is it about emotion?

When disciplining children, we want to get them to a point where they turn away from whatever attitude of rebellion that led to an altercation needing correction; and we want to see them genuinely break and understand what they did wrong, and therefore desire to not do that deed again and now behave in a proper way. And that is essentially what it means to repent. More on that in a moment (actually tomorrow), but let’s go to the story of Jonah.

Jonah was one of the earlier prophets, being a contemporary of Amos and Hosea – whom we have recently studied. Though these two were prophetic voices to the nation of Israel, Jonah was called by God to speak to the big, bad boys on the block in the ancient world at that time – the Assyrians. These were bad, bad people. They were brutal to captured foes in particular – known to impale people on a pole – making a human popsicle of them. The Assyrians were the enemy of Israel, and though they would later be used by God to punish Israel, their power to do so had not yet reached sufficient strength.

It was not as if Israel had her own act together as a nation – recall the messages of Hosea and Amos. Though this was the peak of their territorial expansion and material success under the reign of Jereboam II, there was nothing that really set them much apart from the heathen nations around them in terms of the true worship of God rather than idols and materialism.

So for Jonah to be called of God to go preach to these people seemed extraordinarily odd to him. Who would want to go to the center of such a place and tell them they were in trouble with God? If they did not like the message, they could make a popsicle out of Jonah. And if they repented, that would not be good for Israel. To Jonah, the whole thing looked like a lose/lose.

Over the years, I’ve used this slick little outline of Jonah to help remember the big idea of each of the four chapters of this short little Old Testament book…

Chapter 1 – Jonah makes the sea sick.

Chapter 2 – Jonah makes the whale sick.

Chapter 3 – Jonah makes the Ninevites sick.

Chapter 4 – Jonah makes God sick!

Jonah Flees From the Lord

1:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Nineveh was a huge city by ancient standards. It was seven times larger than the old city of Jerusalem for example. From Israel it was about 500 miles to the northeast – in modern Iraq near the border with Turkey … in fact, it is the modern city of Mosul, which we heard much about in the Iraq War.

Jonah essentially went in the opposite direction – catching presumably a Phoenician boat sailing to the coast of Spain to Tarshish – about 3,000 miles in the wrong direction!

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

7 Then 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. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

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

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

11 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?”

12 “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.”

13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

It is interesting to see that these pagan, idolatrous men had more compassion for Jonah than God’s prophet had for them or the Ninevites. This whole story is filled with counter-intuitive elements. But Jonah’s sin had caused the sea to get sick, so reluctantly they tossed him overboard.

Jonah’s Prayer

1:17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

2:1  From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.

So Jonah has a personal revival in the belly of the whale (or whatever large fish it was). There have been accounts of whalers who have been swallowed by whales and survived the ordeal, but without doubt, this was a God-ordained intervention, as are many other elements of the story. We don’t need to have natural explanations.

Jonah continues with his prayer of repentance …

3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.

6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.

7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.

9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

So, chapter 2, Jonah made the whale sick, but the fish did his job, presumably depositing Jonah again on the eastern Mediterranean coast where he could resume his trip to Nineveh, now in obedience to God, even if grudgingly done.

Let me share some application thoughts from these first two chapters …

1.  Obeying and serving God may often go against our natural sensibilities and desires… and we may foolishly just go the other way.

We may not personally like the paths that God chooses for us. We may resent his calling and want to do what we would rather do. There is no shortage of people who can testify from their lives how for so long they resisted what God wanted them to do, until finally finding peace and satisfaction by doing what he directed and desired.

2.  We may often find ourselves in denial or justification of our desires over obeying God’s call… and just sleep through reality.

Again, there is no shortage of stories of people who knew God wanted them to do something, but they fought it and denied it and went their own way. Is there something – large or small – that you know God has put in your heart to do … but you are fighting this thought / idea / feeling / open door out of fear or resistance?

3.  You can know all the right answers, but still not be in obedience to God.

This is a real warning for those of us who like the academic side of things … believing that all is right because we are thinking the correct things theologically… Jonah knew all the right answers for the seaman who questioned him.

4.  God may chose to bring an unpleasant experience into our lives to get us back on track with following him.

Unpleasant experiences are not always God getting our attention. Bad things happen because we simply live in an imperfect world. But there are times when in light of God’s work in your life and what the Spirit is telling you through the Word, that God intervenes to get you turned to a new and proper direction.

Check back tomorrow to finish Jonah and to gain some final, additional thoughts on repentance.