Sunday, February 18, 2018

Promise In a Name

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 17: 1-7; 15-16, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 18th, 2018

One of William Shakespeare’s most famous quotes has Juliet asking Romeo: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Juliet’s point was that it didn’t matter what Romeo’s family name was because they loved each other.

So, what is in a name?   When I started college I made a little fun with my name.  While introducing myself, I say something like, “I’m Charles Tomlin from a little village called ‘Charles’ and I grew up on a road named ‘Tomlin’.  With tongue in cheek I added: “My parents weren’t real creative.”  Of course, I was only joking.  Actually, I was named “Charles” after my father.  My middle name is Joseph, but my nickname is “Joey”.  The reason they didn’t call me Joseph or Joe was because “Joey” was the name I already had when my parents adopted me at nine months.   Sometimes there’s a lot that can be said with a name.

In our text today, Abram got his new name: “Abraham.”   As Abraham journeyed with God, he lived by the promise that he would give birth to a great people.   Today three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, go back to this “Abraham”.   We connect to Abraham through his most famous three sons; Isaac, Ishmael, and of course, Jesus who was born of ‘Abraham’s seed’ (Matt. 1:1).   What is most important, however, is not any kind of genealogical connection, but the spiritual connection we can have.  So, first, before we get to how Abram became Abraham, let’s review the most important spiritual details of this story.

This story of renaming begins, not with the renaming of Abraham, but with God making his own name crystal clear.   Perhaps, since Abram was 99 years old, he needed a reminder.  I already need a lot of reminding at this dear age of “60”.   But this is probably less about Abram’s need to be reminded, as much as, it is about God’s desire to reveal himself.   At the center of this story is one of the greatest of spiritual truths ever encountered:  We can’t fully know who we are, or what life means, without knowing this God whom we call ‘the one true God.’   “I am the Almighty God…” literally means, “I am the God of the Mountain top”, or as we might translate it:  I’m at the top of everything you imagine to be God.

For you see, Abram did not come from a land that was devoid of God, but he came from a land of many gods, many forms of worship, and many different religious understandings.   It was out of this ‘many’ that this one ‘Almighty God’ revealed himself.  This revelation did not come through a mere idea, but through a specific people who were called to live, to believe, trust, and to follow the promise of this God who would bless them, and by blessing them, would bless the whole world.   This isn’t a ‘bad’ vision of God, is it?   In a time when many people today have become afraid of religion, thinking of religious faith as a negative, harmful or meaningless, what if we could recapture this ‘vision’ or ‘revealing’ a God who blesses?

Again, Abram came out of a world where there were many gods: temple gods, national gods, local community gods, and household gods.  Hardly anyone in that day would have dared suggested that there wasn’t a god.  There was, on the contrary, a god for just about any occasion.  Giving a mind, soul, or personal name to nature or other unseen powers was the way that ancient people made meaning for their lives.  They believed that appeasing and pleasing these gods would help to control their own destiny.  Today, few would name all these invisible powers ‘gods’, but we name them mother nature, random situations, or specific circumstances.   And even though some ‘circumstances’ seem to have a mind of their own, fewer people today think they need an understanding of many gods or any God, for that matter.  While the Hebrew Psalmist wrote that “Only a fool says in his or her heart, there’s no God (Psa. 14:1, 53:1, Luk. 12:20),”  the direction of most people’s thinking today is exactly the opposite, “Only fools still say there is an “Almighty God.”

The popular Welsh philosopher of the last century, Bertrand Russell explained how modern people shouldn’t base their lives on a “God who can’t be proven”.  This was is the evolving, advancing norm for thinking people, since the European Enlightenment.  And Russell and the Enlightenment thinkers are right: The Bible never once tried to prove the existence of God.  It does not prove God, but assumes God.  The problem today is not that God has been disproven, but that belief in God is being ‘discarded’ or ‘displaced’ by people with either money of power. But even this decline of faith in God, the basic questions of life still remain ultimately unanswerable without faith.   

The most specific question that still remains is: “Do people live better and die better by the facts, or do people live better and die better when they they have ‘hope’ beyond the ‘facts’?  Interestingly, when a woman in Great Britain heard this philosopher explain that she shouldn’t believe a God who wasn’t provable, she decided to keep going to church to worship God anyway as an ‘act’ of her faith.   And the woman was right to do so.  Most philosophers today admit they don’t really live just by the facts either.  Since God can’t be proven or disproven, you simply express a specific kind of ‘faith’ when you say that there is no God.   For just as Abraham followed God by faith (Hebrews 11: 8ff), not by sight, so we who choose to have faith, we follow in Abraham’s footsteps.  The real question in our lives is not will I have faith or not, but which kind of faith will we have?  Will my faith include the revealed faith, or will my kind of ‘faith’ exclude the revealed faith with a hope that replaces God.  This is why the Biblical question is not, do you believe, but which God will you serve,  God, or Money?  Whether you admit it or not, you will still have a god. (

Several years ago, in 2001, I flew to Boston, Massachusetts twice, to interview for a position as pastor of a Baptist Church in one of the nearby suburbs.  Interestingly, I flew in and out of Logan Airport, the same Airport terrorist flew out of, only four months later.   One day, during my visit, I went into a local book store and came across a book written by local Harvard Professor of Psychiatry, Armand Nicoli.  For thirty-five years, Dr. Nicoli had taught the most popular class at Harvard.  This book was based on those lectures entitled, “The Question of God”.   Public Television had made a Documentary about the contents of the book.  The class lectures were based on arguments of the Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis who converted from atheism to Christianity, compared to the arguments of the Austrian Sigmund Freud, a Jew who became an atheist, who is thought of as the founder of modern psychology.   If you have any ‘questions’ about God, you ought to read that book, or check out the documentary.  Without making one single argument, and without making one single conclusion, by the time you finish that book, you’ll understand a great distinction between a life lived by a person of faith moving toward God, verses someone running away from having faith in God.   What is that distinction? (

Perhaps the greatest distinction between a faithful and faithless person, is whether or not they actually live their lives based on the moral command of this ‘Almighty God’.   This is exactly what it meant for Abram to become Abraham; the father of all revealed faith.   Abram was never given any kind of explanation, proof, or theory about God, but he was ‘commanded’ to live a higher standard of morality by this God.   

I don’t want to get into a deep discussion about proving God, but I do think it is important to understand, that what we see happening in this moral command that is being placed upon Abram, ‘to walk….and be blameless’, is precisely what C.S. Lewis wrote about in his greatest writing, Mere Christianity.   Lewis said that: “The human conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver. (  The point is, where does our sense of ‘ought’ come from?  Does it only come from ourselves, or does it come from the God who created us, and commands us to live before him?   I realize that there are many who would argue that human morality is merely evolutionary; that morality is simply a way that humans try to protect themselves.  But how can loving your enemy protect you?  How can turning the other cheek, protect you?   How can giving your life for another person, protect you?   There are so many ways that human wish or will does not explain the high moral potential of the human person.  Personally, I think that the greatest moral sense is as a result of nothing less than the command and call of God.  That’s exactly how it came to Abraham, and it is still the highest calling ever placed upon humanity is to rise above ourselves and to live the command of God.  

And this is exactly what frightens many non-religious people today.  Many see religious faith as being very dangerous, because it is not based on logic, on mere reason, or on the facts or good that can be proven.   When a suicide bomber blows up innocent people, many of them are also claiming, not only a connection back to Abraham, but they are saying that they have been ‘commanded’ by God to ‘walk before him’ and ‘to be blameless’.  But to be ‘blameless’ as they interpret it, is to do what God says, no matter who gets hurt. 

While we can agree that religious faith can be dangerous; so can natural gas, fire, water, wind and too much air.   Anything in this world can be abused, and the greatest abuse of true religious faith is to miss the main point of ‘why’ Abram was called to ‘walk before God and be blameless’; Abraham was to be blessed to be a blessing.   When we make religion only our own private pipeline to God we’ve missed the main point of what faith in God is all about.  Faith isn’t merely about being faithful to God or responding in faith in God on our own account, but faith in God is both a call and command to ‘walk before God’ so we can ‘walk with others’.  As one Old Testament Scholar, Terence Fretheim has said, “This God who calls Abraham is a missionary God.”  This God of the Hebrews is the God who not only commands that the children of Abraham follow and love him, but he is the true God who calls and commands Abraham to by a standard of morality that enables him to bless others. (See Genesis, NIB, Abingdon Press, 1994, pp 457-461).

What we see in Abraham’s life; is not a perfect, sinless person, but he is a very moral person.   He gave his nephew Lot the first choice of the best land so there would be no scabble (Gen. 13:8ff).  When Lot was later kidnapped, Abraham got a small army together to rescue him  (Gen. 14:12ff).  After the battle was over, Abraham refused to get rich from the battle.  Instead, Abraham gave thanks by worshipping ‘the most High God’ and paying a tithe (a tenth of all he had) to the very mysterious priest, Melchizedek (Gen. 14:16ff).  And even when God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for its degradation into sin, it was Abraham who tried to talk God out of it (Gen 18:17ff).  Whatever you want to say about Abraham, you must say that Abraham is depicted as someone answering the command to a higher moral life—a kind life that is blessed to be a blessing. 

People whose lives are bound to God, can have an inner strength that ties loose ends of hearts and minds together.  This idea comes from the great psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, who disagreed with Freud’s skeptical atheism.  What Jung observed in his own study of human minds and emotions, is that people are ‘loose ends’ of feelings and commitments, without a calling, command, or loyalty to the mysterious truth of God, who is more than their individual selves ( See Interpreter’s Dictionary of Bible, Genesis, p. 608, and C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Brace & Co., 1933, p. ).   

Perhaps the most important part of Abraham’s life, was that after God called and commanded him, he did not live his life trying to live up to his own name, but as Abraham he lived his life toward the promise in the name God gave him.   There really isn’t that much difference in this name, Abram, or Abraham, in its spelling; but there is all the difference in the world the meaning; between living your life only for yourself, or living your life for the God who has called you by name to be more than you can be alone.   Living toward God’s promise is what makes Abraham’s story for us too.  As Christians, we are also a people given a ‘new name’ when we are baptized ‘in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts. 2:38).”   This is what the Apostle Paul meant on two occasions, once when he asked: ‘Don't you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20 NLT).   In the very next chapter of this first letter to the Corinthians, he repeats this calling and command, making it even clearer that God commands your life, not to take it from you, but to give it back to you on better terms: God paid a high price for you, so don't be enslaved by the world” (1 Cor. 7:23 NLT).

At the heart of good psychology, philosophy, and good theology too, going all the way back to Abrahamic faith, the kind of ‘name’ you live up to determines your life  (There are even studies going on today to prove our name can impact behavior,   In Christian terms, the name you are given by God in Jesus Christ, (which used to be the name given at Christian Baptism), symbolizes the power only God can give which he promises to redeem us from sin, death and destruction.  But you have to let God give you his name.   You must not only believe on his name, but you must also live in his name, “in Christ” (Rom. 8:10; 12:4, 1 Cor. 1:2, 30, Eph 2:10, , Col. 1:27), Paul says over and over.   You must determine to live our lives by this ‘name that is above every other name,… (Phil. 2: 5-11).   It is this ‘name’ that saves us by giving us a new name (Isa. 62: 2; Rev. 2:17, 3:12).

There is an old story about two young brothers who were caught stealing sheep. The punishment back then was to brand the thief's forehead with the letters S.T., which stood for sheep thief. One brother subsequently left the village and spent his remaining years wandering from place to place indelibly marked by disgrace. The other remained in the village, made restitution for the stolen sheep, and became a caring friend and neighbor to the townspeople -- an old man loved by all. Many years later, a stranger came to town and inquired about the S.T. on the old man's forehead. "I'm not sure what it means," another told him. " It happened so long ago, but I think the letters must stand for saint." God has a myriad of other names to describe his beloved children, but his favorites are names that describe a person who fulfills his purpose after he gets a name change  (From a sermon by Paul Kummer, From This Day Forward, CSS Publishing, This and the final three stories also come from his sermon).
It was this ‘new’ name that was given to Abram that put God’s promise on continual display.  As Abraham submitted to his new name, he was given promises, not just passively, but actively, because they commanded and expected Abraham’s participation in the promise:  “This is my covenant with you  (v. 4); I will make you the father of nations….(v. 4), I will make you fruitful….(v. 6),… I will give you a land,… (v. 8),…  I will be your God (v. 8).   The whole idea of promise was not just a promise that God made, but a promise that Abraham also made to live into and toward the promises of God.

After all these promises were made to Abraham, God said to him: “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility (Gen. 17:9 NLT).  The outward sign of Abraham’s willingness to live up to his responsibility of the covenant was ‘circumcision’.  In the New Testament, as a very Jewish Christianity became a world movement,   was only a spiritual form of circumcision that was required; a ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Rom. 2:29), which has always been ‘faith’ (Rom. 4:11ff).  To receive the promises of God today, as it was then, what matters most is what happens in the human heart, as a person decides to live life ‘by faith’, not only by sight (Heb. 11:1ff).  This means that we come to understand that our own life is given to us as a ‘trust’ between us and our creator, who also promises to be our redeemer with hope, through Jesus Christ.   Now, since we receive the fullness of God’s promises through the name of Jesus, we are called to live up to the ‘name’ we’ve been given ‘in him’ (2 Thess. 1:12, 3:6).

How well are we living up to the name God gave us: Christian? Once, when Alexander the Great was reviewing his troops , he walked along the straight lines, he found one scruffy, untidy, disheveled soldier. Standing directly in front of the soldier, he barked at him and said, 'What is your name, private? "Alexander, sir!" came the reply.
Staring even more sternly at him, the Emperor asked again, "What is your name?"
Again the soldier said, "Alexander, sir!"
 Without hesitation, the Commander in Chief once again asked him, "Private, I said, what is your name?" Bewildered, the soldier meekly said, "Alexander, sir!"
The leader then replied, "Well, private, either change your conduct or change your name!"

In another famous story, Francis of Assisi invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach. Honored to be asked, the monk gladly accepted. All day long he and Francis walked through the streets, alleyways, the byways, and even the suburbs. They saw and interacted with hundreds of people. At day's end, the two headed back home. Not even once had Francis addressed a crowd, nor had he specifically talked to anyone about Jesus. His young companion was deeply disappointed and confused. "I thought we were going into town to preach." Francis replied, "My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!"  
As we walk with Christ today, just as Abraham also walked with God by faith, we also live toward God’s promises, as we live our lives ‘in Jesus name’.  And it is not just by words that we live, but it is also by deeds.  As Jesus said, “Many say Lord, have we not preached in your name….”,  but “I never knew (them)’ (Matt. 7:22).  A life lived in Jesus’ name, must be more than words, but also deeds.   A final story told from World War II, is about a church in Strasbourg, France, was destroyed and little remained, but rubble. When that was cleared, a statue of Christ, standing erect, was found. It was unbroken except for the two hands, which were missing. In time, the church was rebuilt. A sculptor, noticing the missing hands on the statue of Christ, said, "Let me carve a new statue of Christ, with hands." Church officials met to consider the sculptor's proposal. His offer was rejected. A spokesman for the church said, "Our broken statue will serve to remind us that Christ touches the hearts of men, but he has not a hand to minister to the needy or feed the hungry or enrich the poor except our hands." 

This is the calling of Christians (little Christs) and saints: to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world. This is what is meant by bearing ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ of Jesus (Gal. 2:22), so that we live by his good name (Acts 10:38) and so we can keep ours (Phil 4:8; 1 Tim 3:7).   It was this same kind of calling that Abraham and Sarah had, and it is why God called Jacob, Saul, and Peter by new names.  To answer this calling for us today is to declare with Paul and Peter that in our lives, there is ‘no other name by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12) because we have found our life in his name (John 10:10).   Do you have the promise of this name?  Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Faith As a Journey

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 12: 1-9, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 4, 2018

Most of you recall that wonderful opening scene in the Sound of Music, where the camera’s begin with a grand panoramic view of the Alps, but then slowly zooms in on one particular mountain top, where Julie Andrews whirls around and around and begins to sing, “The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music!”  I’ve been to those Alps and they are as majestic as the pictures, even more.  

That unforgettable scene of the Alps opens up a romantically told story about the motherless Von Trapp family, a former nun, and how she leaves the convent to marry into the family, and they all end up barely escaping the rise of Nazi Europe.  While Hollywood took liberties with the story, the basis is true.  The Von Trapp’s are a very musical family, the former nun did marry the decorated Sea Captain, and they did leave Austria for the United States under the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power. 

Part of what fascinated American audiences about the Rogers and Hammerstein musical story was how they escaped world that was falling apart, to find hope and promise in a new world called America.   And of course we America’s love such stories, because we can relate.  Most of our ancestors and forefathers and foremothers came here on a risky, perilous journey too.  America is filled with many celebrated journey stories, like the stories of the Pilgrims, the Pioneers, and others, like the explorers Lewis and Clark, who paved the way for other to “Go West, Young Man!”   And what about some of those fun “Road Trip Movies”, including the first one I ever saw when “I Love Lucy” went to Hollywood on Route 66?  The Sherriff of Mayberry once travel to Hollywood, but became disillusioned and homesick for Mayberry.  

In our text for today, when Abraham (then called Abram), heard God’s call to leave his home and go on a journey of faith, the text says he ‘went’, and he never looked back.   Abraham’s journey of faith is foundational in the Bible, and its story is shared by three major religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  For the next few weeks, we are going to be traveling with Abraham on his journey of faith; and at the same time, thinking, reflecting, and considering our own faith as a journey.   After we travel a bit through Genesis, we will turn to the New Testament and consider how this very Jewish Abraham, is one of the most important biblical figures for Christians, and Muslims too.   The Old Testament book of Isaiah and the New Testament book of James both refer to Abraham as ‘a friend of God’.  Could it be that Abraham’s story and journey invites us to become God’s friends too?   But how can it be, that we could be even contemplating that the powerful force that created this great universe, as infinite as it seems, could also be a personal power we might befriend?  This could make the most devout among us, at least dumbfounded, if not at most, secretly skeptical, couldn’t it?
Back in late July, a doctor recommended that I go and have a ‘sleep study’ done at Wake Forest Baptist Health.  The study was done the basement of the Old Hawthorne Inn, located between Winston and Salem.  The young man helping to ‘wire me up’ and conduct my study was from Mt. Airy.   He was a pleasant young man, engaged to girl working on her PHD in microbiology.   He was to take her to the airport the very next day, where she was attending a research conference in Munich.  She was working as a research student at Wake Forest on the Mitochondria, in hopes of finding a way to slow aging.   

After we chatted about her visit to Germany, the young man, Jose I’ll call him, told me how his Father was Mexican Catholic and mother was a Jehovah’s Witness.  When I asked him about whether he was Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness, like his mother, he told me that he, like most young people his age, has little need, or use for religion.  Maybe he would return to it someday, he said, but today ‘it’s not where he is’.   

Like many of his generation, Generation X or “Next”, Jose does not have any need for religion.  The truth is that most of the young people his age, are leaving organized religion in ‘droves’.   For the first time in American history, most Americans are deciding to go the journey alone, without God.   And though some of them just don’t see any need for God right now (because they are young), many of them don’t believe that having any kind of faith in God is a credible, viable, or worthwhile option.   Pew Research gives many reasons for the decline of religion in America, as it has been in Europe.  But one of major reason cited is the problem of book of Genesis.  They just can’t get their parents, churches, and Sunday School teachers to talk honestly or intelligently to them about God, Genesis, Creation, and Evolution.  No one has helped them resolve all the questions they have about Science and Faith, so they have chosen to drop ‘faith’ and go with ‘science’.

We are not going to talk about the Creation/Evolution question from Genesis, but we are going to talk about another ‘faith’ question, that is just as puzzling, to many thinking people today.  That question has to do with this ‘call of Abram’ or ‘Abraham’ that is revered among three major, revealed, traditional religions.  If you go to Jerusalem today, you can go visit the great Muslim shrine, the “Dom of the Rock,” towering over the center of Jerusalem, Mt. Moriah, where Abraham was ordered by God to offer only son as a sacrifice to God.  We’ll speak about that story from Genesis 22 later, but right now, we need to see that, for most young people today, this story about Abraham being told to sacrifice his only Son, has the same problem the Creation story and this “Call” story does.  In other words, how did Abraham know God told him, called him, and how did Abraham know there was only one God to answer,  when there were so many gods and idols to confused his journey of faith?

Whatever the story of Abraham means, it refers to a life that answers one unique God, who calls people to a life of faith.   And as one Jewish Harvard scholar, James Kugel clearly noted: “What seems to be worth considering here (and many other passages in the Hebrew Bible), is what Abraham does to bring about this encounter with God: absolutely nothing.   He does not pray, he does not fast, he indulges in no acts of self-mortification such as those practiced by mystics and seekers in later times.  Presumably Abraham is just walking along one day or sitting somewhere when God starts talking to him…  From text’s standpoint: God spoke to Abraham and that was all that mattered (The God of Old, J.L. Kugel, 2003, p. 38-39).”  

So is the problem of faith today because God has stopped talking, or because we aren’t listening?   Now, that’s a relevant question, isn’t it?   And I don’t know who can answer it, as least for those who don’t, can’t or won’t hear God’s voice.  There are quite many people who still say ‘this or that’ is what God is saying, but not all of them are reliable.   For this reason, much of our society has decided no religious belief can be that reliable.   This is why ‘God’ and ‘religion’ has been neutralized in public places and confined to personal space.   As one pastor started politely praying, “To that great force beyond”, until he learned better and returned to the God of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Jesus (Willimon).   Since the ‘voice’ of God can’t be proven, can’t be recorded, nor can it be properly categorized, except by a psychiatrist at a mental hospital who might file it under ‘irrational’, then who can definitively say, when, how, or if God speaks or actually calls people today to take a journey called faith?

The situation of reviving and revitalizing faith seems helpless, if not hopeless, except for one problem:  The problem for both antagonists; who oppose or care less about faith,  and for protagonists; who think they have God all sewed up in their own understanding.  Here is the big problem in two words:  ‘Abram went.’  In other words, we have 4000 years of a Jewish story goes back ‘a wandering Aramean as it’s Father’.  We have a Christianity that acknowledges Abraham’s children with one of Abraham’s children saying: “Even before Abraham was, I am.”   And lastly, we even have Islam, albeit a ‘step child’ of faith, but a child of faith nevertheless, still crying out in the wilderness to be part of the ‘blessing’ of faith.

Abraham went, but where did he go?  Does his story still mean anything for us?  Can his story still show us what it meant and what it still means to ‘hear God’s voice’ and ‘answer God’s call’?   And if Abraham was called a ‘friend of God’, as he is in both Testaments, how do we continue to be a ‘friend of God’ in our time, that is, how do we have a relationship with God, and can or does it matter?  Does it matter that we might still ‘hear’, ‘answer’ and ‘go’ like Abraham, went?

When I was going through missionary training, I was the only pastor/preacher in our group.  So, they asked me to bring the devotion one day, and speak about our common ‘call’ to international missions.  I preached on Abraham.  There were almost 30 different people in our missionary group, and we were joining over 4,000 others, along with almost 5,000 Home Missionaries, meaning almost 9,000 people that Southern Baptists had employed in world missions. How did all these people get there?  What moved in all those different folks to cause them to leave comfortable jobs, loving families, sell all their belongings, and give up their lives back home?  And why were some of these missionaries going into very dangerous places, where they not only could get sick or diseased, but where they could be robbed, or even killed?  Why where they all, like Hebrews says of Abraham, “He went, not knowing where he would go?”  Were all these people delusional?  Of course, they were Baptists.  Baptists do tend to get edgy at times.  Where all these good folks mistaken or misinformed?  They were surely not doing it for the money, because their salaries were meager.  Many of those salaries would rise and fall with the exchange rate.  The Southern Baptist Convention, in that day at least, was a great institution, that tried to take care of its missionaries, but as I learned, while living in Europe during the Gulf War, one day when a letter arrived for me from Richmond; mission headquarters:  “Our nation is at war and that war may spill over into Europe.  Please attempt to look less like an American.  If you are kidnapped, please know in advance, that the International Mission Board, nor the State Department, pay your ransom.  You are in our prayers.”

When I entered Eastern Germany as a missionary, to work with a German congregation, and develop Christian youth ministry in a once communist, atheistic area, one question that always came from those who learned about me, both from the newspapers, or from the schools and churches was this;  “Why did you come here?” “Don’t you have friends and family back home?”   This was the question we were asked over and over, both at home and abroad, as it had a possible answer many simply could not understand in their own lives.  “Why did you come, or go?”  It meant few, either Christian or non, had any context of hearing God’s voice or answering God’s call.  Do we?

One of the most surprising things about Abraham’s own call, at least as we know of it, is what we are told just at the end of chapter 11.  Abraham’s father Terah was already on a journey headed to Canaan, before Abraham heard God’s voice.   Terah had already left Ur of the Chaldeans, but had settled in Haran, never making it the whole way.   All we are told is that Abraham’s father died there, in Haran.   But it was in the land where Abraham’s father had ended his journey, that God called Abraham to begin his.   We don’t know if God had spoken to Abraham’s father before.  We know they all came out of a land of many gods, and many approaches to truth.   All we know is that after Abraham’s father died, it was the journey had stopped, that the journey began again,  and this time God called, Abraham answered.

What is new in Abraham’s journey of faith was not the journey, but the promise of the journey.  It is the promise that made it a matter of faith.  God said:  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.   I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”    The journey of faith is not to be a curse, but a blessing.   Abraham was to be made great, not for the sake of being blessed, but for the sake of bringing a great blessing into the world, because as God told him, through him, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

Is this another one of those ‘far-fetched’ ideas?  Who ever heard of gaining a ‘blessing’ so that you could ‘be a blessing’?   Most of the people in this world seem to be in it just themselves. Even in the church, we make it about ourselves,  blessing our family, or our own group.  Who ever heard gaining a blessing to be a blessing?   Isn’t this all so foreign, strange, and unheard of in this ‘dog eat dog’ world?   We live in a world where it’s sink or swim, kill or be killed, as the heavy metal song goes:    “Release the warrior within,  No choice, no way back,  Survivor philosophy, Dead end, to kill or be killed,  Take charge, no ruth for the weak… ….It’s useless Soul’s broken, ….It’s sink or swim…. Get up Get up now Get up, Don’t stop fighting …. Own this war…. Those who live are those who fight …. you’re big as you’ll be Tonight, we praise your success,  Glory, to your name,  Greatness, awaits you back home,  Your tale will always be known, Mighty, hallowed be thy name Legend, you have become.  It’s sink of swim, kill or be killed….”

In the letter to Hebrews, we find the Christian commentary on what it meant that Abraham ‘went’ and followed the beat of a different drum, when it says,  “By faith Abraham obeyed when he set out for a place…not knowing where he was going”  (Heb. 11: 8).  At least in the Christian mind, the Abraham ‘strange’ faith was obedience to the voice that was not his own.  It goes on to say that he ‘looked forward to the city that has foundations, who architect and builder is God…’ (Heb. 11: 10).

This is the kind of ‘faith’ that called, motivated, moved Abraham.  It was a call from to move beyond himself, toward blessing and being blessed, all because of his faith in one, true God. 
But maybe you aren’t there yet?  Maybe you’re are one of those troubled about whether this call to have a faith journey is real, or really matters enough to give your life to.  Maybe you’re saying to yourself, I don’t know God like that, or I can’t know God like that, or maybe even, you are like the skeptic who says, no one ever really knew God like this, and it’s just ancient story that was told to motivate religion wasn’t true, but just human imagination based upon fear.  Maybe this is where you are, or maybe you are just another polite listener who likes what you hear, but believes that this is a call to a faith journey is meant for someone else, but you can’t go there, won’t go there, dare not go there.

But I ask you to consider this text once more.  At least in one version of the Bible, th New Revised Version, a more modernized, more accurately interpreted version of the ancient Hebrew language, we find a word of encouragement that is meant just for you, whoever you are.    The text tells us that when Abraham journeyed… he went in stages, but not all at once.  God spoke to Terah, but he could only go so far.  Then God spoke to Abraham.  He went, he obeyed, but he could only go ‘in stages’ too.  This journey of faith is never a journey you make all at once, or once for all, but it a journey where faith mean, you walk by faith, and not by sight; you walk one step at a time, and not all steps at one time.   It is a journey where you are on a journey, and you never reach the final destination, until the journey is over, and the faith journey is never over, until faith becomes what only faith can become,  the realization of faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these, even greater than faith itself, is the love and the hope that is shared on the journey, so that faith is never about the destination, but it is always about the journey, that can only be lived, taken, and known, by faith.

Now, I know I’ve said too much here, so let me conclude with a window that lets you and I look into the window that is faith, ours and Abraham’s, which is still one and the same, no matter that we are at different times or different places.  This window into faith is the window we all look through all the time, whether we are atheist, scientist, believer, church goer, young or old.   The truth is, we all live by faith, whether we realize it, baptize it, or acknowledge it at all.   It’s like I was sharing with the young man at the hospital, who said he didn’t have any time for religion right now.  I didn’t really ask him for any details; all I could do it try to plant a seed; a seed of faith.   I found this seed, when I was watching a Science show, perhaps NOVA, on PBS.  After they told about the immense vastness of the universe, millions and millions of lightyears across, and still expanding; then they said something I’ll never forget.  They said that all of the elements of this big universe, no matter how far away it seems; almost all the stuff that makes up this big space, all those stars, and all those planets; even the ones that might have, or don’t have life on them; all those elements out there, are just like 97% of the elements we find on earth.  In other words, we are all, everything, pretty much made of the same stuff.

This the same kind of thing Missionaries believed when they risked their lives, to go to far away places to love people they’d never met.  This the same kind of belief, doctors had when they started running experiments, believing that if they helped some people, they were helping all people.  And this was the same kind of belief that people like Martin Luther King had, when he believed when he hoped for a time, even in America, when people would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.   Who could believe stuff like this?  People who had faith.  And whether your realize it or not, for the most part, at least in the civilization we know, it all started when Abraham believed, and went out on faith.  Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

“The Forgotten God”

A sermon based upon Jonah 4: 1-11, NIV
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 28st, 2018, Winter Bible Study 2018, 4 of 4

Has anyone ever illegally cut you off in traffic? 

My wife, being the oldest of seven children, can’t stand it when that happens.  She wants to respond by blowing the horn, rolling down the window, reminding that disrespectful person that they’d better ‘straighten up’.  She wants the world to be a better place, and I do too, but I also have to remind her, that this is not her younger siblings, or her elementary school class.   This could be a person who is already ‘mad’ or angry about something, and they could go crazy if you attempt to confront or contain them.  

So, when someone cuts you off, or screams at you from behind the wheel, the best thing to do is to ‘turn the other cheek’ and just drive on.   This is a lesson Nancie Mann, of Sacramento, California learned the hard way.

Nancie was celebrating her birthday, May 6th, 2017.  She was going out for Sunday brunch with her husband and her son.    Driving home, a pickup truck cut them off near the Hazel Street off-ramp of Sacramento's Highway 50.  "We slammed on our brakes, but didn't hit him," she remembered.  "Then he slammed on his brakes in front of us, so my husband slammed on his even harder."

The Sacramento Sheriff's Department said, "It started what we would consider to be a road rage incident, where the two of them exchanged both verbal and physical gestures … an obvious bit of anger between the two."   What the Mann’s didn't know was that the driver of the pickup, Donald Bell, had a gun.

Things escalated quickly.  Timothy Mann got out of his car and went to confront Bell even though Nancie Mann and her son both begged him to stay in the car.  Now, with both men out of their vehicles, Timothy Mann approached Bell, even though the gun was in plain view, and punched him.  Bell shot Mann in the face at point-blank range, and Mann died almost instantly, despite his son's efforts to resuscitate him.

"The son couldn't stand up," said the paramedic on the scene. "He sat down on the curb. He was beside himself trying to help his father and take care of his mother at the same time." Meanwhile, Donald Bell's 15-year-old son watched from the pickup, as paramedics disarmed Bell and sheriff's deputies arrested him for manslaughter.  Was this an act of Self-Defense?
Bell insisted that the shooting was an accident, and that he was acting in self-defense. He blamed the victim, Timothy Mann.   "He hit me harder than a mule kick. That's what caused the gun to go off," Bell told a reporter. 

However, two weeks later, on another Sunday morning, Bell returned to the scene of the crime.  He dialed 911 on his mobile phone and identified himself to the dispatcher.
"My name is Donald R. Bell.  I was involved in that Hazel incident that happened two weeks ago," he said. "I am going to serve justice on myself."    Bell pulled his white pickup truck to the pile of rocks that marked the spot where he had killed Timothy Mann. This time he pointed the gun at his own head, and pulled the trigger.

Several months later, reflecting on the event that changed her life forever, Nancie Mann said: “If only the two drivers had just avoided the confrontation.  If only they knew then just how much was at stake.”

The book of Jonah is also a story that ends in anger.  It is a story without a happy ending.
After the people of Nineveh repent, that evil, hated, city makes a drastic U-Turn, calling for a day of national repentance.  Nineveh believes God.  God also ‘repents’ and changes his mind about the judgement he was going to bring down on Nineveh.  

In this final scene, and this final chapter of the book of Jonah, we find Jonah as the ‘displeased’, depressed, and angry prophet, having pity party with God, saying, “I told you so.  In spite of the great saving miracle,  Jonah is still the reluctant, self-righteous, and angry prophet who can’t join the party.  “This is why I tried to go away to Tarshish,” he says.   “This is why I didn’t get with your program.”   In other words, he is saying: “I didn’t want it to end this way.  I wanted to watch these people ‘burn’ for what they had done to us.”  However you approach this story of Jonah, in this prophet, you see ‘red’ from beginning to the end.  Jonah is still angry.  He was angry before the story started, and he is still angry as the story ends.  

Certainly, at times, we all get angry.   In many ways, anger can be a good emotion.  Anger shows feelings, passion, and is a natural, human response to hurts and frustrations.    The absence of anger, can mean that you are repressing, suppressing, or internalizing a feeling or hurt, that can remain inside of you until it turns in to depression against yourself, or may even later turn into a sudden act of rage against another.  It is not necessarily bad that Jonah is angry, but since anger can get out of hand, it needs to be dealt with, brought under control, and in some healthy way, anger needs to be ‘expressed’ rather than ‘repressed’.

The unique kind of anger being ‘expressed’ and dealt with in the book of Jonah is specifically, anger toward God.   Just like any relationship can become complicated in life, this includes our relationship with God.   When you get to the ‘bottom’ of Jonah’s anger, what finally comes out, is not that Jonah is not simply angry at the Ninevites, nor is he just angry at himself for running,  but Jonah is angry at God.   This is the ultimate, often unexpressed, and greatly repressed anger.   This is why Jonah not says he is angry, but he also looks very depressed.

Once in a seminary class at The Southern Baptist Seminary in Lousville, Kentucky, when a student spouted off at the professor’s teaching about how, even in a world of hurt, pain, suffering and tragedy, that God still loves, the professor allowed the student to carry on and finish all his negative complaints.  After the student finished his tirade, the professor calmly responded:  “Thank you for your feelings, the true God understands and can accept your anger.”   (As told to me by someone who was a student there).

In regard our own ‘appointments with disappointment’, the Bible appears to say, over and over, that God can handle, and even invites our anger…. The Bible has several prophets expressing hurt and anger at God.   Jeremiah cursed God and called him a ‘deceptive,’ babbling ‘brook’, and a ‘spring’ that goes dry, complaining about all the trouble he was in, all at God’s expense (Jer. 15:18).   The prophet Habakkuk focused on how violence and injustice went on unanswered by God’s power and righteousness (Hab. 1:4ff).    The Psalms, a collection of Israel’s ancient songs and prayers, contain some of the most intimate voices, a ‘mirror into the soul’ (John Calvin), including the deepest human thoughts of lament, hurt and inward anger.  

We clearly the Psalmist’s inward anger in Psalm 77, where he says: “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.  When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted.” (Ps. 77:1-2 NIV).    And as we all know, the story of Job, is also a story of ‘bitter’  and ‘heavy’ complaint and anger expressed toward God about how unanswerable pain,  suffering and injustice comes, even to the most righteous  (Job 23.2).  Of course,  every Good Friday, we hear again, Jesus cry of personal hurt on the cross, “My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 14:34), and in the gospels, Jesus took the time to ‘make a whip out of cords’ (Jn. 2:15), and that he ‘overturned the tables of money changers’ (Mk. 11.15) of those who had turned God’s ‘house of prayer for all nations’ into a ‘den of robbers’ (Mk. 11:17).  But as Job got angry, we are still told that he did not sin ‘in what he said’ (1.10), just as the book Hebrews declares that Jesus is still our ‘high priest’ who ‘did not sin’ (Heb. 4:15).   In all these situations, there were expressions of anger, but this was not expressions of rage, but it was anger that was controlled, articulated, and verbalized, but it was anger that was also expressed without sin.

Jonah was angry, but we also read that Jonah’s anger is different.  How was it different?   Jonah is so angry that he prays for the ‘Lord’ to ‘take away’ his life.  He says,  ‘it is better for him to die than to live.’   Jonah ran.  Jonah sunk in the sea.  Jonah was swallowed up.  Jonah pouted when he preached.  Jonah was displeased and his anger had turned into depression.  He is so angry that it is killing him.  But perhaps the most unexpected, is the explanation of Jonah’s anger.  Jonah is not angry because he was thrown overboard, swallowed by a big fish, or that God caught up with him.  And Jonah is not just angry because Nineveh has repented.
No, Jonah is angry because of the kind of God, Jonah has discovered God to be.  Jonah is angry because he ‘knows’ and ‘knew’ all along who God is: “…You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (Jon. 4:2 NIV).   Jonah is angry because God is not what he wants God to be.   Jonah’s God, and that means Israel’s God, is not who they want God to be.   This God is a God is ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.’   This is a God who loves, forgives, and redeems, even the very people they love to hate. 

Let’s just face it, Jonah has a problem with God’s grace.  He has a problem with a God who loves sinners, as much as, God loves God’s own chosen people.  Jonah wants to keep God all to himself.   And this is where this story comes down, and the problem continues into the New Testament, as people complain that Jesus is a ‘man who welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  The book of Jonah raises the problem God’s people often have with God’s love:  DOES GOD REALLY LOVE ALL PEOPLE?  IS GOD READY TO SAVE ANYBODY?  Does God love sinners, wicked, or just plain ole bad people, as much as God loves good, righteous, or Christian people?   Does God’s love include people who aren’t like me, or you?   And if God loves them, can I, should I, must I,  love like God loves.   What we know from book of Jonah, is that even before Nineveh repented, Jonah did not like them.  That did not change, even after they are said to have ‘believed God’.   Belief didn’t matter, because they weren’t ‘one of us’.  Since they had once been evil, unbelieving people, they were always bad people, whether they believed or not. 

I’ve told you the story before about what happened, when a little, small, unseen, practically unknown Baptist church in Sydney, Australia, posted a little, small note on their church bulletin board, saying “Jesus Loves Osama”.  At the time, Australian soldiers where fighting alongside of America soldiers, risking and sometimes losing their lives to hunt, find, and kill the notorious muslin known as Osama Bin Laden.   As people passed by that sign, they were shocked.  They wondered, “How could a church think or say something like this?”  Critics of the sign started writing letters to the newspaper, and to the church too, demanding that the sign be taken down.   That little sign, with one line, caused quite a stir in that large city.   Finally, the Prime Minister of Australia at that time, John Howard, had to get involved in order to keep peace.  People were hated Osama so badly, they were ready force the church to close down.  The Prime Minister wrote to the pastor and the church saying, "I understand the Christian motivation of the Baptist church," Howard told reporters. "But I hope they will understand that a lot of Australians, including many Australian Christians, will think that the prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere."   The Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, also got involved, saying that the church was obviously trying to illustrate Christian teaching that God loves everybody, no matter how evil their sins, but still, he found the sign "a bit misleading" and potentially offensive.    (
Who knows whether the church meant that as a publicity stunt, which obviously worked, or whether they were, as they said, ‘just sharing the gospel’.    It is always, and will always remain a question, and it is a question that goes all the way back to Jonah, and remains with us today:  Who does, who can, who will God love, forgive, save, or redeem?   There are people who want to say that God can and will eventually save everybody (universalism), and there are those who say that God will only save those who jump through the hoops of Christian requirements, Jewish requirements, Muslim requirements or some other specific religious point of view.   I remember the question way back in Baptist Training Union, as we argued about:  Who will be saved, Who can be saved, and who won’t be saved, and who will God forgive, and do you have to believe in Jesus to be saved or can you, just like the book of Jonah said the Ninevites did.  Can you simply repent and ‘believe God’, however you understand God?  Is that enough to spare you from the coming judgment? 

Of course, in our day, the question is much less about which religion is ‘right’, but the question has become, does it really matter?   The fasting growing religious group in America today are the “Nones”, those people who say that religion is too dangerous, too backward; a part of our religious past, but not an important part of our secular future.   In other words, since we really can’t answer all these religious questions, with anything except our on personal opinions, then the religious opinion is just that, an opinion.  So, these folks say, we need to stop being opinionated, and we need to become more involved in doing things, social things, that make our world a better place to live.  It is these ‘deeds of kindness’ that are the only things that really matter.  Church does matter, faith doesn’t matter, God doesn’t really matter.

Now, when we hear this kind of talk, and people start to say, or live, like church, faith, or God doesn’t really matter, we are finally getting to the heart of the matter.   This is where Jonah’s problem finally comes and makes its final point.   It is the same point a lot of people are making when they have no love left for strangers, for foreigners, for outsiders, or for people who need God’s love.  This point comes out, as Jonah sits under the gourd plant, which at first provides wonderful, cool, shade, but then, quickly withers during the heat of the day.  

When the wind blows even hotter, and with the sun beaming down directly on him, Jonah almost faints, and wishes to die, once more.  His anger has still not subsided.  Finally, God comes to Jonah and says:  “Jonah you are angry about the gourd plant, which perished, but what about that city of people?”  In other words, Jonah you care about the things that matter for Jonah, but what about the things that matter to God?  Even now, after everything that has happened, in the belly of the fish, or in the great city of Nineveh, Jonah’s reluctance to love, has still not changed.   The story ends with God raising a question about God’s love:  “And should I not be concerned (KJV, spare) 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?  (4:11).

Don’t you wonder why the story ends with the word ‘animals’?   Is this God’s final appeal to a cold heart, that doesn’t love people, but might show love to an innocent animal?   Maybe.  But the real problem here is not simply God loving people or animals, but Jonah’s real problem is about God himself.   Jonah has forgotten who is God!  

The book of Jonah is not only about the question of whether or not God loves, who God loves, or should God love.  No, the real problem is that Jonah will not allow God to be God?  Two times, in this ending to the story, the question is put directly to Jonah:  “Is it right for you to be angry?” (v. 4, 9).  In other words, in a way that is similar to how the book of Job ends (Job 38ff), what Jonah is being asked is the ‘God question?’  Jonah, do you even have a right as a human, or even as a prophet, to play God, to question God, or to be angry because you think you know more than God does?  How can you be angry, Jonah, if the only God there is who can be God, is the God who is also love?  Why would you dare imagine God otherwise? 

But of course people do imagine God otherwise.  Many preachers, churches, and religions spend a lot more energy trying to be clear about what God hates, who God hates, and who is outside and excluded from God’s love, than they spend talking about the gospel of love that includes everyone.  It is God and God alone, who has the right to decide the fate of sinners, or anyone.   Why would we, who believe the gospel, ever want to dare play God, or try to imagine people being outside of God’s love, when the Bible comes gives us a redeeming message of the true God who dreams of ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ being finally and fully ‘reconciled’ in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20).   As Paul also told the Romans, explaining the riddle of Israel’s disobedience:  ‘God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all’ (Rom. 11:32).  

Now, don’t misunderstand me to say God saves without the need of repentance and true faith.  This is not what the book of Jonah says.  The question is not whether or not repentance and faith is required, for this was required for Nineveh, as repentance and faith is for us too. Jesus himself said, ‘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” (Matt. 12:41).  Jesus’ point is that we all need repentance and faith, but we must allow God to be God who alone can decide what kind of faith in Jesus is required.    And while,  we can never say that ‘all people will be saved’, we should and must wish all peoples to be saved, preaching like Peter did, saying God is ‘not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ (2 Pet. 3:9).  We must want and work toward everyone coming to know the same forgiving, redeeming love that has saved us, even while we were ‘still sinners’ (Rom. 5:8), and even while they are still sinners too!  We should do this because, as Jesus said: “Something greater than Jonah is here”.  And this something is the full revelation of God’s love in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Do we have a ‘right’ to think or say anything else other than, hey, look straight into the cross, at the outstretched arms of God on that cross, and know, this is how much God loves us all?   Amen. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

“Turn or Burn Or....”?

A sermon based upon Jonah 3: 1-10
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 21st, 2018, Winter Bible Study 2018, 3 of 4

In this world, that is filled with so much self-centered, misguided, and sometimes humanly destructive religion, we need to know the difference between good religion and bad religion more than ever.    The book of Jonah is a story written to help shape good religion.  It encourages God’s people to reach out beyond themselves.  In this way the story of Jonah is unique.  Whereas all other prophets in Israel were called to preach to specifically to Israel, for the good of Israel, Jonah is a prophet commanded to preach in hopes of bringing a saving message to another, even an enemy, nation.  Jonah is the only prophet whose sole mission was foreign missions.   

As we have already seen, Jonah was called to go preach to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which he was very reluctant to do.  It was just not the norm.  So instead, Jonah got on a ship going in the opposite direction, toward Tar-shish, which would be in modern day Spain.  In other words, Jonah tried to go as far away from his missionary calling as possible.  But as the story unfolds, Jonah learns that you can run, but you can’t hide, from God, that is. 

After Jonah’s disobedience is discovered to be reason for a storm sinking the ship,   with Jonah’s permission, the crew throws him overboard in hope of appeasing God’s anger.   As Jonah sinks in the waves, we are told that he is swallowed by a very big fish.  The text doesn’t say it was a whale, but it was ‘a whale of a fish’; large enough to swallow a man whole. Being alive in the fish’s stomach, Jonah prays for God to save him.  After three days and nights in the fish’s belly, Jonah is finally regurgitated onto the shore alive.  Evidently, it appears, preachers can be very hard to digest.   Can I get an Amen?

Today we come to the heart of this very ‘strange’ story, where we must ask: What does this strange ‘fishy’, ‘whale of a tale’ have to do with the real world or with good religion?  Surprisingly, the answer has little to do with the fish, or with Jonah.  Jonah is in no way any kind of hero in this story.  And even this very big fish only gets a couple of verses.

 So, what is this story about?  This is a story about Israel’s God.   Israel’s God is a missionary God.   This is a God who reaches beyond one religion, one people, or one nation.  This is the God who will not give up, for now this saving message comes to Jonah again, for ‘a second time’.  God is not going to let this prophet go, nor this message die, until the preacher, despite his reluctance, or despite this fish’ appetite for preachers, does what God has called him to do.

When I was a freshman in college, there were a lot of ‘preacher boys’ like me who were in training to deliver God’s saving word in the world.  We thought our job was one of the most important jobs in the world.   Not that we were that important, but our calling was.  One upperclassman in my dorm, just down the hall from me, was also studying religion like me  His name was Bobby Setzer.  Today Dr. Robert Setzer is the senior pastor at Knollwood Baptist in Winston-Salem.   

While getting acquainted with my new surroundings, I noticed that ‘Bobby’ had a nickname posted on his dorm room door.  The very interesting nickname given to the young preacher from Greensboro was ‘Turn Or Burn Setzer.’   I never saw Bobby as one of those Bible-beating, aggressive, irritating, hard-nosed preachers, so I figured the nickname was a kind of inside ‘preacher’ joke from his home town or own college preacher buddies.  ‘Turn or Burn Setzer’ was definitely a catchy title.  But can also be true in life.  If we don’t turn from the wrong we do, and learn from our mistakes, we can, so to speak, get burned. 

Of course, there right ways to warn people about the consequences to their wayward deeds and actions.  And historical records point out that Assyria was, at times, a very evil nation, sometimes being evil in ways like the Nazi’s or like ISIS and the modern Muslim State is today.   They were a notoriously bully nation.  Assyria was very aggressive militarily and she was greatly feared by her neighbors, especially by little Israel to its south. 

When Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, he came with a really big ‘chip on his shoulders’.  Since God had rescued him, by nearly killing him,  he still seemed to be pouting, because he only preached a one-word sermon.  Wouldn’t you like that; a one word, one point, one idea sermon?  But this one word sermon was even more direct than ‘turn or burn’.  Jonah walked across this very large city, said to be a three day walk, that is, about 75 miles.  But he only walked across one third of it, not half of it.  He walked for just one day, probably about 25 miles, and then he preached just one word, or idea: ‘burn’.  He cried: ‘Just Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown (3:4).  Jonah doesn’t say anything else.  He doesn’t give them a chance to change.  He doesn’t give them any hope of salvation.  All he does is warn them what is about to happen.  It’s not turn or burn, but just burn.  God is about to destroy you.  That’s it.  That’s certainly enough to say, isn’t it?       

During a funeral service, an overly zealous preacher stood to talk about the deceased.  Everyone knew that the deceased was not a very good person, and this very direct, unlearned, uncouth, cornfield preacher dared to name it.  He started naming all the bad things ‘ole Joe’ did in his life.  Some of the things the preacher said about him where rude, crude, and down right insulting.  Everyone could not believe the preacher dared to speak about all his faults in public; and at this man’s funeral, of all things.  Then, after saying all these negative things about ole Joe, not missing a beat, looking straight in the eyes of the surprised congregation, he spoke even more directly, saying: ‘It’s too late for ole Joe, but it’s not too late for you.  Is this any way to preach a funeral?  And do you know what was most upsetting?  It was all true.  

In Charles Dickens novel Bleakhouse, there are some very colorful characters.  One colorful character is a man named Krook who drinks too much. In the story,  Krook is an opportunists who holds something very valuable; some lost love letters that a wealthy woman does not want made public.  She would pay dearly to recover these letters.  But Krook was unable to cash in and sell the letters.   He drinks and drinks to celebrate his good fortune, even before he gains it.  Krook drinks so much that he strangely dies of spontaneous combustion.  The rich, heavy, alcohol explodes in his stomach, with a sudden, horrible, fiery blaze.  This was not just a spontaneous combustion, but this was also a death of self-consumption.  It was a point of no return. 

This is where we are now in this story about Jonah.  We have come to a fork in the road, but will it be a good fork?   God has given Jonah another chance to go and preach the missionary message.   He is to speak the truth and warn this wicked city.  But, now, as he preaches, here is something else we must not miss, not just about Nineveh, but about Jonah and Nineveh too.   While God gives this prophet a second chance, it is not a second choice.  God only gives Jonah another chance to choose what God chooses.  Jonah must obey God and tell the truth.  But now, what about this wicked city?   God is willing to give them a second chance too, but they do not get a second choice.   But Jonah hardly gives them even a chance or a choice.  He just tells them their time is up and they and they will burn!  

The surprise of surprises, is that, contrary to Jonah’s reluctance, these pagans get the message, even better than Jonah, or better than God’s people in either Jerusalem or Samaria.   
This is really the heart of the story.   Can you see it?   Just as those pagan sailors understood something Jonah didn’t, wicked Nineveh now actually understands Jonah’s message and takes it more seriously than Jonah.  Nineveh repents.  Nineveh turns, and doesn’t burn.  It appears that Jonah would rather have them ‘burn’.  But strangely, and I mean very strangely, contrary to all of Jonah’s expectations; and even contrary to Jonah’s wishes too, these ‘pagan’, notoriously bad, evil people are said to ‘believe God’ and his message better than God’s prophet and even better than God’s own people do.  And boy, do they understand!

We read in this story that not only does Nineveh believe, we are told that Nineveh ‘believed God’ (v.5).  This is the same verb used when Abraham trusted and obeyed God (Gen. 15:6).  True faith is meant.  This is a real change of heart by these bad, mean, and pagan people. 

We know this is true faith and radical change because they give us an example of genuine repentance.   Everybody shows public signs of repentance by fasting and putting on sackcloth and ashes (5).  That’s how publicly signified repentance in that world.  And even the king gets in on the seriousness of it all too (6).  He declares a national day of repentance for everybody.  We are even told that the domesticated animals are dressed in sackcloth to shows signs of repentance too (7).

If this story sounds too good to be true, you need to focus on the fact that it keeps rubbing in the something that is obviously true in Israel’s own history.   Even though no one knows when the story of Jonah was written, whether it was before or after the exile, it makes the same point either way.  The point that this book of Jonah keeps on making is that while God’s people paid no attention to what the prophets preached (Jesus too said they stoned the prophets, Luke 13:34), these pagans of Nineveh are now more serious and sincere about God’s message than God’s own people are.  And to make the point clear clearer, this is a message of repentance being taken to them by a half-hearted preacher who had come from, what appears to have been, a half-hearted people. 

Several years ago, in the late 1980’s, I had a returning Southern Baptist Missionary, speaking in my church in Shelby.   He had lived in Brazil as a missionary for almost 40 years.   While he and his wife were sitting in our home, I asked him: “What is the one big difference in American Churches now, and American Churches when you left 40 years ago.  How would you express the change in American religion over 40 years?  Without pause, he said he would express the difference with one word: “Repentance”.  Today there is a lack of ‘repentance’ in preaching and in the pew, he told me. 

Most of you know the name of Rudolph Hess.  Rudolph Hess was a notorious Nazi leader, who was Hitler’s assistant.  Early in the War, Hess flew to Scotland trying to negotiate peace with Great Britain and to get England to join up with Nazi Germany in their cause, but instead Hess was arrested as a war criminal and put in prison.   After the war, Hess was moved back to Germany and place into a red brick prison near Berlin known as Spandau.  After the war, this large prison only held one man.   Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment, where in Spandau,  the aged Nazi wandered the halls and gardens awaiting his death.  Then one summer he strangled himself, finally, the old prison is being torn down. 
If there is one thing Rudolph Hess should be remembered for, it is this: He never repented. Guilty of the most atrocious sins a man could commit, he never once felt any remorse. Until the day he died he thought of himself as the deputy fuehrer of the Nazi party. Listen to Hess' last public statement at the Nuremberg trials.  Hess wrote:  I was allowed for many years of my life to work under the greatest son that my people produced in their 1,000 year history. Even if I could I would not want to erase this. I am happy to know that I have done my duty to my a loyal follower of my fuhrer. I regret nothing. "If I were to begin again I would act just as I have acted, even if I knew that in the end I should meet a fiery death at the stake. No matter what men may do to me, someday I shall stand before the judgement seat of the eternal. I shall answer to Him and I know that He will judge me innocent.
Hess saw no need to repent.  His stubborn, human pride would not allow him to admit that he had been guilty of barbarous crimes.   A strong part of him, that can run deep in any of us, is that part which which says, like Jonah said “You need to repent”, or “They’d better repent or else, but I don’t need too.”  
What I think is most amazing in this story of Jonah, is what happens next.   Not only do the evil people of Nineveh freely and intentionally repent, but our text tells us that God also repents.   Israel wouldn’t repent.  Jonah won’t repent.  But Nineveh does.  And when Niveveh repents of their sins, God is also willing to ‘repent of the evil that he said he was going to do’ (3:10).  Yes, you heard it right.   This God who gives calls people to repent of the evil they have done, stands ready and willing to ‘repent of the evil…he said he would do.’

It’s certainly a strange thing to read in the Bible that repents.  But it happens several times, like in Genesis 6:6, when God is ‘sorry’ that he created people, because they are so evil, and in Exodus 32:14, when God almost wiped out his people because they had made a idol of a Golden Calf out of God.    In both of these situations, like here in Jonah, we read that God changes his mind.   It is not saying that God changes who he is, since the Scripture also says that God does not ‘change like the shifting shadows’ (James 1:17).  But what these texts, and this text in Jonah is saying, is that God can indeed change his mind about what he is planning to do, especially when it comes to punishing people for their sins.   And this kind of ‘change’ does not point to God’s weakenss, but it points to God’s strength.  Here in Jonah, like in Exodus, God changes his mind because God loves.  It is sincere, faithful love; not just a love for God’s people, but a love for all people, that can change God’s mind.

While Jonah acted like a "Scrooge," God reveals, right here, in this great book, that He is a God who cares and loves.  Who cares about wicked Nineveh?  God does, and God goes to great effort to see that a prophet was sent to the city.   One might go so far as to say that "God so loved (John 3:16) Nineveh that he sent Jonah to preach to them."   Our God can cut through all the evil; even the ‘evil’ he is about to do, and he can change his mind about people for the sake of love.  Can you?  It isn’t always easy.

Paul Yongi Cho pastors what is believed to be the largest Pentecostal church in the world. When his ministry in South Korea began to receive international acclaim,  Cho told God that he would go anywhere to preach the gospel except Japan.  Cho could not forget what the Japanese had done to Korea and her people, as well as members of his own family.  Eventually, however, an invitation came for Cho to preach in Japan. He accepted the invitation,  but with bitterness.

His first speaking assignment was to address a pastors' conference with a thousand Japanese pastors. When he stood to speak, these words came out of his mouth: "I hate you, I hate you. I hate you." Cho broke down and wept. His hatred had gotten the best of him.   One Japanese pastor, then another, until all one thousand stood up.  One by one these Japanese walked up to Yongi Cho, knelt in front of him, and asked forgiveness for what their people had done to Cho and his people.  As these pastors humbly sought Cho's forgiveness, Cho found himself saying to each one, not, "I hate you," but, "I love you, I love you, I love you." The Japanese were Paul Yongi Cho's Ninevites.  But repentance made everyone look different.  Who are your Ninevites?

What does the story of Jonah then mean for the Church? It asks those of us within the body of Christ to examine our attitudes toward those who not like us, which includes the worst around us. This story also warns us about the falsely conceived idea, that "We are on the inside, and you are on the outside, so stay on the outside because we don't want anything to do with you."  The story of Jonah reminds us that we don’t exist, as a church, to pat ourselves on the back, but we exist for the sake of taking the gospel to the world. Who cares? God does, and God's people should care too. 

So here's the question for you and me: If Jesus came to save the people of Kabul, New York, London, Tokyo, and even North Korea, that is to save people elsewhere and everywhere, what kind of love should we show, if we claim to have experienced God's love?    This does not mean that ‘anything goes’ or that don’t call people to repentance.  No, 

It means that Israel’s God is the God who gives us a second chance, but the is not a God who gives us a second choice.   The choice to love and to preach a gospel of repentance is our only way to have this chance; so that God’s love can change us, just as God’s love never changes.  Amen.