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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.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

“Nowhere But Up!”

A sermon based upon Jonah 1: 17-2:10, NIV
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 14th, 2018,   Winter Bible Study 2018, Sermon 2 of 4

When my wife traveled to Europe, I purchased an app so I could watch her plane in the sky. It’s amazing to catch a view of all those planes from radars stationed all over the world.
When you fly, or even when you plane watch on a PC, you get a completely different view of the world. Somehow it all seems small and connected.  As the Bete Midler song says, “From a Distance, there is harmony!...From a Distance, there is more than enough…”

In our second message from Jonah, we also get a unique view and perspective; not from high in the sky, but from the deep, from the bottom ‘of the deep blue sea.’ But this is no tourist destination. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, has been thrown overboard, and has been swallowed by a big, hungry fish.

Interestingly, Jonah does not have to be here. He has volunteered for this trip.  It seems that he would rather be anywhere except in the will of God.  Jonah instructed the sailors to throw him overboard (1:12) to save their ship. But Jonah is no hero like Leonardo Di Caprio character on the in Titanic, sacrificing his life for others.  Jonah would rather be dead than obey his God who loves the whole world.

From our point of view, Jonah is foolish. If Jonah had gone to Nineveh, he might still be alive, even if his life had been at risk.  But here he is, following his own wishes, stubbornly going it alone.   In short, Jonah ‘does it his way’, remember Sinatra and Elvis’ theme song: “I Did it My Way!”   Jonah, did, so now, here he is, at the bottom---rock bottom.

So how does it look at the bottom, Jonah? Is it more peaceful, more satisfying, more fulfilling, and more meaningful?  It doesn’t sound so, when Jonah says: “The deep surrounded me” (2:6).   As I write, news reports are saying that US has greatest drug problem in the world. We have so much wealth, freedom, rights; but we are also the most addicted country in the world. We are a country were money, power and sex means abuse and corruption. Our own freedom leads to living hallow lives that end in desperation and despair.

As churches empty and faith wanes, we are sinking faster than a rock. But at least we are still free!  Would we also, as a people, rather be anywhere, on our own, rather than be in the will of God, or doing the work of God?   But what is that? Let’s read on.

There is one thing you should start to see more clearly, from the bottom. It’s something you can’t always clearly see while living your life ‘on top’.  What Jonah begins to see first, is that he is definitely not where he should be.

Most of us know this to be true.  Even at the bottom atheists instinctively pray. Why is that? Why is it that even the most self-secure and most self- assured people, also pray in a time of crisis?  Why was it, right after 911 that the churches were filling up?  Why is it that Universities have prayer vigils and act like church communities when tragedies strike?   What is it that finally drives us all to our knees? What is it that we can see at the bottom that can’t normally see?   What Jonah sees, is what we all will one day see. if there is any salvation at all, as one translation says,   ‘salvation belongs to our God!’ (NET, v. 9).

Jonah sees, what the atheistic French existentialist Philosopher Jean Paul Sarte also saw, when he examined life without God and rightly entitled his fatal diagnosis of that examination: No Exit. There is no way up or out without faith in God who is our only true hope.  This too is now Jonah dilemma.   His decision and the result reflects our own, when we also don’t want God, or to go God’s way, and we let the world choose for us.  Then, the world throws us into the waves so we, without making a real choice, eventually sink in the deep.

But as Jonah realizes he is sunk, something unexpected happens. Might it also happen to us?  That is my hope.   As Jonah is being swallowed up by the forces of life into death, he finally gains the insight he did not have before.  At the very bottom of life, in the dark and in the deep below, he starts to look up and revisits his need to pray to the God whom he now realizes is his only hope.   It is there all alone, on rock bottom, all swallowed up that Jonah prays. He sees his hope, and claims it.  He cries out his only last hope, as it is realized: “Yet you brought up my life...” Jonah prays.  You God are my only way out.

Here, reading Jonah’s prayer, we should also see that this is not a simple children’s story, nor is it a straight forward story about a runaway preacher, but this is the human story, a faith story, an allegory, of what is true about every human life. We will all one day find ourselves where we never dreamed or imagined we would be.  Like that worker in the Las Vegas hospital, who expressed its own feelings, as the mass of wounded came in, after being shot by a shooter from a hotel window:   “Is this real!”  (

When I, as a teen, I was critically injured in an auto crash, but still very alert. As the pain increased, my first thought was ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ It was like a bad dream. Like most, I’d never thought the worst.  I never thought this would happen to me.  However, this was the reality that came to me, and if you are conscious enough to realize and reflect, the worst could, and in some way, will come to you to, and to anyone or eventually everyone.   The worst happens to someone every day.  As our Christian faith affirms, this is a fallen world.  It is a world, still in process, going somewhere, and it has not yet arrived at it’s final destination.

While some might realize such a threatening reality to all of us, and turn to ‘howl at the moon’, or ‘curse God and die’,  as Job was tempted to do, the only right and most reasonable conclusion is the one Jonah made that was expressed near the end of this prayer: “Salvation belongs to our God!”    Why does Jonah take this route, rather than to merely ‘die’ his in isolation and ‘quiet desperation?   Why does Jonah choose to reach and make a leap of faith into the dark, and trust God?  

It is certainly an option to refuse to come to faith, to choose faith, to risk faith, or to return to simple, childlike faith.  Why does Jonah choose to turn to God for his ‘salvation’ or ‘deliverance’ as some translations have it?    What we see here, is that in Jonah’s plight, he also realizes that his situation is not innocent, and what is now happening to him was also not necessary in this moment.   In other words, Jonah, does not have to be here.  He is like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable, he could have done otherwise.  He could have chosen differently.  Because he has chosen foolishly to go his own way---a way which now puts him at rock bottom, he understands that he had the capacity to have done better.   The ‘salvation’ he now sees in in God, is a salvation that was a ‘salvation’ from God, but needed to also be ‘chosen’ and ‘lived’ and ‘obeyed’ by him, as he chose God.  

God gave Jonah the capacity, the mind, the will to choose and to decide.  God fitted him, and chose him, and gave his gifts and expected Jonah to us them.   So, why did he choose to do otherwise?  Well, why do any of us ‘choose’ to stupid, life threatening things?   Why do we have gifts we never use, do things that shorten our lives, or fail to ‘trust and obey’?   Have you ever ended up in a place you have foolishly chosen, then realized you choose wrong?  Haven’t we all made a wrong turns, gone down the wrong roads, made a poor choices?  This is the stuff of life---the stuff, that we learn and grown from. 

But just as we can learn from most everything we do, there are, in our lives, lines we dare not cross, mistakes we can’t learn from, and there are dead ends, or points of no return.   Temporal Life, that is human life, and is physical life; does have it limits.   Remember those guys in fly suits, who were using their “Go Pros” to film themselves flying off mountains, defying the laws of nature or physics, and daring the rocks not to ‘come up and hit them’?  You know the story: the physics won.  While most of us would not dare tempt natural law this way, but what about the fool tempts God, the fool who only lives for the ‘god’ he wants, or the fool who thinks that his or her life is their own life to live any way they want?  What will he/she crash into that proves them wrong? How will it look when we get what we want, but we end up not wanting what we got?

In the 60’s and 70’s, the sexual revolution exploded in American culture.  Lines that were once considered sacred where crossed and many felt ‘set free’.  While a new spirit of ‘openness’ was released into our culture, few of that world were thinking about why rules and taboos about ‘sex’ had been imposed by Victorian cultures?   Few thought about the consequences of these actions.  Now, today, as we see New Reporters, Sport Stars, Politicians, Business Leaders, and even Presidents weakened and often destroyed by scandals, can we see why some of these ‘taboos’ and ‘conservatisms’ were in place?   In another realm, the sexual revolution launched an a new spirit of ‘freedom’ or as the French say, “Laize Faire” into the culture, and now, in recent days, we read and heard reports of School Teachers, who teach and educate our children, being overworked, under-supported, and over-stressed.  It all boils down, not to ‘bad kids’, but to the breakdown of a culture, where there are no rules, no disciples, and no moral lines, with moral authority of leaders to have the power to do what is right and say what is wrong.   We are a culture who got what we wanted, and now, are beginning to question, do we really want what we got?   (

“…GOD’S LOVE FOR THEM  (v. 8).
The story of Jonah, like his prayer, has Jonah admitting his own foolish choice and his consequential despair, but the story does not end there.   The profound statement of desperation turned to hope comes when Job “remembered’ the Lord.   Instead of ending in judgment and Hopelessness, this story turns toward hope, as Jonah casts himself upon God’s steadfast, faithful, redeeming love.   This was the place, Jonah did not want to go before, but now he has no other choice than to place himself at the mercy of God’s faithful love.   This is what his prayer means when he says,       “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you,
LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple (v.7)” Then Jonah, continues by quoting something that sounds like what he learned as a child: “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love” (v. 8).  Powerful, but how is it true?

Do you realize what you lose when you go after unnecessary things, when you leave God out of your life, when you put something else ‘first’ in your heart, in your family, or in your way of deciding how or what you live?  When misplace  the ‘love of God’ that is ‘for you’, and your personal relationship with this God who loves, who wants to guide you, help you, save you, that you have traded all that loving power and spirit, for an impersonal, stupid, life-zapping ‘idol’ who can’t hear, see, or care about you?  You may ‘care’ and give your soul to the idol you have bowed down to, but that ‘idol’ cares nothing about you.  Why would we do such a thing?  Why did Jonah idolize his own choice over his obedience to God?  Jonah did, for what he thought was ‘good’ for him, or what he wanted for himself, or what he didn’t want to see in others.  Jonah choose ‘other’ than God’s will, and what Jonah choose to be his ‘concern’, or his ‘ultimate concern’ (Tillich) became the god of his life.  But this was no true God, but was still a god, that now, would, in the end, result in him being cast ‘overboard’ without love, and without life.

Sometimes, as a pastor, I still am amazed at what can have in life, and what great potential we have as human beings, as a church, and as the people of God, and what we say we want, but I’m am also constantly disheartened, by what we also choose not to have, and not to become, as we continually choose life without putting God and his ‘life’ first in our lives.  What do we think we can really have, or really become?   I’ve mentioned before, a book I read recently about how 80 year old, Baptist evangelist and professor, Tony Campolo, has a son named Bart, who has now cast away his faith in God, and became a humanist minister for the University of Southern California.  In a brutally honest book,   Bart Campolo, the son, writes about ‘Why I Left the Christian Faith’ while the Father writes about ‘Why I Stayed’ in the Christian Faith.  

One chapter that grabbed my attention, was as the Father, spoke about speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, several years ago, before all those scandals began there.  Tony Campolo, being a University Sociology Professor, who has faith in Jesus, tried to reason with many of those students about why, they needed “Jesus”.   His argument was amazing, as he shared with them how Jesus was the perfect example of who we all need to be as human beings; caring, empathetic, understanding, merciful, and faithful.   If you ask anyone what a human being should be, Jesus fits the bill, in any psychology book, any sociology book, any book of literature of philosophy.   In Jesus, Campolo explained, Jesus took on flesh to show us how to be human beings. 

After putting the message of Jesus in words most of those students could understand, some wanted to know more, so Tony went to talk more with them in a smaller group.  He reaffirmed you can’t be or keep being a humanist, or a fully actualized human being; that is, you can’t reach your full potential as a human being, unless you somehow grapple with Jesus’ life, example, his promise of what and who we can be, is itself, as gift from God---that is, from a loving God---who came to us, lived with us, cared with us, and died for us,  and was raised from the dead---all to mercifully model, share, and enable us to live the kind of human life that was lived by Jesus Christ.  But do you know, even after all of this, after admitting that this was something they needed after acknowledging that Jesus was someone they needed, most of them said this was something they just could not accept for their lives.

While those students, have long graduated, and gone on to live their lives, I wonder what they now think of needed Jesus after all the sex and hazing scandals, abuse and even deaths, that have occurred among students adrift in the world, at a university that can teach and believe almost anything, except Jesus.  Can they now see, as Jonah saw: “Those who cling to worthless idols, turn away from God’s love for them.”

We also, like Jonah, and like those students in Pennsylvania, have no other real, true, choice in life, than to choose the love that has chosen us.  Do you realize this too?  It is not easy for those who have freedom to realize that even freedom has limits or that the spirit of love calls us to have only one true love.   In recent days evangelicals argue about whether or not there is a hell, or others wonder how God could allow so much suffering in the world. It’s hard for minds who haven’t been humbled to realize that life has limits.   In the question about hell, or suffering, which both are similar questions that point to the true restriction of human freedom, for the sake of life, not death.  Those who are most free find it most difficult to accept that we really have no choice, except to choose life, and to choose love. How can remain and realize you are free, unless to choose the love that cause you to be and do right?

For me, the only reasonable answer about hell, suffering, pain, and death too, is that we humans live to learn that the only true choice we have is to love. As CS Lewis observed, the door to hell is Only locked from within, in our hearts and in our choice to chose or reject or only choice—which is Love.  This is why when the NT speaks of Jesus unjust suffering and death, Jesus is understood to be in three day in the earth as Jonah was in belly of the big fish. Jesus chose to accept his suffering for others and for love, because he trusted that love would deliver him, and the God who is love did.

This is the same love we must choose—our only real choice, in life, freedom, faith, suffering, or death is to discover, at the bottom of the deepest, darkest, most depressing place, we find the God who is still faithful in love. Amen

Sunday, January 7, 2018

“Run, Jonah, Run!”

A sermon based upon Jonah 1: 1-16, NIV 
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 7th, 2018

Today’s sermon title has a familiar ring: “Run, Jonah, Run!” intentionally sounds like that memorable line the popular movie about Forest Gump, “Run, Forest, Run!”.
Forest Gump was a fictional character; a somewhat mentally challenged young man, who was taught by his mother that ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna to get.’  Life was stacked against him, especially after his mother died.  He had to learn to survive in the world on his own, which was quite a challenge for someone like him.  But the love and wisdom of Forest’s mother, played by Sally Fields, lived on inside of Forest’s head and heart, so that he not only survived, but he thrived, as he kept ‘running’ his way through life.  No matter what happened, good or bad, sickness, war, social protest, economic meltdown, or unexpected tragedies, Forest didn’t stop running.  He never gave up.  He overcame all kinds of obstacles, which would have reasonably stopped most people.  But Forest was not ‘normal’ and this worked to his advantaged, as long as he followed his ‘heart’.

Critics and Movie experts will say that Forest Gump is a wonderful picture of the American ‘can do’ spirit, portrayed by this fictional American living through the major events of the 20th century.  The movie won the “Best Picture” Oscar, perhaps because it underscores America’s ‘goodness and innocence’ in in spite of our shortcomings.  While some critics saw the movie as na├»ve and overly simplistic, most saw it as a classic, giving moviegoers a classic overview of who we are, and where we have been, as a country.  However, you view it, the point is clear, “Life is worth living, so don’t stop. Run, Forest, Run!”  Now, “that’s all I’ve got to say about that”.

As we start this New Year together, there are many things that America still has going for her; just as there are also many things appearing as obstacles in our way.  Life is this way, not just now, but always.  So, we’ve got to keep moving.  We’ve got to keep trying.  We’ve got to keep running, working, and doing the things that make life work.  We’ve got to be careful, not just to ‘take life as it comes’, but we’ve also got ‘run’ in the right directions and to be responsible in good we have to do.

This is what brings us to one of the most beloved stories of the Bible, the Book of Jonah.  Jonah, in many ways, is a book that tells us ‘a whale of a tale’ about a prophet who also was running.   But instead of running toward his responsibilities, Jonah was running away from them.   So, today, as we begin to study Jonah’s story, these first weeks of this new year, let’s begin by consider ‘why’ Jonah is running in the wrong direction.  A better title for this message: “Stop, Jonah!  Face up to your responsibility!

JONAH SET OUT TO FLEE. (3)  Reason’s to Leave?
As this story begins, God has told Jonah to ‘go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’ (2).   This is the prophet’s job, to take the risk to ‘step on some toes’, right?   But Jonah does not want to.   He runs away from the presence of God and heads in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish.  Take note: Jonah is not just getting on a boat to merely escape his job, but Jonah is trying to ‘get away from the presence of the LORD’ (3).

This is a peculiar predicament, isn’t it?  Everyone knows you can run from God, but you really can’t hide.  God knows.  God sees.  God goes wherever we go.  The Jews taught this.  Christians still teach this.   Common sense also tells us: You just can’t run from God.  You can’t turn from your responsibility, and live.  But we still try, don’t we?

What is it that causes Jonah to want to run from the God he can’t outrun?  Well, what made me try to run from my mama, or you from yours?  What made Adam and Eve, try to hide in the garden?   What would that be?   In this story, we see that Jonah is not simply running from God, but he is trying to escape his own responsibility as a prophet, to preach and tell the truth.  Nineveh, these people who are not Jews, also need to hear the truth, but this prophet does not want to go there.  He does not want to get involved.  He wants to keep living his own kind of life.  He wants to keep ‘doing his own thing.’  Besides, who wants to go to Nineveh, anyway?  Jonah is a Jew.  His God is also the God of the Jews.  Who cares about what happens to the people in Nineveh?

There are so many ‘truths’ that immediately pop up in this story, it’s hard to know which one to address first.   First, you’ve got a job or career problem---a job Jonah doesn’t want to do, especially when it gets difficult.  You’ve also got an ethical, or moral problem---should you tell someone else their sin, or should you stick to your own?  Then, you’ve also got the religious problem.  Perhaps Jonah feels he needs to keep his religion to himself, since it is gets really personal, so maybe it should stay that way.  Then, finally, there’s also the political problem—Jonah is stepping across cultural, political and ethnical boundaries, to try to universalize a moral truth, that some say should relative.  “Jonah, you stay with your God, we already have a god, thank you very much!”  Whoever’s should say that Ninevah is ‘wicked’ ought to be Ninevah and her own prophets, doesn’t Jerusalem have enough ‘sins’ of her own.   “Keep, it all to yourself, Jonah!”  Wow!  Can’t you just see all these ‘hot button’, living, issues that we are still dealing with,  all wrapped up in Jonah’s ‘no’ to God.

While we aren’t ‘prophets’, I wonder what might make our own reluctance answer God’s call in our own lives.  Certainly, these days, a lot of people seem to be saying more ‘noes’ to God’s presence, call, and command in their lives, than are saying ‘yes’.   Do you feel like that?  Why is there all this reluctance to answer God’s call, right now? 
In our own American religious landscape, we are going the way of Europe has already gone, but faster, in that there are more people who claim to be of ‘no’ religious persuasion at all.   Many have come to believe that ‘faith’ is not necessary to be a ‘good person’ and that they can do just as much for the world without needing to invite the ‘presence of God’ into their lives.  

A good example, is Bart Campolo, son of an evangelical minister, Tony Campolo.  Bart Camplolo, who now serves as Humanist Chaplain at USC, that he can do all the things he used to do as a Christian ministry, better without inviting God into the conversation.  He says God complicates things.   He says God makes people feel guilty.  He says that it is much better to get people to do good things in the world because they want to do good things, than give them the burden of having talk about or believe in God.  People want to do good, so let them just do it, and he has found it better to leave God out of the whole picture.  “I didn’t walk away from God…I don’t disrespect religious people…no I’ve learned from then, but “I just don’t need God to do the good that needs to be done.”

This may be the viewpoint of more and more millennials, and many others too, as we watch the continual decline in church membership and Christian faith in the United States.  But what do we also see happening as people appear to be ‘running away’ from God’s presence, at least in a public way?   Do we see the dark social, political and ethical clouds rising on the horizon?   Do we also see the loss of kindness, and our inability to have civil social discourse?  Do we see that even our whole American dream might be too difficult to maintain, without inviting and engaging the mystery of God into our personal and public lives?

What I see too often, as a pastor, is people who grew up Christian, who were baptized and know that their baptism comes with certain calls to discipleship and responsibility, trying to have their ‘cake’ and to ‘eat it too’.  We want the world that our parents had, but who wants to stay, face, and own up to the responsibilities?  For without responsibility, taking full responsibility for the communities, the families, the faith, and the nation we love, we won’t keep what we’ve had, nor have the chance to build on what we’ve been given.

Whatever impulse caused Jonah shirk his responsibility, it is the same choice we all have, with each and every responsibility or gift we’ve been given.  The question of most every life is simply this:  Are we going to face up and accept the responsibility or vocation that is ours, or will we turn or run away to ‘let somebody else do’ it?    

A MIGHTY STORM CAME… (4)  God’s stormy love.
But again, no sooner does Jonah run, than the storm clouds came up.  This story reflects a spiritual reality that none of us can escape.  When we skirt our callings, our gifts, and our responsibility, there are consequences.  However you want to look at what is happening to the world around us; as we hear constantly of not only increasingly world threats, but also of constant local threats and fears of crime and mass murders, we can clearly see that the ‘storm clouds’ of consequences are on the rise in the western world that seems to have, at least publically, turned its face away from God’s living, abiding, and loving presence.

Who’s the first to get ‘hurt’ when the storms come?  Who do people blame when things fall apart?   Well, just look in this story, and see how the crew of the ship, when the winds began to blow, put 2 and 2 together and decided that the reluctance and unfaithfulness of this religious passenger name Jonah was to blame.  In this story, it was wasn’t just the of anybody that brought the storm that ‘rocked the boat’.  No, what brought the storm to threatened the lives on that ship was the sin of unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, or avoidance, of the God of God by one of God’s own.

What does it take for evil to flourish?”  Edmund Burke once asked.  All it takes is that ‘good people do nothing’.  In other words, all it takes is for people who know better, to put their ‘head in the sands’ like an Ostrich, or to ‘turn away and pretend they didn’t see it happen or hear the screams’.   Yesterday, I stumbled across the website of a schoolmate of mine, who appears to have become very philosophical, perhaps even Buddhist, and sometimes a little off center in his mind, but don’t underestimate what even a troubled mind can see and say.   He posted on his Facebook page something that sounded a lot like Jesus might have said, and it haunted me, as a I reflected upon it.   It went something like:
You wanna know what God looks like? 
       He looks like the person you just discriminated against,
the hungry person you just ignored, the people you just bombed,
          the homeless man you shook your head at,
the old man you left in the nursing home,
          the child you just hollered at, the lonely person you abandoned,
the dog you just ran over, the river you just filled with oil,
                     or the heart you just condemned….”

My classmate can be a little emotional and opinionated at times, but he can also speak prophetically at times.  What I often hear in his words are many of the very problems our world faces, exactly because we don’t see God’s presence in the simple, normal, everyday moments of our lives.  When we omit God, even in ‘the least of these’, the storm clouds will rise, and the strong winds will come.  How far do we have to run away from the truth we all need to face, until we finally realize, as the saying goes, ‘that you can run, but you can’t hide’?  Jonah ran, but he couldn’t really hide.  The ‘truth’ came out, and it was the truth that even his own shipmates had heard coming from his own lips.  Folks, you can’t overlook the fact that this text says that it was truth from Jonah’s own ‘unfaithful lips’ that gave him away (1:10). 

WHAT SHALL WE DO… (11).  The right question of salvation
I, like you, like all of us, have tried to run away from what I know I should do.   But now, in this story, Jonah learns.  Jonah learns that God will not let us go, at least, not without trying to get us back on track.  This story is not the story of a God who comes to take revenge.  Yes, the storm comes.  Jonah is singled out.  He is thrown overboard into the waves.  He comes to realize he must take responsibility because God knows where he is.  But God comes to take Jonah back alive, just like God hunts us down to give us back the life we know we should live.

Next week, we will get to this, and learn how Jonah gets caught by God’s love and God’s will, but today, as I conclude, I want us to return to the question on the hearts of these sailors, whose ship was about to sink in the stormy purposes of God.  These sailors are the ones who put 2 plus 2 together.  They are the ones who figure out how Jonah is not supposed to running away from his calling.  They realize, with Jonah’s help, that this unsettling storm points to the most important ‘unsettled’ issue of all.  So, following Jonah’s request, they throw him overboard, but at first, the waves get even wilder.  So, then, they start to cry to the Lord, Israel’s God, whom they didn’t know from from Adam’s housecat.  But now, most unexpectedly to Jonah, and to us, these pagans, now turn to the LORD, for help.

Now, don’t try to read too much into all the detail.  Let the story as a whole do its work.  This is not a story about how we settle our all our problems, especially not by putting all the blame someone.  When you are on a wind-tossed ship you need to keep your eyes on the big picture.   That’s what I told my wife once, when we were on a ship crossing the English channel if 50 knot winds.  As the winds tossed us and our car around, she was getting sea sick, so I told her to keep her eyes on the horizon, and not the watch the waves.   This is what the story of Jonah is also asking us to do.  Don’t get caught every detail, but keep your eye on the big picture. 

Again, this is not a story about ‘who’s to blame’, but it’s a story about calling us to look straight into God’s heart.  It’s easy to look at our problems from the wrong point of view.  We can get caught up in blame, shame, guilt, and miss what we need to see, know, and understand.   Here, for the sailors, getting to the main issue was a matter of life and death, and they couldn’t mess around.  If we want to face our own responsibilities in life, we can’t get bogged down in feelings, but must face the hard questions, do what can be most difficult, and come to terms with what matters most so we can ‘save the ship’.

What will bring ‘salvation’ to our own storm tossed ship?  Do don’t need to appease God by throwing the unfaithful overboard (which by the way didn’t work), but we certainly do need to address our own ‘unfaithfulness’ as part of the problem that allows so many moral and ethical storms around us.  But, if you look deeper, you will see that what these sailors are doing is much more than throwing unfaithful Jonah overboard or merely feeling sorry for themselves. They are looking for a true way to face the problem, not because of what God must do to stop it, but to discover what they must do.  The point is that these sailors are not like Jonah.  They know they can’t escape the waves, the storm, and the threat, unless they acknowledge the presence, will, and purposes of God.  So, they face the problem head on, and at Jonah’s request, cast him overboard, straight into the ways and waves of God’s will.

What these sailors did not realize, at least at first, was that God is there, already there, right there, in the midst of the storm and the waves.  By casting Jonah into the stormy waves, the storm still wasn’t calmed, not until they themselves put their own lives in God’s hands.   This is where the repentance begins, not by casting blame, but by our coming to God.   Will we do that?   Can we face the waves and confront the real problems by putting ourselves into God’s hands?   Again, we don’t have to throw people overboard, nor condemn, even ourselves, but we do have to face the true problems and the real issues.  If we want God’s help in the storm, we must do our part present ourselves directly to God and his compassion for us? 

One of the all-time classic novels and movies, as you well know, is Gone with the Wind. You may not know, however, that the original story had more than just a kernel of truth in it. There was a Rhett Butler, but his real name was Rhett Turnipseed. Scarlet O'Hara was Emelyn Louise Hannon.
In fact, Rhett did walk out on her and joined the Confederate Army. When the war was over, Rhett Turnipseed became a drifter and gambler. He ended up in Nashville, where his life was turned around on Easter morning in 1871 when he attended a Methodist revival meeting and became a committed Christian.
Soon after, Rhett Turnipseed enrolled at Vanderbilt University and became a Methodist preacher. He was worried about a young woman in his flock who had run away and was working in a house of prostitution in St. Louis.
This godly pastor rode off to look for her and found her, but incredibly the madam of this house was his former love, Emelyn Louise Hannon—or Scarlet. She refused to let Rhett see the young woman, so Rhett challenged her to a game of cards. If he won the young girl would be free, if Scarlet won she would remain and Rhett won.
Well, the story had a happy ending. The young girl married well and became the matriarch of a leading family in the state. Emelyn was so impressed with the change in Rhett's life, she also became a Christian and joined the Methodist church. Eventually, she opened an orphanage for Cherokee children. She died in 1903, and her grave is marked to this day.
It just goes to show you that truth is really stranger than fiction. The book of Jonah fits into that category. When a man catches a fish, that's not big news, but when a fish catches a man, that is big news.  Acknowledging God’s presence, which we can’t escape, is the way the threats to our own ship of life, can be answered, so that we can have the salvation God desires for us all.  Amen.