God’s Heartless Prophet

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Dove,” but we just call him Jonah. He lived in the eighth century BC. There is no other way to say it. Jonah is a curious Old Testament book because it has a New Testament feel. Let me give you some strange coincidences. First, the meaning of Jonah’s name, dove, is the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Remember the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism like a dove. (Luke 3:22) Second, Jonah is saved not saved by a whale, but he is saved by a great fish, the symbol of the faith, itself, in the early church. The church exists to save people. Third, as Jesus rose from the dead after three days, Jonah sat in the belly of the great fish for three days. Fourth, Jonah’s call to the Ninevites, Gentiles, non-Jews, is a New Testament theme. Jonah must have been Paul’s favorite Minor Prophet. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It is how I started last week’s message. I just cut and pasted last week’s beginning on to this week’s manuscript. Do you remember what happened last week?

God called Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh because her sins were great. Jonah understands God’s commands but refuses to go. Instead, he goes to the port city of Joppa and buys a ticket for Tarshish. Today, we would say he sailed from Israel to Spain. That 2,200-hundred-mile journey would happen on a slow-moving wooden ship. Somewhere on the journey a great storm hits the Mediterranean Sea. The sailors blame Jonah for the storm and cast him into the sea. He would have died, if not for the great fish. He swallows Jonah and for three days Jonah sat in his stomach. When the prophet is liberated, he heads to Nineveh and delivers his message of repentance. Here is the good news for today. The people of the great city of Nineveh did repent. Everyone should be happy but not everyone is. Jonah is unhappy because his ministry is successful. It does not make sense, but it happened. We find Jonah today sitting alone and pouting.

He is not just pouting, he is mad. He is mad God had compassion on an enemy of Israel. He wanted God’s compassion to be shown only to Israel, not on Gentiles and certainly not on the Ninevites. They were notorious for their sinning and did not deserve God’s grace. Yet, God showed them grace and Jonah is mad. He lashed out at God in prayer and complains. He tells God death is a better option for him than living in a world where the Ninevites are forgiven. We can relate to Jonah because each one of us has been upset with God from time to time. Sometimes we get mad at God because we do not know all that facts. Sometimes we get mad at God because we blame God for the misdeeds of others.

Sometimes we get mad at God because we do not get what we want. On Tuesday afternoon, Kathryn and I received a group text from our daughter Anna. She and her fiancé, Jeff, have decided to postpone their wedding again because of the pandemic. They are supposed to be married by now. They were originally going to get married on May 30 but postponed because of the coronavirus. They rescheduled for September 19. It is not going to happen because of the coronavirus. They have decided to reschedule their wedding. Their new date is April 10. We are all hoping the coronavirus has passed by next spring. Can someone tell me if that will happen? Everything is so difficult right now. I will admit it. I was mad at God. If any couple deserves the wedding of their dreams it is Anna and Jeff. They are good people, who have worked hard for a bright future, but they must wait to get married because of this invisible enemy. I stayed up late on Tuesday and got up early on Wednesday because I was mad at God. Sometimes we get mad at God because we do not get what we want.

Sometimes we get mad at God because we get something we did not expect. Sitting in my wife’s office is a prayer card from a funeral we attended about eighteen months ago. The one who died was my college roommate, Jim Humphrey. I do not know why it is on display, because it upsets me. Jim was simply great and there was no one I respected and enjoyed more. Jim was killed in a traffic accident and it seemed so unfair or cruel. He had been in the ministry for decades and had just retired. He had settled in this area and we dreamed of the fun we were going to have together. Now he is gone, and I still cannot answer the question, why? I will be honest with you. When I look at his picture on that prayer card, I am not just sad. I am mad. Sometimes we get mad at God because we get something we did not expect.

Sometimes we get mad at God because we think God owes us something. We have been extra good, so we deserve an extra blessing. That was Jonah’s story. He was raised to believe he was special. He was one of God’s Chosen People. That meant all the good things in life would be showered on him and his people. That meant all the good things were withheld from everyone else, including and especially the Ninevites. They did not deserve any goodness, but they received God’s grace. It is hard to feel special when you are treated like everyone else. Sometimes we get mad at God because we think God owes us something. Yet, this story is not about being mad at God. We all get mad at God occasionally. There is no sign in the story God is upset with Jonah because he was mad. It is fine to get mad at God occasionally and shake your little fist at him. God wants to have an honest relationship with us. God wants to have an honest relationship with you. The story is about something much deeper than human emotions. Look at the text with me one more time.

Jonah, the pouting prophet, goes to the east end of the city to observe the happenings. He was still hoping Nineveh would be destroyed. He builds himself a little shelter to protect himself from the sun and the heat. The structure is incomplete, so God has a plant grow around Jonah. The Bible says it was a leafy plant, vine, so ample shade was given to the prophet. For the first time in the story Jonah is happy, but his happiness does not last long. God also provided a worm and the worm damaged the leafy plant. In time, the plant died, and Jonah is upset about the plant’s demise. Once again, Jonah complains and requests to die. The scene exposes the real issue. Jonah is more upset over the death of a plant than he was the death of people. How can you be more concerned about a thing than a person? The scripture seems to go out of the way to tell us there are one-hundred and twenty thousand people and each one had a soul. Each one was loved by God. God is shocked by Jonah’s heartlessness. Here is a question you must answer. How heartless are you?

When I was in seminary, I took a class called Basic Christian Theology. It was a required class for all first-year students. It was taught by a man by the name of William Arnett. He was a veteran professor who was close to retiring. Every class was about the same. He would lecture on a certain block of material and close the class by answering questions. The topic on one day was heaven. When the lecture ended the questions began. One of the students in my class raised her hand and asked the question, “Dr. Arnett, when I get to heaven, will my dog be waiting for me?” We were not surprised by the question because her dog accompanied her to class every day. The dog and the young woman were inseparable. Today, we would call that dog a therapy dog. Dr. Arnett took his glasses off and answered the question clearly, “No! Dogs do not go to heaven because dogs do not have a soul. Dogs only have a spirit.” The young woman got emotional and fired back, “If my dog is not going to be in heaven, then I don’t want to go to heaven.” The veteran educator came back with the line, “You only have two choices. If you do not want to go to heaven, then you are going to hell. You may want to reconsider. Hell is not a pleasant place.”

Do dogs go to heaven? I have been asked that question during my time here. Years ago, a teenager asked me that question. I remembered my Basic Christian Theology class. I answered with a no. All the teenagers got mad at me, and they looked for some proof I was wrong. They contacted a former youth director here at the church, who was then surviving as a missionary in Romania, and asked her the question, do dogs go to heaven? She said I was right. Dogs do not go to heaven because dogs do not have a soul, only a spirit.

You may not like the answer, but it is part of classic protestant theology. However, the classic Roman Catholic answer to the question, do dogs go to heaven, is yes. That means if you want to see your dog in heaven, then you are more catholic than you think. Can I be honest with you? I hope Dr. Arnett was wrong. I hope dogs go to heaven because I want to spend eternity with all the dogs I have ever owned, including the world’s best dog, Macy. Billy Graham gives us dog lovers hope. He said dogs will be in heaven if they are required for our happiness. It is a big question in the minds of many. Do dogs go to heaven? Here is a bigger question to God.

Why are we more concerned about getting dogs into heaven and so unconcerned about getting more people into heaven? In other words, why are we so heartless? In other words, we are sitting under a vine preoccupied with the salvation of our family pets and ignoring the spiritual deficiency of people. Please do not misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with plants. There is nothing wrong with dogs and cats. They make our lives complete and give us much needed unconditional love. However, through the eyes of God, people are much more valuable. How concerned are you about the salvation of the people in your life?

On September 19, 2019, the Washington Monument was reopened after a $10.7 million renovation. The work took three years. The work was needed after an earthquake struck the area. During the work, graffiti from the 1800’s was discovered. It is not like graffiti today. The discovered graffiti read:

Whoever is the human instrument under God in the conversion of one soul, erects a monument to his own memory more lofty and enduing than this.

It is signed BFB. No one knows who that was, but he is right. Why are we so heartless?

How Small is Your God?

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Dove,” but we just call him Jonah. He lived in the eighth century BC. There is no other way to say it. Jonah is a curious Old Testament book because it has a New Testament feel. Let me give you some strange coincidences. First, Jonah’s name dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.  Second, Jonah is saved not saved by a whale, but he is saved by a great fish, the symbol of the church in the early church. The church exists to save people. Third, Jonah’s call to the Ninevites, Gentiles, non-Jews, is a New Testament theme. Jonah must have been Paul’s favorite minor prophet. If you do not know the story of Jonah, then ask any Sunday school child and they will enlighten you. I do not want to sound critical, but the story reveals Jonah’s ignorance about God. Jonah’s understanding of God was too small. He failed to recognize the vastness of God. So, let me ask you the question of the day, how small is your God? Jonah’s understanding of God was deficient in several ways.

First, Jonah did not understand the presence of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be omnipresent, all present. That means God can be in all places all the time. God’s presence encompasses the whole universe.

The word of God came to Jonah. The Almighty directs him to go to the great city of Nineveh. The problem is he does not want to go. Instead of going to Nineveh, he goes to port city of Joppa. It is there he buys a ticket to Tarshish. Geography is important in this story. Joppa is on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and Tarshish is on the western shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, we call Joppa Jaffa, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel. Today, we call Tarshish Spain. What is Jonah trying to do? He is trying to run away from his divine task by running away from God. The prophet should have known better. You know what Jonah did not understand. There is no where you can go to escape God. There has never been a moment in your life when you have been orphaned. God is with us right now. God is all present! How small is your God?

Second, Jonah did not understand the power of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be omnipotent, all powerful. God is not limited by natural law. God has power over wind, water, gravity, physics, and the rest. God’s power is unlimited.

With his ticket in hand, Jonah entered the ship and headed to Tarshish. That is about a 2200-mile trip. I have no clue how long that would take on a wooden ship. It must have been a long time and the best they could hope for was good sailing weather. It did not happen. The ship was involved in a great storm. The sailors looked for the person responsible. They draw lots and the lot fell on Jonah. They throw him into the water and the water instantly calms. The prophet would have died if not for the great fish, who swallows Jonah whole.

It has been said, a coincidence is a little miracle where God wants to remain anonymous. Do you think it was just a coincidence there was a great storm? Do you think it was just a coincidence the lot fell on Jonah? Do you think it was a coincidence the storm calmed once Jonah hit the water? Do you think it was just a coincidence a great fish just happened to be in the area? Do you think it was just a coincidence Jonah was swallowed whole? The fish could have just as easily bit down. As Jonah sat in the belly of the great fish, he must have had a new insight about God. God is all powerful. God is all present! God is all powerful! How small is your God?

Third, Jonah did not understand the knowledge of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be omniscience, all knowing. God is aware of what is happening in the past, present, and future. That means it is impossible to keep a secret from God.

Jonah’s escape to Tarshish was supposed to be a big secret. There is no sign in the text he told anyone. There was no going away party. He acted alone because he wanted to slip away and be forgotten. The Bible does not encourage secrets. They damage relationships and ruin community. That is exactly what happened in the story of Moses. The great lawgiver was raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter in the palace. For many years, she kept the secret he was not her biological son. To make matters worse, Moses was a Hebrew. When it is finally revealed it caused a great stir. You can hide the truth from people for a long period of time, but you cannot fool God. Psalm 44:21 says, “God knows the secret of the heart.” Jonah learned the hard way. God is all knowing. God is all present! God is all powerful! God is all knowing! How small is your God?

Fourth, Jonah did not understand the love of God. In the Christian faith, we understand God to be all loving, omnibenevolent. This is the hardest aspect of God for Jonah to understand because love is so complex. This is the question that must be answered. Why did Jonah not want to go to Nineveh? There is a political side to that answer and a moral side to that answer. Nineveh was the capital of a foreign power, Assyria. Nineveh’s sins were well known. Another minor prophet, Nahum tells us Nineveh’s sins included plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plunder in war, prostitution, witchcraft, and commercial exploitation. If there was one place that did not deserve God’s grace, it was Nineveh. Yet, God sends Jonah to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire because God loved them too. You cannot really blame Jonah. God’s love is not easy. Sometimes love forces us to sacrifice. Sometimes love forces us to change. Nether one comes naturally. No one is exempt.

William Gladstone (1809-1898) is one of the names in the history of Great Britain. Near the end of his life he reported the most difficult thing he had to do in service to his country was report the death of Princess Alice (1843-1878) to the House of Commons. She was thirty-five years old and the daughter of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). The story is tragic. The little daughter of the Princess was seriously ill with diphtheria. The doctors told the princess not to kiss her little daughter and endanger her life by breathing the child’s breath. That is exactly what happened. Once, when the child was struggling to breathe. It was more than Princess Alice could handle so, forgetting herself entirely, took the little one into her arms to keep her from choking to death. Rasping and struggling for her life, the child said, “Momma, kiss me!” Without thinking of herself the mother tenderly kissed her daughter. That kiss was the beginning of the end. Princess Alice got diphtheria and some days later died. That story illustrates an important point. Real love forgets self. Real love knows no danger. Real love does not count the cost. Real love is not afraid to sacrifice. However, real love also forces us to change.

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was a Dutch Christian. During the Second World War she and her family helped many Jews escape the Nazis concentration camps. In time, they were caught and arrested. She was sent to Raven Bruck concentration camp. In her famous book, The Hiding Place, she told how she found hope in God while imprisoned. After the war she toured and lectured on the importance of forgiveness. At the end of one of those meetings a man approached her holding out his hand. She instantly recognized him as one of the wardens from the camp who had treated her and her family so badly. In that split second, she was faced with the reality of the choice to forgive. It is one thing to talk about forgiveness. It is another thing to forgive. She held out her hand and shook it as he quietly asked her forgiveness. She had to forgive him because God loved him too. Sometimes love forces us to change. Sometimes love forces us to sacrifice. Jonah had a hard time understanding God’s love. I hope that is not your story. Many still struggle with the depth of God’s love for us. If you do not believe me than look at the cross. How small is your God?

There is an old preaching story about a medieval monk. He announced he would be preaching next Sunday evening on “The Love of God.” As the shadows fell and the light ceased to come in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered. In the darkness of the altar, the monk lighted a candle and carried it to the crucifix. First, he illumined the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then the marks of the spear wound. In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle and left the chancel. There was nothing else to say. That story reminds us God did not count the cost of loving us. How can anyone question God’s love for us? Augustine (354-430) may have said it best. He once said, “God loves each of us as if there was one of us.”  God is all present! God is all powerful! God is all knowing! God is all loving! How small is your God?