Sunday 06 September 2020
Ps Ben Hooman
Please open the book of Jonah in your Bible at chapter one. We will spend the next few weeks in this most fascinating book of the Bible. This book is written as inspired by the Holy Spirit to show that God loves all people and desires to show them mercy based upon repentance.
Jonah, a prophet, that preceded the prophet Amos. Amos preached that religion is more that observing feast days and holding sacred assemblies; true religion demands righteous living, a lifestyle of righteousness. All books of the Old Testament are for us too, the redeemed people of Christ and not only for Israel.
Jonah, the only prophet sent in his time to preach to the Gentiles the message of repentance and mercy. Jonah, his name means ‘dove’. This is no coincidence but a direct foreshadow to the preaching of the good news of the Gospel of Christ to all people today.
The book of Jonah is different from the other prophetical books in that it has no prophecy that contains a message, but the story is the message. Amos preached a lifestyle surrendered to God, Jonah supposed to reflect such a life, but what kept him from it?
“The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.” Jonah 1:1-3 (NIV)
The book of Jonah tells a simple story, a story most of us know: A man by the name of Jonah was called by God to go and preach in a pagan city. He didn’t like the idea, so he got on a ship and went in the opposite direction. The ship sailed into a storm, and Jonah was thrown overboard. But in His great mercy, God rescued Jonah in the most remarkable way. He provided a saving fish that swallowed him and then spat him up on the beach when he began to pray.
Jonah then decided that he had better do what God said, so He went to Nineveh where he preached God’s Word. The people repented of their sins and were saved from God’s judgment.
It’s a great story that most of us know well. But what we will see over the next few Sundays is that it is so much more than a remarkable, memorable story.
God speaks directly to each and everyone of us. What can you expect to find in the story of Jonah? We will today first look at three aspects accordingly; expect to see yourself, expect to be disturbed by God’s passion for the world, and expect to be surprised by how much God cares for His servants.
Expect to see yourself
Expect to see yourself in Jonah. This book is about the unravelling of one godly man’s inner life. It shows us how a man can serve God while under the surface there is a battle going on in his heart. You need to know how to handle that struggle and so do I. Jonah love God, but he also struggles with God. Do you recognise something of it in your own life?
This book gives us a window on the spiritual conflict that goes on inside a Christian believer. Remember, Jonah was a prophet and He had a great ministry. He spoke the word of God and God used him to change a whole city. He experienced great miracles in the depths of the ocean, and God used him to change a whole city. You might think that a man like this is beyond the struggles that “ordinary” Christians experience.
But Jonah shows us something different. At the end of the book, even after the miracle of being saved by the fish, and after the triumph of seeing a whole city repent, you find a man who is angry, he is dissatisfied, and he is out of sorts with God.
This takes us into a surprising truth: Those who throw themselves most fully into the purpose and calling of Jesus Christ often experience inner conflict more intensely than others.
If you read the lives of any of the great Christian leaders, you will find that those at the forefront of Christian ministry experienced intense spiritual conflict.
This is a great book for pastors, for leaders, for all believers, who find themselves surprised by the intensity of spiritual struggle as they extend themselves in the work of the Gospel. If you become more deeply committed to Christ, your inner struggles will become more, not less. The more useful you are to Christ, the more you will experience intense struggles in your inner life.
The book of Jonah explores the inner life of a mature Christian believer like no other book in the Bible. When I look at Jonah, I see myself. I think you will see yourself too. Expect to see yourself in the book of Jonah.
Expect to be disturbed by God’s passion for the world
This is what really happened to Jonah. He had a comfortable life worshipping and serving God, until God laid hold of his life and said, “I want you to go and minister to people that do not believe. They matter to Me as much as you do.” Many Christians and many churches live happily with a comfortable inward-looking faith. What we’re interested in is that God is there for me and that God is here for us.
Nothing is more disturbing to a comfortable faith or a comfortable church than God’s passion for the world and its lost. God called Jonah to leave the life he loved in order to reach the people God loved. God’s call to something new suddenly exposed the selfishness that was reigning in Jonah’s heart.
This book is deeply disturbing. Expect to see things that are uncomfortable about yourself in this book because God’s love for a lost person can turn a believer’s life upside down. God’s love for the lost can turn a church comfort zone upside down.
Expect to be surprised by how much God cares for His servants
There is a wonderful theme in the book of Jonah. Think of all the prophets in the Old Testament; most of the books are about God’s message, but this book is about God’s man. Jonah tells us that God cares not only about His work but also about His workers. He cares not just about His mission but also about His missionary.
If God cared only about the work, He could have ditched Jonah and sent someone else, but God cares about Jonah, and that is the heart of this book. Many think that God are more interested in our service but God cares about you more than your works.
In God’s mercy a great city was saved from judgment through the ministry of Jonah. But the salvation of the city gets very little attention in the book. The book is about God’s patience and perseverance with Jonah. God cares more about you than about what you are doing.
Like Jonah, avoiding God for the greater part of his life, there are many believers avoiding a Christ-centred life here and now. But how do we avoid it?
You can avoid it for a lifetime
I first thought of giving the series the title of: “How to avoid a Christ-centered life.” I think that’s what Jonah was doing, not just at the beginning when he got on the ship to Tarshish, but for a much larger slice of his life.
Not only was Jonah running from God at the beginning of the story, but he was also arguing with God at the end of the story. Even after God used him in a remarkable way to evangelize a pagan city, he was still out of sorts with God.
That raises the interesting question of when Jonah wrote the book. I don’t think you can write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit while you are arguing with God! So, I assume that the book was written late in Jonah’s life.
Later in his life he looks back on his ministry and sees how he avoided a God-centered life. He gives us this account of his experience: “God used me in a remarkable way, but what’s of real value to you is that I spent much of my life avoiding the God I purported to serve.”
The great irony of Jonah’s life is that while he was teaching God’s Word, he was actually avoiding God’s call. Jonah wrote the book so that we would not be like him. So that you hear the call of God on your life for His purpose and His glory. He reflects on his experience and in his book, he tells us: “Choose a different path!”
You can avoid it behind the disguise of a good reputation
Please turn with me to the only cross reference we will be looking at this morning. There is only one place in the Bible where we learn about Jonah outside of his own book:
“In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher” (2 Kings 14:23-25)
Jonah was one of the spiritual leaders of his day. He is introduced as “God’s servant Jonah, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” He is called “the prophet” and not “a prophet” as if there wasn’t another one worth mentioning in that generation.
This was a man who spoke the Word of God. His prophecies came true because they were wonderfully from God. The borders of Israel were extended during the time of Jeroboam “in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken through his servant Jonah.” This is a man who hears the Word of God, walks in the presence of God, and is filled by the Spirit of God: “God’s servant Jonah… the prophet from Gath Hepher”, a man highly respected and recognised as a prophet of God. But when God called him for God’s purpose to preach the truth to a lost people, what did he do? A man seen as sold out to God in the eyes of the people, but was that the case?
You can avoid it by protecting your own comfort
Against the backdrop of that extraordinary reputation:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me’”. (Jonah 1:1-2)
It’s hard for us to grasp how shocking this must have been for Jonah. In Jonah’s lifetime there was one world superpower: the Assyrians. The Assyrians were known for their brutality. They had refined the art of torture in a way that is recorded in history. It would make your hair stand on end. They were the terror of Jonah’s time.
Nineveh was one of the major Assyrians cities. The prophet Nahum describes it as “the city of blood, full of lies, full or plunder, never without victims” (Nahum 3:1). This was not a place you would want to visit. If you saw that in a holiday brochure “city of blood, full of lies,” you would not go there.
The Word of God came to this successful prophet. He was highly esteemed in Israel. His wonderful prophecies about extending the borders of the Promised Land came true. He was settled and secure in what he was doing for God. Then God said to him “Go to Nineveh!” Suddenly, the music stops in Jonah’s life:
“Lord I am really happy in the work you’ve called me to do here in Gath Hepher. Don’t You see that I am honoured and accepted here?” But the Lord said, “I want you to go somewhere else.” “You want me to leave the ministry I love?” “That’s right.” “Where do you want me to go?” “Nineveh” “That’s in Assyria. There are terrorists and torturers there. What do you want me to say?” “Preach against the city, because its wickedness has come up before me.” “That’s not surprising. Their wickedness is notorious! And if you judge them now, it will be a big relief to all of us!”
Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes: This man has a successful ministry among God’s people. He was known for prophesying good things like extending the borders of Israel. He has a good life in a good place, doing good work. And now the Word of the Lord disturbs his comfortable life.
Our culture says “live your dreams,” but God has a way of disturbing our dreams. We all have hopes and dreams of what our lives will be. We plan our families. We plan our futures. We plan our finances. Then God breaks into the plan: A child is born, a loved one dies, the market crashes, you lose your job, a dangerous virus disrupted comfort zones, and suddenly your life is not going according to your plan.
Was God in Jonah’s plans or was Jonah in his own plans? Are you in God’s plan for your life, or are you trying to get God to fit into your plans?
When God stepped into Jonah’s plan, his heart was revealed. Jonah’s self-centeredness was hidden under the surface of his successful ministry but his “I want a comfortable life, God,” was exposed when God called him to leave something old and to start something new.
Are you avoiding God’s plan for your life by running after your own plans?
You can avoid it by running after your own plans
“But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3)
“Jonah ran away from the Lord.” Jonah was a prophet, well-schooled in the Scriptures written during that time. He knew that God is present everywhere. Jonah would have known David’s words:
“Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there! if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10)
Jonah knows he can’t escape from God’s presence. What he is running from is God’s call. That’s the issue here. When he gets in the boat, he is giving up being a prophet. He is resigning from the work God called him to do. He is saying, in effect: “There are other things in life that I could do, besides bringing the Word of the Lord. I’m quitting this ministry and I’m going to make a new life in Tarshish.
Jonah is dodging a God-centred life: He planned where he wanted to live and what he wanted to do. When God disrupted his plan, he quit.
If your plan becomes more important than God’s plan, you cannot live a Christ-centered life. What if God wants you in another place? What if God wants you to do another kind of work? What if God has another purpose for you for the sake of people who need to hear the Gospel? What if God wants to prepare you to bring the gospel, to be the gospel to other people? What are the excuses for not attending training, not connecting with a life group, even not attending church?
Jonah eventually wrote a Spirit inspired book: “Don’t go that path”. We need to cultivate a Christ-centred life. But how do I do that?
Recognize that whatever you are doing now is only for a time
The world wants you to believe that everything is stable, secure and permanent, and people are in control. But it is not so. Clearly a pandemic shows how flawed a world view it is. The home that you live in is yours for a time. The work that you do is yours for a time. The people you love are yours for a time.
One day, others will live in your home. One day, others will continue your work. One day, others will have your money. James says:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:13-14)
David says: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
Whatever you are doing in your life, hold it lightly, that what God has entrusted to you, because it will not be forever. If you can do that you will be in a good position if God calls you to something new.
Keep your dreams on the altar of God
I don’t even say here to place your dreams on the altar, but to keep it there. And how hard this is to do. I have hopes and dreams for my own life, for our church. We all have hopes and dreams for the future. That is a good thing but we have no rights. There are no certainties and God is free at any time to disturb in any way your dream, to give you a completely new calling, so keep your dreams on the altar of God.
None of us knows the sovereign purpose of God. But God is always at work, and while He planned for you to hear this message today, His plan will have many of us in a different place a year, two years, from now. For some it means that they will be with Christ. Some will be worshipping in another location. God may have you in another part of the world doing something you never imagined yourself doing.
If God should call you to something new, it will be a defining moment for you. Jonah never imagined himself in Nineveh. What is going on under the surface of your life will be revealed.
Lord, help me keep my dreams on Your altar. Don’t let me be like Jonah. Don’t let me become the kind of person who is so comfortable in my home, with my friends, and in my ministry that I would be unwilling to do something completely different for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the lost, for the sake of the Gospel.
Practice making yourself available to God
The more comfortable you are, the more difficult it will be for you to obey God’s call to do something new. When you love what you do, you’re happy in your life, everything seems to be going well, and God seems to be blessing you, it is then really hard to keep your heart in a place where you can say to the Lord “If there’s something else you want me to do, I’m willing to do it.”
Have you ever honestly asked God what He wants you to do? Have you explored whether there is some way in which your gifts could be used to reach out to the lost, to the Nineveh out there? When you think about your career? What you do when your children are at school, when you think about your retirement? Have you come before the Lord and asked how you can be most useful to Him? Or it is really about yourself?
Are you teachable, allowing the Lord to prepare you through your church to be equipped for when and where God needs you to be for Him, representing Him? Are you already equipped for the work of ministry but not helping others towards the fulness of Christ in their lives? Were all the studies, all the training, even the ordination only for yourself, or did you do it for the calling and purpose God has for you?
Jonah said, “I spend much of my life as an esteemed prophet amongst God’s people, avoiding a God-centered place”.
What God has given you is only for a time. Place that dream on the altar of God and make yourself available to God.
Jonah and Jesus
There is an extraordinary contrast between Jonah and Jesus. Think about Jonah: He lives in a good place, he is doing a good work and enjoying a good life, and God says “Jonah I want you to go to another place, do another work, and live another life for the sake of people I love who are facing judgment. And Jonah said “No.”
If Jonah lived a God-centered life where he was, he would not have been in a comfort zone. God had to take him out of his comfort zone into God’s plan and purpose for his life.
Think about the experience of the Son of God: He was surrounded by the joy and life of heaven. He ruled the universe by the Word of His power. He was adored by angels with all creation at His feet. The Father says to the Son “I want you to go to another place, where you will be utterly rejected. I want you to live another life that will lead to torture, crucifixion and death. I want you to do this work to reach and save people I love, who are facing judgment. And Jesus said “Yes!”
Is this pandemic we find ourselves in a reason for so many to turn away from the calling and mandate that God has for us? How many became so self-focussed in a time like this? Our own circumstances become so easily the central focus of our lives whilst there are so many lost souls that need to meet this Jesus that saved us from this world. How much more selfishness, how much more own comfort, how much more the life of Jonah and not the life of Christ?
As much as God loves us and have mercy on us, God have called us to bring that to those that are not in Christ yet. Know that as for Jonah, God has called you to do just that. Let us not waste one more minute, but surrender all unto the purpose of God.
God sent Jonah to Nineveh to reach lost people. A Christ-centered life is a life bringing Christ to the lost. I am praying that God will rend the heavens and come down that He will us spiritual dynamic that reflects His passion for the lost. It will not be comfortable, but it will be defining in our lives.
I believe we can be less like Jonah and more like Jesus, we can make a difference for Christ, for the lost and for the Gospel in this great city at this time, for His praise and glory and honour!
Let us pray:
Lord, make me less like Jonah and more like Jesus. Forgive us O’ Lord for the shift from the lost to self in these times. Help us Holy Spirit to keep our eyes focused on the Author and Finisher of our lives, to live a life for His purpose and praise and glory and honor, in whose Name we pray, Amen.