Jonah was a prophet. His job was to hear the Word of the Lord and say it to the people, but when God told him to say something he didn’t want to say to someone he didn’t want to say it to, he was conflicted. In Jonah’s mind the Ninevites were terrorists and enemies. He didn’t want to tell them about God’s love and forgiveness. He wanted them to remain enemies and for God to punish them. Destroy them.
God asked Jonah to do something hard. Something he didn’t want to do. It was emotionally hard because he hated them but it was also physically hard. Nineveh was 500 miles away. He was going to have to travel by camel. I looked up how long it would take to travel 500 miles by camel and, no kidding, the first result I clicked on at ask.com said, “Too long.” That seemed about right to me so I didn’t look into it any further. I think Jonah probably felt the same way.
Jonah says “nah” and hires a ship to sail in the opposite direction to Tarshish, a wealthy port city where people lived in relative comfort and leisure.
Jonah didn’t write any of the Psalms. If he had it might have sounded something like this: “O God. You are great and wonderful, all powerful and mighty. I am your humble servant but I’m gonna take a pass on this one. No. Thanks for asking though. I really do think You’re super cool. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m gonna head on over to Rio. See you on the beach. Selah.”
“No Lord” is not an appropriate response but we say it all the time. We know what’s right but we don’t do it. We always have. Mom and dad told us to clean up our room and we kicked a few toys under the bed and piled them into the closet. When we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar we find someone else to blame. We compare ourselves to other people to make us feel better. To make us feel justified. We all become Charlie Brown and rationalize that our room is a monument of tidiness and perfection compared to Pigpen’s room. At least we’re not as bad as him. Besides, it’s not our fault that it’s such a mess. Our parents gave us too many toys, too many socks, how do they expect us to find a place for all this stuff? It’s only a mess because our brother or sister came in here and got everything out. Plus we have too much homework and we’re tired from being at school all day. It’s always someone else’s fault and we are never responsible. We can find reasons and excuses all day long to keep from doing what we know is the right thing to do. Plus, the right thing is usually harder than grabbing a bag of Doritos and watching TV.
But we know what the right thing is. We always know. God might not speak to us like He did to Jonah—most of us are not Old Testament prophets—and if you are an Old Testament Prophet then I’d like to talk with you after the service. It’s always interesting to talk to delusional schizophrenics plus I want to keep you away from the children.
For the rest of us God still speaks to us but He speaks to us in different ways.
He gave us all a conscience, an internal compass pointing us in the right direction. The problem is we can bend or break it by repeatedly ignoring what it tells us. Someone close to me once told me they believed whatever direction they were facing was South. No kidding. They retired to Florida and were last seen in Quebec Canada. It’s a lot like when we tell ourselves things like “I just follow my heart.” I have a verse for you: “The heart of man is deceitfully wicked above all things.” Don’t follow it. God may have given us a conscience but that’s only a starting place for knowing what He actually wants us to do because we have been actively warping our internal compass since we were in diapers trying to control the universe with our tears.
He also gave us His Word, the Bible. Heroes of the faith. The ten commandments. Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourself. Or in other words, “Worship God. Love People.”
But we don’t worship God or love people with all our heart, soul, mind or strength. We don’t even really try do we? If we did, what would our prayers look like? What would our singing sound like? What would our passion for knowing God’s Word be like? What things would we be doing to help people? When we say we are tired, is it really from doing the work God has called us to do with all our strength? Are we just too tired to do the right thing because we are so worn out from worshiping God and loving people?
God also speaks to us by His Spirit. This is more mysterious but anyone who follows Jesus for any amount of time will eventually hear a still small voice. Like any conversation, part of prayer, talking with God, is listening. When I get quiet and listen for God to speak He always does, but it’s never something I actually hear. It always seems like remembering that He just told me something. Like I’m praying and suddenly I have the sense that God has spoken to me, or guided me and I remember what He said. I never hear the actual words spoken—which is good because otherwise you’d probably think I was nuts. We don’t like to talk about the mysterious aspects of our faith, it makes us uncomfortable. I don’t know how it happens for other people but I believe God speaks to us when we seek Him in prayer. He will never contradict His word and usually He is simply reminding us of what He has already told us.
Of course one of the main ways He speaks to us is through people. Which is exactly what God was trying to get Jonah to do for Him.
The point is, He makes it clear to us in a number of ways what He wants us to do but we very often say “no.” The right thing is often hard and would mean we would have to leave our comfort. We have our plans and our desires and we don’t want to listen to anything that gets in our way. Most of us believe we’re entitled to follow our dreams and the desires of our heart, anything else is unAmerican.
To worship God is to bow before Him. To submit our will to His. To surrender.
Worship is surrendering our plans to God’s plans.
Jonah was a prophet! A freakin’ Old Testament Prophet who heard the voice of God. He was very clear about what
God said. God told him to do something he didn’t want to do and he said “no.” Before we stand in judgement over Jonah and say he was acting like a little punk maybe we need to examine our own heart.
What is God telling you to do in your life? What are you resisting? What hard thing are you ignoring?
You might be thinking, “dang, Frank, lighten up. I thought this was just a fun story about a guy who got swallowed by a fish. Why you gotta be so heavy and uncool.”
I think most people believe God is their personal Lord and genie. We think Jesus is our Life Coach. We look through the Bible for Life Hacks. Jonah’s seven secrets to personal fulfillment through submission. Our selfish motives for worshiping God are usually some form of “How can God help me fulfill my destiny. How can He help me get what I want.” Like it would be unfair and beyond reason that Jesus might ask us to abandon our plans and surrender them to His plan and His purpose.
When I was being interviewed by MTV in 1994 I didn’t think God was planning on me being a worship leader of a church in the suburbs for ten years, then starting a new ministry that will begin with lawn chairs on astro turf. I would have never anticipated or believed how glorious and fulfilling those things were going to be. I might have asked Riki Rachtman to throw me into the sea.
What if instead of looking at church and following Jesus as “what’s in it for me?” We asked a very different question, “What does it mean to be obedient to God?”
Does God want to bless you and does He want you to be happy? Sure, but His ultimate plan is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus redeeming and saving everything. It’s not about us but the cool thing is we get to be part of it.
Just like Jonah, God has given us a mission. We might not like it but we are supposed to make Jesus known to the people all around us. They might be hostile to us, it might be hard, but we are supposed to tell them about His love and His grace, we are supposed to look for opportunities to have super awkward conversations about Jesus. We’re to invite them to church and to be part of our family—our true family. We are to pursue them for Him. As impossible as it sounds, we are supposed to love people. We need to be serving our community, finding out what’s needed and giving it. How are we supposed to love the people of Katy? What does it look like to surrender what God has given to us and be obedient in giving to God’s mission? Time? Money? Comforts?
That’s probably going to be hard for us to surrender to. But it can be even harder to pursue our own families and love them.
We are to teach our children about faith by praying with them, reading the Bible with them, talking with them about His Word. We can’t pretend like we aren’t qualified to talk about faith with our family.
We are also supposed to love each other. To love the people in this room and the people who walk through those doors. To offer forgiveness to the person who offends you. To remain in friendship with the person who hurts your feelings. It’s hard.
But it doesn’t stop there. I want to address something important that concerns us as we start NewChurch. God has called many of us to leave the comfort of our old churches and do this new ministry. Listen to me, He is not calling us to say bad things about where we came from or hold bitterness in our hearts against the people there. He is not calling us to rejoice in their suffering. Our mission is not to persuade people to leave their churches and join us here. Our mission is to find lost sheep and love them, not to steal sheep who are already under the care of a shepherd. We’re not poachers. In Illinois they used to hang sheep thieves just like horse thieves. To this day it’s still an automatic third degree felony.
Surrender to God’s will is important. Jonah found out about this the hard way, and so do most of us. When they asked Jonah what they should do he should have told them to turn the boat around and head toward Nineveh, but he chose to be thrown overboard rather than obey God. He thought God was trying to kill him and he was hoping to die.
When Angel was not quite two years old he needed dental surgery. Some of his baby teeth didn’t develope enamel and they rotted into little black nubs, this was going to cause problems for his permanent teeth. The dentist gave us the choice of strapping him to a board, head, hands legs, and body—or holding him. So, I laid in the dentist chair holding his head and arms while Kim held his legs. He screamed and cried, his face was bright red with tears pouring out of his eyes. He thought we were killing him. He did not surrender and he didn’t think what was happening was for his good.
This is the actual point of the book and it is easy to miss. God loved Jonah. Even when Jonah refused to surrender and thought God was going to kill him, God saved him instead.
Jonah spent three days in the belly of a great fish and as weird as that sounds, it saved him. This is a wonderful reminder of Jesus who surrendered to the Father in perfect obedience, spent three days in the darkness of death and as weird as it sounds, saved all of us.
God doesn’t give up on disobedient people. God loved Jonah no matter how much of a jerk he was, no matter how hard he fought against what God wanted him to do. Should we surrender to what God wants us to do? Yes. Will it make him love us more? No. Did I love Angel less because he fought against me?
May we listen to God’s small voice that He put inside our conscience, our spirit, in our dreams. May we hear His Word and seek to understand it, hiding it in our hearts so we might not sin against Him. Even more importantly, may we rest in the comfort that He will pursue us. When we are running from Him, like a child into traffic, He will run after us and rescue us. May we recognize His mercy and kindness even when they come to us in the form of something we don’t understand—like a great fish. AMEN