A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on August 8, 2010.
O God, help us to live in this present moment. We pray that we would not feel the need to turn back to bygone times to hear your voice. We pray that you would teach us to listen and to hear now what you have to say. May we believe that even now your word is just as strong, just as powerful, and just as life changing as it has been in the past. We would also ask that we would understand clearly about your judgment. We pray that we would not deceive ourselves into thinking that your judgment is reserved for some future date or that our reckoning is postponed indefinitely. May we live this day in the knowledge that judgment is ever before us, that our deeds are always in front of your eyes and known in your heart. May we live this day in the knowledge that you wish to impart a word to our lives. May we live this day knowing that your judgment is real. Help us to remember that all souls are yours, that the innermost secrets of our hearts you know in fullness, and that no matter where our footsteps wander or flee, we are never beyond your love or your capacity to care. Help us to live this hour, this day, and this week in full faithfulness. May we be true to the width and breadth of your good news. May we strive to be as much like Jesus as we know, and where we don’t know, teach us more. May we see completely, the actions of our hands. May we hear not only the words of our own mouths but may we see clearly what is in our hearts. At the end of the day, teach us the foolishness of trusting in our own failed righteousness that we might throw ourselves again upon your grace and be healed. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
God’s providence means that wherever we have got to, whatever we have done, that is precisely where the road to heaven begins. However many cues we have missed, however many wrong turnings we have taken, however unnecessarily we may have complicated our journey, the road still beckons, and the Lord still “waits to be gracious” to us (Isaiah 30:18). —Simon Tugwell in Prayer
I love to watch old movies. One of the things that I have noticed in the way that old movies come on the TV screen is that when they are telling who the characters are in the movie that the top billing always goes to the person who has the most important role. It is probably the highest paid actor or actress in the cast. It always begins with “starring.” If you are watching Gone with the Wind, “starring” Clark Gable. Vivian Leigh was a relatively unknown person at that time. If you are watching Casablanca, “starring” Humphrey Bogart. After the big name, top dollar, characters are introduced, then they will say “co-starring.” Co-starring are usually people that you know and have seen in other movies. They might have a chance for Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress, but this is a step down.
Then once they finish with co-starring, then they say, “also starring.” Also starring means you are probably going to remember their faces but nobody remembers their names. These are the even lesser people and they are two full steps down from the Clark Cables and Humphrey Bogarts and people like that.
When we think about the Book of Jonah, the first thing that comes to our mind is the fish. If we were going to make Jonah, The Movie, most of us would think that the biggest star of the movie would be Shamu or some other big animal in the water that we could get to play the role. The truth is that the most important character in the book is God. Jonah, even though the book is named after him, would only be “ co-starring.” The fish which is so incidental to the story would be “also starring.” The fish just really is not that important.
When was the last time most of us really looked at the story of Jonah. Probably not since we were children. It is really much easier to leave it as a childhood book and to talk about the fish than it is to look at what the message says to people who want to grow in likeness of Jesus Christ.
The story surrounds Nineveh. Nineveh actually exists today. If you follow the Iraq war, you know that Nineveh is located in modern-day Iraq. Nineveh, in the time of Jonah, was probably the most despicable city in the world. The children of Israel hated Nineveh. I tried to figure out a way to describe how distasteful Nineveh was to them, and I think the best way to say it would be if you can imagine the way most Americans felt about Baghdad during the Kuwaiti war. Saddam Hussein and all of his evil were residing there. They had invaded a foreign country. Since we are near football season, if you can imagine that the SEC team that you like the least was located in Baghdad and all their fans were there. You know how distasteful and despicable their fans are. That is about the way they felt about Nineveh. There was no joy in Israel over anything for Nineveh. They thought that Nineveh was immoral. They did not like them politically. They did not like the people. They just did not like anything. So God decided it was time for Nineveh to be saved. So he called Jonah to be the preacher. God told Jonah, “We need to have a revival down in Nineveh and I would like for you to be the guest preacher.”
Jonah was angered by this because he despised the people of Nineveh so much that he went in the opposite direction. Today, Nineveh is in a desert. Jonah went to the sea. He went as far away as he could get because if the people were going to be saved, he was not going to have anything to do with it, despite the fact that was what God wanted.
Jonah got on the boat. There was a bad storm and the sailors said, “This is a really bad storm. Somebody must have done something wrong.”
They cast lots and it fell on Jonah. Jonah said, “I have made God really mad.”
The sailors said, “OK. Into the sea you go.” The sailors threw Jonah into the sea to satisfy God, or so they believed.
God was not done with his plan. He sent the fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah. After three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah saw the error of his ways. I would have, too. So Jonah decided to do what God wanted him to do and the fish spit Jonah up on the dry land. Jonah went to preach and his worst fears came true. Revival broke out. The people of Nineveh recognized the error of their ways. The people of Nineveh realized they had done wrong in the sight of God. They repented, they turned, and things were moving in the direction of God’s will. Jonah was so angered that God had used him to do this thing that he went outside the city, sat down, and pouted.
God came to Jonah and asked him, “Is it OK for you to be angry about this?”
Jonah still can’t get over it.
The thing about Jonah is that he had conviction. He had very strong beliefs. He believed in the God revealed in the scriptures, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. He believed in this God. He believed that the people of Nineveh had done wrong, and he was right. This was where his convictions took him. The challenge that God gave to him was to love beyond his theology.
If we think for a few moments about some of the most angry and violent disagreements in our world, even in our own lives, we will realize that they come about because of the limits of our theology. We believe a certain thing. We can describe it all in a circle. I am inside it and everything beyond it is outside of my theology. These are my convictions that come from my believing in Jesus Christ. These are my convictions from reading the Bible which I believe to be God’s word. The people I have the most problem with are usually people that are outside the circle that I have drawn.
In the world today, the great divide between Muslim and Christian comes about because there is a group of people that are beyond my theology. We all grew up believing that our particular brand of Christianity was the only one that was right. We can all probably name disputes between churches of different types where people were really angry with each other and said some of the most un-Christian things imaginable to each other because the other group somehow lies outside that group’s theology. The most angry and violent things that we find in the world today come about because somebody is outside the circle.
It is true in our personal lives. People my age remember when the issue was race. You could get killed or run out of town over your attitude about race. I fear for our grandchildren that the problem will still be race. It will just be in a different form.
Today, we also deal with the issue of homosexuality. People define the limits of their love based on where somebody stands. I need to tell you that I have borrowed the title of this sermon today from Larry McSwain, one of the former presidents at Shorter College. He has just written a book with the title, Loving Beyond Your Theology, and it is a biography of a Baptist leader named Jimmy Allen. Dr. Allen had a son who was gay and had AIDS. There is a quote in the book where he says, “I disagreed with my son but I came to the place where I realized we had to quit talking about each other and start talking to each other. God was calling me to love beyond my theology.”
There are other issues. Do you realize how divisive partisan politics are in this country and how many friendships and other relationships are being destroyed because of the way that partisan politics are practiced in our country today? There are people who would rather see the nation fail than to see the other party get credit for something good. We would say that we really don’t think that, but if we listen to the way we talk and read the e-mails that we send to one another, we would know that is true.
Abortion is also a place where people quit speaking to each other, dislike each other, and say some of the most cruel and unkind things to each other because someone stands on the other side of a line drawn by theology. The thing that God asks us to do is to love beyond our theology.
As Christians, God calls us to be people of conviction. God calls us to be discerning people. God calls us to know right and wrong and to persevere in our faith. We are supposed to know where the line is drawn, but there is a tension here. God does call us to love beyond that line. That does not mean agree. That does not mean condone. It does not mean anything goes. It does not mean that there is nothing that is wrong. It just means that we are to treat people with love. Instead of being unkind, cruel, bitter, and hateful to someone who stands on the other side of the line, we love them anyway.
There is the story of the vine that is part of the scripture in Jonah 4. Jonah has gone out to pout. He is mad because the people are repenting and he does not want them saved. He is out there in the hot sun, and God sent a big plant. The plant grew up. It was shady and Jonah was so relieved. The next day, God sent a worm, and the worm ate the plant and the plant withered and died. Jonah said, “O, the poor plant. It is terrible that the plant died. O my goodness, how sad that the plant died.”
God said, “You care more about the plant than you will let me care about the people of Nineveh.”
We all love animals, and some of us would probably be kinder to a stray dog or a feral cat than we would be to people who were on the other side of the line of our theology. Isn’t that true? Jonah cared more about the plant than he cared about the people of Nineveh. What God tells us in this chapter is that there are two things that God will not accept. God will not accept actions contrary to his will. The whole reason that Jonah is supposed to go preach in the first place is because the Ninevites don’t know their right hand from their left. That is a way of saying they don’t know right from wrong. There is never anything in what God says that says the Ninevites are really not such bad people, the Ninevites are really good people and you just don’t know it, or there is nothing wrong here. No, there is something wrong. That is one thing God will not accept, but the other thing God will not accept is the attitude of condemnation. I hear in this echoes of Jesus. I hear in this Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees who did what? They refused to love beyond their theology. I hear echoes of Jesus who says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who despise you, use you, and abuse you.”
Do you see what God calls us to do? The reason God is having this conversation with Jonah under a bush is because of Jonah’s disobedience and spitefulness. He never sees it as a problem.
God is the most important character in this book because the book is carried by God’s grace. He wants Jonah to preach to this city because of his grace. He will not allow a line to be drawn in what people believe and how people act to be the limit of where he loves. If I am not mistaken, I do believe it says, “God so loved the world,” not just the people who believe or the people who try to live like Jesus. He will not let that be the limit, so in his grace he wanted to send Jonah to that city.
Jonah never recognized that he was disobedient. The fish was really a demonstration of God’s grace. Jonah could have been thrown into the ocean to drown, but God did not let that happen. Despite the fact that he ran away and disobeyed, God sent the fish and gave him a second chance. If God gave us a second chance, we would say, “Isn’t that great? Isn’t that wonderful?” But for some reason, Jonah did not understand that this was really a demonstration. After he was successful, God still tried again to break through that hard veneer and say, “Look at this plant. If you care so much about this plant, don’t you realize that I want to care more than that about this city? I want to care more than that about the people who are beyond the pale of what we understand to be right and what we understand to be wrong.”
God does not ask us to accept the actions, the attitudes, the beliefs of other people that we know to be wrong. God does not ask us to accept them, to condone them, to go with them. But God does expect us to love them, to treat them a certain way, to show them that God’s love can extend to them, that in the witness of God’s love there is a chance for that person to receive God’s love and to come back to God’s love. If all we are going to do is to condemn and cut them off from our relationship, then what chance is there for the people of God to have a role in the work of God in the world? This is very interesting, isn’t it?
God said to Jonah, “Is it right to be angry about the bush?”
Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
The Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. It came into being in the night and perished in the night. Should I not be more concerned about Nineveh, that great city in which there is more than 125,000 persons who don’t know their right hand from their left.” It never says what Jonah does. Does Jonah change his mind? Does Jonah change his action? Does Jonah get the point? Does Jonah understand grace?
The message is still spoken to each one of us. What we would do is yet unclear. What we are called to do is obvious.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.