GOD WANTS US TO SHARE HIS GOSPEL IN A WORLD FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO SPIRITUALLY “CANNOT DISCERN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT!”
Text: The Book of Jonah (Selected Verses)
The biblical account of Jonah and the great fish is well known. It is featured in most Sunday School series and is often found recorded in stand-alone books. Emphasis, however, is most often placed on Jonah himself—his rebellion against God, his submission to God, and finally his correction by God. Seldom do you see much emphasis placed upon the mission and message of Jonah, which ultimately are the key reasons why we find Jonah’s story recorded in the Bible.
Jonah was written during a period of Old Testament history when the children of Israel were looking inward. For the most part they had forgotten that they were to preserve the message of a Promised Savior for the whole world. They were surrounded by hostile and expanding foreign powers. They were divided into two kingdoms—the north and the south. They seldom got along with themselves much less others, but at least they were all God’s chosen people. Life was a struggle for survival and the thoughts presented in our Old Testament readings earlier—that the Seed of Abraham was to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (cf. Genesis 12:3), and that the promised Savior, described as the “Servant” of the LORD, was to be “a light to the Gentiles” (cf. Isaiah 49:6), had simply receded far into their national consciousness.
The purpose of the Book of Jonah was to bring those messages back into their focused attention. Israel’s national existence was tied to God’s eternal and universal plan for mankind’s salvation, which is expressed by the question recorded in the final verse of the entire book: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:11) There were and still are many, many, many people lost in the darkness of unbelief. Consequently:
BRETHREN—GOD WANTS US TO SHARE HIS GOSPEL IN A WORLD FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO SPIRITUALLY “CANNOT DISCERN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT!”
In order to help them God calls upon us at times to think outside the box! Now, what do I mean by God calling upon us to think outside the box? In Jonah’s case it was revealed by the LORD’s initial command: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). At no time in Israel’s previous history had God called upon any Israelite to go out and preach His Word to Gentile peoples. Various figures in Old Testament Israel’s history had shared their faith with non-Jews. The spies entering Jericho had shared their faith with Rahab (cf. Joshua 2). The little Israelite slave girl had shared her faith with Naaman and his wife (cf. 2 Kings 5). But never had God asked one of His priests or prophets to leave Israel and go to a foreign nation to preach His Word. Israel was Jonah’s box. In fact Jonah’s box was actually just the northern Kingdom of Israel. Jonah probably would not even have felt comfortable going into Judah. He could not bring himself to consider preaching to one of Israel’s enemies and at that point in history one of its greatest threat, so he decided to run as far away as he possibly could—all the way to Tarshish” (cf. Jonah 1:3)…an ancient port in far away Spain.
What is your box as an individual and as a congregation? Our forefathers’ box was generally ethnic in character—they were German or Norwegian Lutherans. If you were a German immigrant, you attended the German Lutheran Church. If you were a Norwegian immigrant, you attended the Norwegian Lutheran Church. More recently our boxes have often been racial and economic—we are white, middle-class. Those boxes have been created by the communities in which we live. Most of us can and often do find ourselves quite comfortable in our boxes.
However, our external circumstances are changing. Morris, for instance, was 94% white according to the 2000 Census, but in 2010 it was only 90% white with the change reflecting an increase primarily of Spanish speaking residents and, perhaps and an increasingly diverse population on the university campus. Mankato also has an increasing immigrant population, primarily from Central America and Africa. The complexion of our communities is changing. Might God want us to think outside the box with regard to our mission outreach efforts? Should we as individuals and as congregations be thinking of ways to reach out with the gospel to new and different populations? Should we be exploring ways to overcome language barriers? Should efforts be made to have a presence within the university community? Are there under-served populations in the Stevens County Jail, as there are in the Blue Earth County jail?
The point is that life has a way of conditioning us to the normal and creating a box that can limit our missionary imagination. As with Jonah, God calls upon us at times to think outside the box! BRETHREN—GOD WANTS US TO SHARE HIS GOSPEL IN A WORLD FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO SPIRITUALLY “CANNOT DISCERN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT!” Let us be ready to do that rather than standing still and certainly rather than running away!
Jonah tried that, as you know, and it did not work out very well for him, which leads to our next thought: God want us always to remember that we are completely dependent upon Him! When Jonah decided to flee from the Lord, he thought he had everything under control. He purchased his passage, boarded the right ship, set sail to the west, and promptly went to sleep in the ship’s hold. The LORD, however, had other plans. He sent “a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up” (Jonah 1:4). The sailors attempted to keep the ship afloat, but feared the ship might sink. They awakened Jonah and encouraged him to pray. When a lot was cast to discover who had offended the gods that lot fell to Jonah. Jonah explained, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). He then went on to explain that he had “fled from the LORD” and that their best course of action would be to “pick me up and throw me into the sea” (Jonah 1:10, 12). While the sailors did not want to do that, they ultimately did and we are told that “the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). It was in that desperate situation of complete dependence that “Jonah prayed to the LORD…and he said: ‘I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, and He answered me’” (Jonah 2:1-2).
When things are going well, it is somewhat easy to forget how completely dependent we are upon our God. When you are young and healthy, it is difficult to imagine yourself as old and sick. When you are vibrantly alive, it seldom passes through your mind that you are only one breath away from death. I say this not to be morbid, but rather to suggest that it is quite easy during good times to depend upon yourself and focus on your personal goals rather than to keep in mind the importance of God and the necessity of pursuing His kingdom goals. Let us remember that the Scriptures inform us that God “gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25), and that “every man at his best state is but vapor” (Psalm 39:5). Let us not be surprised if God permits set-backs to enter our lives at times, whether they be matters of health, or finance, or employment in order to demonstrate to us our dependence upon Him. I trust that God does not have to put us in the belly of a great fish to remember that we are to listen to Him and serve Him faithfully while acknowledging our complete dependence upon Him! BRETHREN—GOD WANTS US TO SHARE HIS GOSPEL IN A WORLD FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO SPIRITUALLY “CANNOT DISCERN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT!”
Thirdly, God gives us His powerful Word, which can and will accomplish great things! When Jonah finally reached the great city of Nineveh—a city which we are told was a “three-day journey in extent” (Jonah 3:3), he began to preach God’s message of judgment: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Amazingly…we might add from our perspective, quite unexpectedly, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5). They and their king “put on sackcloth,…and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:5-6). With great mercy, we are told, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
God’s Word, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). We need to remember that, for we are living in an age when the Bible is discounted especially among those who are highly educated. That ought not surprise us, for Paul informs us “that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and things which are despised God has chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Those facts, however, ought not deter us from using the Word, which God assures us “endures forever” (cf. 1 Peter 1:25). It is that Word—God’s law and gospel, which when preached leads sinners to repentance and to faith in Christ as Savior from sin, death, Satan, and hell.
Let us not fear to preach the Word to professors with PhDs or to prisoners facing felony charges, for through the use of that Word we “sanctify the Lord God in our hearts” and by sharing that Word we explain the “reason for the hope that is in (us).” Let us do so, as Peter suggests with “meekness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), but also with great confidence for all faith “comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). BRETHREN—GOD WANTS US TO SHARE HIS GOSPEL IN A WORLD FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO SPIRITUALLY “CANNOT DISCERN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT!”
Finally, I would have you note that God is gracious and merciful to us, providing for our needs while enlightening our hearts! It is both ironic and sad that Jonah’s reaction to his successful preaching was that it “displeased (him) exceedingly, and he became angry” (Jonah 4:1). Our boxes regularly form our prejudices, and those prejudices are often difficult to overcome. Instead of praising God and rejoicing with the angels that sinners had repented (cf. Luke 15:10), Jonah complained to God and defended his earlier rebellion: “I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents form doing harm” (Jonah 4:2). He was so disheartened that he suggested that “it is better for me to die than to live!” (Jonah 4:3)
It was at that point that God intervened. He asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) Jonah, of course, was in no mood for conversation—not even with God. He tramped out to a hillside outside Nineveh to sit and watch what might happen. The sun began to beat down upon him until he reached near exhaustion. God permitted a plant to grow and provide welcome shade, for which Jonah was so very grateful. The next morning, however, God permitted a worm to damage and destroy the plant. In the midst of the subsequent heat advanced by a punishing east wind, Jonah despaired of life, “it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8). It was at that point that God reengaged Jonah in conversation and through a series of questions He led Jonah to compare the value of the plant to the value of the people of Nineveh. Through those questions, God enlightened Jonah’s heart—demonstrating that Jonah's anger was misplaced, his attitude in need of adjustment, and his understanding sorely lacking. The Book of Jonah ends, we assume, with God’s prophet returning home chastened, but spiritually enlightened.
My dear friends, thank God that “His compassions fail not! (That) they are new every morning; (and that) great is (His) faithfulness!” (Lam. 3:22-23) There are times when our anger can be misplaced, when our attitudes need adjusting, and when our understanding is sorely lacking! Thank God that He does not simply write us off, but rather He is merciful and gracious, engaging us in conversation and instructing us as we study His Word. We can so easily forget the value God has placed on the individual soul of each human being. Would that we would value them equally as much for BRETHREN—GOD WANTS US TO SHARE HIS GOSPEL IN A WORLD FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO SPIRITUALLY “CANNOT DISCERN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT!” To that end may we rededicate ourselves both as individuals and as a Christian congregation! Amen.