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September 13 - Jonah 1 - "God is Not a Judgement Junkie"
MPC 13th September 2009.
The British Humanist Association in the UK ran an advertising campaign at the start of the year. They had big text ads on the side of London buses that said,
There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
We live in a world that is happy with a small God. That wants to shrink God down to size. He might be shrunk down by his probable non-existence being advertised in angry voices. More often than not he's cut down to size just by a bland indifference.
God must now politely crawl into his box in the small space reserved for the God of the gaps. If he once used to be the Explanation for everything still unexplained by science then as science's knowledge has increased his box has grown smaller.
In Jonah 1 we meet a much bigger God. And he's bigger in ways we are surprised by. The funny thing is Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, has his own version of a shrunk-wrapped God. While we expect the non-believers to get God wrong, in Jonah we see someone who has seriously missed a clear picture of how big God is.
And we'll see it matters. It's tempting to think it doesn't matter if you tweak God a bit, cut a few edges off here and there. But Jonah will show us that if you minimise and distort God in ways in which he is big, eventually everything else gets distorted as well. Jonah's small view of God ricochets back upon the way he looks at himself, and the way he looks at the Godless world around him (especially pagan Nineveh).
Jonah should know better! He's introduced as someone who receives a direct word from the Lord.
1:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai...
He appears to be a normal card-carrying prophet with a message of judgement against one of the nations, Nineveh.
1:2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.
Tell Nineveh their time's up! Because they stink morally! Their stench has risen up before me.
Nineveh's evil has built up over time, and like when you first wind down the window at the garbage tip, God's been hit in the face with the accumulated rubbish they've done.
Verse 2 is a helpful reminder that one of the ways God is big is that he rules over all people, whether they recognise it or not. God sees all and nothing escapes his attention. Whether people may be conscious of it or not. Whatever is happening he has his finger on the pulse.
Nothing escapes God's attention. In this big world and in every quiet corner of your home and mine. 2 Peter 3:4 tells us that God's lack of obvious action (from people's point of view) doesn't mean he's doing nothing. He's big in his ruling control over all the world and part of that bigness is directed to just judgement. He will bring all to its day of justice in his good time.
Jonah's next move is surprising. As a card-carrying prophet it's strange behaviour. Jonah acts like a runaway bride.
1:3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Have you seen the movie with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere? Julia's character has gotten right up to the altar with three men before and then bolted at the last minute. Once on horseback, from memory! She runs 180 degrees from her destiny. The same with Jonah. He practices a strange form of obedience going 180 degrees from his destination.
It's critical we understand why he ran away. The repetition "away from the presence of the Lord" in verse 3 tells us. He's trying to put distance between him and the Lord. The Lord's house, the Temple in Jerusalem.
That tells us the what but not the why. Is he scared of Ninevites, whose fierce reputation precedes them? Is he scared of preaching judgement?
Well, luckily the book of Jonah tells us why. Jonah's inner headspace for why is not fully revealed until chapter 4, so we have to use a plot spoiler today and find out early.
4:2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, "O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster."
Jonah wants to be the switch operator with God's sovereignty. Jonah knows God has power over creation and intervenes. One of the tracks that God's sovereign intervention works along is just judgement Here he's been given assurances that judgement is God's intention for Nineveh. But Jonah also has the covenant word of revelation from God that all Israel has. The abiding theme of that word is that God can flick switch of his sovereign intervention in the world towards mercy as well. He can relent from disaster because of his steadfast love for his people, especially his covenant people. Jonah is concerned that God might so like playing on this track that he switches his intentions at the last moment and rescues Nineveh from his judgement That he'll flick the switch of his generous mercy not just for Israel but Nineveh as well. He doesn't want God to go soft on judgement at the last moment. Jonah is more wedded to God's destructive judgement than God is. He'll have none of that.
What happens when you disobey the Sovereign God who's big in controlling everything in the world?
1:4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.
A storm comes and it belongs personally to the Lord. This is no ordinary natural disaster. Seasoned mariners use every means at their disposal to rescue themselves.
1:5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his God. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them.
They plead for divine help of any description. They use every practical tip for survival (ditching cargo). Jonah meanwhile seems to be in hardcore denial:
1:5b But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your God! Perhaps the God will give a thought to us, that we may not perish."
Is this a dawning moment of realisation of God's judgement? I think something more. Jonah knew Ps 139:7-10:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
He knows the sheer stupidity of trying to flee God's presence. No, what's happening here is a moment of resignation. Jonah is resigned to his judgement for 180 degree obedience! He's just forestalling the moment. When kids come into our bed too early in the morning to jump on me I know it's coming but I try and shield myself from it with a pillow. I stick a pillow over my head and live in denial that danger is coming though I know it is.
As far as Jonah is concerned, judgement is what's deserved and judgement is what's coming with the storm. There will be no petition to God for help from Jonah even though the sailors implore him to do so. Jonah meets sailors with silence and they turn to fortune to divine what to do.
1:7 And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
Fortune frowns on Jonah so they interrogate him with 360 degree peer review. They ask 6 questions.
1:8 Then they said to him, "Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?"
And he fesses up with two relevant answers.
1:9 And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."
He says, I'm on first hand terms with the one and only God who is big enough to do this.
I know who's pulling the strings. And I'm afraid with him "You can run but you can't hide" We may as well say... Bring it on!!
1:10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Jonah gets so much of who God is right. He knows the God who is big in terms of ruling creation, winds, dice, waves. He knows the God who is big enough to bring absolute justice to the guilty, Nineveh and himself. But he's stuck on that sort of bigness. A one track mind that thinks the switch point is fused onto God's sovereign ruling power only working itself out in judgement The sailors who have no covenant history to suggest otherwise (than this one track sovereignty) dare to hope for more.
1:6 Perhaps the God will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.
Why no last minute prayer meeting on the deck! The sailors look to him for guidance and what do they get from Jonah. Resignation about facing God's judgement!
1:11 Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you."
Not just for himself but also for them. They won't have a bar of it initially. They don't want to consign Jonah to the scrapheap of judgement even if it seems to be divine necessity.
1:13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, "O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you." So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
They are saved as they reluctantly carry out Jonah's instructions and realise they've met a God who is prepared to care whether they perished or not but at the cost of Jonah's life. Jonah's knows intellectually that God exercises covenant mercy. He knows it so well but its sits uncomfortably with him. He'd prefer to see God's sovereign power exercised only in judgement and not in mercy. He shrinks the true bigness and sovereignty of God who prefers to rule over his creation in undeserved mercy for guilty sinners and not only judgement
The sad truth is Jonah is a judgement junkie more than God is. What he may know intellectually has failed to actually change his outlook in the face of his specific disobedience and the plight of others. He mouths the truths that God is big in ruling his creation, that he is big enough to rule his creation in judgement but baulks at extending that bigness to God being able to rule in mercy. It's a mercy so skillfully woven into the fabric of creation that it doesn't damage the justice of his sovereignty in judgement along the way.
Limit God's sovereignty down to a one-track version where he can only rule in judgement and you have limited God more than is necessary. You have limited his work in your life and the lives of others to only be that of judgment. It's a terrible caricature of God, who is actually gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
God deals kindly even with Jonah's practical short-sightedness in the way he thinks of God's sovereignty.
1:17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The Lord's appointed fish. Jonah is resigned to judgement at that point on the boat. Jonah may be a judgement junkie but God isn't. He delights to rescue him in the midst of his judgement - going down to depths of the watery grave.
We know a God big enough to rule his creation? Yes. We know a God Big enough to rule his creation in judgement? Yes. But we also know a God big enough to rule his creation in saving from judgement while not damaging the justice of judgement along the way. The Lord does indeed care about the perishing. Mark 4:37:
And a great wind storm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"
There is no need for fearful expectation of perishing from God's hand of deserved judgement Jesus whole mission in Mark is that "he did not come to serve but to serve and give his life as a ransom". He will show how much he cares for the perishing by perishing himself on our behalf.
God will work his bigness and sovereignty in creation in judgement but not only in judgement
Jonah knew his 180 degree obedience was exactly that! Total disobedience. He couldn't conceive that the sovereign Lord might want to pluck him to safety though he ought to have faced up to consequences of his wilful rebellion. The confusion and shame of our sin often clouds our view of God's bigness. It seems easier to be addicted to seeing ourselves and others only in terms of deserving God's judgement
In the midst of our sin and its consequential complications it's hard to see anything else in practice. We can't see that he could deliver us through the stupidity and deliberate disobedience. Somehow think we need to fix it up first and get to a point of acceptability before God will want to act or be able to act.
He's bigger than that. Has already intervened to sort the problem of the mess we make before him. The smallest nod of petition towards him and he'll show his face of generous sovereign activity on our behalf to pluck us from the punishment we deserve.
Jesus loves you. He loves me. He most uses his sovereign creative power to rescue us from our sins. It doesn't matter what you did before you met him. It doesn't matter what you've done since.
So we have to shed our addiction to only seeing is judgement for us. Otherwise we'll have a small view of God and a small view of what's possible for others. As the song says, we are objects of wrath. We deserve that! But even more we are "objects of mercy who should have known wrath!"
We can't stay with a small view of God. It's terminal for us and terminal for others.
Jonah is small-minded about God's sovereignty at a time when others also needed it. The great thing about walking on with God is that his bigness in sovereign mercy expands the further we go along. We become less and less judgement junkies addicted to the rightness of only judgement for ourselves and for others.
So God's bigness in mercy is a great comfort no matter what buffets us in life. Sickness, sorrow, loneliness, our ever-present sins that inconvenience us and others. Real challenges but not something to be glumly resigned to.
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. Deep in unfathomable mines Of never-failing skill He treasures up His bright designs, And works His sovereign will. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.