Runaway: The Dead Plant
Brothers and sisters, how would you feel if myself or any pastor started a sermon like this: “Look at how many seats are filled today. Look at the crowd who has come to hear the word of the Lord. I am absolutely livid that there are so many people who think they have a right to be here in God’s presence!”
Brothers and sisters, I don’t really feel this way about you or about our Lord. Hopefully it struck you as absolutely un-Christian, and rightly so. But it’s pretty similar to what we’re about to hear. When we look at Jonah here in a minute, we better be offended at his attitude toward what happened. But before we start lining up to hurl rocks in his direction, we also better take a close look at our own hearts and make sure his attitude isn’t still alive and kicking within ourselves, showing itself in ways that aren’t so obvious and absurd.
So to start with, let’s go back to our final chapter of Jonah. It’s been a real up and down ride through his story so far, but we left off on a pretty high note last week. Things seemed to have turned around and come out well. In fact, it was a satisfying conclusion to the whole mess and would’ve made any modern Hollywood producer happy. Jonah had been called to come preach a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh. He ran away. God pursued him. Jonah gave up running and threw himself on God’s mercy, and God had mercy. God rescued him and brought him home to try again. And it looked like Jonah learned his lesson. He went to Nineveh and he preached the message. “40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned!” And in a miracle greater than the fish, the people listened. All of them, from the king down to the smallest child repented and called on God for mercy. And God relented. They would not be destroyed. Jonah’s work bore the kind of fruit we dream about. God’s mission through Jonah had succeeded.
And now in our last chapter, we finally get some psychological insight into what’s been driving Jonah this whole time. Up until now we’ve kind of had to guess what’s been going through his head as he acted. Now we get to see what’s really been going on. It is a shocking contrast when you come across it. Especially when you remember that these chapter and verse numbers we see in our Bibles are not something God gave us but just a human invention to help us find certain parts. So let’s ignore those numbers and just look at the flow of the account. We end up reading this, “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
What? You want to run that by me again Jonah? Your mission was an unprecedented, miraculous success, and you’re angry? In fact, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to take a moment to give you an insight into the original language here in the Hebrew of this line. It comes out much stronger. It’s not good English, but a literal read of the Hebrew might sound something like this, “But this was evil to Jonah, a great evil and it burned to him.” Do you see that? This didn’t just upset Jonah some, he literally felt that what God did for the Ninevites was evil. An utter miscarriage of justice we might say! And that last bit, “it burned to him.” This isn’t the kind of anger where you just sit kind of fuming quietly in the corner, this is the kind of angry where the blood floods your face and you get red and hot from it. He was foaming at the mouth furious over this.
We can just picture Jonah now, going through the streets, going through the city, proclaiming his message. And he notices a change. People are starting to wear that unbearable sackcloth. They’re shouting to the Lord begging mercy. They’re sitting in the dust praying relentlessly with tears in their eyes. And he knows what this means. They’re listening to God’s message. And he knows what’s coming next. Or more to the point, he knows what’s not coming next. He figures out that God is going to forgive these people instead of destroying them, and we can just imagine the scowl that clouds his face as he continues his mission.
Why? He tells God exactly why. At the end he prays to the Lord and says. “I told you, God, I told you this would happen! This is exactly what I was afraid of from the start. You wondered why I ran away so quickly when you called me the first time? This is why! I know you. You’re a compassionate God, you’re so slow to anger and quick to forgive. I knew if I came out here and warned these people, they’d show some kind of repentance and you’d change your mind and let them go. Haven’t you been paying attention? Don’t you know what these people have done? Haven’t you seen how violent and sexually immoral they are? They should be destroyed! Good riddance! But no, you had me come and warn them and since they feel sorry about it and apologized you’re going to let them off the hook without any repercussions. This is so infuriating I would rather be dead than see it.”
We can see now that Jonah didn’t run away at the beginning because he was afraid of persecution. He wasn’t afraid of the enormity of his task. He wasn’t intimidated by the work involved or by having to carry it out himself, alone against a half-million people. He wasn’t afraid to tell all those people they were bad people and were going to die for it. No, he was afraid that he would succeed. He was afraid that they would listen. He hated those godless Ninevites and the last thing he wanted was for them to be spared God’s wrath. So he ran the other direction. And we can see now that even when God turned him around and sent him back, he still didn’t want his mission to work. Even now, after God decides to relent, we will see he still hopes that maybe it’ll change back.
God is patient and compassionate, of course, and his response to Jonah is a simple, calming rebuke, “Do you have any right to be angry?” he asks.
Jonah apparently has no response to this. Instead, his appointed task complete, he storms out of the city like a pouting child leaving the room. And does he go home? Does he put this whole thing behind him and go back to his daily life? No. He feels so strongly about this that he goes out east of the city and finds a place where he can sit and look out at the city. Forty days wasn’t up yet. Maybe, just maybe God will change his mind back and wreck the place. He builds himself a little makeshift shelter. And he sits in the desert sun and he waits and he watches. He is so single-minded in wanting these people punished that his life is literally brought to a standstill by this.
God cares just as much about Jonah as the entire city of Nineveh, and so he prepares a unique object-lesson to help Jonah understand. As Jonah sits and watches, his little shelter of twigs and dried leaves doesn’t do a whole lot to keep out the beating sun, but then miraculously, a plant of some sort springs to life overnight and provides a shade. Much better. Jonah’s liking this. His anger subsides some and he just enjoys relaxing there. This plant is his new best friend. But then the next day something has eaten away at the root of the plant and it withers away just as quick as it showed up. The sun rises and a scorching wind tears across the sands, the temperature jumps about 20 degrees and sucks all the moisture out of the air and now Jonah starts to act again like a teenager who just got embarrassed by Mom or Dad at school. He’s so angry that the plant is gone that he says he’d rather be dead than live without it.
Again God asks this question, “Do you have any right to be angry about this vine?”
We’re not at our rational best when we’re angry, so Jonah’s probably not thinking about his reply when he says, “I sure do! I’m so angry I could die!”
And the Lord, in love, drops the truth on Jonah. “Jonah you’re angry about the loss of this vine, right? But why? You had nothing invested in it. You didn’t tend to it. You didn’t make it grow. You didn’t raise it from a seedling. In fact, it was here one day and gone the next. And yet look at how important it was to you. A plant that lasted a day. Now turn back around and look at this city. People. Human souls. There are more than a hundred and twenty thousand children just in that city, never minding adults. People I created. Souls I care for. I raised them all. I caused them all to grow. And you want to be angry that I just didn’t wipe them out because I had an excuse to? Consider how precious they are to me. Instead of looking for a reason to punish them, shouldn’t I look for any reason to pardon them? Shouldn’t I look for any reason to forgive them?”
The story of Jonah ends here. And if we’re not careful, we can walk away from it thinking that this is a cautionary tale of one guy with a bad attitude who learned a lesson we already know. And yeah, I’m guessing not one of us has ever gotten so furious at the evil of a city that you went and sat out and watched to see if God would wipe it off the face of the earth (though maybe that fantasy occurred to you). No, to really watch ourselves for Jonah’s attitude we have to backpedal all the way to the start of the story. The word of the Lord came to Jonah and said, “Go preach against Nineveh.” Go and tell the Ninevites exactly about their evil and how I as God feel about it so they have a chance to change their ways and be saved. Jonah didn’t want them saved. Jonah didn’t think they deserved to be saved. So he went the other way.
Do we do this? Perhaps not literally run from the Lord but do we just ignore the same command he gives us? Do we treat someone differently because we have determined they’re not worth it? By God’s grace I should hope we’re never as overt about it as Jonah, but I know my own heart and I think if any of us are sitting here today thinking “I’ve never judged myself to be better than someone else,” then we’re lying to ourselves. We always do this. In many different ways. But before we wrap up this morning let’s look at first the root of where this attitude tends to come from and then at what God gives us to fight against it.
Like I said, this attitude of Jonah can manifest in many ways. Maybe we just don’t tell someone about Jesus because we don’t think they’re worth it, because we want them punished for what they’ve done. Usually it’s even more subtle than that. Maybe we’re just indignant that someone we know is forgiven at all. They come in here, unkempt, disrespectful, fresh from a life of blatant sin and they smile when God says they’re forgiven and we’re upset that this is it. Where’s the lesson learned? Where’s the guilt and shame poured out for a while? Where’s the consequences?
Okay I could keep going, but the point is, where does this all come from? Where did it come from in Jonah? It comes from a false sense of self-worth. You think you’re better than the other person. Again, you’d probably never say or even think those words as such. But the attitude is there. I deserve to have God save me because I’m worth it. I take my faith seriously. I try really hard for him. I’m a good person that God should be glad to have on his side unlike those slackers over there.
And at the same time, like Jonah, we are undervaluing the lives, the souls of those others. Rather than treasuring them and wanting them saved by any means possible, we’re more concerned with justice and fairness. And humanly speaking, maybe we’d be on to something.
But let’s balance this value-equation. Let’s consider our value, and their value. Do you know the answer to this question, “What is something worth?” Let me say that again in a different way, “How do you know what something, anything is worth?” You might think that’s a nonsense question that can’t have a real answer, but it does have one. A thing is worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.
Now as you consider your value on your own, as you consider the value of those we try to devalue, look to the cross and balance the equation. God himself became a human being so he could go in your place. Your own sin, your own lack of value meant God had to make up that worth himself. He had to pay for you. How much did he have to pay to bring you up to an acceptable level? Look at the cross. It was the blood of God himself. God himself had to suffer and die to complete your worth. I should hope that gives you insight into how worthless you are to start with.
But now consider it from the other side. How valuable are you to God? How much was he willing to pay for you? He was willing to pay for you in his own blood. And the same is true of that other soul you would like to consider yourself above. He or she is worth the blood of God. And before we start to devalue the blood of God saying something like “well, sure but that was a once for all shot. Jesus dying included everybody no matter who they were.” Sure, that’s true. But that’s because we are all equal sinners. If you and you alone were the only one who ever sinned, Jesus still would have done it. If that person we’re tempted to look down on was the only one who ever needed it, Jesus still would have done it.
Brothers, sisters, I call you that because that’s what you are to me. We are family in Christ, each equally important, each equally valued. Each soul out there is equally in need of the same salvation we have come to know. When we find ourselves struggling with that equality, when we start to think ourselves above or better than someone else, more deserving of God’s love and salvation, look back at that great equalizer; the cross. Remember what about you drove Christ there. Remember why he went anyway. He loves you. He treasures you. May that same love show itself through you to others in everything you do. Amen.
Runaway: Forty More Days
Jonah took a deep breath.
This was it. He was out of the fish. He was on dry land. He had marched for miles across the middle east in order to get to Nineveh.
This wouldn’t be easy. The city had close to a million people living in it. It took 3 days to walk through – if you didn’t stop and tell people God’s Word all along the way. But Jonah didn’t have a lot of time.Jonah had 40 more days. 40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.
It was a strange message. A message from the LORD to a people who didn’t believe in the LORD.
Jonah didn’t think this would work. But…he didn’t really feel like being inside a giant Nemo again, so:
“40 More Days! 40 More Days and Nineveh will be destroyed. 40 more days for you to repent and turn to the Lord.”
And Jonah sweated. And Jonah shouted. And looked like one of those street preachers that you see downtown from about 2 blocks away and cross to the other side of the street just to avoid them. And Jonah finished going throughout the city. And Jonah finished. And Jonah left the city. And Jonah thought “There’s no way that worked.”
…The people started talking:
Did you see that strange fellow? He was talking about God.
I know it seemed weird, but I know he’s right. We haven’t been doing right.
I feel terrible. I don’t want to be destroyed. Maybe…the God, this Lord will have mercy.
v.5 The Ninevites believed God.
And they began to fast. Each one refusing to eat food, because suddenly it didn’t seem that important.
And they put on sackcloth. A harsh, itchy, scratchy substances that was extremely uncomfortable. It represented on the outside the discomfort they felt on the inside.
And they prayed. LORD we’ve sinned. LORD, I didn’t know. LORD, I was wrong. LORD, please don’t. LORD, have mercy.
And they all did it. From the greatest to the least. From the rich merchant that owned a chain of restaurants, to one of his dishwashers who worked for food scraps. From the elderly scholar who needed a cane to get to the sackcloth store – to the young preschooler who needed his mom’s help in getting it on. From the lifelong Ninevites who prayed in the language of Nineveh, to the foreigner who prayed using completely different words.
Even the King! The King himself who was in charge of the whole city and who never felt threatened by his people – felt threatened by God. He was convicted. He repented. He traded in his royal robes for sackcloth. He refused to eat the pork roast he was going to have for breakfast. He stopped making people kneel before him and instructed all to kneel before God.
They thought: “Who knows? Maybe God will have mercy…”
And God? He did.
v.10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he threatened.
This is an amazing chapter. It kind of changes the story of Jonah. It isn’t so much about him. Literary analysis shows us that it’s more about God. God saved Jonah in the fish and he saved the people of Nineveh with Jonah’s words. God was merciful. God loved the city of Nineveh and didn’t want to see it destroyed.
But Nineveh isn’t the only city God loves.
Today we want to dig into that chapter in order to compare Raleigh with Nineveh. Our goal is to see that (1) Raleigh is in dire need of saving just as much as Nineveh was and (2) we want to learn who it is that God has sent to bring that message of salvation to Raleigh. Before we study God’s Word, let’s say a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see. Open our ears to hear what you want us to hear. Open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The New Nineveh
A) Same Sin.
Go back with me to Jonah 1:2. God gives the reason for his anger against Nineveh. He says, “Its wickedness has come up before me.”
What was so wicked? This is a picture of Dagon. Dagon looks like a fish. He’s not a Transformer or a TMNT. He’s a false god. A stone statue that people prayed and worshipped.
And they didn’t do it in the most pleasant way.
How did they do it? By having group sex! Together. In the temple. In front of their statue of a god.
Why they did do it? For money! More and more money. They thought Dagon would bless them with money – even if they had to gouge the poor and steal from the rich.
Wicked, right? That seems like a good word to describe Nineveh.
But is it a good word to describe Raleigh?
I like Raleigh. The people are fairly pleasant. People hold doors as I enter Starbucks. I get high fives from people at the dog park. My neighbors sit out on their porch and greet me – any time of the day!
I think Raleigh is pleasant. But I’m sinful. My opinion is skewed.
Understand this: You and I see people as sinful and think, “Well, we’re just imperfect. We’re still pretty good.” But God looks at Raleigh and sees people. People who sin. Sin that he hates. Sin he calls wicked.
To be honest – there are plenty of things in Raleigh – Plenty of things in our own hearts that we might even call wicked:
Racist hate blogs.
Worship of self on social media.
Business with extracurricular and no time for God.
Worship of nature and outside and no time for God.
But it’s not what they were doing at the time of Nineveh!
True. Our sins are different. (We’ve got 21st century sins.) But they’re the same. (They are detestable to God).
It’s kind of like all the different kinds of Doritos. Have you seen them? They make Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese. There’s Cooler Ranch and Nacho Cheesier. There’s Taco flavor, Blue Cheese Flavored, Sweet and Spicy flavored, even Pizza flavored! There are different Dorito types, but the same result: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a tummy ache.
It’s the same thing with sin. There are different sin types – Old Testament Ninevite sin and 21st century Raleighian sin – it’s sin. Still. It’s sin. In God’s eyes, it's the same awful sin. Sin that God will remove.
Through total Annihilation.
I’m not just being doomsday-ish. Look at Jesus’ own words about the last day. He says "Those who have done wrong will go away to eternal punishment.”
He means business.
B) Same Need of Mercy.
The Ninevites were in trouble. They had done wrong. The LORD himself was breathing down their necks. They had no other choice than to wave the white flag, to confess their sins, and plead for God’s mercy.
And? God did. V. 10 God did not bring on them the destruction he threatened – Mercy.
They didn’t try to make it better. They didn’t try to pay God off. They simply grew sorrowful. They pleaded with God. They put on sackcloth and fasted sure. Mostly because they were super sorry! They didn’t think: “If I stop eating, that’ll make up for my sins. Or if I put on uncomfortable clothing, God will forgive me for messing with my neighbor’s wife.” No!
They thought: “I’ve sinned. I can’t get away from God’s judgment. O Lord. Be merciful.”
They were right. God’s mercy saved them.
We need the same thing. People of Raleigh -- we need the mercy of our Lord.
Romans 9:16 says it this way, “It does not depend on man’s desire or effort.” Meaning you aren’t going to escape God’s wrath from trying your best. It doesn’t come from doing better than others. It doesn’t come from being a "generally good person.” Nope. It doesn’t come from fasting. It doesn’t come from praying. It doesn’t come from wearing sackcloth. It doesn’t come from having been a Christian or having been a part of church.
…It depends on God’s mercy.
And God had mercy! He came down out of heaven. He became a human being. He lived perfectly when you could not. He died innocently in your place. He rose triumphantly for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
He has had mercy on you. It’s what we need. It’s what all of Raleigh needs.
And remember: It didn’t matter who you were in Nineveh – from the greatest to the least – you needed God’s mercy. Whether you were Jewish or Ninevite, rich or poor, king or 1st grader. You needed God’s mercy.
And when they turned their hearts to God, it still didn’t matter who they were. They all received it! It wasn’t just the king. It wasn’t just the king’s court. It wasn’t just the people with lots of money.
They all received God’s mercy.
The same is true for you. Turn to the Lord; he will have mercy.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the boss or jobless.
It doesn’t matter if you have a Doctor’s degree or no degree.
It doesn’t’ matter if you’re in good health or very sick.
It doesn’t matter if you have lots of followers on Instagram or if you don’t know what Instagram is.
It doesn’t matter if you are 7 foot 1 or 5 foot 2.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman. White or black. Asian or Latino.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve done something that even you are having a hard time forgiving yourself for.
God has had mercy. Jesus died for you.
By faith in Jesus, God will have mercy. God will forgive you.
And when others in Raleigh hear this message and turn to him – God will have mercy on them too!
It’s why we need to tell them. It’s why you need to tell them.
C) Same Command.
Maybe you’re thinking. Hold it! “I’m not a Jonah.” I don’t have a directive from God. If I did, sure. But thank goodness I didn’t.
Take a look at what Jesus said to his disciples – his followers – his men and women who believed in him and followed his teachings: "Go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Are you a believer? He’s talking to you.
Do we live in a nation? He’s talking about Raleigh.
God wants us to go. He wants us to go with his message to the people of North Raleigh. It’s why we exist. “Gather to the Garden.” That means to bring people to the message of Jesus. And when we can’t get them here – to bring the message of Jesus to them!
Which means we’ve got to keep our eyes open.
God wants it to be kind of like Play-Doh. I don’t know about you, but every time I get close to a thing of Play-Doh I feel the urge to open up the container. Get the Play-Doh out and roll a Play-Doh snake. Every time.
God wants us to see this world the same way. Every time we see a someone – anyone – from any background – any culture – any social status – any sin that they are struggling with – God wants us to bring the message of repentance to them. He wants us to share the Savior.
He wants us to. In fact, he wants us to so much that he commanded us.
Go and Make. Baptize and Teach.
D) Same Urgency.
Remember what Jonah was telling the people of Nineveh 40 more Days! 40 More Days! That’s not a lot of time.
Then again, there’s a lot that you could accomplish in 40 days. You could make enough money to pay off your credit card. You could make a list of things to do in Raleigh and do them. You could watch the entire Doctor Who series on Netflix. You could do a lot in 39 days and then on the 40th day, set your Smartphone to go off to the “End of the World as we Know it,” and quick get to church to confess your sins and turn your life around!
40 more days has some urgency – some.
How long do we have? How long do the people of Raleigh have?
Here’s the thing: We don’t know! Jesus said this, “No one knows the day or the hour – not even the Son, even the Father.” That means it’s even hidden from Jesus. God’s own Son.
That means the end could be 40 years from now. It could be 40 days. It could be 40 minutes. We don’t know when the world will end; we don’t know when each other will end.
Hence the urgency.
Don’t wait to tell your husband about the Savior. It could be too late. Don’t wait to invite your neighbor to church; you may miss your chance. Don’t wait to start sharing posts on Facebook; Facebook may be destroyed before your click send!
Life is short. Jesus is eternal. Share Jesus now.
II. What Now?
1) Share it whether you’re greatest or least
This is not just a pastor thing. I can’t do it by myself. I don’t do it by myself. You are a part of this.
YOU are a part of sharing God’s Word.
You are a part of saving Raleigh.
Did I tell you about one of the preschool parents? She stopped in my office a while back and told me this story. She said that she had been on Falls of Neuse. She said that it had been loaded with traffic. She had had a bad work day and was very stressed, so that when the car in front of her cut her off she slammed her fists on the steering wheel and muttered to herself.
And her daughter spoke up from the back, "It’s ok, Mommy. Jesus it taking care of you."
Mom told me that she wanted faith like her daughter.
You’re never too old to share Jesus. You’re never too young. You’re never too rich; too poor; too tall; too short; too sinful; too blameless; too anything.
And neither are the people who you are sharing with:
2) Share It with Greatest and Smallest
All people means all people.
The guy who has a BMW and the guy who has an old minivan held together by Duct tape.
The worker at Starbucks and the worker at Dunkin' Donuts.
The UNC fan. The Duke fan. The State fan.
Your mom. Your child.
Your black friend. Your white friend. Your Asian friend. Your Latino friend. Your Middle Eastern friend. Your enemy!
All people need God’s mercy. Your neighbors need God’s mercy. You have God’s mercy. Share with them God’s mercy.
So what I want you to do today is to think about someone who you can share God’s mercy with. Someone that you want to tell about Jesus. Someone you want to invite to church. Do you have them on your mind? Good. I want you to write their name down on the back of this connection card. What I’m going to do is I’m going to keep that in prayer this week and contact you to encourage in sharing God’s Word.
Because all of this can be intimidating. It was intimidating for Jonah.
But remember: Jonah wasn’t alone. He had a God who had controlled a storm to get Jonah back. A God who found Jonah in the bottom of a boat. A God who sent a giant fish to swallow Jonah alive.
You’ve got that same powerful God. The God who was with Jonah is the same God on the cross is the same God out of the tomb is the same God who is with you.
Share His Message. He’s got your back. Amen.
Runaway: From Depths of Woe
What would you do inside of a fish?
Yes, that is a strange question and, yes, I really am opening my sermon with it. But humor me and think about it. What would you do if you suddenly found yourself inside of a fish?
Perhaps you’re thinking about the movie Pinocchio. Remember that? Pinocchio’s dad gets swallowed by a monstrous whale named Monstro. When Pinocchio becomes brave enough to go after him, he expects to find Gepetto, his dad, near death. But inside he finds him cooking a meal and playing some cards. Honestly, that’s not so bad. It’s sounds just like Geppetto was roughing it for a bit.
But cartoons aren’t reality. The Scriptures say that Jonah wasn’t swallowed by some gigantic whale with room enough for a king sized bed and a continental breakfast spread. It says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. (1:17) Rather than the Pinocchio scenario, picture it more like a coffin. A smelly, fishy, vile-filled, plankton stinking coffin. What do you do in such a mess?
It sounds kind of like a horror movie. Trapped, claustrophobia settling in. What do you do? Panic? Scream? Close your eyes and wait to die? At the very least – if you can keep your wits about you, you can pray for God to "have mercy and to please save me and to do so quickly before my hair smells like tuna fish forever?”
But Jonah, well, Jonah says a prayer. But not a prayer asking for help.
Jonah says a prayer of thanks.
A prayer of thanks for salvation.
A prayer of thanks for the fish.
Today we’re going to continue our series called Runaway – and we’re going to learn about what Jonah did when he was inside the fish, and even though it’s a strange place to do so, inside that fish, we’re going to learn a lot about God’s salvation. Before we study God’s Word and hear Jonah’s words from inside that big fish, let’s say a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see. Open our ears to hear what you want us to hear. Open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. God Brings Salvation…in Dire Situations
Take a look at Jonah 2:1. It says this, “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said, “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.”
Notice how dire the situation was for Jonah. He calls it his “distress.” He was in extreme anxiety and terror. Why? Well – remember the last chapter. Jonah was in the middle of the sea. He didn’t have any floaties. He didn’t have an inflatable SpongeBob to hold onto. He couldn’t stand up; he wasn't in the shallow end of the pool. There wasn’t a boat in sight and he was quickly running out of strength to tread water.
To help with the picture, have you ever tried treading water before? I remember we had to do it back in swimming lessons for 5 minutes. It was a tough five minutes. My thighs were burning; my arms were burning; my lungs were burning. That’s what happens when you know how to tread water. If you don’t, you panic and splash – and your body’s energy gets used up even more quickly!
Can you imagine how Jonah felt as this strength went away?
Can you imagine how he felt without any lifeguards or any kind of a wall close by?
That’s the terror Jonah was feeling!
His next phrase describes just how terrified he was. He says, “I was in the depths of the grave.” The metaphor is that his body was already laying inside a grave, dug about 10 feet deep with a headstone that read, “Here lies Jonah, reluctant prophet.”
In other words, Jonah thought he was a goner -- as good as dead! Lost in the middle of the ocean…slowly drowning…not a boat in sight…Jonah did the only thing he could do:
“I called to the LORD and he answered me…I called for help and you, O God, listened to my cry.”
And God didn't say, "It's too late."
God didn't take too long to get there.
God didn't assess the situation and determine that there's nothing he could do.
God took a dire situation and made it one worthy of His praise.
This leads to our first salvation truth.
Salvation Truth #1: No situation is too dire for God’s salvation.
That's important to remember. Because you might feel a bit like Jonah. I’m looking out right now. None of you are literally in a pool of water drowning. Sure, it’s humid, but you get the point.
Still you might feel like you’re drowning.
Drowning in bills and mortgage payments.
Drowning in doctor visits and cancer medicines.
Drowning in relationship struggles and family feuds.
Drowning in guilt and sadness.
Drowning in loneliness – even depression.
Drowning in sin that leads you to sin that makes you feel so bad you sin some more!
He reaches out. He grabs your hands. He pulls you to safety. He rescues from the direst of situations.
To be fair: that’s what he’s already done and in the direst situation of all time. Remember the Colossians 2 passage from last week? Let’s look at it again this week. God rescued us from the dominion of darkness. (Col. 2:9) The dominion of darkness. That’s a dark place. The darkest of dark places. It’s a place of sin. A place of guilt. A place where you are alone with only the thoughts of how you have failed God and how you deserve his punishment! (It’s a place where we’ve all been. And if you think you aren’t there, then that’s proof that you been slurping up the abysmal water of death a bit too long).
Because being in that dominion of sin darkness is a lot like being in the middle of an ocean without a boat in site. We can’t tread water forever. We can’t swim to shore. No amount of good deeds will empower us to do a Michael Phelps and get out of there. The only thing left for us to do is die!
But while there was nothing for us to do, there was plenty for God to do. God brought us into the kingdom of the one he loves in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 2:10)
That’s when he sent Jesus. Jesus is a lifeguard. A spiritual life guard. He saw us drowning and hopped off his lookout chair in heaven. He came to earth. He went into the depths of darkness on the cross. He reached out his arms for you and grabbed a hold of you – just as a nail was drive through his palm.
And then – as we waited on the other side, our hero returns to life. Three days later he bursts forth from the dominion of darkness. He resides in the safety of the light. He grabs our hand and promises to take you with him –safely home.
If that’s what God did in the direst of situations, then what will God do in your situation?
There’s no situation too dire for God.
Your situation is not too dire for God.
II. God Brings Salvation… When I don’t Deserve it
But Pastor. I get it. God is big. God is powerful. Nothing is too dire for him.
But why would he want to help me? I haven’t been exactly listening to him very much lately. I’ve ignored his warnings. I’ve barely worshipped him. I’ve mostly acted like he didn’t exist. When I do that stuff to my friends, they don’t even respond to my messages on Facebook. Why would God ever respond to me? I don’t deserve his help.
Neither did Jonah. Remember chapter 1? God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach. Jonah ran away from Nineveh and didn’t preach. Then, Jonah got onto a boat and planned to run away from God. He betrayed God and did the exact opposite of what God wanted.
And Jonah understood that! Look at verse 3-4, “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, “I have been banished from you sight.” Jonah doesn’t write any excuse. He knows that he turned his back on God and he knows that he deserves to have God’s back turned on him. He uses the word banished – meaning that he didn’t deserve to ever set a foot in God’s kingdom again. He knew it.
But read Jonah’s next words. “Still I will look again at your holy temple.” From complete despair to confidence. Why?
Because Jonah stopped looking at himself.
Because Jonah started looking at God.
It's like the old Magic Eye page. Do you remember it? It's a page of abstract art that if you look at it long enough without blinking it uncovers a secret 3D image of a ball or a potroast. Sometimes if you can't find it, you have to change perspective. Back up. Look at something else and return to it.
It's the same thing with salvation. If you're struggling to see how God might save you -- change perspective. Back up. Look around. Stop looking at yourself and start focusing on God.
Because of Salvation Truth #2: God Brings Salvation, even when we don’t deserve it. Consequently, that’s all the time. Yet God keeps bringing it. He gives us salvation even when we don’t remotely deserve it.
If you think that God couldn’t possibly bring you forgiveness and salvation, you’re too busy looking at yourself.
If you think that God doesn’t need to bring you forgiveness and salvation, you’re looking at yourself.
Stop it. Look at God.
Jesus says in John 6:47, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” That’s his love. Whether you are a drunkard or a pornographer, a gossip or a liar, a thief or an abuser, an adulteress or a homosexual offender. Whatever you are, whatever you were, whatever you’ve done to sin.
Receive God’s incredible salvation!
III. God’s Salvation is Complete
That sounds nice, Pastor. That sounds nice. But will it be enough? Will Jesus be enough? My situation is so big, so large, I wonder if He’ll be enough?
Have you ever gone to a fancy restaurant? I’m not talking about just a sit-down restaurant, but a sit-down and wear nice clothes restaurant? A five-star restaurant. A celebrity chef restaurant. It’s quite the experience. The ambience is gorgeous and the wait staff is extra polite. They might even bring out warm little towels to wipe your fingers on.
But then comes the meal – which you’ve been waiting for – and voila! It looks great. At least, the 4 inches of the plate that actually has food on it. You eat it; every bite about $2. You savor it, but…It’s not enough.
On the way home you stop at McDonald's for a few items off the Dollar Menu.
Do you ever wonder if God’s salvation is like that? Like it seems fancy and nice, but is it really going to be enough? It’s why we still feel so icky and still feel the pressure of trying to be perfect as if -- Jesus did a lot of this, but unless I become perfect it’ll never be enough!
Look at what God did for Jonah. It was more than enough. “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweeds was wrapped around my head." Understand how massive Jonah’s problem was. It was a problem that would cause almost anyone to come up short on. "To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.” (v.5-7)
What seemed impossible to Jonah – was no problem for God. He simply reached down and plucked Jonah up from danger.
God was enough. More than enough.
Salvation truth #3: Jesus is enough for you. No matter your situation, no matter how far you’ve fallen, no matter how long you’ve been gone – Jesus is enough.
He was enough for a man who had stolen and lost friends his whole life.
He was enough for a woman who had committed adultery and prostituted herself.
He was enough for a thief who was literally dying next to him.
Jesus is enough for you.
1. Throw Out Your Idols.
That was Jonah’s conclusion. He said, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” An idol is a little statue. Something that people would take and worship. They’d carve; they’d cut; they’d paint. Then, they’d say, “Save me O god (aka piece of wood that I spent hours making).”
Idols aren’t super prevalent in America. At least not this kind. We’ve got other idols. Idols in the shape of money. Idols in the shape of Instagram followers. Idols in the shape of family. Idols in the shape of whoever stares at me in the mirror.
An idol is anything that tempts you to trust in it more than God.
Jonah’s advice – The guy who was literally drowning in the water and God saved him with a fish?
Drop those idols. If that’s who you trust for salvation, you will be disappointed.
Throw out your idols. Stop trusting in other things and stuff to save you. Get rid of the bottle of Jack Daniels. Block the porn website. End that ungodly relationship.
Stop trusting in them. Start trusting in Jesus.
2. Thank God for Your Fish.
Again -- this is so interesting. Because where was Jonah when he prayed this? He was inside the fish. Yet he wasn’t complaining about the fish. He wasn’t frustrated that God didn’t send a yacht for him. He wasn’t mad that he wasn’t on the beach.
He was thankful – for the fish. Look at verse 9 “Salvation comes from the Lord.” He started praising God and thanking him – even when he was inside the fish!
What’s your fish? What’s your something that’s normally bad – that God used to accomplish great good?
A job loss?
A relationship spoiled?
A health issue?
Thank God for it. Thank God that he used it to bring you back. Thank God that he used it for your salvation!
And that’s it. Jonah’s prayer ends and the final verse says, “The Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah unto dry land.”
Of course that’s what makes this story very unbelievable. Truth be told thousands of churches and pastors that would never preach on this text, because “It’s insulting. It’s unbelievable. It has a nice moral, but in the end it’s a myth because no human could be inside a fish that long.”
Lots of people don’t believe it. You might run into people like that. You might be tempted not to believe it. You might be tempted to not believe anything about God’s salvation.
But…do you know who did believe it?
Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three day and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so I will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)
Jesus didn’t just believe that the Jonah story was real.
He believed his resurrection would be real too.
And it was.
And he did.
And he will accomplish your salvation.
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” 3 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. 4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” 7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” 9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) 11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” 12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. 17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
I cried like a baby.
The other day I stumbled across a YouTube clip. It was of the ending to Homeward Bound. Have you ever seen that? It’s a Disney movie – great family movie by the way – it’s about 3 animals – a funny boxer, a sassy Siamese cat and a wise, old Golden Retriever that think their owners run away from them. They drop them off at a doggie day care and the animals get away. What results is a wise cracking, heartwarming, courageous Disney adventure through the wilderness.
But near the near of the movie, right before they get home. Right before they find their owners – the old dog, Shadow. Falls into a pit. He hurts his legs. He can’t get out. The camera pans out as the golden Retriever does one of the saddest puppy dog faces you’ll ever see and sinks into the dirt.
The movie continues. The family is shown having a BBQ – at this point assuming that they’ll never see their animals again –when they hear a bark. The Boxer comes running up and licks the boy’s face. Then, they hear a meow. The feline bounds over to her owner for hugs and cuddles.
But then, there’s a pause. The music gets real sad. Zoom in on the oldest boys face with disappointment that his Golden Retriever didn’t make it. He turns to return to the house.
But then, over the hill, limping, dirty, panting, comes the Golden Retriever.
That’s when I lose it.
But it’s so wonderful. That’s love. The dog relentlessly pursues his friend – He doesn’t want to lose him. His love was so great that nothing could separate him from the one he loved.
Today we’re going to begin our series called Runaway – and throughout this series we’re going to hear about a man named Jonah. Have you heard of him – Jonah and the Big Fish OR Jonah & the Whale. But this is more than just another good idea for a Disney movie. Because within the very real story of Jonah, there are some very truths that we need to consider: (1) what running away from God looks like (2) Why it’s a horrible idea & (3) why God relentless pursues runaways.
Before we study God’s Word, let’s say a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see. Open our ears to hear what you want us to hear. Open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Jonah Runs
Take a look at Jonah 1:1. The story starts like this: The Word of the Lord came to Jonah. I think that’s interesting. The whole story starts with God speaking to Jonah. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was a vision. Maybe God spoke directly to him. Whatever way it was – there was no that this message was from God.
God had a task for Jonah “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
A little bit about Nineveh. Nineveh was a large city. Estimates are at close to 1 million people. It was on the harbor. It was very rich. Yet as large and rich as it was, there were scarcely any worshipers of the true God and even fewer people who lived according to God’s Word. They were sexually immoral, rude, violent, and greedy.
It’s a huge city.
It was an anti-God city.
And God wanted Jonah to go tell them they were wrong.
Does that sound easy? It’s not like God told Jonah to go find a few of the believers and say to them, “C’mon guys. You know we probably shouldn’t be saying those words. Let’s clean up our language or I’ll have to give you a noogie!”
This is way more intimidating. God told Jonah to go tell a people who don’t believe in God that the God whom they didn’t believe in would destroy them unless then turned to belief in him.
And it wasn’t like Jonah just had to tell a few people. If that were the case – Jonah could have just ran in, found the smallest 5 year old available, mentioned something about God and got out of there. Nope. Jonah wasn’t supposed to tell just a few people, but the whole city!
So. Look what Jonah does. “Jonah ran away from the LORD.” He headed to Joppa. He hopped on a boat to Tarshish which was the western-most city in the ancient world. It was the farthest place int he opposition direction. He was trying to get out of God's jurisdiction.
But it wasn’t enough. He walked down the stairs to the lower part of the ship. He searched for a small, compact space and when he had found it he wedged himself between two boxes. He draped a blanket or two or three over himself. And breathed a sigh of relief. “God won’t find me here.”
He drifted off to sleep.
He thought he had run away from God.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever run from God? Got up from church and bolted out of these doors? Probably not. Maybe you’re thinking, “I would never do what Jonah did. I would never run from God.”
But…notice when Jonah started running from God. It wasn’t when he got on the boat; it wasn’t when he got to port; it wasn’t when he packed his bags. It was before that.
It was when he decided not to listen to God.
Understand this: Running from God starts with not listening to His Word.
It doesn’t mean that you sprint out of the church service.
It doesn’t mean that you literally run away with your hands over your ears whenever you hear Amazing Grace.
It doesn’t mean that you get in your car after church today and drive until you reach San Francisco.
If you’re not listening to God, you are running from him.
I’ve run from him.
In fact, I’m all too good at running from him.
II. God Catches up
But maybe it’s not a big deal.
You ever done something wrong before and not been caught? Me too. Maybe you stole a pencil from work and now have over 17 in your car dashboard. The wrong is no big deal anymore and you think nothing of it.
You can sleep without any problem.
Like Jonah. He slept at the bottom of the bottom a deep sleep. He dreamed of being in Tarshish far away from his responsibilities in Nineveh. Maybe there were lollipops and rainbows there. He probably sat on a hammock under a tree being fed the finest Tarsishian grapes available.
BAM! A large wave crashed against the side of the boat. Jonah awoke to a bottle of beer rolling across the lower deck floor.
Jonah closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
CRACK! A bolt of lightning went off as the doors to the cabin flung open. A quick series of thuds followed as crew members trudged downstairs. “Guy! Hebrew man. What was his name? Jonah! Jonah are you here! We need you.”
Jonah pretended to be asleep.
Suddenly the blanket was torn off of his head. The men began shouting at him. It was a storm – a terrible storm. There weren’t going to make it. They had tried bailing water. They had tried throwing cargo overboard. Each man had tried praying to their gods – the wind god, the rain god, the lightning god – but it wasn’t working! Was it him? Could he do something? Could he speak to his God & save them?
Jonah explained. “Yes, he could save us. He could save us, because I serve the only God – the God of heaven and earth…. but…”
A glimmer of hope appeared in the men’s eyes. They rushed him upstairs to the captain’s office where more men were busy praying to their respective God’s. Jonah closed his eyes. He mumbled to fit in. But his heart wasn’t in it.
They were interrupted by a deckhand in a panic! “We need to do something quick or the whole boat will capsize.” The men needed to decide whose fault it was so they starting throwing dice to see whose fault it was. (Hoping that the universe – that God would reveal it to them.)
They captain divided up the group. If it lands on an odd number; it’s the guys on the left. Evens? It’s one of us on the right.” Evens. Odds its one of you two; even its one of you two. Evens again.
A lump grew in Jonah’s throat.
They cast the final lot.
It fell to Jonah.
They asked him. “What is it you have done? Who is your God? How have you wronged him?”
Jonah explained. My God? He’s not just the God of the waves. He’s not just a demon hovering over this part of the ocean. He is the LORD – the God of heaven and earth. The one who made the land, the seas, and the oceans.
And…I…ran away from him. Or I thought I did. Foolishly. I sinned against him. And now? We’re going to pay for it. Unless. Unless you give him what He wants.
Jonah said, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (v.12)
The sailors looked at him in terror. They didn’t want to do that. They tried to talk him out of that. But as their voices grew in panic, the waves rose in a thunderous approval to Jonah’s statement.
The men said one more prayer. They asked God’s forgiveness. They lift Jonah up & tossed him overboard.
God had found him.
You can drive past the church a couple mph’s faster whenever you’re on Newton Rd.
You can scroll real fast through all the scriptures that appear on your Facebook page.
You can click DELETE to the email after email that you receive inviting you to Back to Church Sunday.
You can come to church, be in church and get up to go to the bathroom whenever pastor starts talking about ‘that one sin.’
But you can’t hide from God.
God knows where you are.
God will find you.
Eventually he finds us all.
We will all face him.
I’ll face him.
You’ll face him.
Then, what do you say to him?
Don’t know? God knows what he’ll say. Scripture tells us. He’ll say, “You wanted to be away from me. Fine. Have it your way. There's one place where I'm not...
It's called hell.
III. God Saves Jonah
Jonah knew that was coming for him. As his body hit the cold water, the cold darkness of the water, soon ran over him. He kicked wildly as he tried to stay afloat. He reached for the surface and took a breath – only to inhale half a lung of seawater. He flailed his arms and kicked his feet for a until it burned deep in his muscles. A wave hit him in the face.
I’ve done wrong. I crossed God. I ran away from him. I’m getting what I deserve. It’s over.
He let his body grow limp.
He sank as the water grew dark over his face.
He awaited his death.
But it didn't happen.
The LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah.
And Jonah? He awoke. It saw stinky. It was smelly. It wasn’t a holiday inn, but he wasn’t dead either. He was alive.
God saved him.
Understand – This is key in the story of Jonah. God was only pursuing Jonah because he loved him! God didn’t want him to be lost forever. God didn’t want him to be thrown into the darkness of hell. God didn’t want him to be a part from him, because he loved him and knew Jonah couldn’t exist without him. God wanted him back. God wanted to save him. In fact, God would stop at nothing to save him. Even if it meant churning up a huge, terrifying storm in his life in order that Jonah might be at his mercy – see his mercy – and return to him again.
God does that in our lives too. Maybe you’ve never been on a lake in a storm – but maybe you’re going through a life storm right now.
A devastating failed relationship.
A terrifying eviction notice.
A disastrous loss of job.
A depression. A sadness. A feeling of guilt that has overcome you to the very core.
Something that has happened to you to make you realize you can’t do this alone. You need Him.
And you made it this far. You’re hear. And the devil’s in your ear, “He’s not serious. This isn’t real. God couldn’t love you. God won’t have you back. You’ve abandoned him too many times for too long. He’s done with you.”
But listen to God’s voice. Now. Today. Right now. God says to you, “Return. Come back. I love you. Be mine.”
And God will save you! In the most unlikely of ways! That’s how he saved Jonah. Not with a rescue boat. The coast guard didn’t show up with a life saver. There wasn’t even a piece of driftwood for him to float on.
He was swallowed by a fish! There’s nothing more unlikely than that!
Except maybe this: Some guy, 2000 years ago, gathers a bunch of followers, says that he’s God, angers a group of religious zealots, is executed falsely on a terrifying instrument of torture, dies, and saves you.
This is exactly how God saved you. It isn’t from within. He doesn’t say, “Try harder.” “Do Better.” Or “Give me lots of money and I’ll think about it.”
He says, “I’ll die for you. I’ll die for you to save you. I’ll die for you; to forgive you. I’ll die for you; to make you mine.”
Colossians 1:13 says this, “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Do you understand that? When you return to God, who has been relentlessly pursuing you his whole life – even dying for you – he offers full and complete forgiveness.
But you’re right, we don’t always recognize that. That’s why God comes after us with this message – even in an unlikely way!
Through an over-caffeinated, Raleigh transplant.
Through a few kids singing his praises.
Through a few drops of water.
Through a few words on a page in a book with a torn cover in the back of a wooden pew.
Unlikely as it is – God pursues you. God is pursuing you. Right now. Relentlessly.
Because he loves you with every fiber of his Divine heart.
It’s a pursuit worth crying about.
Like my friend Beulah. Beulah is a young 90 years old. Beulah has been attending some of my Bible studies at an assisted living home close by. Beulah had come every once in a while over the years. I’ve met her a few times. Some days she’d be awake; other days she’d drift asleep.
But one day a few months back, she listened. Her eyes didn’t come after me. When we were done, she asked to talk to me in private.
Is what you’re saying true? Does God really love me? I’m old. I’m alone. I’m forgotten about. I’ve done wrong; lots of wrong. I’ve hated God. I’ve abandoned him.
Could God really love me?
I opened up my Bible. Beulah, God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. All sins. Your sins.
God’s love will make you do that.
The Crowd: Peter
I. The Denial of the Denial
This night was not shaping up the way Peter had hoped it would.
It was supposed to be a nice evening. A chance for the group of disciples to spend time together. A time to reflect on the blessings of God on the Israelite people. A nice holiday for their little family.
But moments ago, Judas had left in a huff. Jesus had spoken again about his death. The other disciples all looked downcast.
It must have been getting to Jesus. Because now he was talking about how all of them, would leave him. In just a few hours he would be alone. Abandoned.
Peter had to do something. He reached over. He put his hands on Jesus’ shoulder. He shushed Jesus.
“Not I Lord! I won’t ever leave you. Not now. Not ever.”
“Simon, Simon. Satan, has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Peter shook his head. Why was he calling him his given name? His new name was “Peter.” It was Peter because he was a rock. He didn’t get blown about by the air like a little piece of wheat. He was stronger than that.
“Never Lord!” Judas – sure. He’s a cheater. He’s always been greedy. And Philip? I could see it. He’s the one who didn’t believe you could feed the 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread. Even John – he’s supposed to be a son of thunder, but he’s more like a tiny thud. But not me. I walked on water with you. I was the first to call you the Christ. I saw your face shine like lightning up on the mountain (Which I’m not supposed to be telling anyone yet) but…still…the point is: I am ready to go with you! Even if it means prison…even if it means death.
Jesus repeated...eyes directly on Peter…more specifically, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today. You will deny three times that you know who I am.”
If you know this story and what happens next, you’re already shaking your head. Peter is setting himself up to fall even more so than before. It’s happening because Peter is forgetting an important Biblical principle. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful so that you don’t fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
Peter forgot that.
But this is why God’s Word is so awesome, because look at how all encompassing that passage is: If you are hearing this message right now and you think it doesn’t apply to you, then, (guess what) it applies to you! If you think it applies to you, it applies to you. If you think that it does apply to you and therefore it doesn’t apply to you because it applies to you, it still applies to you.
Be careful. If you think this message isn’t for you, the devil’s got you right where he wants you. He's got you right next to the cliff -- and when you aren't looking -- push.
And you will fall.
Just like Peter.
II. Reality Sets In
Peter ducked behind a bush. “Did they see him?” His heart was beating so quickly.
Moments ago, Judas had appeared with a mob of soldiers. They had surrounded Jesus. They had arrested him. They other disciples had run away. And in the confusion, Peter had too!
But…he took a deep breath…he was better than this. He had promised not to abandon Jesus and he wouldn’t.
Peter walked the remaining few minutes to the courtyard of the high priest. This was where they would put Jesus on trial to determine whether he was guilty or not.
Peter stayed in the shadows. He should be in there with Jesus, but…first he needed to regain his composure.
He inched forward to the fire that was roaring in the middle of the room. It was night. He was cold. As soon as he warmed up, then…he’d go join Jesus.
As the light of the flames hit the sides of Peter’s face, a young servant girl – a teenager – noticed him. She did a double take. Then, she approached him. 56 “This man was with Jesus.”
Peter reacted quickly. “Woman, I don’t know him.” He said with a nervous giggle. Then turned his back to her and tried to focus in on warming his hands – as if the question had never been asked.
Someone else had heard her idea and after taking a long hard look at Peter, agreed, “You are also one of them.”
“I am not!” Peter replied – just a smidgen more sharply. This time he moved away from the fire. He moved back into the shadows. He needed a break from this stress. He needed to calm his spirit.
Finally a group confronted him. “You were with him. You are a Galilean. Your accent gives you away.”
Peter’s got vicious. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I swear to God I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know him. I don’t want to know him. I will never know him. Leave me alone!”
As Peter completed his tirade, the silence of the midnight air was cut through by a host of noises.
A rooster crowed.
A door opened.
The march of the officer’s boots hit the cobblestone.
The clanking of changes as the prisoner was moved.
Peter looked up. His eyes locked with Jesus. He saw his Savior’s disappointment.
And Peter remembered. “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept. Reality had set in. He was not the strong, courageous, immovable Christian that he had fancied himself to be.
He was weak just….like Jesus said.
It’s hard to look at the reality of our situation. But right now I need you to do just that. When we look at Peter’s story, do you see yourself?
1) The Runaway Christian
Do you see yourself in the garden? Like Peter, running away from your Christian friends when things get scary?
Whoa! Pastor just said that’s a sin…online. In a public forum. I’m totally abandoning him. He’s on his own.
Wait. We’re gonna say a prayer in public? Excuse me while I use the restroom.
Oh no! My Christian friend is starting to turn this conversation back to God. I’m really uncomfortable. I know, “Speaking of heavenly things, did anyone hear the heavenly voices on American Idol last night!?!”.
If you abandon your Christian friends, you’re abandoning Jesus. You aren’t as strong as you think.
2) The Follow at a Distance Christian
Maybe you’re more like Peter on the way to the courtyard. A “Follow at a distance” Christian.
Valentine’s Day was last weekend. Did you go for an afternoon walk with your honey? If so, did you have them walk about four blocks in front of you? “Honey, I’m having a blast?” Or did you go see a movie, tell her to sit in the front, while you went and sat in the back. “Wouldn’t want people to know we’re together.”
Following Jesus at a distance gives people that exact impression. If they look at you and they look at Jesus and they can’t tell that the two of you are walking hand in hand, you aren’t as strong as you think.
3) The "Panic-at-the-last-moment-and-flat-out-deny-Jesus-to-non-Jesus-followers" Chrsitian
Or maybe you’re tougher than that. Maybe you don’t run away. Maybe you don’t follow at a distance. Maybe you get straight up confronted about your Christianity.
I was on a plane trip not that long ago. I’ve always read that a plane ride is an excellent time for a Christian Pastor to share their faith. You’ve got an audience. They can’t leave. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I’ve read a few different stories from a few top notch pastors about how they’ve been able to share their faith and how God used that to bring people to faith.
So…I was prepared to do just that. Except. The first flight wasn’t that long. There wasn’t enough time for a conversation about religion. The second flight – that guy looked a little angry, so I didn’t want to offend him.
But the third flight. The person was very talkative. She told me about how she was from Germany. She told me about how she was lonely. She told me about how she missed her family and friends. This would have been the perfect time to tell her about her Savior who never leaves her.
Instead, I said, “Did you want some peanuts?”
When that plane ride was over…now not only did I struggle with fear, but I struggled with guilt. I thought, "Some pastor. Can’t even share the message of Jesus. Not good. Pathetic." It took a couple days for me to get over it.
That's hard. Because now the voices have changed.
That's what happened to Peter. He had heard voices pointing at him and saying, "You are one of his disciples, admit it!" Now he lay in a heap outside the building listening to the voice of the devil, "You are NOT one of his disciples. Admit it! You abandoned him. You denied him. You are not a believer."
III. Where to Find Strength
But here’s where I found strength and it’s where Peter found strength. It’s also where you can find strength.
Scripture says, "When we are faithless, he is faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”
That’s exactly what Jesus was. Look at the story of Peter’s Denial again. Did you notice it all came true? Judas’ left to betray Jesus like Jesus had said. The disciples left Jesus like he had said. Peter abandoned Jesus like he had said.
But also Jesus. He did did exactly like he had said. Thank the LORD! He was arrested like he said. He was sentenced to die like he said. He was willing to give up his life to save you -- like he said and promised!
It’s amazing, too. Because if anyone should deny anyone, it should really be Jesus denying us! We are the ones with the sin problem. We are the ones whose hearts are filled with guilt. We are the ones who, if our moms knew all that we’ve done, even they would consider saying, “I don’t know the man.”
But Jesus knew the worst of you and he did not abandon you. He did not keep a distance from you. He didn’t deny knowing you.
Instead – he stood up for you. “See my friend, I don’t deny knowing her. She’s done wrong, but I’d like to suffer for her. I don’t want to abandon her. I want to take her place. I don’t want to keep my distance from her – I want to be with always to the very end of the age.”
Because of Jesus, you are forgiven. Forgiven for your lack of courage. Forgiven for letting fear win. Forgiven for your weaknesses.
And you know what – having weakness and having fears – they aren’t so bad. In fact, check out what 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Any of you ever lift weights before? If you are lifting weights, it’s smart to have a spotter. But sometimes – you get the impression that the musclehead who asked you to spot is just calling you over to show off. “Oh man that 400 pounds that on my chest feels just like a feather. Could you help me get it off…oops never mind. I did it on my own.”
But if you are spotting someone and they need help, then your power is on full display! It’s up to you to save them from injury.
When we admit our weaknesses, God’s power is on full display. His power to destroy sin. His power to defeat death. His power to overcome adversity.
His power – to help us be bold.
Fast forward with me. Peter is surrounded by angry, violent men. The exact men who had crucified Jesus just months earlier. Now Peter stood before them. Now they were threatening Peter with death.
This was a lot scary than that young teenage girl.
But listen to Peter now, “You crucified the Lord of glory. For Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name, given to men, by which we must be saved.”
Peter doesn’t stutter. Peter doesn’t blink. Peter is bold.
The difference? Well – there’s this little thing called Easter that happens in between there. A little thing where Jesu boldly defeats sin and boldly defeats death.
Jesus made Peter bold.
Jesus makes believers bold.
When you're with Jesus, he’ll make you bold too. Amen.
10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
We are currently in the middle of a sermon series on Faith Tests. These have been a chance for us to consider how we would have acted in that Old Testament situation and how we do react in similar situations. The man being tested in today’s lesson is Jacob.
Jacob came from a family of faith. He was Abraham’s grandson and Isaac’s son. He had been raised in a God fearing family. He had been blessed by God with lots of wealth.
But when we meet Jacob in chapter 28 of today’s lesson, he doesn’t have any of that stuff. He is in the wilderness. He is all alone.
I imagine that as Jacob tried to start a fire and prep a campsite for the night that he couldn’t help asking the same thing.
I. Jacob’s Fear
Jacob was the younger of two twins. But he was not identical to his brother Esau at all. Jacob liked to sit at home. Esau liked to be in the wilderness. Jacob liked to tend sheep. Esau liked to hunt. Jacob had smooth skin. Esau had gruff, red hair all over his body.
Traditionally that meant he would not receive the family blessing. Instead, the family farm would go to his older brother Esau; Esau would get double the inheritance of his family’s wealth; Esau would carry on the family’s name; and in a special blessing that was only given to Abraham’s family – the firstborn would have the promise of the Savior given to his genealogical line.
Jacob—the younger son –wouldn’t get any of that.
As Jacob stoked the fire – he wished he had just let it be.
Jacob had learned that his father was going to give the blessing to Esau over a special meal. While Esau went out into the field to kill something extra tasty for this special moment with his dad, Jacob and his mom plotted. She began preparing some stew of her own and Jacob created a disguise. He put on his brother’s clothing and then covered his arm with goat fur so he’d be just as hairy as Esau. By the time he was dressed, his mom was done with the stew and Jacob went in to see his dad.
Now – you might think that a dad would know the difference between his two sons –especially two sons as different as Jacob and Esau. But Isaac was very old. His eyesight was fading. When Jacob entered with the stew, all he saw was his favorite meal.
Still – Isaac was cautious. He questioned if it really was Esau returning from the fields so quickly, but his nose caught a whiff of Esau’s clothing and his heart was at ease. Similarly when his ears became on alert when he heard Jacob’s voice, but the hairy goat skins convinced him that Esau must have just had a very bad cold.
Isaac blessed Jacob when he thought he was blessing Esau.
As the sticks his was rubbing together started to smoke, a tear rolled down his eyes. Jacob had done wrong. He had deceived his father.
Moments later Esau came in from the field. He was ready to have that special moment with his dad. They were both furious to find out that Jacob had just been in and received this irrevocable blessing.
Esau was furious. He immediately plotted to get revenge. He was going to kill Jacob.
As Jacob stoked the fire, he couldn’t blame Esau for his anger. He had done wrong. He had stolen from his brother.
But that wasn’t the worst. Another memory popped into Jacob’s mind. It was the memory of his mother’s assurance – “God himself has promised that you will be the one receiving your father’s blessing. Though you are younger – God has promised that you will be the one who gets the birthright. Don’t worry.”
Jacob had worried. He had doubted. He had deceived his dad, he had stolen from his brother, and worst of all – he had doubted God!
Now he had run away. He didn’t have his crime mate – his mother with him. He didn’t have the wisdom of his father. He didn’t even have the headlocks and playful fighting of his brother. He was all alone.
II. God’s Test
I imagine it was hard for Jacob to sleep that night -- not just because he was using a rock for a pillow. Like a YouTube video on repeat – his mind kept replaying his sins over and over again.
“If only I hadn’t deceived my father…If only I hadn’t stolen from my brother…If Only I had trusted God…”
It was frightening to stay awake because all he could think of was his sin. But when exhaustion kicked in and he began dreaming, it got a whole lot more frightening:
He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching to heaven. This wasn’t just some stone made stairway to the plateau that his brother and him would climb to check out all of their ranch. It was other worldly. It reached to heaven. It was intimidating.
It was filled with angels. Verse 12 continues the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Not sheep. Not cattle. Not his dad’s servants. Not even a bunch of clones of his brother Esau – who had been running through his mind.
Angels. Glowing with light, dressed in white, sometimes winged, always otherworldly—angels.
There above it – at the top of the staircase --stood the Lord. God himself. The Holy, world creating, floodgate opening, hurricane twirling, earthquake shaking Lord of heaven and earth himself.
Can you imagine how frightening that was for Jacob? There stood his Holy God—His Holy God who HATED sin. He hated deception. He hated stealing. He hated those who didn’t trust in Him.
Jacob had just done all three of those!
Now God had found him. Now God had caught up to him. Now God was going to deliver the final blow!
Jacob winced as God spoke:
I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
Wait, what? Suddenly this wasn’t so terrifying after all. Suddenly this meeting with God had become very awesome.
For starters, God hadn’t destroyed him. As Jacob felt his body to make sure it hadn’t been burned to a crisp, he must have been elated. God was giving him a second chance. God held back his holy and righteous anger against him.
Instead God spoke kindly to him. There’s no hint of terror in what God is saying. He introduces himself as “The LORD.” That’s the Old Testament name that referenced God’s covenantal love. He calls himself “the God of Abraham and Isaac.” This filled Jacob with thoughts of God providing a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac and thoughts of God gifting his family with blessing after blessing. It reminded Jacob of God’s promise to send a Savior from sin. A Messiah. The Christ.
And from his own family’s line.
Then, God blesses him. Write those blessings down. He promises to bless Jacob with the land that he’s lying on. He promises to bless Jacob with many children –to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. (A promise that meant he would live! God wasn’t going to kill him like he deserved.)
Then, take a look at that last part of verse 14. He promised that “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” That’s the promise of the Savior. The promise he had stolen from Esau. The Promise that God had promised beforehand would go to Jacob. In spite of the wrongs Jacob had committed, God was blessing Him with that incredible honor.
For Jacob it took on a new meaning. It didn’t just mean he would have a neat place in the line of salvation history. It meant he was forgiven. God had forgiven him for deceiving his Father. God had forgiven him for stealing from his brother. God had forgiven him for not trusting in Him.
But that wasn’t it. God continued, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
God Promised to be With Jacob. Though Jacob was hundreds of miles from home and though there wasn’t a soul in sight. God now promised to be with him. Not just as a buddy either. He promised to watch over Jacob. Not just for a day either. Or a few weeks. He promised to not leave…until He had done what He promised.
III. Jacob’ Response
Then, Jacob wakes up. No sign of the stairway. No sign of the angel. No sign of God.
Did Jacob really believe that God could love him and be with him even though he did wrong?
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was in awe and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Fear had changed to joyful awe! There’s a whole character change that takes place. Jacob trusts God and is in awe of God’s. His awesome power and his awesome love.
He makes a confession of faith. “Surely the LORD is in this place!” He doesn’t say, “Surely I had some bad mushrooms for dinner.” “Surely I had a restless sleep with strange dreams.” He says, “The LORD is here!” He believed it. He trusted it.
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. It wasn’t that there was anything special about the stone, other than the fact that this was the place he heard God’s Word. So Jacob regards the place he heard from God as holy. He called it Bethel which literally means “House of God.”
Then, Jacob reveals that he is all in, “If God will be with me…then the Lord will be my God…and of all that you give me, O God, I will give you a tenth.” Jacob is confident that God is His God. He is confident enough to devote his life to him. He’s ready to change. Ready to be truthful. Ready to be trusting. Ready to give (even his wealth) to God because he trusts God. He trusts his words. He trusts his mercy.
IV. Your Response
What does this mean for you? Three things.
1) Trust God When You’ve Done Something Wrong.
Have you ever felt like Jacob before? Have you ever done something wrong – so wrong that you have lost friends over it? Or lost a spouse’s trust? Or lost a job over it? Have you ever done something that is so wrong you feel like God couldn’t forgive you? In fact, you run away from God. You avoid church. You avoid prayer. You never open your Bible, because you are convinced that you have done too much wrong for God to want to be by you.
Do you see the problem? You’re looking at you.
Today’s lesson reminds us to look at God. He is merciful. He is loving. He is compassionate. He is forgiving.
Remember that promise he mentioned to Jacob? He promised that through Jacob all nations on earth would be blessed. That’s because one of Jacob’s offspring ---great, great, great, many times over grandchild—was Jesus. Jesus lived perfectly, died innocently, and rose triumphantly for our forgiveness.
When you’ve done something wrong, don’t avoid God. Don’t ignore his love. Don’t try to numb your mind with alcohol. Don’t give up and dive head first into your sin.
Come to God. Confess to God. Trust that he will respond with mercy just as He did with Jacob.
2) Regard the Place You Hear from God as Holy
When he woke up, there was just a rock. No ladder. No angels. No glory of the LORD. It didn’t look special at all. Yet Jacob considered it holy. The simple looking place remembered for an incredible message from God.
Today we also have a simple looking place that we hear the Word of the Lord. No heavenly ladders. No Angels. No shining glory of the Lord—20 some wooden pews, white washed walls, and a few brown sided front that until a cross was added recently, some had mistaken for a doctor’s office. Doesn’t sound like much.
But it is. This place. Gethsemane. This is where we hear God’s Word. We hear it in song. We hear it lessons. We hear it as we study God’s Word.
Regard it as holy!
Don’t just think of this as a social club. Don’t just think of it as a place to gossip. Don’t just think of it as a place to get your fill of donuts on a Sunday morning.
This is the place where you hear from God. It’s the place where you hear of God’s love. It's where God reminds you that you are a sinner and that God sinner.
Consider this place holy. Make every effort to be here. If you can't, hear from God on the web. Then, make time in God’s Word a special time. In your car on the way to work with your SmartPhone blasting the Word of God. In an easy chair with your Bible opened. Whatever it it...Make it a time that you don’t want to miss. Take advantage of the next step opportunity to hear from God! Tell your friends to come and hear of his love too!
3) Devote your Life to Jesus
When Jacob got up, what else could he do? He had been all alone. Now he realized he was with his compassionate Lord. How could he not listen to him? He owed him an unpayable debt of gratitude. He could figure out now better way to serve God than to devote life to Him.
You do the same. Serve the Lord. Serve him by getting involved at church. Serve him by telling your kids about Him. Serve Him by giving your money to support the ministry going on here. Serve the LORD by taking the Easter invitations and sharing the message of God’s love.
Now as you finish reading this, you are about ready to go back into the world. Soon the devil will come into your thought. Your memory will be jogged to some wrong you have done. He will try to convince you that you can't be forgiven. Your pride will get you to think "I need to do better and then come to God."
Remember the story of Jacob.
Remember that God is compassionate.
Remember what God did for you.
Jacob must have done that. When haunted by his sins, he looked back to when he saw God at the top of the ladder and God was compassionate.
You do the same. When haunted by your sins, look up. Look up at --not the ladder-- but the cross. See God at the top of it. See his compassion. See his mercy. See his love.
Trust God...Even When You've Done Wrong.