Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Jonah 1:1-17 - "Set Sail in a Whale"

Vacation Bible School
Thursday, August 10, and Sunday, August 13, 2006

This week our theme at Vacation Bible School has been “Set Sail!” We’ve talked about “setting sail with the Son,” setting sail with Jesus, getting on board with Jesus, believing in Him, working together to worship Him, and telling the world all about Him.

Because of our ship sailing nautical theme, that’s why we chose the VeggieTales Jonah as our outdoor movie tonight. As you heard in tonight’s Old Testament reading from the book of Jonah in the Bible, Jonah certainly set sail. He got on a boat and headed for Tarshish. Well, that’s a long trip. Jonah lived in Israel, and Tarshish is near modern day Spain. So Jonah set sail to across the whole Mediterranean Sea. That’s about 2500 miles. Jonah certainly set sail.

Although, that’s not why Jonah is famous. He might have been on a nice ship; he might have been on a long trip, but Jonah isn’t famous for setting sail on a boat. Jonah is famous, because he set sail in a whale. He set sail in a whale.

When Jonah tried to run away from being God’s prophet, God’s messenger, God sent a storm. In order to stop the storm from destroying the ship, Jonah told the crew to throw him overboard. Jonah knew that God wasn’t mad at the ship’s crew; God was angry with Jonah. However, Jonah may have also thought his sailing days were over when they threw him overboard; Jonah probably thought he’d die there in the middle of the sea.

But that’s when God sent a great big fish, maybe a whale, to swallow Jonah and bring him back to dry land. Jonah set sail in a ship, but then God sent the whale, and Jonah set sail in a whale, set sail to return to the original mission to be God’s prophet, to speak God’s Word. Jonah had tried to get away from being God’s messenger, but God sent that whale to bring him back. God still wanted to use Jonah to speak His Word.

And really, we’ve all got to look at the ways that we try to run away from God. God wants to use us in order to tell others about His love, but we have our ways of setting sail on a boat, of trying to head to Tarshish, trying to get away from what God wants us to do.

But then along comes a whale. Along comes God’s way of getting us back to where He wants us. God sends a whale, and we set sail in a whale, sent again to share God’s Word with others.

Perhaps some of our Vacation Bible School teachers or helpers thought they were setting sail for Tarshish, thought they’d run away from God who wanted to use them to teach His Word this week. Then God sent a whale to catch them—a phone call from one of our directors, a conversation in church, a bulletin announcement, something that stopped them in their runaway voyage and made them turn around, sign up to help, and serve God.

God’s whales are like that. They’re not always these amazing events—getting swallowed by a big fish in Jonah’s case; seeing a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus in the case of Paul in the New Testament. Sometimes it’s nothing that big and amazing; sometimes it’s just a walkie talkie.

This week some of our youth might have thought they’d just take a break, hide out in the youth room, thinking no one would care or even notice. Then the walkie talkie crackles—“We need help in one of the classrooms,” and that’s God’s whale. God is sending that whale to get you and bring you back to His mission, sharing His Word with the children this week.

God’s whales in your life are like that; He uses small things to turn that ship around, to bring you back to where you need to be in His mission. And just in case you think God couldn’t ever use you, you’re too far away, you’re too sinful, you don’t know enough, you’re on the wrong side of the world, if you think God can’t use you, well, just look at Jonah.

Jonah wasn’t anyone special. He certainly wasn’t very committed to the mission. Jonah didn’t think it mattered whether he went or not. Jonah thought he’d go unnoticed. And there’s God pulling Jonah out of the sea, sending him back to the mission field.

God sees you, God created you, God gave you your skills and abilities, God made you to be His servant, and He notices you. He notices when you’re running away from Him, and He keeps sending out whales after you. He’ll send a whole pod of whales, a whole school of whales, a whole herd of whales, until you set sail in a whale, until you are back with God, until you are in God’s mission field again.

Maybe, though, we should remind ourselves of how Jonah got into trouble in the first place. Why did Jonah even need a whale? Jonah was supposed to go to Nineveh. Nineveh is 500 miles from Jonah’s home in Jerusalem in Israel. However, Nineveh is 500 miles to the east—which means over land. There was no reason for Jonah to set sail in the first; he wasn’t going to be anywhere near a whale according to God’s plan.

So why did Jonah run away? Why did he go the exact opposite direction that God wanted him to go?

Well, let me tell you a story, and then I’ll show you how the boy in the story is like Jonah.

This is a story about a boy named Ben (point to myself). It was the first day of kindergarten, and Ben was riding home on the bus. Ben had just met Paul, another boy in kindergarten who lived just a block away. During the bus ride, Paul asked if he could come over for lunch. (It was half day kindergarten back then). Ben wasn’t so sure, so Paul got off the bus at his stop. . .and then ran through the neighborhood to catch up with Ben, kind of inviting himself over for lunch. Ben didn’t know what to do, so he let Paul follow him home.

When they got home, Ben was kind of hoping that his mom would tell Paul that he’s been rude, that Paul can’t stay. Ben hopes that when his mom calls Paul’s mom that Paul’s mom will tell Paul to go home.

Why didn’t Ben want Paul to stay for lunch? Because Ben wanted to keep his Mac & cheese for himself. Mom was making his favorite lunch, Mac & cheese, and Ben doesn’t want to share.

But Ben knows that once his mom calls Paul’s mom, Ben’s mom will say “It’s OK, no problem, Paul can stay for lunch.” Ben wants Paul to get in trouble, get sent home, so he can keep his Mac & cheese to himself.

Jonah had trouble like Ben, except instead of Mac & cheese, Jonah had trouble sharing God’s salvation. Jonah is living in Israel, and the enemies of Israel are living in Nineveh. The Ninevites are threatening to take over Israel, so Jonah is hoping that God will just destroy the Ninevites.

God is sending Jonah to warn the Ninevites about being punished, but Jonah doesn’t want the enemies to be warned. Jonah just wants God to punish them.

Why didn’t Jonah want the Ninevites to be warned? Because Jonah wants to keep God’s message of salvation for himself. He doesn’t want to share God’s love and salvation with people outside of Israel.

But Jonah knows that once God sends a prophet to Nineveh, the people will repent, say they’re sorry for their sins, and God will forgive them. God will give them salvation, too.

Jonah wants Nineveh to get in trouble, be punished, so that he can keep God’s hope and salvation for himself.

What happened to Ben and his Mac & Cheese? Paul’s mom and Ben’s mom both said it was OK for Paul to stay. Ben had to share—in fact, shared almost every day the first week of school. Paul became a good friend during elementary school.

What happened to Jonah? Well, you already know the story: God sent a whale, and Jonah set sail in a whale. God got Jonah back to Nineveh, and the Ninevites got to hear about hope and salvation. Jonah had to share—even though he tried hard not to. And sure enough, the entire city of Nineveh repented, was sorry for their sins, and believed in the true God.

When God comes asking us to share His Word, when you realize that God wants to use you in Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, the ministries of the Church, or sharing His Gospel during your daily life, when you realize that God is asking you to tell others about Jesus, we often can offer lots of excuses. I’m not talking about real excuses like you’re out of town, you’re sick, you’re already doing many other kinds of ministry. I’m talking about when we say no to God without a good reason. Those are the times when we have to ask ourselves if we’re trying to keep our Mac & cheese to ourselves, are we having trouble sharing.

It’s easy to get caught up in ourselves and forget that God’s salvation is meant to be shared. It’s easy to get a little selfish, to let our sinfulness get the best of us. It’s easy to stop sharing, because sometimes it seems like the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, forgiveness and salvation seems like a life ring. (pull out life ring, put around head) That life ring saves us from death; that life ring is our hope; that life ring gives us eternal life, but it seems like a personal thing. There’s just room for one. There’s just room for me. It’s my salvation, and if other people find salvation, that’s great, but my salvation is my salvation.

However, salvation isn’t like this life ring. Life rings are made for one person; they’re made to be thrown out to save one person who has gone overboard. The problem is this whole ship that we call earth, all people on the earth are overboard. Everyone is drowning in their sins. Everyone is dying and will be forever separated from God in death—unless they are saved.

If salvation is like this life ring, it’s not going to be enough. Fortunately, the life ring comes an endless supply of life rings. The life ring that has saved you comes from the cross of Jesus. (put the life ring by the cross)

The cross of Jesus, His death and resurrection is your life ring. When Jesus gives you a life ring, that doesn’t use up His salvation. There are always more life rings in the cross; there are plenty of life rings for everyone.

When you see that Jesus has life rings for everyone, you realize how much He wants to save all people. You start to see His heart. We might be tempted to be selfish with our life ring, might be reluctant to go out and share God’s Word, but can’t you see that God has designed salvation so that everyone can be saved from their sins? This isn’t like a pot of Mac & cheese that only has so much in it; this is a bottomless pot of Mac & cheese. There’s no reason to be selfish; there’s no reason to keep God’s message of salvation to ourselves. God sent a whale to get us, because His mission is that we share His salvation with all people.

Now it’s kind of an odd picture I’ve drawn for you tonight, but maybe it’ll help us all to remember God’s Word, His salvation and how He will use us. Picture it: We set sail in a whale with a life ring that saves us ready to share life rings and Mac & cheese with everyone. If someone wanted to draw that, I would love to see the drawing. Let me say it again so you can put the picture in your mind: We set sail in a whale with a life ring that saves us ready to share life rings and Mac & cheese with everyone.

In other words, God catches us from running away, brings us back to the mission field, reminds us of how He saves us through the cross, and now tells us to go and share His Word of salvation with all people.

So set sail in a whale; let God bring you back.

Hold onto the life ring; Jesus has saved you through the cross.

Throw out life rings to the people around you; Jesus has enough life rings for everyone.

Share your Mac & cheese; rejoice that God uses you to share His Word of forgiveness and love.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Ephesians 2:13-22 - “FAR and NEAR: A Lesson in Opposites”

Pentecost 7 (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, August 3, and Sunday, August 6, 2006

In Ephesians, Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” It’s amazing, but I’ve got a video of Paul talking about near and far—well, it’s sort of like Paul. Watch.

Video Transcript (abridged)
Hello there, this is your old pal Grover.
And today I’m going to talk to you about NEAR and FAR. In fact, I, little, furry Grover, am going to show you NEAR and FAR. OK, here goes.
First, this is NEAR.
This is FAR!
etc. . . .
Now you must understand me. You don’t understand?? (SIGH, CRYING)

OK, so little, furry Grover isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of Paul the Apostle, the writer of 13 books in the New Testament, but did you hear that Grover was talking about far and near, the very concepts Paul is teaching in Ephesians? Did you see Grover getting frustrated that we didn’t understand far and near? Well, take a closer look at Ephesians, and you realize Paul was also getting frustrated that the readers, the Christians in the city of Ephesus, didn’t understand those concepts of far and near yet. So Paul is like Grover, running back and forth, doing everything he can to teach the people.

When Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ,” at first, it seems like he’s talking about what happens to us through baptism. When we are born, we are sinful, far away from God, but then through baptism into Christ, we are brought near to God, able to approach God with confidence that He loves us, forgives us, saves us. Once you were far from God, but now through baptism, you are near to God.

That’s often how we use the concepts of far and near when we’re thinking about God, but that’s not really what Paul is talking about. That’s not what’s making Paul so frustrated.

No, instead, when Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ,” he’s talking about Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Gentile Christians were the people who weren’t Jewish but had come to believe in Jesus; Jewish Christians were the people who were born and raised as Jews but had come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised Savior of the Old Testament. Paul is frustrated, because somewhere along the line it seems that the Christians in Ephesus weren’t thinking of themselves as Christians. Instead, they were thinking of themselves as Gentile Christians or Jewish Christians. It’s that division that is frustrating Paul, and so that’s why he’s like Grover, running back and forth, repeating himself, trying to help the people understand the concepts of far and near.

Paul wants the people to see that Jesus has made them one—Jews and Gentiles, all believers in Christ are one body. So, then, since I assume most of us fall into the category of Gentile, we weren’t born as Jews, because of that, it’s important for us to see what Jesus did to bring us near.

Take a look at the back page of the bulletin. The first line shows how God saves us. Once you were far, a Gentile, outside of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the promises of God came to a specific people—the Jews. Those who weren’t Jews were foreigners and aliens, and while God allowed for Gentiles to become a part of His chosen people, His salvation still came through the Jews.

While we live generations after this, while we live in New Testament times, it is important for us to remember that once we were far. When we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, we’re not saying that we believe in some God that is completely different than the Jews. We’re saying that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Promised Savior of the Jews. Once we were not a part of this promise, once we were outside because we were Gentiles, but now...

Now you are near, brought inside of God’s people through Christ. Before Christ, a Gentile could only come near by becoming Jewish, by being circumcised, by becoming part of the Jewish nation. While it was about believing in the true God, it was also about citizenship. Now, though, you have been brought near to God through faith in Christ. Christ came to make it about citizenship in His kingdom not citizenship in the Jewish nation. Christ came to open the doors of salvation to all people.

So that’s why Paul can say that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians are one body, because it is about Christ. It is no longer about birth or race or circumcision or nation or citizenship. It is about Christ, and because of that, there’s no dividing wall now between the Jews who believed Jesus is the Messiah and the Gentiles who believed in Jesus.

However, it’s important to pause here and explain that the categories of Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians is different than how we use those terms today. Paul is talking to Christians—whether they had a Jewish background or a Gentile background, the people all believed in Jesus. Today when we use the term Jewish, it refers to people who trace their ancestry back to the people of the Old Testament but have not embraced Jesus as the Messiah.

That’s an important thing to remember, because we can’t use this passage from Ephesians to say that Christians and Jews today are one. We are one with all people who believe in Jesus—no matter what their race, ethnicity, or former religion is. However, we are not one in faith with Jewish people who do not believe that Jesus is our Savior.

That’s a difficult thing for us to talk about sometimes, because it seems like it’s wrong to say that God’s chosen people are not saved. We’ve often been afraid to say this, but if we want to stay true to our message that Jesus is the only way to eternal life, if we say that Buddhists, atheists, Mormons, and Muslims need to believe in Jesus for salvation, then it follows that we’d also say that the Jews need to believe in Jesus.

Once we say this, then we realize that it means we want the Jews to know the wonderful Gospel, the beautiful Good News of Jesus. We want the Jews, and all people, to know that they are saved from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus. What a great message to tell the whole world.

So Jews and Christians today are not one in faith unless those people of Jewish ancestry believe in Jesus as Savior. We are one with all believers in Christ.

OK, back to Ephesians, and Paul running around like Grover. So again, look at the back page of the bulletin. The second line is a reminder of what happens as God saves others. First of all, it is true that the people outside of the Church are far from God. Here I mean people who don’t believe in Jesus or who may not have heard the truth about Jesus.

What’s important to remember, though, is that many of the people we meet who are not Christians may also feel very far from God. It’s not just that they reject God, but sometimes they feel like God would reject them. For whatever reason, along the way in their lives, they’ve felt closed out from God.

But we are sent to bring them near to God through Jesus Christ. God sends us out to tell them that God does love them, forgive them, and will save them. God sends us to run back and forth until they understand the concepts of far and near, until they understand that Jesus takes them from far away and brings them near to God.

Part of the problem back in Ephesus seems to be that both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians thought of themselves as better than the other. That throws a whole kink in the works when it comes to telling others about salvation. The Jewish Christians thought that the Gentiles needed to become Jewish and Christian. The Gentile Christians thought the Jewish Christians were too hung up on the old ways. So both groups had superiority complexes—kind of looking down at the other group.

Well, that was enough to make Paul run back and forth like Grover, sighing and crying and fainting with frustration as the people still didn’t seem to understand the concepts of far and near. Neither group was better than the other; neither was the better way, the right way, the more true Christian way. Both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were brought near to God through Jesus—not through anything they did. Jesus is the common denominator, the common Savior.

Why talk about this today? Because I think that the whole superiority complex isn’t too far removed from us. We’ve got a tendency to do the same thing. We divide ourselves into groups—the people who’ve grown up as Christians, the people who are new Christians; the people who’ve always been members of Redeemer Lutheran Church, the people who more recently became members—like in the last 20 years.

We divide ourselves from the rest of the world, too. We’re Christians, we’re in church, and the rest of the people aren’t. That kind of thinking starts to make us think that we’re better than those other people out there, and that’s enough to keep Paul running back and forth trying to explain far and near.

But in this process of telling people about Jesus, of sharing His Word with those who are not Christians, in this process, we’ve got to remember that it’s all about the common denominator, the common Savior. If the back page of the bulletin shows what happened for us on the first line, God bringing us into His people through Jesus, and then it shows what happens for others on the second line, notice how both lines depend on the cross. From far to near depends on Jesus. Whether someone’s been in the church for years or someone is still waiting to hear about Jesus, both are brought near to God through Jesus.

And when someone hears God’s Word and believes in Jesus, then we rejoice that we are one in faith. The old dividing lines are gone. Mature Christians, new Christians—one in faith. Anglo Christians, Hmong Christians, Hispanic Christians, Black Christian—one in faith. We’ve all been brought near to God through the cross of Jesus.

We are one with all people who believe in Jesus—which is a reminder of something I’d like for us to pray about today and for you to keep in your personal prayers. We are one with the Christians who live in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel. We often think of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, or Israel and Palestine as a conflict between Jews and Muslims, but even now, as war between Israel and Hizbullah continues, there are Christians on both sides of the border. There are Christian churches being bombed in Lebanon; those Christians in Lebanon are our brothers and sisters in Jesus. I got an email from a pastor in Tel Aviv in Israel who said his congregation has been busy making a bomb shelter in the basement; those Christians in Israel are our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

If we’re too quick to think of Israel as being Jewish, Palestine and Lebanon as being Muslim, then we’ll miss the fact that Jesus makes us one with people in all of those countries, makes us one with the Israelis, Palestinians, and Lebanese who are Christian, who believe that Jesus is the Savior. Please remember our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, because we have all been made one in Jesus.