Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jonah 1:1-17 - “The Ironic, Jonah Mission”

Opening of the Education Year
Thursday, September 6, and Sunday, September 9, 2007

When you entered church today, you were covered in whale slime. You were covered in seaweed, fish goo, algae, saltwater, squid pieces, and zooplankton.

You stunk with the sin of not living up to expectations. You are not the disciples you are meant to be. It seems strange to start the Education Year with you, because we say we want you to be faithful followers of Jesus who are studying His Word, but ironically, your actions don’t look like that.

It’s strange to be getting all of our Bible studies, Sunday School, choirs, and activities started when we’re covered with whale slime, the mess of sins that shows we’re not focused on God’s mission. We’re not studying the Bible, we’re not mission-focused in our actions, we’re not committing to being here regularly and being a part of the team. Ironically, being trained as followers of Jesus may be the furthest thing from our minds.

It’s the same kind of irony, the same kind of pattern we see in the actions of Jonah from the Old Testament, the guy who was really covered in whale slime.

In his commentary about Jonah, Dr. Reed Lessing from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, explains that “Irony is a figure of speech in which. . .an event or statement occurs or is used in a way that is just the opposite of what would be expected….Irony serves to point out inconsistencies in a situation between what is and what ought to be,” (23).

There are many places in the book of Jonah where Jonah’s actions and words are just the opposite of what we’d expect, where Jonah the prophet is less faithful to the Lord than the heathen around him.

On the insert in your bulletins, you have the first chapter of Jonah printed out so that we can take a brief look at these ironies. And just as Dr. Lessing says, these ironies will serve to point out the inconsistencies we ourselves have in our words and actions.

Looking then at Jonah, it begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2] "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." IRONY [3] But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

God tells Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, and Jonah does the exact opposite of what is expected of a prophet. Nineveh is east, so Jonah gets on a boat and goes as far west as he possibly can.

But God has His own ironic action. Verse 4:

IRONY [4] But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. [5] Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them.

Expecting fair sailing all the way to Tarshish, Jonah now faces a huge storm sent by God. Ironically, God is calling Jonah again, reminding Jonah that he’s going the wrong way.

But Jonah’s not done doing the opposite of what is expected; Jonah’s not listening to the storm. Verse 5 continues ironically:

IRONY But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.

Jonah is still trying to ignore God’s call, but again, there’s great irony in the fact that now God uses the unbelieving sailors to remind Jonah of his duty as a prophet of the Lord. Verse 6:

IRONY [6] So the captain came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish."

Jonah says he believes in God. As an Israelite, as a follower of God, Jonah knows that he should pray in times of trouble, but he’s sleeping. It’s the captain who tells Jonah to pray, the captain who doesn’t know the true God. Jonah must have been slow moving, so the captain and sailors try to take matters into their own hands in verse 7:

IRONY [7] And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

Jonah knows that he is the cause of the trouble; Jonah knows that he’s running away from God’s call, and yet, it takes the sailors and casting lots to really point out the truth. As a prophet, Jonah is to be a truth-speaker, but when the sailors come saying they know that the storm is due to Jonah’s sin, they are the true truth-speakers in the boat. Ah, by ironically, Jonah still holds onto his righteous confession. Verse 8:

[8] Then they said to him, "Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" IRONY [9] And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."

Jonah has denied his God by most of his actions in the story already, but here he doesn’t show any sign of how ironic it is to say that he believes in the Lord. The sailors certainly hadn’t seen Jonah acting like a man devoted to the Lord. Again, the prophet doesn’t lead, but rather, he lets the sailors guide the next step. Verse 10:

[10] Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

[11] Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. IRONY [12] He said to them, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you."

Jonah knows to repent, turn away from his sin, to confess and ask for forgiveness. Jonah knows that repentance is the only action required of a believer who is caught in sin. Yet, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Of course, the sailors don’t act as expected; they’re more righteous than that. Verse 13:

IRONY [13] Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.

They know that Jonah is the cause of the terrible storm, but they still try so hard to save his life. Ironically, they put their lives at risk for Jonah who by his actions is threatening their lives. Verse 14:

[14] Therefore they called out to the Lord, "O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you." [15] So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. [16] Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. IRONY

[17] And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

As far as we know, Jonah never prays during his time on the boat. He hasn’t told the sailors anything about the true God, but ironically, through this reluctant prophet, the sailors turn to offer their own prayers to the Lord. They have been convinced of the truth of God, but ironically, that comes through Jonah’s silence, misery, selfishness, and resistance of God’s call. God has ironically used the whole situation to bring the ship’s crew into His Kingdom.

If you read the rest of the book of Jonah, Jonah never admits all of these ironies in his actions. Instead, what becomes very clear is that Jonah’s mission, the Ironic, Jonah Mission is God’s mission. God is the One who uses every ironic twist and turn for His purposes. God never accepts lets Jonah put a stop to the mission. Instead, the whale spits Jonah onto the beach. God wipes the whale slime off of Jonah and sends him again to do the mission of bringing others to the kingdom of God.

As we begin our Education Year, it isn’t so important to point out all of our accomplishments, our shining moments when we were successful as part of God’s mission. It’s better to first see the Ironic, Jonah Mission among us, to see the ironies we have in our words and actions, to see the ways we do the opposite of what is expected of Christians who are called to share the Gospel with the world. . .AND to see how it is still God’s mission, how our actions don’t stop His mission, how God wipes the whale slime off of us and sends us again this fall to work together to tell others about His love.

I walked around the building earlier this week, remembering what it is that we do here together, and it didn’t take long to smell our whale slime, to smell the scent of irony. Think about these ironies I’ve seen in our actions, think about which ironies are present in your life,

  • You want your children or grandchildren to learn the Bible (through Sunday School and Confirmation), but you don’t go to Bible study yourself.
  • You want more people to come to your congregation, but you don’t introduce yourself to visitors.
  • You want visitors to feel welcome, but then act as if everyone should know how we do things at Redeemer.
  • You want younger families to be in worship services, but you complain when a baby cries.
  • You want worship services to be meditative and reverent, but you chat with the people near you up until the opening hymn.
  • You come to tell the pastors about the sins of others, but you don’t come to confess your own sins.

I know it’s not easy to have your ironies pointed out—your individual, ironic actions and the ironic actions of our entire congregation. It feels like you’ve just been swallowed up by a whale. You were running away from God’s gracious presence, and now you’re in the belly of the whale. It’s what we call God’s Law, experiencing His anger over your sin, seeing how you’ve separated yourself from God.

Yet, that’s not where the story ends, does it? Jonah doesn’t stay in the belly of the whale. Three days later God causes that whale to spit him up onto shore. Jonah lands on the beach, probably covered in a stinky, messy reminder of the pit he was in, but he is alive and free and sent again to do God’s mission. Jonah will fail again, but still when that whale spits him onto shore, that’s a clue that God forgives Jonah, loves Jonah, restores Jonah, still wants to use Jonah as a prophet.

Well, if by naming these ironies I have sent you to the belly of the whale, get ready to land on the beach.

You are alive and free. Forgiven, God’s still ready to use you in His mission. God is wiping off that whale slime covering you even as we speak.

You don’t go to Bible study even though you make your children go? Ironically, God has still been using you to bring your children into His presence. You’re on the beach now with God sending you on His mission again.

You haven’t introduced yourself to visitors? People still are coming to Redeemer and saying they feel so welcome here. People have still found God’s gracious presence here. So let God wipe off the whale slime that’s covering you, because God wants to use you to bring others into His presence.

You act like new people should know how we do things? Don’t worry; it hasn’t chased all the new people away. So start now, clean and fresh from God’s forgiveness, and help people get to know how our congregation works.

You complain when a baby cries in worship? Well, babies don’t keep track of things like that. They’ll just smile at you again, seeing you as that nice person from the beach who once was in the whale. God sends you again to find ways to make families feel as if they can be a part of things here.

You chat with people during the whole worship service? With the irony pointed out in your action, God is calling on you to be the person He wants you to be, meditative and reverent showing others why we worship the Lord.

You point out the sins of others, but you don’t confess your own sins? Look back, see the trail of whale slime behind you, see how your actions are just as ironic and sinful as anyone else, and that God promises to wipe the whale slime off of all people.

You see, your ironies, your Ironic, Jonah Mission, that’s not where the story ends, does it? Just as Jonah didn’t stay in the belly of the whale, but was spit up on shore after three days, so Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb but rose again after three days. Because of the resurrection, because of believing in Christ, you land on the beach, still covered in stinky, messy reminders of your sins, but you are alive and free and sent again to do God’s mission.

The Education Year is about the beach. Studying God’s Word is about seeing how God saved you from the belly of the whale. Worship services are focused on receiving God’s forgiveness, washing away the stink and slime of your sins.

That’s why I’m excited for our new Education Year, because I love seeing God take whale slime covered people, make you clean, and then use you in His mission. The whale has spit you onto shore; God forgives you, loves you, restores you, still wants to use you in His mission.