Friday, March 04, 2011

How Big Is Your Dream?

We started this series asking the question, "What is the sign of Jonah?". It's a question raised in Matthew 16 when the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus to do something miraculous, perform a sign, that would prove he was the Son of God, and Jesus said that only sign they needed was the sign of Jonah.

And if they didn't understand that sign, no other was necessary.

So for the last three weeks, Charlotte, Daniel and I have been unraveling the mystery of what the sign of Jonah actually is, and what it might mean to us.

To date we've picked up a lot of clues. Initially we discovered that God has a will for all of us. It might at times be pretty broad - live righteously - and at other times it might be quite specific. Like, for example, to go to Nineveh and tell its inhabitants to get their act together or face the Lord's judgment. In either case, God will use us either because we been faithful, or as a cautionary tale - as a living example of what happens when we do the opposite of what God desires for us. In either case, if you remember, God uses Jonah even in his disobedience, and the sailors on the boat sailing for Tarshish who begin the story as pagans, end the story offering sacrifices to the living God. Pharisees and Sadduccees can't imagine God using anybody except those who perfectly kept the Law. But they were wrong...

Clue #1: People moving in the wrong direction in life are still used by the Lord.

Next, Daniel helped us understand that while Jonah believed God lived in the Temple of Jerusalem, he discovered the Lord present in the belly of the fish. Remember this was the popular belief of the day. God lived in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Only the priests could stand in God's presence, and at that only at certain times of the year. And yet, Jonah calls on God in the last place he should be present, and God shows up. And because God shows up, Jonah finds out that even smelling and looking like someone who had been in a whale for three days, that God, in his presence, would still use Jonah. Pharisees and Sadduccees couldn't imagine God being anywhere but the Holy and Holies, but they were wrong....

Clue #2: God just isn't present in the Temple, but everywhere, even in the foulest places imaginable.

Finally, last week, Charlotte talked about how sometimes the Good News sounds like bad news. But in this case, the Ninevites don't hear bad news. Even though Jonah was outsider who reeked of fish vomit, the word from the Lord was received whole-heartedly by the entire city-state. More than likely God had been preparing their hearts to hear the Good News of God's willingness to reconcile them to Him. Maybe it was because, as some scholars believed, the Ninevites worshipped sea gods, and thus could take a guy vomited out of a fish seriously. Maybe doubt had already existed in the minds of those in power that they were leading people in the wrong direction. Who knows. All we know is the word of the Lord is received by Ninevah. For them, the word is Good News. But in a world where the Pharisees and Sadduccees saw those who didn't know God as second-class citizens, as sinful lost pagans, as the enemy, that God would use an Israelite prophet to call foreigners to repentance, and to do so successfully, was bad news. It was inconceivable. It meant, really and truly, that God wanted to use his people to be a light of hope. To speak in a way that hearts who had not heard Him yet were being prepared to hear. The Pharisees and Sadduccees wanted to write the rest of the world off, but

Clue #3: The Good News doesn't always sound like Good News to us, particularly if we have to make room God's couch (or even give up our seat) to let others rest near Him.

Which brings us today. Jonah, having watched God spare Nineveh, is ticked. In his heart of heart, we find out, unequivocally, that Jonah's biggest fear is that God will forgive a nation of people he deeply hates, and hates with good reason. They have, in the past treated Israel cruelly. They've committed unimaginable crimes against the most innocent Israelites. Jonah doesn't even want to imagine that God might let these people off, let alone actually care about them.

Even love them.

The Pharisees and Sadducees hate a lot of people. They hate sinners because they believe they were blocking the day God's justice and judgment would come. They hated Samaritans because for historical reasons, they worshiped God in a different temple, and while they had Jewish blood in them, had intermarried with, of all people, Ninevites.

And they hated Romans. Man did they hate Romans. They hated them the most of all. They hated them for their cruelty. They hated them for being pagans. They hated because they made life so difficult for everybody with their corrupt, brutal form of government and taxation.

They hated them. Hated them to the degree that the idea that, like Jonah in today's scripture, the idea of being personally inconvenienced bothered them more than the death and destruction of every Roman man, woman, and child. Whole families wiped out meant less than a lack of shade for themselves on a hot, hot day.

The Pharisees and Sadducees prayed for the wrath of God to destroy their enemies, but...

Clue #4: God's mercy is extended to all, and where it's accepted, it will be released like a torrent whether or not you think the receiver is worthy.

Four clues to understand the sign of Jonah. When we add them up, what do we get?

God's desire is to be reconciled with all humanity.

So, here's the question: Are you a sign of God's desire?

That's a big question. For all their knowledge of scripture... all the energy in living a Holy life... even the work they would do for the widows and orphans.... the Pharisees and Sadducees weren't signs of God's desire.

I find this to be personally very sobering. We can hate sin and what it does to people, but we've no license to hate people themselves no matter how infuriating we might think they are. In fact, we're called to be sign posts of God's desire of reconciliation and peace. To speak in ways that hearts are already being prepared to hear. In Jonah's case, the word was straight and simple, covered in fish vomit and seaweed.

I know there are plenty of people out there who would be happy to speak a straight and simple word to people who they felt were the most vile sinners. But they'd rather speak that word on a high horse, gleaming white in the bright sunlight assured that God's smiting would smite those needed to be smoted.

The best example, bar none, that I can think of is the Phelps family in Topeka, Kansas. The folks who travel around to let you know that God's judgment on America is sealed. Do you know these folks have called you dogs? They've called you whores? They've called our church, this church, a dog kennel, and me a son of hell? A young man from our community whose grandmother, in particular, was a long-time faithful member of this church, died in action while serving in Iraq. When Christian Neff's death was announced, it didn't take 24 hours for the Westboro Baptist Church to announce their intention to picket his funeral at this church.

They said he was going to hell. That our church is a dog kennel. That you are all whores. That I am a false prophet. And not one word uttered at us, or to anyone else anywhere, is said with the hope that you or I will be redeemed. In their sick, twisted minds, all the Phelps family wants is for you and I to hate them with even greater passion. For their contempt for humanity, anyone who is not them, is so great, that they would pray that your hate would grow so that your torment in hell, forever would be greater and greater.

They have no idea what the sign of Jonah is.

For it doesn't really matter how virtuous a life you lead. If it's devoid of love and compassion for others - particularly the most unlovable of the unlovable - Paul, a Pharisee who one day woke up to discover that even though he knew Jonah's story backwards and forwards, didn't live a life that understood it's meaning, tells us that if you gave everything you had to the poor, possessed the power to make mountains jump, or even offer yourself as a martyr for the faith, if you don't love, if you don't stand as a sign post of God's desire to be reconciled with everyone, every chip you think you've earned with God, is a sham and a dream.

Listen... be principled. Be disciplined. Hold yourself to the highest standards. Believe passionately in God's righteousness and put yourself to the task of working out that righteousness out in your own life.

But don't hate. Don't scapegoat. Not anybody.

Not your that person who hurt you. Not that person who abandoned you. Not that person who is a vile pig. Nobody.

God is calling you to dream His dream... the reconciliation of his children to Himself.

Now, don't get me wrong. I get that what I'm asking you to do is virtually impossible. Everybody hates somebody, me included. African warlords who enslave children to slaughter in their name. Druglords who rule with fear and intimidation to enslave others. Adults who do unmentionable things to children.

If it were up to me, I'd say just kill 'em all, and let God sort them out. I don't care about the circumstances. I don't care about what happened to them as children or whatever it is that has turned these people into sociopaths.

But I hate to say this... God's compassion for whoever it is you've decided is the scum of humanity it not withheld. It does not yield. There is an ocean of mercy that need only to be accepted waiting to wash over every single one of these people.

And what's more, I just might be the person who needs to be the sign of God's forgiveness for the very person I hate. A sign that may, out of my unwillingness to go when called to speak the Good News in a way hearts are already being prepared to receive, might have to be delivered with a humiliated, defeated me, smelling of fish vomit and covered in seaweed.

So, let me leave you with this. Sin, I think, has left each of us just little bit challenged. Emotionally challenged. Intellectually challenged. Spiritually challenged. We have obstacles to overcome to begin embracing God's dream. Challenges to be overcome to be an effective disciple of Jesus. Challenges to be overcome so that we can effectively disciple others.

We hate somebody. We don't believe in ourselves. And we're tempted to put others down so we can stand on their bent backs to try to put us a little bit closer to God.

But even if we're imperfect, if we trust God, we can in certain moments, with certain people, being the perfect mirror, reflecting the light of love into a dark place not suitable anyone.

Are you a sign of God's desire? Will you trust Him to fashion you into beacon of hope He needs you to be?