1 of 4 in the series "Inside~Out: Developing the Heart of God" More sermons by Charles Sackett at http://www.madisonparksermons.com Audio also available at http://www.madisonparksermons.com
There is a story Fred Craddock tells about his first church, young preacher, upper east Tennessee near Oak Ridge. He says when Oak Ridge came to boom with the atomic energy that little bitty town became a booming city overnight. Every hill and every valley and every shady grove had recreational vehicles and trucks and things like that. People came in from everywhere to pitch tents, lived in wagons, hard hats from everywhere with their families, their children paddling around in the mud in their trailer parks, lived in everything temporarily just to work.
Our church wasn’t far away. We had a beautiful little church, white framed building, 112 years old. The church had an organ in the corner, which one of the young fellows had to pump while Miss Lois played it. Boy, she could play the organ just as slow as anyone. The church had beautifully decorated chimneys, kerosene lamps all around the walls. Every pew in this little church was hand hewn from a giant poplar tree.
After church one Sunday I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, we need to launch of a calling campaign, an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church. Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they would fit in here, one of them said. They are just here temporarily, just construction people. They will be leaving pretty soon. Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home, I said. We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we would vote next Sunday.
Next Sunday we all sat down after the service. I move, said one of them, I move that in order to be a member of this church you must own property in the county. Someone else said, I second that. It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and didn’t get a vote. It passed.
When we moved back to these parts, I took my wife to see that little church. I had told her that painful, painful story. The roads have changed.
The interstate goes through that part of the country, so I had a hard time finding it, but I finally did. I found the state road, the county road, a little gravel road. There it was, back there among the pines, that building shining white. It was different. The parking lot was full. Motorcycles, trucks, cars packed in there. Out front a great big sign, BBQ, all you can eat. It’s a restaurant.
So we went inside. The pews were up against the walls. They have electric lights now. The organ is pushed off in the corner. There are all these aluminum and plastic tables and people sitting around eating BBQ pork and chicken and ribs, all kinds of people, Parthians, Meades, Edomites, dwellers of Mesopotamia, all kinds of people. I said to Nettie, it’s a good thing this isn’t still a church because these people wouldn’t be welcome here.
Why is it that it’s so easy to have people feel unwelcome? How is it that it’s so distinctly possible to have a group of people feel as if they don’t belong? Or, worse yet, how is it possible for us to communicate within ourselves that there are some people we would just as soon not have among us? How in the world did Jonah get to the place that he got to that God said, I want you to go to Nineveh and preach, and he said, I think I’ll go the other way? How do we get to that place that the place next to us is reserved for somebody that we approve?
Let’s look at Jonah, first few verses just to start with of Jonah Chapter 1. Jonah Chapter 1, that’s on Page 916 if you happen to be looking at one of those pew bibles in front of you. It’s only about a page long, so it’s not like it’s easy to find. Jonah Chapter 1. We will be in the first chapter today. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, ’Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa where he found the ship bound for that port. After paying the fair, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord."
Lots of interesting things in this first chapter that we don’t get to see quite as clearly in our English translations, things that ought to help us understand what it is that’s happening here. You see, the text says, "Jonah, get up and preach."
And the next verse says, "Jonah got up." It sounds like he is going to obey, but he doesn’t. He turns and he hightails it in the other direction. In fact, he goes to Tarshish. The text three times says specifically Tarshish. He went to Tarshish, except we don’t know where Tarshish is. We think that it’s probably in southern Spain, and if that’s true, travel would have meant that it would have taken him approximately three years to make the round trip. It kind of sounds like he is not planning on getting to Nineveh anytime soon.
And then you have this interesting language: "The wickedness of Nineveh has come before the Lord."
That language of arising before the Lord is countered in this text in three different places where it says Jonah went down to Joppa and then he went down to the ship and then in verse 5 he went down into the hold of the ship as if he is doing exactly the opposite of what God is calling him to do, arise, get up. He is not getting up. He is going down, and he is running in the other direction.
And you finally find yourself saying, well, why is he doing that? Why would he run? Why would he not want to go to Nineveh? Surely he understood that you can’t run from God? Right? He is a good Jewish prophet. He would have known his contemporary Amos.
Just back up two pages in your bible to Amos Chapter 9 and listen to what God says about his own relationship with Israel when he decides that he is going punish Israel. Israel thinks they are going to get away. And look what he says at the end of verse number 1, Amos Chapter 9. "Not one will get away. None will escape. Though they dig down to the depths of the grave, from there my hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens, from there I will bring them down. Though they hide themselves on top of Carmel, there I will hunt them down and seize them. Though they hide from me at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent to bite them."
And if he didn’t know his friend Amos’s prophecy, he surely would have been familiar with the Psalms, the worship book of Israel. Psalm 139, verses 7 and 8 in particular, a Psalm that, well, frankly most everybody knows. Psalm 139 verse 7: "Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths of the sea, you are there."
He should have known he couldn’t get away, and yet here he is running because he doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. Now, why in the world would he not want to go to Nineveh? Because it was one bad place. Well, at least that’s the speculation as to why he didn’t want to go. And it is true, it was one nasty place. If you look over about two or three books in the scripture to Nahum, the book that’s written about Nineveh, and come to Nahum Chapter 3, you will hear the way that God describes this City of Nineveh. Nahum Chapter 3, Verse 1: "Woe to the city of blood, never without victims." A bloody city. In fact, one man says about this particular place Nineveh, she earned this title by her atrocious practice of cutting off hands and feet, ears and noses, gouging out eyes, lopping off heads and then binding them to vines or heaping them up before the city gates, and the utter fiendishness by which captives could be impaled or flayed through, a process by which their skins was gradually and completely taken away.
Now, he must have been afraid. He might have been scared out of his mind to go to their enemy. I mean, after all, Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria. Assyria is making threats to come down and destroy the ten northern tribes of Israel. Surely Jonah didn’t go because he was afraid. He is afraid all right, but he is not afraid of Nineveh. Jonah is afraid of God. Oh, not because
God is someone to be feared in a sense of God might do him harm. His problem is he knows God too well.
Listen to Chapter 4, the end of the book after Jonah has preached and Nineveh has repented and Jonah now pouts because God allowed them off the hook. Jonah Chapter 4, Verse 2 is probably the key verse in the entire book. Jonah Chapter 4, Verse 2: "Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That’s why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."
His problem was he was afraid all right. He was afraid that God would let them off the hook. Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed, and he was so afraid that if he went there and preached that God would let them down, let them off the hook, and so he ran the other direction. He hated Nineveh so bad he would do whatever it took to keep them from hearing the good news.
Now back to my question. How is it possible for the heart of a follower of Jesus to become so much against the person that you would want to deny them the privilege of hearing about Jesus? How is it possible for a christian to so dislike a person or a group of people that you wouldn’t want them in the pew next to you?
Fred tells the story about a neighbor girl, typical neighbor girl, the kind of neighbor girl you probably have down the street from you, except this particular girl made some bad choices, got herself into the some trouble, had difficulty. In fact, she ended up getting arrested and sent to jail. She had a prison term to serve. While she was in prison she gave birth to an illegitimate child, wasn’t married to the father, was raising the child in prison when it came.
And then an invitation arrived in the mail to everybody in the neighborhood. You’re all invite to a party. Sally is coming home. A party for Sally? The day of the party arrived. There were signs at the end of the block pointing the way to Sally’s house. There was a great big sign over the garage hanging that said, Welcome Home, balloons tied to the street signs.
And Fred says, I carefully timed mowing the lawn that day. In fact, he said, my timing was perfect. I was just pushing my lawnmower into the garage when the car drove up, so I stepped behind the edge and peeked out. Yeah, that was her. Oh, man, they are hugging her. They are welcoming her home like a long lost child. And, oh, look at the way they are taking care of that baby, they are treating that baby. They are hugging and kissing on that baby. Oh, he said, they almost saw me. And then I realized, I have been so engrossed in what was happening at the neighbor’s I almost missed going to prayer meeting.
How is it that we can become so disenchanted with someone that we would not want them sitting next to us in church? How is it that we can become so hateful that we would not want somebody to hear the good news? Surely God must have been mistaken when he said whosoever will, right? God must have been using hyperbole or something. He really didn’t mean it when he said in John Chapter 3, whoever believes in me might have eternal life. Surely He was wrong in Romans Chapter 10 when he said that with the mouth confession is made unto salvation, with the heart we believe unto righteousness, and He quotes the old testament text that whoever comes will not be put to shame, that whoever comes, anyone who comes will be welcomed in his kingdom. Surely God must have been mistaken when He said that. He must not have been saying it straight.
If you listen to the rest of the story, it seems like he was pretty serious about the whole thing. We pick it up in Verse 4. I love the way that the text actually reads. It’s unfortunate that the NIV doesn’t give you a better word for this word "sent". But I’ll give you the word because it’s such a good one. Then the Lord hurled a great storm. Isn’t that a great word? The Lord hurled a great storm, like there is a lot of intention going on here. He hurled a storm, and such a violent storm it was that the ship was threatened to break up and the sailors were afraid. They were actually terrified. Can you imagine a bunch of seagoing men who spend their life on the ocean and they are terrified at the storm?
I’ve been in a storm that was terrifying, to me, out on the Pacific Ocean in a boat, three decker. The pilot was up on the third deck when the storm came up. Pretty soon the waves were crashing over the top of that third deck. We are all down in the hole trying to stay dry and hopefully save our lives. I take the risk of sneaking out from below deck and sticking my head up there to see what this captain is doing, and he looks scared. That is not comforting. So I ask him, how’s it going? Not so well. Well, what are we going to do? He said, well, we are going to try to cross the bar before the tide turns. If we don’t get in across the bar before the tide turns, we are out here for the rest of the night. I decided it was time to be terrified.
These sailors are terrified. In fact, they are crying out to their gods, and they are hurling, same word, hurling the cargo into the sea to lighten the load; but Jonah, here is that word, had gone down below deck and was in a deep sleep. Man, this guy must sleep really well. I mean, he has got to sleep better than I do, and I sleep well. He is asleep, and the captain says, "How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God." That is fascinating. The very words that were used by God in the first part of this chapter when he says, Jonah, get up and go preach, is identical to this text. It’s like an echo of God. Jonah, get up and call on God. He must have been wondering how that language could have been so embedded in the sea captain. "Maybe," he says, "He will take notice of us and we’ll not perish."
"Then the sailors said to each other, come, let’s cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity. They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, tell us who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What’s your country? From what people are you?" Do you hear them peppering him? What’s going on? You’re responsible. What’s happening?
"I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land." They have been crying out to their patron saints hoping that one of them might be able to help, and Jonah comes along and says, oh, by the way, the God I worship he made this trouble and he made the sea we’re in. "That terrified them," as if it wasn’t bad enough already. "What have you done?" Does it sound familiar?
That’s exactly the same question that was asked in Genesis Chapter 3 when God came to Eve and said, what have you done? He knew she was running away from the Lord because He already told them that. "The sea was getting rougher and rougher, and so they asked him, ’What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us? Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you."
"Instead, the men did their best to row back to land." Is that not ironic? That’s got to be comedic, right? They are in a storm that has them absolutely terrified, and they decide they are going to row back to shore. Yeah, right. Maybe on a good day, but not on the day when God is hurling the storm. "They did their best, but they couldn’t, for the sea grew even wilder than before. And then they cried out to the Lord, ’Lord, please do not let us die for this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, oh, Lord, have done as you pleased.’"
"And then they took Jonah and they hurled him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm." Don’t miss Verse 16. "At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and they made vows to him." Even in the midst of the storm, even in the midst of Jonah’s failure to preach, even in the midst of all of that, the sailors see the power of God.
That is the nature of what we are talking about, you know. You see, God has a chance to do what God needs to do as long as he is visible. And he doesn’t have to be your success. All you have to do is be you out there where you are and let God be seen in you. Even when you’re failing, he can do something to produce results; but the key is you’ve got to be visible, and he has got to be seen. And that is the challenge, to allow God to be seen in us wherever we happen to be. That’s the challenge.
That’s why the windows are around the room, a picture of a house or houses and a school and a street and the world and a family, because what we are trying to say is God has you where he wants you. Be what he needs you to be right there. Let God be seen at work or at school or in your home or at your neighbors’, because if you will let God be seen in you, in your tragedy and in your triumph, at least he has a chance.
If you happen to be one of those people who has occasioned in here and you don’t yet know for sure, you’re not really positive about this whole christianity thing, you’re not really sure that God cares that much, can I just tell you this? God cares enough for you that he will send his reluctant prophet to the depths of the sea in order to get your attention and to speak to you. If you ever wondered if God loved you enough to care about your life, just read the book of Jonah, because he is communicating clearly, I care this much. And on behalf of all those reluctant prophets like me, who sometimes fail to be the spokesmen that God needed to be in your presence, would you accept my apologies on behalf of the rest of us for failing to let God be seen in us?
If you have determined a sense of unwelcomeness in the kingdom, if you have ever felt as if you didn’t belong and God didn’t care about you because of the likes of people like me, then I am saying to you "I’m sorry" on behalf of us all for giving you that message, because Jonah clearly communicates that’s not God. We may fail to welcome you, but God never will.
So I’m back to my question. How is it possible for followers of Jesus to ever find themselves in a place where they are really uncomfortable with the thought of a certain person or a certain kind of person sitting next to them in church? How is it possible that the church could ever get to a place that anyone would feel as if this was off limits to them?
Tony Campolo tells a story of being in Hawaii. For those of who you who travel much, you understand this. He lives in Philadelphia, and he was in Honolulu. When it’s 3:00 in the morning it feels as if it’s 9:00 in the morning, and so he is up walking the streets looking for breakfast at 3:00 in the morning, and he stumbles in a little greasy spoon.
Harry behind the counter wants to know what he wants. He says, I need some coffee and a doughnut. And he said he took his hands and he wiped them off on his dirty apron and he reached back and grabbed a doughnut, and he said, I’m pretty sure it had been back on the floor in the back, but he stuck it up on the counter and handed me some coffee. In the midst of trying to ignore the fact that this doughnut is not safe to eat, in walk eight or nine prostitutes.
Agnes sits on one side of him, and one of her friends sits down on the other side and start to have one of these crude prostitute conversations. Pretty soon Agnes says, tomorrow is my birthday, going to be 39. And her friend reaches around Tony and says, what do you want? You want a party or something? You want me to bring you a cake? She says, you don’t have to be so mean. I’m just telling you tomorrow is my birthday. I have never had a birthday cake in my life. Why would I expect you to bring one to me?
Campolo sat there until they all left. He says, do they come in here every night? He said, yeah, like clockwork. Agnes gets up here at 3:30. He says, I want to have a party here for her tomorrow night. Let’s have a birthday party. So Harry calls his wife up. She is the cook in the kitchen. They guy wants to have a party for Agnes tomorrow night. What do you think? I think it’s a great idea. Campolo says, I’ll bring the decorations and the cake. He says, no, the cake is on us. You bring the decorations.
2:00 in the morning the next morning Campolo shows up, decorates the entire place. He has got this place looking good. Big sign says Happy Birthday, Agnes. 3:15 he said somebody must have gotten the word out because every prostitute in Honolulu is in this restaurant, and in walks Agnes, and on cue they all begin to sing "Happy Birthday To You." She is so caught off guard, her knees begin to buckle, her friend holds her up and carries her, just helps her to a seat.
And Harry comes up out with a big birthday cake and 39 candles. Agnes, blow out the candles. I’ll blow them out for you if you don’t blow those candles out. He ended up blowing them out himself. Come on, Agnes, cut the cake. We all want some cake. Without ever taking her eyes off of the cake she said, can I take this home? I have never had a cake in my life. I want to show it to my mom. And he said, fine. And he said she walked out of that restaurant carrying the cake like it was a holy grail, and he said it was deadly silent in the restaurant.
He said, I did the only thing I knew to do. He said, lets’s pray. And so he prayed for Agnes, for her salvation, that God would be good to her. And as soon as he said Amen, Harry said, you didn’t tell me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you go to? He said, I go to a church that gives birthday parties to whores at 3:30 in the morning. And Harry said, no, you don’t, because if there was a church like that I’d join it.
I’m back to my question. How do we get to the place that it doesn’t matter who sits next to us in the pew? How do we come to the place where we begin to understand that there are people in our world outside those windows who need to hear the story of Christ? It can never happen if we are not right in here (indicating heart). Not in here (indicating head), in here (indicating heart). When we have come to grips with our own relationship with God, when we have begun to understand the grace that has been given to us, then and only then will we be able to extend grace to others. When you begin to hurt for lost people like God hurts, then it won’t matter who is sitting next to you. You’ll be rejoicing.
So here is the question. Who is it you’re not seeing? Who is it that your own personal bias has made you blind to, you can’t even see them, you can’t even hear them, you’re just totally oblivious to their presence because you have already decided who is acceptable in the kingdom and who isn’t? Watch this.
(Video shown to congregation.)
So who do you not see? Who passes by you everyday, sits across from you at work, school? Ever see them? You don’t know their name, and yet the hope that they need is in you bottled up, safely put away because you have already made up your mind who is acceptable in the pew or who isn’t. Are they rich? I’m pretty sure that they don’t need anything. They don’t fit here. They don’t belong here. They poor? They just wouldn’t feel good about being here with us. Already decided that if they are not white middle class that you know they just don’t belong in our pew? Not a part of your life, not a part of ours? Who is Jonah being told to go to? Oh, his name is not Jonah. It’s Chuck. The question is, who can we not see?
Our invitation to you this morning is really simple. To ask God to open your eyes, to ask him to open your heart to the people around you so that you see and hear what God sees and hears, to ask him to use you to speak to somebody that outside of you is never going to hear. Maybe this is the way to use that intentional Wednesday night coming up, to invite a friend to your house or to go someplace and go to dinner with somebody that you know you want to befriend, someone that you want to invite into your life. Maybe that Wednesday night that we have intentionally put on the calendar is so that you can invite another family from the church or some other friend to come over and you can intentionally begin to pray about where God is going to take you and who he is going to lead you to.
Whose life is he going to influence through you? Because the bottom line is this. Those people are lost outside of Jesus Christ, and you have the hope that they need. So I’m going to ask you one more time. To whom is God sending you? Who do you need to hear? Who do you need to see for the first time? We are going to sing about his amazing power to save, and we are going to sing this song for the next several weeks at the end of the sermons just as a way for us to commit ourselves to this task of being open to what God wants from us, to get rid of the bias, the preconceived decision that somebody just doesn’t fit, and to say literally whoever will may come. Would you join me and let’s sing this song.
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Dr. Chuck Sackett earned his Master of Divinity (Christian Ministries) degree from Lincoln Christian Seminary. He received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Currently he teaches at Lincoln Christian Seminary where he is Professor at Large of Preaching. He is also full-time preaching minister at Madison Park Church in Quincy, Illinois. Chuck is also the President of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.