Monday, October 31, 2016

Prayers from a Shark's Stomach - Jonah 2

Jonah tried to run from the call of God on his life. In his disobedience, he abandoned God’s people and set sail for Tarshish, in modern Lebanon. But God would not let him go. God brought a great storm on the waters. Jonah was cast into the sea, but he did not drown. Instead, a great fish swallowed him. Even so, Jonah lived. 

Both Jonah’s calamity and his salvation came directly from God. The storm was an act of God. The impossible fish was from God too--no ordinary fish would have been big enough to allow him to live in his belly. God was in charge from start to finish.

The story of Jonah is true, but it also has symbolic meaning. When we disobey God, calamity comes. When calamity comes, God preserves us so we can have time to turn our lives around. We may not endure a physical storm, but we all have calamity come to us in one form or another--divorce, bankruptcy, nervous breakdowns, loss of job, loss of health, addictions, failures, and defeats. Our disaster may seem total—like being swallowed by a shark.  But we do not die. God uses our defeat to redirect us towards a greater destiny and a more fruitful manifestation of His will.

Does everyone who gets swallowed by sharks survive? No! Jonah is an exception to the norm. Not everyone who faces catastrophes today survive either. Jonah should have died in that fish’s belly.  We don’t know how he survived, but we know why he survived. He survived because he reached a decision in that fish—a decision that he carried with him when he came out of it. If he had not come to that decision, he would have remained fish food.   When we undergo disaster, we either change or die. That change starts with our relationship to God. 

Jonah 2 is Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish.

Prayer is a direction of thought, feeling and action towards God. When we undergo a calamity, we turn our thoughts to God.

The opposite of prayer is panic. Panic is when our thoughts and emotions direct us, instead of us mastering them. Panic drives us to give up, run away, or strike out at others. You can’t panic and pray at the same time--you either do one or the other. Jonah realized it was no good wasting his emotional energy on needless panic, so he focused that energy in a productive way by turning it into prayer to God.

Jonah’s prayer thoughts focused in three directions—backward in a truthful assessment of life story, upward in a recognition of God’s glory, and forward in thankfulness to his future salvation.
Jonah looked backward.
Proverbs 29: 18 states, “Without vision, the people perish.”  Vision comes from how we tell the story of our lives. The way we interpret the past determines how we live in the present and future. In the midst of disaster, we must examine why things have happened so we can regain our equilibrium and recover our hope.

A testimony is a critical part of a Christian’s spiritual armor. It is not just for telling others about Jesus, but for reminding ourselves of what God has done. Our testimony is the recollection of what God has already done in our lives. 

Jonah in his prayer reveals his interpretation of his recent past. He recognizes that everything that has come upon him came from the hand of God.  God caused the storm. God caused him to be cast into the sea. God sent the fish to swallow him just as he was going down for the last time. Jonah also realized that the only reason he was alive was because of that fantastic fish. What looked like his worst nightmare turned out to be his only salvation.

Every obstacle in your path is God’s obstacle. God has set it there for a reason, to make you stronger and better. Instead of thanking God for this, we either curse Him or doubt Him. If we say God did not create it, then we are inferring that something else did--something more powerful than God. If we say God did create it, and will not provide us a means of coping, then we make God our enemy. But if we recognize that the insurmountable obstacles in our lives are God’s way of changing our direction to a better direction, then we see them as agents of mercy, not means of destruction. The storm and the fish were God’s way of demonstrating how much he loved Jonah. 

Our testimony is the record of God’s work in our lives. Jonah testified to himself that he did not drown. If God had brought him that far, maybe He would bring him a little farther. If God’s hand had brought him safe so far, maybe he would bring him home. That’s what our testimony is—something we tell to ourselves when we are ready to panic and run. Our testimony are the memories that remind us of God’s faithfulness. Putting our testimony in words gives us a tool to fight despair. 

But what if you don’t have a testimony?  What if you cannot think of a way to interpret your story as God’s deliverance? That is where other people can help you. When others tell their testimony, it gives us reason to believe. 

Look at the stories of others.  Jonah testified to what God can do even when you are lost at sea.  Daniel testified to what God can do in a den of lions. Joseph testified what God can do when you are abandoned in a pit and sold into slavery. Mary Magdalene testified to what God can do when you have seven demons in you. Look at the testimony of others and know that God is still in charge. 
Jonah looked upward.

Seeing what God has done in the past leads us to focus on the present. Eastern religions have a word for this--mindfulness. Mindfulness is accepting the present as it is without fear or worry.  It is appreciating the now without waiting for things to get better. It is approaching today with thankfulness and appreciation. 

Jonah didn’t wait till he got on land to start thanking God. He thanked God for his current situation, because he isn’t dead.

We need to be mindful of the blessings we have now, and not judge our lives by where we were or where we want to be. Living too much in the past or future will make us miserable.

I had a friend who had been in the oil business in Texas. In those days, he had a salary that was many times what I made as a minister. He had one child, I had three. His wife did not have to work. His son went to a wealthy private school. But he lost his job and moved to take a job with half the salary. It was still more than what I made. Yet he came to me for counseling, because he was afraid he would not be able to keep his son in a private school and his wife might have to get a job. He was sincerely miserable because he had less than he used to, which was still more than most people. He could not thank God for the abundance he had today. This is the opposite of mindfulness. When we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we have, then we get depressed. But thanking for what we have brings us contentment. 

Jonah didn’t whine about being stuck in a shark’s stomach, but he gave thanks that he wasn’t dead. His mind focused on the present, that God had preserved his life. 

Jonah also recognized that he was better off than most people who were not in the digestive tract of a shark. He prayed, Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. He pitied those whose faith was misplaced. Jonah knew that if he died in the fish’s stomach, he was still more blessed than those who followed vain idols, because he was going to heaven and they were not.  
Don’t envy the rich and popular. They will go to their graves and die in sin. We will die in the Lord, and whatever happens to us is more blessed than what happens to the lost.

Richard Wurmbrandt was a Romanian pastor who was kept for eighteen years in a Soviet prison for preaching the Gospel. When he was first arrested his torturers would play a game with him where they would put a gun to his head and count down from ten, threatening to kill him, just to see how he would react. The first time they tried it, Wumbrandt realized that in ten seconds, he would be with Jesus and a look of ecstasy came over his face. He shouted, “Go ahead, I’m ready.” He came to pity his torturers, because he knew that in God’s eyes, he was far better off than they were. 

I wish all of us could see people the way Jonah did—that we are better off in a fish’s belly with God, than in a mansion without Him.  

Jonah looked forward.

      Jonah repented of his running from God.  Repentance is not a feeling of remorse, nor is it detailed recollection of past wrongs, but it is a decision about the future. Repentance is a decision to change our direction in life.  Repentance is not tied to our feelings of guilt, but to our experience of hope.  It is saying, “I am not the man I was. I can be better.”

Jonah realized if God was keeping him alive in that fish, then he must have a plan for his life. It was not God’s will that he would die in the fish, but that he would survive and do something with his life.
We were created to do something for Christ, not to die in despair. God has a plan for us, which includes making a difference in life. We all do something different, but as long as we are alive, He can still use us.  

My mentor in the ministry was a man named Dr. Robert Marshburn. When he was about my age, he suffered a massive heart attack, and almost died.  He recovered, though and went on to enjoy several productive years of ministry.  Dr. Marshburn told me that he was lying in the bed feeling fretful and anxious. Then a verse came to him that became his life verse from that point on—Jeremiah 29: 11, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That heart attack was his Jonah experience. Whether it’s a heart attack or a shark attack, we all come to a point of decision whether or not we will embrace God’s salvation or perish in despair.

God has a plan and a purpose for your life. Embrace that purpose and trust in Him. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Can You Run Away From God? - Jonah 1

 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil[a] has come up before me.”But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Who was Jonah? The Bible never calls him a preacher, priest or prophet. He was a believer, certainly, but if he was anything more, the Bible is silent about it. But he was called to be a prophet to Nineveh. 

Anyone can be a prophet. A prophet can be someone who speaks to a nation or city, or it can be someone who speaks to a friend, a relative, or a stranger. Anytime we are saying what God wants us to say, then we are being a prophet. If God calls us, we have to speak.
But what if we don’t speak?  Suppose that God tells us to speak and we ignore it?  What does God do?

Jonah’s story isn’t about a whale. It’s about a man who was called to speak, and tried to ignore it. It’s really about all of us who are called to speak for God and who keeps their mouth shut.
Jonah tried not to speak. Jonah must have struggled with that calling for a long time. The Word of God troubled him at night, and haunted his mind in the daytime. It wouldn’t go away. Finally, Jonah couldn’t stand it anymore so he ran.

Jonah thought that if he left God’s people he wouldn’t have to listen to God anymore. If he ran from Israel, then God would leave him alone. People are doing the same thing every day. We live in a day of great immorality which is the real reason people are leaving the church. They run from the church because they are running from God. 

But even if we run, God is with us. We can’t run far enough or fast enough to avoid His calling on our lives.

The Bible does not tell us why Jonah ran, but we know enough to guess at some of it. Why does anyone run rom God?  The same reasons Jonah ran are the same as why we run from doing God’s will.
God called Jonah to go to preach to Nineveh.  Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. In the Seventh Century B.C it was the largest city in the world. It was located in Iraq, across the river from the modern city of Mosul--the last stronghold of ISIS.  For Jonah, being called to Nineveh was not much different from you or I being called to Mosul to preach. It seemed like suicide, just as preaching in Mosul would be today. 

Jonah ran out of fear. The Ninevites were known for their cruelty. They literally dissected whole countries. They broke up families and tribes and scattered their members throughout their kingdom. Anyone who resisted was murdered. No one was safe if you stood in the way of Nineveh. As far as Jonah was concerned, this was to him a suicide mission. He was afraid to say anything.

Jonah ran out of anger. The Ninevites had already attacked the northern kingdom of Israel. The “ten lost tribes” were destroyed by the Ninevites. These were Jonah’s people. He had every reason to be angry with them. Later in the book it is revealed that his anger was so strong that he actually wanted the whole nation to go to hell. Why should he preach to people he did not want to be saved?
Put yourself in Jonah’s sandals. A foreign country destroys America, and takes away your wife, children, family and friends. Then God calls you to go and minister to those people. Would you do it? 
Sometimes God calls us to that very thing.  Even so, we find ourselves resisting.

Jonah ran because he was looking for peace.  How did Jonah afford a ticket to Tarshish? Most people couldn’t. He must have been at least middle class if he could afford a ticket to a foreign country. Tarshish was a popular and prosperous town—a tourist destination for the Israelites. The Phoenicians were among the richest traders of the ancient world.

Eugene Peterson in his book, Under the Upredictable Vine compared Tarshish to every preacher’s ideal ministry. Preaching in Tarshish would be like being a part-time preacher to millionaires in Hawaii.  Preachers get itchy for a new, exciting ministry in places where it is easy.

Laypeople get the same itch. They see big churches where people can sit back and do nothing, but still find all the help they want, where everyone gets along, and where they can be involved just as much as they want to. Some churches are easy. But God doesn’t call us all to easy ministry. We are called to hardship, suffering, sacrifice, and even dangerous places. Don’t think if you are doing God’s will things will go well. Sometimes you do God’s will and you still go through hell!  Jesus did God’s will perfectly, and they crucified Him. Paul counts suffering for Christ a privilege. Jonah would have much preferred a cushy life in Tarshish to a short life in Nineveh. But those God trusts the most are called to war. Those who are the most faithful serve in hard places, not the easy ones.

Jonah ran out of insecurity. Maybe we believe in God, but do we believe in ourselves? Who will listen to us?  Many of us trust God, but do not believe God can speak through us. 

We know ourselves too well. We live in doubt and fear, because we cannot believe that God can use us. We cannot feel God’s love and protection, so we feel insecure in serving Him. 

But God loves us and calls us, warts and all. He expects us to fail, He counts on us to fail so we can succeed. What makes Jonah’s story so significant is not that he succeeded at Nineveh, but it was how God overcame his fleshly fear to get him there. No one ever talks about Nineveh but about how he was so disobedient that God had to create a great beast to fetch him!

Jonah ran for at least some of these reasons. But he had a problem. You can’t run from God.
Sometimes God allows us to escape. Other times God does not. God allows us free will, but He loves us too much to let us escape His love. God interferes with our plans when He really shows His mercy. Only then do we know the severe mercy of God. 

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

Jonah could not escape the presence of the Lord. But he made three serious miscalculations.
He underestimated the reach of God.  He thought that God only existed inside the “religious” world of Israel. But God is the God of all the earth, not just a part.

He underestimated the power of God. He thought that a ship which depended solely upon the winds and the currents and the waves could go against the will of God, who made the winds and the currents and the waves. We can never build ourselves up enough to resist the power of God who made the heavens and the earth.

He underestimated the witness of God. He thought that the sailors on the ship had nothing to do with God. But most men will call on God when they are faced with a life-and-death situation. Its one thing to live your lives without God, but few will face death without calling to Him. The knowledge of God is even in people who do not think they believe. If he had realized who God was, he might not have run. 

Whenever we refuse to speak about God, we assume that people will not listen to Him. But people are hungrier for God than we think. When the Power of God is with us, people listen. 

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. 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.”
13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard[b] to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 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.
17 [c] And the Lord appointed[d] a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The sailors threw him overboard, and the seas calmed. That should have been the end of the story, but it is just the beginning. Jonah was broken seemingly beyond the chance of repair. God sent a fish to swallow him. 

Most of the time, when a shark or a whale swallows you, you’re dead. His killer became his lifeboat. What an act of mercy!

God does many similar acts of severe mercy.  We fail at one thing and succeed at something else. We stumble on the wrong path to start on the right one. We get fired from one job, to find another. We lose friends to find new ones. We are abandoned and divorced, but find new love. That mercy feels as hard as the jaws of a shark clamping over us. Yet we survive and find our way forward. 

The point of this story is not to argue whether can survive in a whale, but whether God ever gives up on us. Our connection with God is predicated on our obedience. But if we are disobedient, God will pursue us. He really loves us enough to interfere with our running, and to redirect us towards His perfect will. 

But why should we challenge Him? Why should we resist? Listen to God and obey him from the first. Maybe we won’t have to be swallowed by Jaws to find our way to Him. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Parables of the Kingdom - Matthew 13: 31-52

Matthew 13 is a collection of eight parables. Today we will only deal with six of those eight.  These six parables are verses 31-52. Together they present a single message that our Lord wants us to hear about the “Kingdom of Heaven”.
The kingdom of heaven is wherever God rules. It is in our hearts, it is heaven, it is the church, but it is also coming here on earth. But for the sake of our discussion we will confine ourselves to the church as the visible representation of the kingdom of heaven on earth. These six parables are a message to us about how God works in the church.
What do they say about the church? Basically, it teaches us three lessons.  
First, He teaches that the church will grow.  Look at verses 31-33:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
These two parables are parallel. Both have something small that grows bigger. A mustard seed grows to the largest plant in the field. A bit of yeast leavens the whole lump of dough.
 That growth occurs effortlessly. Trees and yeast are living things. As long as they are alive they are growing. Numerical and spiritual growth come because we are alive in Christ. A seed, giving the right conditions will germinate. Yeast given the right conditions to sustain its life will multiply. God made them to grow. A church planted in the midst of the world, watered by the Word and Spirit will accomplish the will of the Father in spite of all obstacles.
The mustard seed grows into a big shrub and the birds come and nest in its branches. The birds are the lost and hurting people of the world, who are looking for some place to rest. It makes no difference to the tree whether it is big or little—birds will rest in it.
Whether a church is big or small makes no difference. Even the smallest church can grow, and can minister. We need to get our minds off the idea that we have to get bigger to be better. Instead, we need to focus our attention on being the most faithful to God that we can be where God planted us. The more active the yeast, the quicker it grows. The more passionate we are about doing the will of the Father, and the more we concentrate on growing deeper spiritually ourselves, the more we will be able to increase numerically, and the more impact we will have on the rest of the world.
God desires for His church to grow. If we are following His will, then we cannot help but grow. It will occur naturally, if we live obediently in the Kingdom of God.
Second, if we want the church to grow, we have to make the sacrifice. Look at verses 44-46:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Again, Jesus uses two parallel parables—a treasure hidden in the field and a pearl of great price.  In both parallels, He uses these three words---“he sold everything.”  The man with the treasure in the field sold everything else for it. The merchant found the pearl, and sold everything for it, too. They sold everything because they knew the value of their investment. They knew that if they could buy the field or the pearl they would multiply many times over what they had. 
If the church is destined to grow, and God desires for the church to grow, then why are many churches, including ours, not growing?  The answer seems obvious--they won’t pay the price. There are too many ideas, possessions, and comforts that we will not sell, not even for the kingdom.
Suppose you have a heart condition. The doctor tells you to change your diet.  Your health becomes your pearl of great price. What is a cheeseburger when compared to your life? You give up the habits of a lifetime for the sake of your life.
What will we give up to grow God’s church?  We’ve starve the church by forsaking the tithe. We insist that everything stay the same, preferring our comfort to God’s work. We hold back our time and energy, then we wonder why a church doesn’t grow.
We have to take care of ourselves and our own, there is no disputing that. We have to remain strong so we can do more to help. But we must still acknowledge that God’s kingdom demands our sacrificial giving. If we only give when it’s comfortable or convenient, then it is not a sacrifice. 
Third, the church will grow, if we use all available means. Look at 47-52.
 "Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
 "Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked. "Yes," they replied.
 He said to them, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."
Jesus compares the kingdom to net fishing, not line fishing. When you’re line fishing, you bait for particular kinds of fish. In net fishing you aren’t selective. You may separate good fish from junk fish later, but at first, you bring them all in. The secret of growing the church is to be inclusive and unparticular. 
Someone told D. L. Moody once that he didn’t like his way of evangelizing. Moody asked back what his preferred method of evangelism was. The man replied, “Sir, I do not do evangelize.”
Moody answered, “I like my way of doing it more than your way of not doing it.”
The church doesn’t exist only for saints. It exists for sinners. We are here on earth to change the world. We can’t say it isn’t our responsibility. As long as we are on this earth, we must use any available means to bring people into the kingdom.
 Dr. Manfred Gutzke was a seminary professor, evangelist and avid fisherman. He’d visit a friend’s private lake and take several fishing rods. He’d set some on the bottom with worms, others on the top with minnows, and some in the middle with crickets. When one rod produced results, then he would set them the same way. His method of fishing was determined by the preference of the fish, not his own. The same was true of his method of evangelism.  If we are serious about doing God’s will, we must be flexible enough to do what is necessary to bring people to Christ. It may not be our preferred method of fishing, but if it produces results, then that is what we should do.
The second parable teaches the same message in a different way. When you live in a house for many years, you collect junk in your attic—pictures, lamps, etc. You may not think of them, until you move into a new house. You may go out and shop for new stuff for the house. You also rummage through the stuff you have in the attic. Some of the junk you stored in the past now works, when it didn’t before.
When we look at the methods for building a church it’s the same. There is no real difference between old and new methods. The important thing is that our methods bring results. If we get stuck on saying that ideas are better because they are new or because they are old, then we will miss the point. Methods must fit the situation. If we are sold out to the kingdom, then we must be flexible.
Let me summarize:
The Kingdom of Heaven, that is the church, will naturally grow. It is God’s will.
The Kingdom of Heaven, that is, the church, will grow if we are willing to make a sacrifice. It is the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. If we hold back even part of what we own or have, then the church may not grow. 
The Kingdom of Heaven, that is the church, will grow, if we are willing to use any available means. If we hold on to methods and ideas simply because they sound innovative, or because they are traditional, then the church will not grow. If we are willing to truly serve God, and to do whatever it takes, then God will honor us by bringing growth.

First of all, we must determine whether or not we are part of the Kingdom. Is Jesus your hidden treasure, your pearl of great price? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to worship Him? If you are, then become part of His visible kingdom on earth, where you can make a difference.