Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Congregation of One - Luke 19:1-10

The ministry of Jesus lasted approximately three years. The first year was of introduction and proclamation. From a human standpoint, it was very successful. Thousands came out to see Him. The second year was the year of resistance and opposition. By human standards it was unsuccessful. Jesus was preaching a hard message, and the religious leaders marshaled resistance against Him everywhere. At the same time His disciples grumbled and feuded among themselves. Things got so bad that he even asked His disciples if they were going to leave him, too. He was forced out of Judea and Galilees, and went into the wilderness on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. 

The third year of Jesus’ ministry was spent in teaching and preparation. He slowly traveled down on the east bank of the Jordan River, preaching, teaching and performing miracles. Finally, in the month before the final Passover when Jesus was crucified, He approached Jericho, which was the gateway city for Judea and Jerusalem. As He did, the expectation of the crowd swelled again. Once again, the people began to look at Him as possibly the Messiah. Jericho is a large city east of Jerusalem, at the end of a mountain road. The road rises from Jericho and winds for forty miles before you reach Jerusalem.

It would have been a good place for Jesus to stop and preach, teach and heal. It was the last time Jesus would be in a major city before Palm Sunday. Crowds of pilgrims were passing through on their way to the Passover. Jesus could have stopped there and done some amazing ministry. But instead of stopping, He just passed through. 

Imagine the scene--hundreds, maybe thousands of pilgrims and citizens lining the road to see Jesus!  The dignitaries from the synagogues would have been in front. Beggars and sick people crowding the thoroughfares, pleading with Him to heal them. Spiritual seekers waited to hear Him preach. Pharisees and Scribes wanted to debate him.  What would he do in the short time He was with them? Would he preach, teach, heal, or debate—what would he make of those precious few hours?
Here’s what he did. He saw one little man in a tree and spent the whole day with him. A town full of sinners and sick people, and he spent all his time with just one man—a chief tax  collector who was the most hated man in town. It made no sense-no sense at all! Why did He waste such an opportunity? 

Zacchaeus as chief tax collector was universally despised. He was so hated that people wouldn’t even get out of the way and let him pass. He couldn’t even find anyone to give him a boost into the tree. He had to climb it all by himself.

Now, why should we care today what Jesus did that day in Jericho?  Does it make any difference to us where Jesus spent that afternoon? It does make a difference. It makes a life changing difference—at least, it does to me personally.  Jesus’ actions exposes and rebukes my greatest sin in ministry.   
Today, I want to speak to you not as pastor, but as a sinner.  I want to confess my greatest sin in ministry.  It is pride.  I love the limelight too much, and the praise of others.

I started my career as a youth director in a church with about seven hundred members. We had about a hundred and twenty young people. When I was twenty-three, our senior pastor had a heart attack, and I had to function as pastor for several months. I got good reviews. I was even asked to preach at Synod twice in my twenties. It was a great feeling.  I loved the praise and attention. I began to think of myself as “God’s man of faith and power.”  The pastor was retiring in a year or to, and he even suggested that I should stay and apply to be senior pastor. 

But the church wasn’t enough for me. It was too traditional, too stuck in the past. I wasn’t doing enough in the community. I wanted to see it bigger and livelier. Most of all, I wanted to have an influence far beyond the local church. My thoughts were to have a national, not just a local impact.

 An opportunity came up to plant my own church, and I took it. I thought in a year or two surely I would have a church of several hundred. But after four years, I had built it up to only about fifty. Looking for better opportunities, I left and took a church in Florida. I had a successful ministry there, adding about a hundred and twenty over seven years, but it wasn’t enough. I missed the acclaim that comes when you preach to hundreds. 

I accepted a call to a church of more than five hundred. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted to see exciting, soul stirring revival. I became dissatisfied. My dissatisfaction turned inward, and I fell into depression. Finally, I walked away.

I thought I would be called to a bigger church, or some soul-stirring ministry, but dozens of churches turned me down. God opened only one door for me, to the last place I ever wanted to go, a small church so far out in the country that there was little or no chance for growth. For a long time, I was bitter and resentful towards God that he seemed to have abandoned me. 

Slowly, God showed me the error of my ways.  Pride was driving me, not the Spirit. That little church at first seemed unimportant, but God’s Spirit was there. It was a place where I learned the importance of small things, and seemingly unimportant people.
I have told you my story for one reason, because we are all ministers. You are a minister of the Lord, the same as I. The only difference between us is that I have the responsibility of ministering within the institutional church, while you minister in the world. The vast majority of us will never minister to a lot of people, or in a way that will call a lot of praise or acclamation. Most of us minister to just a few or even one. You all shepherd someone. Your “flock” may be a youth group, a Bible study, a group of friends, acquaintances or your family. At some time, most of us will have a flock of one or two people like a baby, an aging parent, a sick husband or wife. You may spend years caring for only one person. You may think there are things more important that you are supposed to do, but there isn’t. This is a truth that escapes the career-bent--that loving one or two people completely is sometimes more important than the whole world.  

Many famous ministers have committed themselves to preaching and teaching the Gospel. But in the process they have forsaken their true flock, that one person God sent to them, that only they can love. I have known many preachers who have been faithful in the pulpit, but who have neglected or been unfaithful to their wives. Many have loved their congregations but lost their children. Dr.  R. A Torrey was one of the most influential preachers of his generation, yet none of his children stayed with the Lord. Francis Schaeffer was one of the great teachers of my generation, but his son stands today against everything he taught. Rick Warren is one of the greatest preachers of today, yet his son committed suicide. We cannot know why these children chose the paths that they did, but we cannot help but wonder if we, in saving the world, often miss the little people around us. If we ignore the importance of persons in our quest to change the world, then we will have missed the true purpose of God.
Jesus could have stood in that crowd in Jericho and delivered one of his great sermons. He could have healed a bunch of people, and received praise from the crowd. But instead He turned his attention to one lonely little man, He was not interested in reputation or acclaim, but in helping people one by one.
Think of the stories you remember about Jesus. Most of those stories center not on crowds, but individuals like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Nicodemus, Lazarus, the woman at the well, and so many others. These were private, not public ministry. Other people told the stories later, but most of it was totally invisible to the crowd. They were ministry opportunities taken by the prompting of the Spirit to a congregation of just one person. Jesus’ ministry style was to put the individual ahead of the crowd, to let changed lives be the witness to the world.

Billy Graham was once asked if he could live his ministry over, what would he change. He replied that he would devote himself to two men, whom would devote themselves to two men, who would devote themselves to two others, and so forth. He calculated that if he did, he would reach more of the world than all his books, crusades and television shows combined. The world is won one person at a time. A city full of people demanded Jesus’ attention, but Jesus gave it to one little man in a tree.
It’s not the big crowds that should interest us, but the little man in the tree. Ninety-nine sheep were in the fold, but the shepherd left to seek one. 
Zacchaeus’ story doesn’t end on that day. An afternoon with this man had a vast impact on the city of Jericho. Zacchaeus gave away half his income to feed the poor. Imagine what would happen if the richest man in our city made a pledge like that!  He became an honest tax collector, and as chief tax collector, he would have demanded that all the tax collectors under him did the same. Unfair taxation was the biggest gripe against the government. Jesus ended that practice in Jericho in a single afternoon!
We don’t know how far our influence will reach when we adopt a congregation of one. It may not go any farther than that one person, but that is all right.  We need to be reminded that God’s greatest works are done through networks of people being changed, and then changing others. Righteousness is from one person to another, by individuals meeting individuals.

I’d still like to preach to hundreds of people, and to see the world touched through me. But I have no power make that happen. That is up to God. The only thing I have to do is to be the best pastor, the best father, the best son, the best husband and the best friend I can be to one person at a time. We all must look for that one person who is our flock, and give our lives for them, and to do that all our lives, one person at a time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Art of Thankfulness - Colossians 3: 15-17

This passage speaks of two kinds of thankfulness—thankfulness to each other and thankfulness to God. 
The art of thankfulness was practiced in ancient times better than we know it today. The Vikings believed not to be grateful was the greatest sin a person could commit. 

Why don’t people today say it more? One reason is because we live in an informal age.  Common manners,  such as “please” and “thank you” have gone out of fashion. Another reason is because  we’re too busy. Who has time for “thank-you” cards when there’s so much to do? We get preoccupied, and we forget to be thankful.  

But giving thanks is a duty and a necessity for all Christians everywhere. Look at Colossians 3: 1-3  “ Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

The word “Christian” doesn’t mean a follower of Christ, but someone who lives in Christ. Like a citizen of the Carolinas is a Carolinian, and a citizen of Georgia is a Georgian,  a person living in Christ is a Christian. To God we are hidden in Christ. like a Russian nesting doll. But in the world, Christ lives in us. The outside face the world sees is ours.   When God sees us, He sees Christ. When the world see Christ, it sees us. Whatever we do reveals the Christ within. When we are judgmental and legalistic, the world concludes that Christ must be the same.  When we love others, then the world sees that Christ loves them, too. We are showing them the nature of Christ.  

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another."  The word “admonish” is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word nouthetos, which means an appeal to the mind or reason. It means a revelation of the will of God. It is not just a revelation of what we do wrong, but also what we are doing right. Criticism reveals what we have done wrong.  Praise and thanksgiving reveals what we have done right. If we criticize, we must first praise. Thanksgiving is an acknowledgement of the favor and good deed we have done to God. We must recognize the good deeds of others, and we must proclaim those good deeds to the world, whether or not the person wants them revealed. 

Jesus doesn’t tell us not to praise the good deeds of people. He tells us not to boast or praise ourselves, but instead to praise others. When we praise others, we are acknowledging that what they have done is a good example to the world. When we refuse praise, we are being ungracious, and are stifling the witness or our own good deeds. 
The same is true of our thanks to God. We must not take God for granted, either, but we should praise all things that come from Him. 

When we give thanks to God, we must do it in a language people understand. Let me suggest three ways we can express thanks to an individual who has blessed us.

The first way of expressing thanks is the most obvious. Just say it!  Put your appreciation into words. There is no substitute for a verbal acknowledgement of a job well done.

In Florida, we bought a house which had few plants in the yard. A friend from the church owned a nursery, and asked me to come look at his shrubbery.   He spent an hour walking with me among the plants, explaining what was best for my yard, and loading them on his truck for delivery. It was hundreds of dollars of plants, I tried to pay him, but he would not let me. “No charge”  he said.
I was stunned. “I don’t know what to say. “
“Two words” he replied “THANK YOU!”  That was all the payment he wanted.
But what if, when you do something good, you don’t want to be thanked? Some people have trouble receiving thanks.  

We may not seek praise, but we need to receive it, for two reasons. First, because the people who thank us need to say it. They need to make visible in their lives the attitude of Christ, who is thankful for all we do for Him. Second, other people need to hear us praised when we do something right.  Those who praise us publicly hold our good deeds up before the world as examples of faithfulness. This is not for your sake but for theirs. You are a living example of Christ’s behavior before the world.

The second kind of thanks is also important. Tell others!  Let others know. Practice “good gossip” on every occasion. He bragged on the churches all the time.  If he could find anything to praise, he gossiped about it all over the place. Let mistakes and evil deeds go unmentioned, but shout the good that people do from every housetop.
One reason we hesitate to talk about people’s good deeds is because we are afraid of leaving someone out. If we praise one person, what about the others that don’t get mentioned? Praise is not a limited commodity. We never run out of praise. If we fail to mention one, we can always mention them later. The reason people get jealous over praise is not because someone got what they should, but because we haven’t yet praised them. Praise and thank everyone everywhere to everybody, and never stop doing it.

The third way is even more simple yet-- Show your thankfulness!  Express your appreciation in a tangible way. If someone does a good turn for you, do one back, if you possibly can. 

Some people don’t read “thank-you”notes.  Some are hard of hearing and don’t hear you when you say it. But you can’t ignore a favor or a good turn done as an expression of thanks.  

 Just as we give thanks to others, so we should give thanks to God. Colossians 3: 17 says “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Imagine the scene at a thanksgiving, gathered around the family table. Mamma has cooked the meal, and it’s wonderful. Yet no one says thank you, not one child thought to say it! If you were Mamma, would you be happy?
Yet when we sit at God’s table, we receive God’s blessings,  how can we not give thanks?

Gerald Manly Hopkins wrote that the world is ablaze with the grace and blessings of God. The world is like Moses’ burning bush. The fire of God’s grace sets everything ablaze, but it is not consumed. It shows us in every place the light of God’s glory. Yet we do not acknowledge that fire, and are not moved by it, until we acknowledge it, and give thanks.

In some parts of Mexico, hot springs and cold springs are found side by side. The women will boil their clothes in the hot springs, and rinse them in the cold springs. A tourist said to his friend, "They must see God as being very generous. "No Senor, they complain, because He does not give them any soap!"
How do we show God our love?  Thankfulness is the same whether it is practiced to God or other people.  (We might even write God a"thank you " note!)

First, we tell God!  Worship is coming into God’s presence with praise and thanksgiving to God.   
 Tell others!  When we tell one another what we have to be thankful for, we help build that attitude of gratitude. When we rehearse with others the things God has done, we become more thankful ourselves.

Third, show your thankfulness! Whatever we do, we do in the name of Jesus. It is not what we say in church, but how we act throughout the week that really shows the depth of our determination to be thankful. When we live in Christ, everything we do is done with the realization that He is looking over our shoulder. 

Tony Compolo tells the story of a man who boarded an Amtrak train to New York, who sat across from two young men. Something was seriously wrong with one of them--his head kept bobbing up and down, and he could not feed himself. He was constantly being attended to by his friend.

 "Please excuse him mister," the other one said,  "He wasn't always this way. We were buddies in Vietnam. He saved my life. I got shrapnel in leg, and this man pulled me through the jungle when I couldn’t walk. Then a piece of shrapnel got him, and pierced his brain. He hasn’t been right ever since. I have to take care of him.”
"That's very generous," the traveler said.

"Generous?  No way!" The man said. "What he did was generous!  I have to do this--he's my brother" 
Gratitude to God makes debtors of us all. A gratitude debt is the greatest debt of all. If we owe a legal debt, we may lose our possessions,  but if we fail to repay a debt of gratitude, we lose a part of our soul.

We are under a debt of gratitude to Jesus.  Live as one under a debt. It is only by God's grace that you live. Give thanks always in word and actions to the One who died for you.   

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sitting Beneath the Fickle Vine - Jonah 4

Jonah sat down in the desert outside Nineveh after preaching in the city that the people would be destroyed in forty days. He wanted a front-row seat to the holocaust. But there were no fireworks and he preached God’s destruction. When God didn’t destroy them, he got angry with God. The last thing Jonah wanted was to meet Ninevites in heaven!
The desert is a hot place. If you sit there for long, you’ll get heat stroke. So God prepared a vine to shield Jonah from the sun, to “save him from his discomfort.”

“His discomfort”? Consider the irony of Jonah’s situation. He’s waiting for a holocaust, and he’s worried about his own discomfort? He prays for shade while thousands are under a death sentence?  It’s like passing out umbrellas at a public hanging!

So why does God help Jonah? He’s doing it to teach Jonah a lesson. After Jonah was comfortably situated under his vine, God sent a worm to eat it. 

Then Jonah got mad. “It’s better to me to die than to live!” He whined, because God took his shade away. He even says. “God, what have you got against this poor plant?”

God rebuked Jonah in vs. 10-11, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” You felt nothing for a city full of people, so how then can you care more for a plant than for them?

When I was a boy, we went to a drive-in theatre to see a re-release of Gone with the Wind. (Drive-ins were places where young people went to ignore movies). We all had a great time, though one boy talked constantly every scene. “Booring!” he kept saying. One scene showed the burning of Atlanta, and a huge field of dead and wounded soldiers.  “Boring,” he said. Later came a scene where a horse was being beaten, and this boy turned out to be an animal lover. He started crying, “Look at that poor horse!” Thousands didn’t move him, but one horse did. 

We’ll get upset about our pets. We’ll get angry about the destruction of the environment, yet we can stomach the quiet holocaust of souls all around us.  Most people don’t know their right hand from their left when it comes to the things of the Spirit, yet we only look at our personal vines. The rest of the world may go to hell, but if things are OK at home, then we’re fine with it.  

What if Jonah weren’t angry with the Ninevites, but only indifferent? It would have made no difference, whether he was mad at them or cared for them. As long as he camped outside the city, the result would be the same. The only way he might have made a difference was to stay in the city and teach them right from wrong.

In college we preached in the jails, bus stations, college campuses, and streets, telling others about Jesus. Many people made decisions for Jesus. We told each other about numbers and converts and bragged about our witnessing. But at the end of the day, the people we led to Jesus went back to their lives. If some of them stayed with Jesus I wouldn’t know, because we abandoned them. We went home and sat under our vines.

There is no record of Nineveh’s repentance anywhere except in Jonah. We have many of the official records of Nineveh, but nothing is written of this Jonah or this repentance. It didn’t last. They went right back to conquest, tyranny, and idolatry.

It’s more fun to make babies than to raise them. It’s more fun to make disciples than to disciple them. But if we don’t continue to care for them, then we are pretty much guaranteeing their failure. Changing a soul takes time. When we are born again we start out as a baby, but without nurture we die. Conversion is a process that requires training, patience, love, and a sense of acceptance into a new community. People receive just enough Gospel to get inoculated against it. We have to continue to be involved in the lives of those we help.

But in Nineveh, the only person who could have given them care and instruction was sitting in the desert under a vine, waiting for their destruction! Why wasn’t he in the city?

This is typical of our modern approach to charity. We want to help the poor, the lost, and the sinners, as long as we don’t get our hands dirty. Keep them at an arm’s distance, while we sit under our comfortable vines.

Jonah didn’t have to go into the city to follow up with the Ninevites--he might have taken one or two with him out into the desert and taught them the Bible as they sat under the vine. Those two people might have gone back and trained the others, but he didn’t do that, because he didn’t care. He had already done the preaching, let someone else do the training! Jonah didn’t sully his hands becoming involved with Ninevites!

In the 60’s Joseph Bayley wrote a wicked little satire on the problems of modern evangelism called The Gospel Blimp. In it, a group of Christians are attending a barbeque in the back yard of a church friend. The friend, George, asks them to pray for his next door neighbors, who are not Christians. The group strategizes over how they could reach these neighbors, and they decide to hire a blimp with flashing signs to display Scripture over their house. They organize a ministry “International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated” to take donations for the blimp. They wrap Gospel tracks in cellophane (called firebombs) and throw them out all over town. Soon his neighbors’ gutters are clogged with tracts. The ministry grew and grew, until there was a fleet of blimps in other cities. There were constant fundraisers to keep it going. Eventually the ministry falls apart as they squabble about who should lead it, and what vision they should pursue. George becomes disillusioned and drops out. 

Then one day, George holds another barbeque, and invites the same old people. He also invites his neighbors, who had just became Christians. The others are excited. What led them to Christ? Was it the billboard flashing in their window, or the tracts clogging their gutters? No, they confess that all that just made them mad. What made the difference was that when George quit the Gospel Blimp, he and his family had time to make friends with them. They treated them as people, not projects. In that friendship, they saw the light.

Preaching to the lost, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and healing the sick isn’t all that God wants. If we hold ourselves aloof from the people we try to reach, we will fail. People don’t want to be numbers or objects. They want to be treated as people, who are individually of infinite value to God. We have to love lost, disciple the lost, and identify ourselves with the lost. They are not objects—they have names and faces. We must not be aloof from them, we have to stay with them.

Jonah didn’t get this until God killed his vine. When God took away his comfort, he had to live like a Ninevite.
This last summer in July, the temperature in Nineveh reached 53 degrees centigrade, or 126 degrees Fahrenheit. If I had been there, I would sure have appreciated a vine, or better yet--air conditioning! But they don’t have vines, and few have air conditioning. I wonder how people keep their sanity under such conditions? 
It’s easy to criticize the lost when we don’t have to live under their conditions. It’s also easy to misunderstand the difficulties of their lives. But when God identifies with them and wants us to do it, too.  We must be willing to live among them if we are going to help.   

Christians in America for generations have lived under a comfortable vine. We’ve enjoyed the protection of the state. We’ve had worship days preserved by law for church use, respected by the schools and stores. There was a time when employers would not dream of making us work on Sunday!  Movies and television shows respected Christian values. We thought it would always be that way.  Conversion was easy when the culture was halfway Christian already. Most people went to church, and all we had to do was get them to come to our church.  There were more churches than restaurants and gas stations—one on every corner. Even if the culture did not embrace Christianity, it certainly embraced churchianity! 

We were wrong to think that would last forever.  People forgot that Jesus and America were different.  We made an idol of the vine that kept our churches and families safe. But today the worms have just about eaten that vine. There is no protection for the church or the Christian family, nor is it likely to return.

God allows this for a reason, so we’ll get ourselves out of the desert and back into the world, making disciples and building friendships. It isn’t enough to preach to the lost-, but we must also embrace, accept, and include them. We must not compromise our morals or our message, but take that message out into the world in which we live like strangers and aliens in a hostile world. We must show our world—our Nineveh—a caring face, following Jesus into the dirt and mess of their lives. Not only that, but we must invite them into our lives, opening our homes and our hearts without feeling sorry for it later. We must not seek comfort for ourselves, but we must seek to comfort others. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Ghost in the City - Jonah 3

Over the years there have been several stories of people swallowed by whales. Most of them fall into the category of “tall tales” probably inspired by the story of Jonah. The most often told of these stories is that of of James Bartley, which appeared in the New York Times in 1891. While the story is probably not true, one detail of the story seemed interesting. It was the description of what the man supposedly looked like when he was cut from the whale.
“During the brief sojourn in the whale's belly, Bartley's skin, where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juices, underwent a striking change. His face and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness, and the skin was wrinkled giving the man the appearance of having been parboiled ...”

When Jonah came out of the fish, he probably would have looked this way—skin a ghostly pallor and wrinkled skin—like a man returned from the dead. That is exactly what he was. He resembled the walking dead!

Now imagine the effect a man with such an appearance would have in a superstitious city like Nineveh. Here is a walking ghost, fresh from a fish’s belly, walking through their streets shouting that the city would be destroyed in forty days. The whole effect must have been horrifying. No wonder they repented!

Now let’s imagine what it would have been like if Jonah had obeyed the first time. He would arrive in the city as an ordinary, middle class merchant. I seriously doubt it would have had such a devastating effect. More than likely they would have laughed him out of town! Our appearance makes a difference. If we look and act like we have just come from a fresh encounter with God, then more people will think that we actually have!

Jonah’s journey to Nineveh gave proof to what he said. No one would have believed Jonah without his physical appearance and his incredible story. Jonah’s rebellion, disaster, and deliverance did not disqualify him for speaking for God. On the contrary, it made us believe it. His failure and near death became the instrument of his success.

Christianity is unique among religions in that it recognizes the importance of defeat. We do not really live until we die. We are not exalted until we are humbled. If Christ had not died, there would be no resurrection.

His ministry on earth was by all human measurements a failure. It lasted three years, before the Romans crucified Him. But when He rose from the dead, He was like Jonah, displaying on His own body the living symbol of God’s Grace. He even quoted Jonah’s story as the foreshadowing of His. In Luke 11: 30, Jesus said, “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.  His return from the dead, like Jonah’s was God’s declaration of victory.

What was true of Jesus was also true of His disciples. Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ greatest woman disciple, yet she had been a prostitute, infected with seven demons. Paul was a persecutor of Christians and a murderer, yet Jesus made from him His greatest apostle. Peter was a coward and a liar who became the head of the church. Those who fail God at first often become His greatest prizes. Their blemishes become trophies.

The same can be true of us. Our failures, may be transformed by God into trophies of success. When we fail, we may either give up or repeat them over and over, or we can trust God and learn from them.

Failures do not have to be fatal. Look at the example of Abraham Lincoln. In 1832, he lost his job. The same year, he ran for state legislature and lost. In 1833 he went into business, failed, and declared bankruptcy. In 1834, he was elected to the state legislature, but in 1835 his sweetheart died and he had a nervous breakdown, which continued to plague him with severe bouts of depression for the rest of his life. He ran for speaker of the state house of representatives and lost in 1839. In 1845 he ran for congress and lost.  Later he won, but in 1848 he lost re-nomination by his own party. In 1849 he ran for land officer and lost. In 1854 he ran for the U S Senate and lost. In 1856 he was defeated for the vice presidential nomination, and in 1858 he again lost a bid for the senate. Yet in 1860 he was elected President of the United States.

How could a man with so many defeats win such a prize? It is not in spite of his defeats, but because of them. Defeat made him who he was.  It was not in spite of his time in a fish’s belly that Jonah became great, but because of it. It’s not in spite of your failings that we become Godly but because of them. God only uses people who have first been broken on the wheel of suffering. When suffering refines us, only then can we be trophies of God’s grace.

Defeat can perfect us or defeat can destroy us. Whether or not we become trophies or tragedies has a lot to do with how we react to it later. In Jonah’ story we see some evidence of how Jonah was able to connect with God, who turns his defeat into success.

First, Jonah’s defeats resulted in an attitude of dependence upon God.

Jonah recognized that everything that happened to him came from God. Even so, he did not blame God for his problems. Jonah knew that his trouble was his own doing, but he also realized that God’s hand was behind it all. He never attributed either his failure or his survival to anything but God’s hand. 

A proud person blames God for his defeats and takes credit for his successes. When things are going badly, we say, “Why is God letting this happen?” When things are going well we say. “Look what I did!” The wise person, however realizes that everything comes from God—successes and defeats as well. A wise person is not a blamer. He recognizes that all that has come to pass has God’s hand in it. When things go well, he doesn’t take the credit, but continues to acknowledge that God is in charge.

All of us have a judgmental streak. This does not necessarily mean judging others, or having a propensity to want to blame someone for everything. When things go wrong we say, “Whose fault is it?”  It may be no one’s fault or everyone’s fault. It is not up to us to assess blame or credit in every situation. There is no need to point fingers. Things happen because God allowed it. Out of each situation, God can bring good. We do not need to know his plans, but only to obey what we He has revealed. 

Second, Jonah used defeat as an opportunity to change his mind and his actions.

God expects us to use our problems as a learning experience. When Jonah was regurgitated on the Syrian coast, he didn’t try to go to Tarshish again, even though it was not very far away. Instead, he learned to obey God and struck out for Nineveh. He changed his mind about running and journeyed towards the destination that God intended for him all along.

The word “repentance” is often misused and abused. It’s not about feeling guilty or ashamed for our sins. It literally means, “Change your mind.”  Look at your situation differently. You don’t have to feel ashamed for your past, just let it go and face in a different direction. It’s not about what you were, but where you are headed. Repentance is looking forward, not backward. 

Most people do not learn from their mistakes, but repeat them over and over. Einstein once said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. We develop a habit of defeat and despair. For Jonah to turn back and go to Tarshish after coming out of that whale would have been insanity. Instead, he went forward and took his place in the world. 

Third, Jonah was open about his defeats.

Jonah did not hide his mistakes. He might have hidden them. It’s embarrassing he was so weak or angry that God had to send a fish to swallow him before he would behave right. Pride could have kept him from saying anything. He might have thought (as many do) that admitting our mistakes undermines our witness. He may have reasoned, “If these Ninevites knew my faults, they wouldn’t listen to me.” Pride, shame and fear make liars of us. They make us pretend to be better and more competent than we are. As a result, no one believes us. We are ashamed and afraid so we pretend we are not always good people.

God won’t build His kingdom on a lie. He demands openness and honesty, even in our testimony. Being honest and transparent about our failures gives God an opportunity to shine through our past. Jonah’s fish experience became the basis for an effective ministry.

Fourth, Jonah followed his defeat a renewed effort at obedience.

Jonah could simply have given up. Being three days in a fish’s belly must have been an exhausting experience. Jonah could have used the excuse of post-traumatic stress. He could have argued with anyone that he couldn’t do anything now because he was too emotionally scarred. 

But Jonah didn’t rest for long. He got up and went to Nineveh. He got up and tried again. 
Lincoln’s life was full of defeats, but it was also a record of continuing effort. He kept coming back. He never stopped after defeat, instead he changed direction.  

Imagine the scene of Jonah on the shore. He is laying on the sand, weak and half-starved. He looks horrible. No doubt in his mind all he can think of is a good meal and a dry bed. He wanted to sleep. Part of him would be happy just to lay there and die. But instead, he got up. He took a couple of faltering steps. But which way? North to Nineveh or south to Tarshish and Jerusalem?  I can imagine Jonah crawling, then walking down the first path he found, but north, not south. If he went south, no one would ever hear his name. He might be a curiosity, an urban legend like James Bartlett, the whaler who was allegedly swallowed by the whale, but if he went north, he would be the prophet Jonah, whose name would live forever. One way turned him into a curiosity, the other way, he became an instrument of God.

When your history is written, what do you want it to be?  Do you want to be a footnote in history, or history itself? Do you want to end your life as a footnote, or God’s instrument? That is a choice you make every day, and especially every time you face defeat and disaster. You have a choice of learning from your mistakes, and trusting and obeying God, or giving up and going home. Make the right choice, and God will use you. Don’t let past defeats dictate your future. Keep going for God’s sake.