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. 

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