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Friday, May 22, 2015

Radical obedience

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11 NIV)

Our detour through Jonah is just about at an end, but it would be a shame to miss the finale. 

As you know, Jonah was a runaway prodigal because God had instructed him to go to Nineveh and he refused. Jonah was prejudiced against Israel's enemy, the Assyrians, and he hated the people of Nineveh. Ultimately, God put Jonah in a tight spot (the belly of a big fish) and Jonah relented. He agreed to obey God, but with an "I don't have to like it" attitude. Jonah did not have a burning desire for the repentance and transformation of Nineveh. He didn't care about the people. He was simply trying to get out of trouble with God by his obedience. It is surprising to me, but God blessed the grudging obedience.

After everyone had repented and God had relented, Jonah pouted and was angry with God. I often wonder why God would have used Jonah at all, and then I remember that He chooses to use me. Jonah's fruit is a reminder that God can use anyone, including you and me. 

While he was pouting, Jonah went outside the city, built a little shelter, and sat in the shade. God made a vine grow up over Jonah to give him better shade. Jonah was happy about the vine but, when God allowed a worm to chew the plant so that it withered, Jonah was angry. God blessed Jonah with a hot sun and a blistering wind. Jonah was irate.

God responded with words that cut to the heart. "You care so much about the plant I created. Shouldn't I care about the people I created? (Leanna Paraphrase) 

Indeed. 

Aren't we just like Jonah? I sometimes care more about the plants and "stuff" in my life than I do the people God has entrusted to me. Surely not, you may say, but a quick look at my daily life will make that clear. I hate this, but it's true. I have a little garden. Every day I check my plants, look for bugs, water them, mulch them, trim away diseased leaves. Every day my plants receive tender, consistent care and they are thriving under my care.

There are lots of people in my life, but very few of them receive consistent, tender attention on a daily basis. I care a great deal about the plants in my garden, but do I attend to the people in my life with that same attention? 

Do I care about people the way God cares about people? Lost people? I have to admit that I do not. I am burdened for the people in my life with fractured, broken lives. I am burdened for the people of the world who are trapped in lifestyles of violence, terror, abuse, hopelessness. It's not that I don't care at all, but that I don't care like God cares. 

In an awful, shameful way, I don't want to care like God cares. I don't want to care because it will require change on my part. Perhaps that's what keeps you from God-care, too. Caring like God cares might require me to get outside my comfort zone, go somewhere unpleasant to minister in the name of Jesus, deny myself something in order to provide for others. I might have to do more, face my fears, take a risk.

I hesitate. But Jonah. Jonah didn't want to go, but he did, and God changed the history of 120,000 people who didn't know their right from their left. He used Jonah's radical, grudging obedience to bless His own people fifty years later. 

What would God do with my sacrifice if I opted for radical obedience? How would He change the world if I were willing to go when He says go, speak when He says speak, care when He says care, love when He says love? How would God change the world if you and I were willing to follow Him with radical obedience? 

If we are to deny ourselves daily, take up our cross, and follow Him, and we are, then perhaps it is past time for the kind of obedience that says, "Sure, God. Take me to the meanest, toughest, most lost people on earth and love them through me." It's not the people who don't know God who are making our world such a dark place. It's the ones of us who know God but fail to shine our light in the darkness. We are the ones who have allowed the darkness to persist. 

Today, let's offer ourselves to God, willing to follow wherever He leads, love whomever He loves, give whatever He requires. Be the light in the darkness and let God shine through you.


The impact of grudging obedience

As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)

Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:11 NASB)

As it turns out, we aren't through with ISIS or with Jonah. 

Last night at prayer meeting, we were gathered in small groups to pray for different needs in our church. My small group had finished praying and we were chatting. The fact that Mosul is built on the ruins of Nineveh was such a surprise to me that I had pondered the issue of the Assyrians off and on all day. When I mentioned it in our little group, Jerry Napier said, "Yes. And they repented." In a flash, I had the clearest picture of events as they unfolded.

Jonah did not want to go to his enemies. He despised them. He was not going to Nineveh. When God placed Jonah in his watery prayer retreat, however, he found that obedience was more important than he realized. Jonah went.

I've heard speculation about what Jonah looked like, but all of it is just that. Speculation. There's no way to know if his skin was bleached or damaged by the stomach acid of the big fish. What we do know is that he had been at sea, been thrown overboard, spent three days in a fish, and been vomited onto the shore. 

Jonah didn't dilly-dally around. He headed straight to Nineveh to get his job done. When he walked into Nineveh, he was not likely to have taken time for grooming himself. I'm doubtful he had fresh clothes or a fresh bath. He probably looked like he'd been through a storm, because he had.

The people of Nineveh did not repent because of Jonah's appearance or because of the eloquence of his sermon. They repented because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, who was at work before Jonah took the first step through the city gates. Jonah walked through the city of 120,000 people proclaiming an eight-word sermon. "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown." When the citizens of Nineveh heard those words, they were cut to the heart with conviction and repented in sackcloth and ashes, from the king to the least citizen in the city. Everyone repented.

That same power is available to us today. That same God has the same compassion for the people of our Nineveh today. He cares about Mosul and the people there who "do not know the difference between their right and left hand". He cares about the people we consider our enemies, not just ISIS, but all our enemies (personal and corporate). 

The grudging obedience of one man made an eternal difference for 120,000 people in Nineveh. Our obedience can have just as big an impact today. 

What is the obedience to which God is calling you? What eternal difference will He make through you if you choose to follow where He leads?

Today, make a commitment to live as one who has been redeemed and follow as one who loves his Master, no matter where He leads. As you follow, be sure to pray for our modern Assyrians and those in our Nineveh to experience the same transformation that happened in Jonah's day. (ISIS and Mosul as well as all our enemies - domestic and foreign) 


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Praying for Nineveh

As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)

Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:11 NASB)

Much to my surprise, we are not through with Jonah after all. 

The story of Jonah begins with the compassion of God. I generally forget that. Because the book opens with Jonah on the run, in wide-open rebellion, I tend to think the story begins with Jonah. It does not. Jonah's story, like all our stories, begins with the love and compassion of Almighty God.

Nineveh was a city of 120,000 people who were lost. They did not know God and they didn't care that they didn't know Him. What we easily forget is that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and occupied the "Assyrian Triangle" made up by what is now Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey. The people were fierce warriors and were busy conquering the world. 

Fifty years after God sent Jonah to Nineveh, Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took them captive. What Israel had no way of knowing was that God had already gone ahead of them to temper their judgment with mercy. 

God had taken note of the spiritual condition of Nineveh and knew (being omnipotent) that He would judge Israel for their apostasy. They would soon be in the hands of the godless people of Nineveh. The best way to protect His people was to go ahead of them and draw their captors to Himself.

Jonah went to Nineveh, preached an eight word sermon, and everyone in that city turned to God. Fifty years later, when Israel was taken into captivity, they went to a country that already knew something of God. There were converts there. Not all of the 120,000 had persevered with their new faith, but some of them had. Even after fifty years, there were still some living who had seen Jonah, who had experienced the great awakening. Faith in God had almost certainly had an impact on the people of Nineveh and the way they treated their captives. 

Jonah hated Assyria and Nineveh, its capital. He knew they were a cruel, wicked people. He did not want to go to them, and did not want them to repent. He would have denied the people of Nineveh the chance to know God. What Jonah couldn't know was that, in denying the people of Nineveh the chance to know God, he was also denying his own people the chance to find mercy in the midst of judgment.

Had Jonah known what God was doing, he'd have rushed to obey. 

Today, there are modern day Assyrians waging war on the world and seeking to gain control of all the territory they can conquer. They are known as ISIS and are based in Syria and northern Iraq (part of the original Assyrian territory). Their capital is Mosul, Iraq, built on the ruins of ancient Nineveh. They are not figurative Assyrians. It is not a figurative Nineveh. They are literal Assyrians. It is a literal Nineveh.

There is a great temptation to view the warriors of ISIS in the same way that Jonah viewed Nineveh, with contempt. God, however, must look at those warriors in the same way that He looked at the people of Nineveh all those centuries ago, with compassion. He longs to bring them to Himself. What if repentance and faith were to come to Mosul, just as it did to its predecessor, Nineveh?

Jesus spoke about our response to our enemies. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:33), including our modern-day Assyrians, ISIS, and our modern-day Nineveh, Mosul. What, then, should our response be to the terrorists of our day? Our heart should be filled with the same compassion as God's toward the people there. We must relinquish our prejudice toward ISIS and pray with fervor for God to move in the hearts of the people of Mosul and those vicious Assyrians of ISIS, for we do not know what contact we will have with them down the road.

Had Jonah known what the future held, he might have been eager for Nineveh to repent. Let it not be said of us, years from now, that if we had only known what would happen with ISIS, we would have prayed.

May we view those who are our enemies with the eyes and heart of God, and may it change us so that He can change them. 





Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Second Chance

As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)

And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 NASB)

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. (Jonah 3:1-3 NASB)


The detour should be at an end, but I turned the page and remembered the fish finale. It was too important to skip.

In the belly of the fish, Jonah, the runaway prodigal, came face to face with himself and his situation, if you can call being trapped alone inside a big fish in the depths of the ocean a "situation". Jonah knew he was dying. BUT. He was dying BUT God brought him up from the pit. Jonah had been close to the pit of death but "while I was fainting away", just before he died, "I remembered the Lord."

Jonah had a near death experience. In it, he came to a new understanding of God, and it changed him. Our hard times should do the same for us. Crisis should give us an understanding of our inadequacies in the face of adversity, drive us to God, and leave us both humbled and changed.

When Jonah landed on dry ground, God gave him a second chance. Jonah did not waste the opportunity. Despite his extreme prejudice against the people of Nineveh, he went as God had commanded. He did what God said. It was hard physically and emotionally, but he did it. He did it because of his experience in the fish.

I will never find myself in the literal belly of a fish, but my rebellion has landed me in a "belly" experience before. Maybe yours has, too. Once my "belly experience" was over, you can be sure I never wanted to repeat it again. It changed me. Rebellion and disobedience did not look so attractive. It looked abhorrent because of what I knew it could cost me. When my second chance came, like Jonah, I jumped to obey.

Are you in the midst of your own "belly" experience? How terrible it would be to waste the adversity. How foolish to go through a time of trouble, of discipline, and refuse to change, to learn from the experience that God has allowed. 

Let's not waste our "belly time". Allow it to change us, to humble us. Allow it to cause us to see God in a new way. Allow it to give us obedient hearts.

Greet the day with expectation that God will have some way you can serve Him. Greet Him with a heart ready and willing to do whatever He says. 

The words of an old hymn come to mind:
Will you live for Jesus? Then let His love make you what you ought to be. 







The sacrifice of thanksgiving

As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)

And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 NASB)

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish, But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD." Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. (Jonah 2:1, 9-10 NASB)

I was in a hurry to get to the sign of Jonah yesterday and skipped right over a vital principle that has been life-changing for me. The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving is too important to miss. 

The first time I discovered the principle of the sacrifice of thanksgiving was in Psalm 50.

"He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; 
And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God." 
(Psalms 50:23 NASB)

It was a time when life was hard and money was tight. To be absolutely accurate, money was just about nonexistent. The hard time had lasted far longer than I had expected, and I was beginning to feel desperate. On this particular day, I was sitting in my car in a parking lot with my Bible in my lap, intently looking for comfort and wisdom about what I should do. The "cattle on a thousand hills" verse had come to mind, (Psalm 50:10) and I was reading the verse and suggesting that God sell some of those cattle and help me out. 

"Lord, what am I going to do?" I prayed. Just as clear as a bell, the thought that came to me was "Turn the page". As you might imagine, I did not think that was a helpful mandate from God. It took me several times of hearing that to recognize that there might be something on the next page that was helpful. I finally turned the page. As soon as I did, I saw verse 23. "He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me..." 

The way I interpret that verse is that a sacrifice of thanksgiving is the act of giving thanks when it's hard. I had a blank index card in my Bible and I began to write a list of all the things for which I was thankful, making my own sacrifice of thanksgiving. In just a few minutes, I had filled both sides of the index card and was looking for another piece of paper. In my desperation, I had missed all the gifts God had so generously given. 

The sacrifice of thanksgiving changed the way I saw my situation and it changed my attitude before the Lord. My grumbling did not honor Him, and it prevented me from "ordering my steps aright." The attitude of gratitude made a bigger difference than I could have ever expected. My circumstances didn't change overnight, but they began to change as I made my list of thanksgiving.

Years ago, I was on my face before the Lord because of a heartbreaking situation. "I thank you for this situation because of how You will use it in my life and how You will bring about change through it. I thank You that You will be glorified through it," I prayed. I didn't feel grateful at the time, but feelings are not necessary for obedience. I offered my sacrifice of thanksgiving anyway (I didn't know it was a sacrifice of thanksgiving at the time). Years later, I can see that His gift of adversity was used to mature me, change me, and deepen my faith in ways that nothing else would have done. Now, I thank Him for the adversity and "mean it". Both prayers honored Him. 

Jonah found that same principle to be true. In the darkest (and possibly most uncomfortable) place on the planet, Jonah experienced a heart change that brought about a sacrifice of thanksgiving. From the belly of the whale, his litany of thanks rose to heaven and brought honor to God. As a result of that heart change, Jonah purposed to "order his days aright" and he soon saw the deliverance of the Lord.

Sacrifices of thanksgiving are not keys that unlock God's blessing. Psalm 50:23 tells us that God shows us His salvation when we live right with the right attitude. The sacrifice of thanksgiving honors God and is only one part of "living right". It is, however, a vital part of honoring God and one that is not optional.

Whether you are currently in a desperate place or not, offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors our Lord and pleases Him. It can be as simple as making a list of your blessings or as complex as thanking God for the adversity He has allowed into your life. Either way, sacrifices of thanksgiving honor and please our Lord and are not optional.
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Why not begin today by honoring God with the sacrifice of thanksgiving? Count your many blessings. It may surprise you by all the Lord has done.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Sign

As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)

And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 NASB)

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish, But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD." Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. (Jonah 2:1, 9-10 NASB)

At last, we come to the sign of Jonah. In his rebellion, Jonah became a prodigal. He ran as far as he could to get away from the call of God on his life, then boarded a ship and went even further. He was determined to avoid obedience, but that determined avoidance came at a terrible price. 

God responded to Jonah sin with a powerful storm that engulfed all those around him and threatened to turn deadly at any moment. The sailors, veterans of many storms, were terrified by this one. Desperate for answers, they turned to Jonah. "Save yourselves and throw me overboard," he told them. In desperation, out of options and as a last resort, they did. 

What no one could have known was that God had already made a provision for Jonah, and a giant fish was waiting for him. When Jonah was tossed overboard, it appeared that all hope was gone. He sank into the depths and, at just the right time, the great fish swallowed him whole. In that inky darkness, Jonah rediscovered his faith and his Lord.

He repented of his sin and promised to obey what he had vowed to God he would do. For three days and three nights, Jonah was in the belly of the fish before it vomited him onto dry land. When his feet his dry land, Jonah was a changed man.

When Jesus told the people of his day that the only sign they would receive was the sign of Jonah, this is the sign of which He was speaking. 

As Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights, so Jesus would be in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights. 

As Jonah was changed by his confinement, so Jesus would be changed. 

As Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so Jesus would be a sign to be the people. 

As Jonah's confinement in the belly of the fish was God's response to sin and rebellion, so Jesus' confinement in the belly of the earth was God's response to sin and rebellion. 

The vital difference in the two situations is that the sin and rebellion in Jonah's situation was his own. The sin and rebellion that led to Jesus' entombment, his death, was ours, yours and mine. His resurrection serves as proof that He has conquered the sin and rebellion we could not.

Jonah served as a sign to the people that there was no sin so great that God could not forgive, no prodigal escape so far away that God could not reach, no situation so hopeless that God could not intervene. Jesus' death served as the once-and-for-all payment for that sin, the once-and-for-all rescue for prodigal escapes, the once-and-for-all intervention for all hopeless situations.

Like Jonah, we are all prodigals. Some of us are running prodigals and some of us are staying prodigals. We all wander from God in our hearts, even when we do not run with our feet. It's a simple problem of rebellion. There is a God and we are not it. We want our own way, but His is best. Rebellion will not change those facts.

Aren't you tired of being a prodigal? Aren't you tired of seeking your own way, rather than God's? Aren't you tired of the storms that  result from your rebellion? Consider the sign of Jonah. Resurrection and a fresh start are available, and they can begin right this minute if you are willing.

From the belly of the darkest place on earth, Jonah called out to the Lord and He answered Him. He will do no less for you and me. Jonah found that salvation comes from the Lord. It still does. Call out to Him. He will not fail to respond.


The Power of Nevertheless



As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:29-30 NASB)

So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:15-17 NASB)

We are nearing our destination on our detour to explore the sign of Jonah. Yesterday, we looked at the concept of accountability and consequences. In the most desperate of circumstances, our tendency is to try to "fix it" by taking some sort of action to remedy our difficult situation. Even when the Will of God is frightening, even when we fight against it, there comes a point of surrender in our lives (or should) when we are willing to let go of our will and embrace the will of God. 

The sailors asked Jonah what to do to calm the storm and Jonah said the most remarkable thing imaginable. "Throw me overboard." The sailors agonized, prayed. They didn't want to let go of Jonah, but there came a point where they were willing to do exactly what Jonah said. 

The most incredible thing happened next. The sailors threw Jonah into the water and the big fish God had prepared (appointed) was waiting. Jonah began to sink and the fish began to swim. That fish lined up with the floundering man, opened its mouth wide, and swallowed him down. I don't know what it was like in the belly of the fish, but I know that God had prepared this place of refuge for His prodigal. 

It's clear from Jonah 2 that the runaway prophet thought he was about to die. "I cried for help from the depths of Sheol (the place of the dead)," Jonah said, but he understood the concept of nevertheless. 


"I have been expelled from Your sight, 
but nevertheless, I will look again toward Your holy temple.
                                                                               Jonah 2:4 NASB

Nevertheless is a word that means "in spite of that". In spite of the fact that God had disciplined Jonah, he held fast to the hope that his relationship with God would be restored. 

Nevertheless is an underused word that speaks of great hope in this situation. Jonah had endangered every man on the ship with his rebellion, nevertheless, God had protected them in the storm. Jonah had rebelled against God and had run as far from Him as he could humanly get. Nevertheless, God could, and would, restored Jonah to relationship with his Lord. Jonah was experiencing the discipline of God, nevertheless, on the other side of discipline, God would restore Jonah to right relationship with Him.

This is a basic truth we often forget in the midst of failure, especially the kind of outrageous, public failure that Jonah experienced. Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Romans. 

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NASB)

Paul was saying that any manner of catastrophe, any manner of evil attack can happen to us. Nevertheless, we will not be separated from the love of God. This is such a vital tenet of our faith that we must be sure we understand. We may fail in business, relationships, or morally, nevertheless that failure cannot separate us from the love of God. We may choose to run as far from God as possible, deny Him, and live in the worst sin imaginable. Nevertheless, those choices cannot separate us from the love of God.

Our sin may separate us from fellowship with Him, but it cannot separate us from His love.

I can't understand a love so great. I can't imitate a love that magnanimous. I can't comprehend the kind of nevertheless love that forgives despite all my failure, all my sin.

God's nevertheless love is a foundational concept that changes everything and nothing can separate us from that love. Nothing. 

Today, let us embrace the One who loves us with a nevertheless love that never fails and let us live as those who have been redeemed.