Monday, September 19, 2011

Select, Pray, Invite; Select, Pray, Invite

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Sunday morning, September 18, 2011.]

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Every Sunday School student knows the story of Jonah, an eighth century Israelite prophet.

God told Jonah to cry out against the evil perpetrated by the people of the city of Nineveh in Assyria. Assyria was the menacing evil empire of its day. For Jonah, as a Jew, to go to Nineveh and tell the people how rotten their sins were would be a bit like God sending you or me to go tell the leadership of al Qaeda that terrorism is evil. That would be a scary mission!

No wonder then that in chapter one of the Old Testament book named for him, after being given his marching orders with God’s message for Nineveh, Jonah got on board a ship and headed instead in the opposite direction, for the Spanish port of Tarshish.

[This map shows Joppa, where Jonah received his marching orders from God, and that Nineveh is a relatively short distance to the east, while Tarshish was well to the west in Spain.]

You know what happened next. God caused a fierce storm that terrified everyone on the ship. When the other passengers and the crew learned that it was Jonah’s refusal to go where God had sent him that had roused God’s anger and brought on the storm, Jonah said that the only thing that could save them was to throw him into the sea.

Reluctantly, they agreed and tossed Jonah into the drink. That solved things for everyone but Jonah. But God had a solution, a special taxi service in the form of a great fish. Eventually, God caused Jonah to be disgorged by the fish. After that, Jonah went to Nineveh, in the heart of enemy territory to deliver God’s message for the people there.

Jonah clearly didn’t spend a lot of time polishing it. He made no attempt to give his listeners any background. And he showed them no compassion. He simply went to the city and said: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

That’s it. The whole city, knowing almost nothing about the God of Israel, nonetheless repented for their sins and trusted (or believed) in God. The Ninevite king voiced their faith when he said, “Who knows? God may relent and change His mind; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

What happened in Nineveh after Jonah preached his pathetic sermon is analogous to one of us, without a megaphone or advertising or press releases or billboards or web sites or interviews on ‘Good Morning, America,’ going to Times Square in New York City, uttering a one-sentence message from God, then seeing the entire city turn from sin and turn in faith to Jesus Christ!

The power of a message from God is not in the human messenger God uses to bring that message. The power is in the message-sender, in God Himself! We see that in Jonah.

I once heard Lutheran pastor Don Abdon talk about one of the first times he shared Jesus Christ with another person. He asked the man, “Would you like to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior?” The guy answered, “Yes.” Abdon, aware of what a disjointed mess his witness for Christ had been, couldn’t believe his ears. “Are you sure?” he asked. Fortunately, despite this opportunity to weasel out of it, the man repeated, “Yes.”

Jonah should have looked at what happened in Nineveh with awe and gratitude. God’s Word had turned a whole city from sin and turned it to faith in God!

How would we feel if we saw that happen in Logan and Hocking County today?

Wouldn’t we be happy with the changes that would take place when those of low self-esteem walked confidently in the grace of God?

Or when gossip and backstabbing were seen as something to repent for and not to encourage?

When community leaders sought to think less of their own agendas and more about what the will of God might be?

Or when young people saw their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit and not places to dump drugs?

Or when everyone prayerfully enlisted the power and help of God to resist temptation and keep the gift of sexual intimacy within the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman?

I think we would be happy if our whole community and we ourselves were totally sold out to the God we know in Jesus Christ, if our community were, not perfect, but repentant and believing.

Jonah wasn’t happy to see these kinds of things happen in Nineveh. He was angry!

Scan our first lesson, printed on the Celebrate insert. As the lesson begins you'll see that Nineveh has repented and turned to God. God changed His mind about the calamity He had planned to bring on the city for its sin.

This leads to the strange prayer in Jonah 4:2. (If you can call what Jonah utters a prayer.) Jonah claims that the reason he'd at first headed for Tarshish in the first place wasn’t because he was terrified to go to Nineveh, but because he knew that this was the kind of stunt God would pull. Jonah recalls words that God had used of Himself some six centuries earlier, speaking with the people of Israel in the wilderness when Moses was their leader. I didn’t want to come to Nineveh, Jonah says, because I knew that You are the God Who is “gracious…and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah accuses God of being too wimpy, too lacking in backbone, too willing to forgive sinners!

These are stupid words coming from a man who had personally experienced the power of God.

And they are ungrateful words from someone who had rebelled against God, yet been forgiven and helped by God.

Jonah seems to have forgotten that, like the people of Nineveh, he too had been saved by God’s grace.

I’ve mentioned before the conversation I had after worship at one of my previous parishes with a man who was upset with the passage from Matthew that makes up today’s Gospel lesson, which recounts a parable Jesus told about a wealthy man who gave the same wages to workers no matter how early or late in the day he had hired them.

My parishioner understood Jesus’ point. “Jesus is saying that someone who’s led a rotten life who repents for their sins and believes in Jesus Christ is given eternal life just the same as someone like me who has always believed,” he said with considerable feeling. “Someone like me,” he went on. “Yes,” I said. “But that’s not fair!” he replied.  

Listen: God isn’t fair.

But the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, affirms two things about God.
Jesus died and rose again so that all people who will turn from sin and believe in Him will have life forever with God. Jonah wanted God to give no opportunity to the Ninevites to repent or believe in Him.

I sometimes wonder whether we don’t have the same attitude about the world we live in as Jonah had. I wonder whether we modern believers don't just want to hunker down and quietly believe, and wait our lives out until we can get into heaven. Polling consistently shows that something like 1% of all Lutherans ever tell a spiritually disconnected person about Jesus, even though Jesus commands all Christians to be His witnesses and to make disciples.

We don’t tell others about Jesus because, like Jonah, I think, we’re afraid.

There may be good reason for our fear. After the church of my friend, Pastor Steve Sjogren, started doing kindness outreaches regularly, an influx of visitors started worship there and the congregation saw many people coming to faith in Christ. Not all of the people coming to Steve's church played well with others initially, though. Many conformed to the description of the Ninevites that God gives at the end of our lesson, they didn’t know “their right hand from their left.”

One day, Steve was shocked when a family attracted to the church through the outreaches started a knock-down, drag-out fight in the church parking lot. The elders had to call the cops to break things up. It could have been a terrible turning point in the life of the congregation. The people of Steve’s church could have been so revolted by the behavior of these sinful people that, like Jonah, they could have sulked and kept to themselves.

Instead, they decided that if they were going to continue reaching out to people whose lives were made messy by sin and being disconnected from God, it would be best to have some police on the church parking lot every time they got together for worship. They didn’t stop sharing Jesus!

From that point on, Steve’s church grew from several hundred people, about the size of Saint Matthew, to a congregation that welcomed 6000 to worship each weekend.

Now, in a city like Logan, whose population is 6000, I can’t envision Saint Matthew becoming a megachurch, although maybe God can.

But I do know that the people of our community need the God Who is both just and gracious, the God Who will demand punishment for people’s sins unless they receive the free gifts of His grace and forgiveness by faith in Jesus Christ. 

And I know that God has called us to share this message with our neighbors. God wants to use us to transform the life of our community by calling people to repent for sin and believe in Christ.

So, here’s a simple plea from your pastor. Make it your aim every Sunday night to select one spiritually-disconnected person you know, to pray over the next three days that God will make that person receptive to Jesus, and then on Thursday of that same week, invite them to worship, Sunday School, the women's group, or Bible discussion group.

Don’t be spooked if they say no. Keep praying for them and pray that God will give you another crack at inviting them later.

Then, the next Sunday, select another person who has no connection to Christ’s Church, start praying for their receptivity to your invitation on Sunday night, and then on Thursday, invite them to worship, Sunday School, women's group, or Bible discussion group.

Keep doing this week-in and week-out: select, pray, invite; select, pray, invite.

While you know lots more people in Logan than I do, I promise to go through this same procedure—select, pray, invite—as best I can.

God used a reluctant Jonah to save a whole city once steeped in sin and far from God. How much more might God be used by the people of Saint Matthew as we willingly share the Good News of new life for all who believe in Jesus Christ with our community?

God is looking for Saint Matthew members willing to say, “Here I am, Lord; send me!” May we be those people!

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