Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Most Powerful Word of All

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Pastor and writer John Maxwell tells about a junior high basketball coach who was smart. If he had a kid who was lackadaisical on defense, this coach would call that kid Mr. Hustle. If he had a kid who was slow of foot, he named him Speedy. He hung these nicknames on the kids not as putdowns calling attention to their deficiencies, but with a straight face and seeming seriousness. “Did you see how ferocious Mr. Hustle was on defense?” he’d ask the team during practice. “I want all of you to work at being like him!”

Guess what happened?

When combined with the proper instruction and correction, kids whom the coach called Mr. Hustle really did become hustling defenders and those he named Speedy became the fastest ones on the team, able to lead the fast break.

Somewhere this coach had learned the power of words. He understood the truth behind a confession Mark Twain made: “I can live on a good compliment for a week.”

Negative words are powerful, too. A pastor came home from worship one day in a sour mood. Her husband asked what was wrong. “I must have heard ten people tell you what a great sermon you had,” he commented. “Yeah,” she acknowledged, “but Gladys Milkenrucker hated it.”

The old saying is wrong: Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can and do sometimes hurt us. That’s because words—good words and bad words--really do have power.

But nobody’s word is more powerful than God’s Word.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Eugene Peterson translates this same passage in The Message: “[God’s] powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.”

I like this last line because, in fact, we do try to run away from God’s Word. We do it because God doesn’t always say what we want to hear.

And we don’t run away from God’s Word only when it warns us against the sins we like to commit—be they gluttony or tax evasion, sexual promiscuity or personal arrogance, lazy indifference to God’s call on our lives or gossiping about our neighbors. We also seem to run away from God’s Word when it forgives and affirms us because we convince ourselves that God couldn’t possibly forgive us.

We also run away from God’s Word when it seems to tell us to do something we don’t want to do. Forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Lend a hand to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Fight for justice and equality for those whose life styles may be sinful. Say a good word for the person nobody likes. Tell someone else about the hope we’ve found in Jesus Christ.

And on that last point, I know that more often than I care to remember, I have been hesitant about sharing Christ with others. I've been a lot like Jonah in our Old Testament lesson.

There have been many times when God’s Word has come to me as it did to Jonah, clear as a bell, whether while I’ve been reading the Bible at home or hearing it in worship. But do I heed it and do what God tells me to do? No, I’m like Paul, writing in the New Testament book of Romans: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good [that is, when I make a resolution to do what God’s Word tells me to do or to trust the grace that God’s Word conveys for me], evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self…but the evil that I do not want is what I do.”

And so, I run from God and from God’s Word. In effect, I do what our daughter Sarah sometimes playfully does when she hears an off-color joke or when someone gives her TMI—too much information: I stick my fingers in my ears and say, “La la la la,” to block God’s access to my mind, heart, and will.

This was exactly what Jonah did.

The Old Testament book of Jonah, a fun book with a serious point, describes life in Israel, the land of God’s people, the Jews, in the middle of the 8th century BC. A nation that neighbored Israel, Assyria, was less than neighborly. It was, in fact, Israel’s greatest enemy, murderous and warlike. Assyria’s capital city was a place called Nineveh. Ancient Nineveh set on the same ground as a modern city you may have heard about in the news lately: Mosul, Iraq.

At the beginning of the book of Jonah, we’re told: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’”

In fairness to Jonah, whose reaction to this call, his hatred for the Ninevites, and his surliness toward God throughout the four-chapter book that bears his name have given him a bad press through the centuries, if God told you to go to Mosul, a city where today the murder and intimidation of Christians is so horrible and pervasive that many have fled the place to find safety, would you go?

Or would you, as Jonah did the first time God’s Word came to him, run in the opposite direction and book yourself on a Mediterranean cruise?

I think that I’d take the cruise.

But, as those of you who have read your Bibles know, God’s Word is powerful. God was emphatic that Jonah needed to do what God’s Word had told him to do.

Once the ship on which Jonah boarded was at sea, the God Who can control the wind and waves, sent a storm. Jonah convinced his shipmates that he was the cause of this life-threatening storm and that they needed to toss him into the drink so that God would bring calm seas.

The second they did that, there was a dead calm. The storm had stopped and you might think that that was the end of Jonah, now experiencing the death penalty for his rebellion against God.

But you who’ve read the book also know that God initiated a unique bailout plan for Jonah. There’s a lesson in that for you and me: God gives second chances and new starts even to people who don’t seek them. No matter how far you feel you’ve wandered from God, God wants to speak His Word of reconciliation, peace, and purpose to you. God wants you to have second chances.

That’s exactly what happened to Jonah at the beginning of our Old Testament lesson for today: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you.’”

Jonah still didn’t want to do what God’s Word told him to do. But he was grateful for a second chance and he’d learned a lesson out on the stormy Mediterranean about the power of God’s Word.

So Jonah goes to Nineveh. There, he does the minimum that God tells him to do. He only walks a third of the way into the city and delivers what is in the original Hebrew a five-word sermon. Here it is: "Forty days more Nineveh destroyed." That’s it.

Now, if you had been a Ninevite and heard that sermon, how would you have reacted? Would you have laughed it off? Would you have gotten angry? Would you have ignored this strange foreigner covered with the stomach juices of the great fish that had swallowed and spit him out? I can imagine reacting in any of those ways.

But Nineveh heard it and the whole city repented. They turned from sin and turned to the God none of them had ever worshiped before. It’s not in our lesson, but the king of Nineveh even issued a decree that said, in part, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change His mind; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

Nineveh was spared. Its people--at least the people living there in the eighth century BC--turned from sin and turned to God. God forgave them and they lived, reconciled to God.

What about that paltry sermon of Jonah’s changed the lives of all those Ninevites? It’s fairly simple and truly amazing, really: Jonah’s words weren’t just Jonah’s words; they were also the Word of God.

The Word of God is powerful.

God spoke His Word and the world and everything in it came into being.

God’s Word—the second person of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—was made flesh and came into our world—came to you—in Jesus Christ.

God’s Word comes to us today in the Bible, in the water of Holy Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, in the fellowship of believers, in our confession of faith, and even in sermons, paltry and otherwise.

And God’s Word comes to you again today: to tell you “Whether to confront you for your sin, to confirm you in my forgiveness, or to send you to your own Ninevehs right here in Logan at work or home or school, believe God’s Word, trust it, and do what it tells you to do because God’s Word is still powerful, even today, even for you.” Amen

[THANKS TO: Mark at Stones Cry Out for linking to this post.]


Ontario Emperor said...

Jonah is a wonderful book and shows his humanness, especially in Chapter 4.

One more to add to your stories - Tommy Lasorda gave Orel Hershiser the nickname "Bulldog," primarily because his "Conan the Librarian" appearance (Hershiser's own words, as quoted in George Will's baseball book) didn't seem to match his inner intensity.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for the comments.

Jonah is one of my favorite books. I told the adult study this morning that reading it is a bit like watching an episode of 'Monty Python.' Jonah himself, though understandable in his reaction to God's call to go to Nineveh, is comical in his are the misadventures through which he goes.

I don't recall ever reading or hearing that story about Lasorda and Hershiser. Thanks for relating it.

The Will book is one I've always meant to read. I'll have to check it out finally.

God bless and have a good week.