Running Away From God
Some things look good on paper, but in real life, they just don’t work out. Anyone around in the 80s remember “New Coke?” Coca-Cola’s reworked formula with a new taste? If you don’t remember it, don’t worry about it. It didn’t last very long. The company got so many angry letters from loyal Coke drinkers that they re-released their old formula as “Coke Classic” and quietly phased New Coke out. When they made the move, news anchor Peter Jennings actually interrupted an episode of General Hospital to break the news. Funny, New Coke is nowhere to be found today, but their cans and bottles still have the “Coke Classic” wording on them.
Or Pepsi Clear? Do you remember that one? I think it lasted about a month. It was a clear cola that tasted exactly like normal Pepsi. Basically, it was Pepsi without the food coloring. People didn’t like it because it messed with their minds. You opened the bottle expecting it to taste like Sprite or 7-Up, and it tasted like regular Pepsi.
Or there was Olestra, the fat substitute that added zero calories to the food. It was supposed to be good for our waistlines – potato chips and all kinds of snack foods without all the fat and calories. I guess it WAS good for our waistlines, because all it really did was give people intense diarrhea and anal leakage. People lost weight all right. Just not in the way they thought they would.
Or there was Harley-Davidson’s line of perfume and cologne called “Hot Road.” It featured scents with names like “Black Fire” and “Hot Rod.” Harley motorcycles? Absolutely. Harley themed leather jackets and shirts for those who want people to think they ride a Harley? Sure. But Harley perfume or cologne? I don’t think anyone has ever gone into a Harley dealership hoping to come out smelling better. New Coke. Pepsi Clear. Olestra. Harley-Davidson perfume. I’m sure most of the people responsible for these ideas getting to production and hitting the shelves got fired. Some things look good on paper, but in real life, they just don’t work out.
Unfortunately, we as followers of Jesus treat a lot of what Jesus said, did, and commanded us to do, just like that … things that look good on paper, sound good to the ear, make for nice sermons and stuff, but in real life? Nah. It just isn’t practical. In fact, as I was working on this sermon this week, the phrase that kept rattling around in my head was, “Most of us have absolutely no intention of really following Jesus.” We’re fine talking about grace and forgiveness, but discipleship? Spiritual formation? Actually following Jesus? Living as apprentices of Jesus? Learning to do what Jesus would do if he were me? Nah, we’ll leave that to the pastors and missionaries and really spiritual people like St. Joann and St. Cheryl over here.
The problem with that is that when you bow your knee before Jesus and ask him to forgive your sin, accepting his death on your behalf, he doesn’t just take your death upon himself. He also give you his life. Not just so that you can go to heaven when you die, but so that you will live as a “little Christ” (that’s what Christian means) here on earth now and draw others into relationship with him.
And I think the command of Jesus we’re MOST likely to treat as something that looks good on paper but not in real life is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:44-45: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, SO THAT you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” We as followers of Jesus have done all kinds of mental and theological gymnastics to get out of doing what Jesus very simply and succinctly said in two short sentences.
“Jesus isn’t referring to national enemies. He’s referring to personal enemies. And I don’t have any of those, so I’m good here. I’m following Jesus.” Except that Jesus didn’t qualify it this way. He simply said “Love your enemies.”
“Jesus doesn’t REALLY expect us to do this. This is his ideal for us. He knows we really can’t do it. And he forgives us. So we’re good.” Okay, you’re partly right. We CAN’T do this, on our own. We do, however, all have the Holy Spirit living within us, transforming us and empowering us to live as Jesus wants us to live.
“Well, I can love my enemies, but it’s still okay to defend myself.” Except that Jesus actually teaches us to defend others and lay our own lives down.
Jesus is actually quite straightforward here. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” Period. End of discussion. At one point, he tells us to love our neighbors. And one of the pharisees asked the question that every one of us really want to ask: “Okay Lord, so then who is my neighbor?” In other words, how far do you really want us to take this loving our neighbor thing? So here, Jesus leaves no room for interpretation: “Love your enemies.” We look for all kinds of workarounds because we have no intention of actually following the hard words of Jesus.
Bible College professor Yohanna Katanacho is a Bible College professor who pastored a small church in the Israeli city of Jerusalem. As a Palestinian living in Israel, and a Christian to boot, he faces a wide variety of persecution. One of the more dangerous forms of harassment comes from the Israeli soldiers who patrol the city, looking for potential terrorists. These soldiers routinely impose spontaneous curfews on Palestinians, and even have the legal right to shoot at a Palestinian if he or she does not respond quickly enough to their summons.
Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies” seemed impossible to Yohanna. And yet there it was – unambiguous and unchanging. He said, “For me, love was an active and counter-cultural decision, because I was living in a culture that promoted hatred of the other. And not only did the context promote hate, but the circumstances fed it on a daily basis – the newspapers, television, media, neighbors, everything. One of the markers of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs is alienating the other. To break that marker, I must have some other worldview.”
At first, he tried and failed in his attempts to feel love. Instead, the Israeli soldiers’ random, daily checks for Palestinian identification cards – sometimes stopping them for hours – fed Yohanna’s fear and anger. As he confessed his inability to God, he realized something significant. The radical love of Christ is not an emotion, but a decision. He decided to show love, however reluctantly, by sharing the gospel message with the soldiers on the street. With new resolution, Yohanna began to carry copies of a flyer with him, written in Hebrew and English, with a quotation from Isaiah 53 and the words “Real Love” printed across the top. Every time a soldier stopped him, he handed him both his ID card and the flyer. Because the quote came from the Hebrew Scriptures, the soldier usually asked him about it before letting him go.
After several months of this, Yohanna suddenly noticed his feelings toward the soldiers had changed. “I was surprised, you know?” he says. “It was a process, but I didn’t pay attention to that process. My older feelings were not there anymore. I would pass in the same street, see the same soldiers as before, but now find myself praying, ‘Lord, let them stop me, so that I can share with them the love of Christ.”
The Old Testament prophet Jonah knew this feeling all too well. Today, we’re starting a new sermon series called “God on a Mission.” For the next few weeks, we’ll be walking through the short Old Testament book of Jonah together. Just 4 chapters. Just 48 verses total. But they’re 48 powerful verses. And it really isn’t about a giant fish. The fish only shows up in 3 of the 48 verses. But that’s where people get hung up. It becomes all about the fish. People make the fish the point of the whole book, and it really isn’t even a side-point. Conservative biblical scholars are actually quite divided on whether this book is a parable based on the life of a real prophet, Jonah, son of Amittai, who was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel after the split, alongside Amos and Hosea. Or whether the fish part of the episode really happened and God did save Jonah’s life miraculously with a fish. Belief in the fish is not a litmus test for real Christianity! COULD God have miraculously saved Jonah’s life with a giant water dwelling creature? Of course. Could this be a parable, much like the parable of the Good Samaritan or the parable of the Prodigal Son, both of which were told by Jesus? Yes. Can you be an orthodox, faithful Christian and hold either of these views. ABSOLUTELY. STOP MAKING IT ABOUT THE FISH. God has bigger fish to fry here. He’s teaching us something through Jonah much more important than that. Turn with me to Jonah 1:1-3.
Now, to really understand what is happening here, we have to understand what Ninevah represented to the people of the Northern Kingdom. David’s Israel had divided. The northern ten tribes retained the name Israel and eventually named Samaria as their capital. The southern two tribes took the name Judah, with Jerusalem as their capital. At times they worked together, and at times they fought against one another. Judah would last longer as an independent nation than Israel would, but both were eventually defeated and taken into exile. Israel went first, and was defeated by the Assyrians. And Ninevah was a really important city in the Assyrian empire. Eventually it would become her capital city, but most Assyrian kings and emperors had residences there, even before it was a capital.
By the time of Jonah’s ministry, Assyria had a century-long reputation as a cruel enemy. One historian said that Assyria’s history was “as gory and bloodcurdling a history as we know.” Of all of this world’s past and present cruel and bloodthirsty regimes, Assyria is among the worst to ever exist. They were hungry for conquest and expansion, and when they defeated a nation, they tortured their prisoners. And not just enemy combatants. They tortured the elderly, women, even children.
They often dismembered captured people while they were still alive, leaving one hand attached so they could shake it while the person slowly died an agonizing death. They paraded the heads of their enemies around Ninevah, placing the heads on poles and, then they forced friends of the beheaded people to carry the poles around the city themselves. The stretched live prisoners with ropes so they could be skinned alive, and then displayed the skins on poles and on the city walls. Assyrian kings and later emperors commissioned paintings of their post battle torturings, and the paintings feature massive piles of heads, hands, and feet. They pulled the tongues out of live victims. And the burned children alive. Survivors were tied in long lines and deported to Assyrian cities where they served as slaves – forced labor for massive Assyrian building projects. And Ninevah was at the heart of all of that. In Genesis, it heads the list of cities established by Assyria’s ancestor, Ashshur. It was the first and chief of the Assyrian city-states on which the Assyrian empire was founded. To Israel, and to the rest of the world, it represented the Assyrian ideals of national pride, imperial expansion, and the indiscriminate use of power, and all of the terror and torture that went with it. In short, Assyria was one massive terrorist state.
Now, typically, when God called a prophet to prophecy against an enemy of Israel, the prophet did so from the safe confines of Israel or Judah, where they would be safe. Their words were really intended to be words of hope for the people of God, reminding them that their oppressors would eventually and soon face the wrath of God for their actions. But God doesn’t do that with Jonah. He tells Jonah to go TO NINEVAH. His words were not to be words of comfort for God’s people, the were to be words of warning to the Assyrians, should they persist. God wanted to reach out to the Assyrian people through Jonah. This was going to put Jonah between a rock and a hard place. I mean, Assyria had a reputation. Even without Snapchat and Twitter, Jonah knew what kind of people the Assyrians were. He knew what might happen if he went and proclaimed God’s justice over them IN NINEVAH, one of their largest, most important cities. And what happens if they repent and God relents and does not punish them? He’s certainly not going to be welcome in Israel any more, is he?
This is like God sending a Ukraine person to Moscow, or an American to Mecca. Sometimes, the Word of God is hard to hear. It challenges us to go against everything our mind, our will, and our emotions want to do. If there’s one thing that hits at the core of our beings, inhabits every fiber, every cell, it is the desire to see our enemies punished. Whether it’s a person who we know who treats us poorly and makes us angry, or a boss who takes advantage of us and takes us for granted, or an ex-spouse whose words and actions hurt us, or those who would seek to destroy us as a people, we want our enemies punished. We don’t want them to repent because we WANT God to punish them, and we certainly want to punish them ourselves if we can. Truth is, Jonah doesn’t want to go to Ninevah, not because he’s afraid he’ll be tortured and die there, but because he doesn’t want God to shower his mercy on them.
So what does Jonah do? Look at V. 3. Jonah runs. Not because he’s afraid, but because he’s angry. He doesn’t WANT God to help Assyria, or save Assyria. God says, “Go this way” and Jonah goes that way. And the Biblical text here actually emphasizes that. God told Jonah to get UP and go to Ninevah. But Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa, and then DOWN into the ship he hired. And Joppa wasn’t “down” on the map from Jonah’s house. It was due east. It was “over.” But the Bible says “down,” because the writer is emphasizing Jonah’s disobedience. God says “Go up,” but Jonah goes down. He doesn’t want God to be merciful to his terrible enemies (and let’s be honest, there aren’t a lot of enemies of anyone in human history more terrible than Assyria). So he runs.
And where does he decide to run? To Tarshish. Tarshish was probably located in what is now southwest Spain, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. It was one of the westernmost places in the Mediterranean world, the farthest place west that a typical Israelite would be able to imagine. Ninevah was east. Which direction does Jonah go? West. God says go up, Jonah goes down. God says go east, Jonah runs west. God says love your enemy, Jonah says no way. I mean, look at all of the active verbs in V. 3. Jonah rose, went, found, paid, and went. Jonah is pictured as actively resisting God’s will for him. He isn’t just passively wandering away. He is actively resisting God. And at great cost. The word used for the fare that Jonah paid for the ship gets more at hiring the whole ship, not just buying one seat. And at this point in their history, Israelites weren’t very seafaring. They let others, like the Phoenicians, take care of that. They were landsmen – farmers and shepherds – not sailors. The word of God came to Jonah, “Go warn Ninevah. Because I’ve seen how nasty they are.” And Jonah runs.
The active part of following Jesus for each one of us it training our wills to submit to the will of God. Jonah’s will isn’t submitted. He has no plans to go to Ninevah. He flees. And God wants us to see a little bit of Jonah in each one of us. Because the hardest thing he will ever ask you to do is not to make a financial sacrifice, or fast for a day, or overcome an addiction. No, the hardest thing he will ever ask you to do, he has already asked. It is to love your enemy. And every part of our wills will resist. We aren’t wired to do it. We don’t want to do it. But it is when we submit to his will and let the Holy Spirit flow, empowering us to choose to love those who are hard for us to love, that God’s power is most at work in our lives.
In May 1987, 39 American seamen were killed in the Persian Gulf when an Iraqi pilot hit their ship, the USS Stark, with a missile. Newspapers carried a picture of the son of one of these seamen, a shy five-year-old boy named John. He was standing with his hand on his heart as his father’s coffin was loaded onto a plane to take him back to the U.S.A.
His mom said, “I don’t have to mourn or wear black, because I know my husband is in heaven. I am happy, because I know he is better off.” Later on, she and young John sent a letter and an Arabic New Testament to the pilot of the Iraqi plane, addressed to: “The man who attacked the Stark, Dad’s ship, in the hope that it will show that even the son and the wife do not hold any grudge and are at the same time praying for the one who took the life of our father.”
Jesus looks lovingly at each one of us and says, “The world says to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. That’s the easy road. The normal road. I’m asking you to be different. I’m asking you to love not only those who are easy to love, but those who are hard to love. I’m asking you to love your enemy.” Why? Because that’s what he did for each one of us. Romans 5:8 says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We were his enemies and he loved us. And that same love, his love, is offered to all. And it shines brightly when it shines through us. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Are you going to get up and go up, or are you going to run away? Let us pray.