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Monday, November 7, 2016

Where God Won’t Go (Jonah 1:17-2:11)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

            Is it odd that sometimes people turn to Jesus after they are incarcerated?  In a child’s way of thinking, people in jail are called ‘bad guys.’  Often these bad guys find Jesus in prison.
            Is it odd that Christianity is growing rapidly in places where faith is discouraged and violently persecuted, places like India, Iran, and China?  Christianity is exploding in those places.  In America, where we are free to go to church and literally have hundreds of choices, church attendance is in decline.  As our population grows, less and less people are go to church even though going to church couldn’t be easier.  In China, attending an unregistered church could get you fired or fined or even arrested, and people keep going.  New churches cannot begin fast enough.  What do we make of this?
            Is it strange that when life is running smoothly, our faith is relegated to a dusty corner?  This doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does.  We find ourselves winning – whatever winning might mean in your life.  And faith isn’t needed.  But, then we lose – because sometimes we do.  In losing moments, pain-filled, then we desperately rush back to God. Why is this?
            Jonah chapter 2, verse 2.  He says, “I called to the Lord out of my distress.”  If you look at a Bible map of the Mediterranean Sea in the days of Jonah and you look all the way to the left, the far west.  There’s Tarshish.  After that it is the Strait Gibraltar and then the Atlantic Ocean which the ancients believed you’d fall off the edge of the earth.  You’d fall to the depths.  Jonah was safe and sound in Israel.  That’s where God called him.  Jonah didn’t need to call God from his distress.  God called him in his comfort.  All he needed to do was obey.
            Instead, he jumped on a ship going the opposite direction, Tarshish, the farthest point in the known world.  He was trying to get away from God all the while knowing one cannot get away from God.  When God whipped up a storm that rocked the ship and showed Jonah the score, he had himself thrown into the sea, into the depths.  Jonah, knew God would be present on the boat.  Jonah knew God would be waiting in Tarshish.  Yet, he tried to go to those places to hide from God. 
Jonah knew that God not would sink to the deep.  The depths of the sea is the one place God won’t go.  Yet when Jonah ended up there, where God was not, then he reached out to the Lord.  When all was lost, Jonah found himself praying.  When all was well, he ignored God.  From that place where God won’t go, he prayed. 
In the latter half of the verse, we read that Jonah was in the belly of Sheol.  Sheol is sometimes thought of as an Old Testament word for ‘Hell,’ but the Old Testament did not have categories of Heaven and Hell.  Those ideas came later, when the Greeks had heavy influence on Jewish thought during the New Testament period.  The Old Testament sense was focused on the living.  If one lived a good life and had children, when he died, would be buried and considered at rest.  He would live on in his descendants.  That’s why having children was so important and going childless such a tragedy.  One with no descendants was lost.
Sheol was a place of disembodied shades cut off from the living.  Former UNC religion Professor Jack Sasson writes, “We have imprecise and sometimes contradictory knowledge on exactly what the [ancient Jewish person] believed occurred after death.  … Israel’s poets generally locate this other world somewhere below terra firma or even below the oceans; occasionally they place it beyond God’s control and assign it to the dead.”[i]
We see an example of this thought in the Bible, in the great lament psalm, Psalm 88.  Beginning in verse 3,
For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

            “Cut off;” the singer says.  This notion of complete separation colors Jonah’s prayer at the outset, and then, his lament intensifies with each new phrase.  In his song, in chapter 2, the Hebrew poet uses the technique of intensification.  From Sheol’s belly, he cries, “You cast me into the deep” (v.3a).  And it’s not just the deep, but the heart of the seas.  Waves and billows pass over Jonah.  The abyss engulfs him, kelp wraps around his head, and the bars of the netherworld imprison him. 
            The NRSV, the version I use most of time, translates verse 6 like this.  “I went down to the land, whose bars closed upon me forever.”  Sasson thinks it should read this way.  “I sink to the base of the mountains.  The netherworld, its bars about me are there forever.”  ‘Netherworld,’ is a better translation than ‘land.’ 
Here’s how Sasson describes the Hebrew concept of netherworld.  “The dead [in the netherworld] lead an eternal but dull existence, where the hurt is due to the unbridgeable separation from the loved one left on earth.  It is now recognized that [this is how] [ancient Jewish] poets [described] life apart from God.”[ii]  Nothing could be worse.  This is the end for the prophet who runs from God’s call. 
            What end lies before us?  Is life hard right now?  What poetic intensification would track your downward spiral?  I knew a guy who was complete broke was he got married.  He was also too young.  There was abuse, and then diagnosis of mental illness, and then divorce.  He wound up homeless.  I have, I am sad to say, seen it a couple of times.  Maybe you’ve seen it too.  How would the Hebrew poet use intensification as a technique in his verse to describe what you’ve seen?  Or what you yourself have experienced?
            In the New Testament, in parables, Jesus uses phrases like ‘weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth,’ and ‘outer darkness,’ and ‘unending fire.’  Some Christians take Jesus’ metaphors as if he were describing a literal place called Hell.  Jesus described the world the way ancient Jews described the world.  His metaphors made sense to his listeners.  He used these word pictures, so familiar to the people around him, as a way of depicting the absolute, ultimate horror the Hebrew poet could not abide – being cut off from God. 
To be where God won’t go; there is no worse fate.  That’s Sheol.  When we use the word ‘Hell’ to describe the lowest one could get, the worst pain, then we know Jonah’s feeling when he says he’s crying out from the belly of Sheol.
There, Jonah discovers what I pray my homeless friend and others I have known might discover.  God is there, even there.  Jonah 2:6 is one of those scripture passages demanding to be highlighted, underlined, and noted in the margin.  The Hebrew poet dramatically disrupts the intensification, with reversal! 
“I went down to the Netherworld,” Jonah moans.
“You brought me up from the pit,” he sings one stanza later. 
The ancient Jews uncompromisingly declared God’s sovereignty.  God is all-powerful, so, God can, when God so chooses, go where God won’t go.  Jonah’s praying from the belly of the whale, the belly of Sheol and yet he says, “My prayers came into your holy temple.” 
The Israelites believed that once David established Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant there and then Solomon built the temple, God lived there – in the temple.  Worshipping there, in the city of Zion, in the temple, was different that worshipping anywhere else.  God was there in a way that He was not in other places.  Yet Jonah, swimming in a fish’s gastric juices, deep in the ocean felt God’s presence and felt his own prayers rise all the way to the temple. 
In the New Testament epistle, Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 16, we are told we can approach God in the heavenly throne room.  “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and help in time of need.”  In Christ, no distance comes between us and our God.  Jonah did not know Christ, but he learned that his calamity, brought on by his own disobedience, did not separate him from God’s love because nothing can separate us from God’s love. 
I alluded to my friend whose life fell apart.  His story has the makings of a Hebrew lament poem or a country music song.  I mentioned that maybe you knew of people in similar despair, or, perhaps yourself are in such a state of loss, pain, and defeat.  We go through seasons in life where problems become so large, the problems are all we can see. Arrested in depression, we are incapable of seeing anything except evidence that all is lost.  In this condition, we miss the most obvious thing.  God, being God, can overcome all difficulties.  This is not just fluffy church talk.  I know people whose pain has landed them in deep ditches of despair.  I have seen God pull them out.
Earlier I used a word – sovereignty.  It is a theological term describing God’s unrivaled might.  God is all-powerful.  In the Jonah this aspect of God’s character is displayed in three ways; first, in God’s presence.  God is with Jonah on the boat.  God hears Jonah’s prayer from the fish’s belly.  When the sea creature vomits Jonah up on the shore, God is waiting for him there.
Last week when we prayed over backpacks to be sent to needy children in Appalachia, God was with as we prayed.  God went with me on the road as I drove those backpacks to a church in Apex, NC.  God was waiting for me there.  God will travel with the people of that church when they take those backpacks to a depressed coal mining town in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  God is already in that town, with each child who is waiting to receive a backpack.
I cannot explain the omnipresence of God except to say that you and I can never reach that place where God won’t go.  He is with us always.
A second way sovereignty is seen in Jonah is in God’s supernatural authority over nature.  The winds of the sea obey him when he needs a storm to get his prophet’s attention.  A fish works for him, swallowing that prophet so he won’t drown.  Later in the story, we’ll see a plant grow because God told it to, a worm eat the plant because God told it to, and then a hot desert wind scorch Jonah’s unshaded head because God told it to do so.
In addition to omnipresence and authority over creatures and the weather, a third way God’s sovereignty is on display in Jonah is God’s freedom.  God is free to save the Pagan sailors we meet in chapter 1, even though they do not know the Law.  God is free to give his obstinate prophet second chances, even though he ran away at first.  In chapter 3, God is free to spare the lives of evil kings when they repent.  We’ll get to that next week. 
            Omnipresence, authority over nature, and freedom all show God’s might and power and authority.  Thus Jonah ends his Psalm in chapter 2, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord” (2:9b).  It’s a great statement, but it’s not worth a bucket of doodle if it just serves as the climax of talk about Hebrew poets and Hebrew prophets.  A famous professor of preaching demanded that he students ask and answer, so what?  In Jonah, we see God’s sovereignty through the brilliant poetic techniques of intensification and reversal.  So what?
            Here’s what!  Verse 6 is the center of the Psalm.  In order for us to get to that critical center where everything turns around for Jonah, we have to catch the shift in the latter half of verse 2.  In the first stanza, Jonah says, “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and He answered me.”
            In the second stanza, the pronoun changes.  “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice.”  In Jonah chapter 2, we enter a prayer from a lost, hurting man that reach across the impossible distance from the depths of Sheol straight to the heart of God. 
            Jonah’s prayer becomes real when you and I shift pronouns in our own lives.  This prayer is the first step in reversing the course of a life hell bent on destruction.  When we move from descriptions of God to conversation with God, everything changes.  Theology, words and ideas about God, is important, very needed in the church’s expression of faith.  Theology matters and must be practiced.  But when we’re hurting, when we’re broken, theology doesn’t help much.  We need to move from theology to encounter.
            Jonah shows us that the encounter with God can happen anywhere.  Your encounter with God can happen anywhere because there is nowhere God won’t go.  God is here now.  We all need him.  And He wants us to turn to Him.
            As we sing a closing song, if you especially need God to reverse the trajectory of your story, come to Him.  Come this morning.  Come to the present God, the Almighty God, the God whose love is seen on the cross and in the Holy Spirit who hovers over us in this very moment.  We’re going to sing.  If you need the life change that only God can give, come to Him.  He wants you to.  He wants your heart.  Let the pronoun change so that you are focused on God directly.  Come and give yourself to God right now. 

[i] J. Sasson (1990), The Anchor Bible: Jonah, Doubleday (New York), p. 171.
[ii] Ibid, p.188.

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