On the Plains of Moab Blog
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January 25, 2013, 5:57 PM

Read Before Sunday!

I started writing my sermon tonight.  My thoughts have been jelling all week.  I spent a wonderful week in Orlando last week reading and praying myself full over Jonah.  But, when it started to come out on my digital paper, I realized that I needed to move the introduction over to the blog.  Sermon would be way too long.  I want Sunday to be focused on the text for the day.  Too important to let that get chiseled down due to time constraints.  I don't want to spend most of my sermon with prolegomena!

So, here is what began as the sermon, now relocated to the blog:

This Sunday we will launch into our new sermon series on the book of Jonah.  As you have already seen in the artwork for the series, there is a picture of our man Jonah front and center, sitting on a hillside, in the shade of a God inspired-gourd, over-looking the "great" city of Nineveh – waiting with great expectation for the city to be destroyed.

The story of Jonah is, I would say, pretty well known.  Most people associate it with that "great" fish that swallowed the prophet so that he had to live there in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  It is the stuff of nursery and children’s playground art.  (Funny thing, Jonah really isn't a children's story.  Pretty dark, as a matter of fact.)

On the other hand, the story of Jonah is a favorite for mission conference sermons.  A great text for inspiring future missionaries to set out for unreached people groups all over the world, or at least supporting that effort with tangible resources.  When I visited Guatemala a few years ago on a short-term mission trip, I was all ready to preach a sermon that I had hastily prepared from the book of Jonah.  I wasn’t able to deliver the sermon because a demon-possessed man interrupted the service just as I was beginning the sermon with the words, “Why would this preacher come all this way to Guatemala….”  In hindsight, that was a providential interruption because even though I was going to talk about God’s incredible love, the good people of Llano Verde, Guatemala could’ve made the connection that they were the equivalent of the bad, old Ninevites.

Of course, the miraculous in the book of Jonah has sparked endless debate over the historicity of the book.  Fish don’t swallow people.  If they did, you couldn’t survive it.  A gourd doesn’t grow over night and die the next day.  A city as large as Nineveh surely wouldn’t all uniformly repent from a message of a scraggly, grumpy prophet from Israel.  Oh, and animals don’t repent like the book of Jonah says they did.  Putting sackcloth on animals!  Imagine that!

I do not intend to waste my pulpit time chasing the spawn of curiosity.  As far as historicity of the book of Jonah is concerned, there are many good teachers who believe that it is an extended parable not meant to be taken literally.  There are many good teachers who believe that the events are historical, that they actually did happen, with the addition with a little hyperbole here and there for good rhetorical flourish.

For me, personally, I would put myself in the latter camp that understands the book as historical.  You see, I just can’t get over the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:39-41.  Jesus there speaks of the preaching of Jonah and the repentance of the city of Nineveh in an as-matter-of-fact way.  Not a good thing to go doubting Jesus!

Further, although we can’t pinpoint the exact date Jonah was written, we have a ballpark idea --middle of the 8th century BC during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel.  And that period of time would make a great deal of sense for the city of Nineveh being ripe for a stern word of hope from God, based on what we know of Assyria at the time and the kings who were on the throne at the time.  (I will speak to that specifically on Sunday).

The book of Jonah is so different from the other prophetic books in the Old Testament.  In other prophetic books, the focus is on the message of the prophet, not so much on the prophet himself.  In Jonah, his preaching takes up maybe one to two sentences.  We have his prayers, but, the book is more about the story of Jonah and God.  Surprisingly, in my estimation, the story is not primarily even about the people of Nineveh (Gentiles!), or the sailors on the ship (Gentiles!) – though they are still figure in the bigger picture.  But the key to understanding the message is found in the exposure of Jonah’s heart and attitudes – and therein is the purpose of the book found.

In the course of following Jonah, we are also confronted with some very important themes found throughout the Scriptures.  Jonah is a good primer on the Christian way of life!  As you have noticed on the artwork for this series, there are some words/themes scattered throughout the picture:  Sin, Judgment, Grace, New Life, Repentance, Hypocrisy and Love.  Each one of those themes is embedded in the story of Jonah.  And each Sunday, we will expound on each one as it relates to the text on that Sunday.

Sunday, it’s all about sin in Jonah 1:1-3.  In my estimation, the word sin has become a comic retort in our times.  One need only think of Dana Carvey and the SNL skit Church Chat with the Church Lady.  And throwing the word out there when you want to make light of behavior that’s displeasing to God.

So, you are introduced to the book.  Now we can jump right in to the first three verses on Sunday morning.  See you then!

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