Sermon, June 28, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
The Call of God
I wanted to thank the elders for covering for me for the last two weeks as I got to visit some family in Iowa and then was able to visit my brother in Seattle as he is recovering from his heart transplant. It was a wonderful time, and I thank you for making that possible.
Since it is summer and people are traveling a bit, I decided not to dive yet into any lengthy study that will take months to complete, but instead wanted to take the next few weeks looking at lessons from what is a very familiar story, looking at the book of Jonah. Even though it is a story we know extremely well, when we dig into the text itself, I know that we will find some wonderful lessons from God that can sink deep in our bones. So let’s read together from the book of Jonah, the entire first chapter, verses 1-17. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The Word of the Lord.
Of course, the story that we know so well. So often we experience it again not by reading the actual text of the book—and I’m guilty of this too—not reading the actual text of the scripture, but instead most often just hearing it as a children’s story. We usually encounter this in a more sanitized, stripped down way in children’s story bibles, or Sunday School lessons. I know some of our kids attended a VBS a couple of summers ago that was focused on Jonah. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie that was the first feature-length film by the makers of Veggietales that was based on Jonah. Since that is how we more often absorb this story, I hope that it will be enlightening and refreshing as we go through the text specifically.
And there is a lot in this text, a lot of detail in these 17 verses. But the main three episodes here in the text follow this general story arc: God calls, man hides, God pursues. And we’ll see as we look through those three episodes here that they are a common occurrence in the lives of people today, this particular one just happened to be in an extremely dramatic fashion with very high stakes. Let’s walk through them now.
First, we see in the story the call of God, in verses 1-2.
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
Seems simple enough. It’s worth a little bit of background at this point. The book of Jonah, when we look a the minor prophets as a group, is a unique book. We have no reason to think that it was written by anyone except the prophet Jonah himself, and Jonah wrote it after all of these things came to pass. This is not legend, it is not myth, it is the recording of history. I know that the more we claim this to be actual history the more confusing and troublesome the fish is, but we need to take God at his Word, and here we have a record of history written as such. It is not poetry, it is not parable, or any other kind of literary form other than one that assumes that what is being read is actual history. There was very little debate on that in the church until 100 or so years ago, when people began to question the historicity of just about everything in the bible.
But the fact that it is a history, an account, is unique among the prophets if you think through them. Most of what we find in the minor prophets is record of the actual prophecy that the prophet was meant to deliver, right? The vast majority of the text in the prophets is the actual prophecy, in a poetic form, what was to be delivered to the people for whom it was meant. Here in Jonah we have a story, none of the actual prophecy, so it is unique in that way too. And the story itself is quite dramatic.
So here we have Jonah. You should know that we can place Jonah in time more specifically than this story gives us because he is also mentioned in 2 Kings 14. It is recorded there that he was a prophet in the time of Jereboam II. It says there that Jereboam II was one of the evil kings of Israel (a fairly common story), but because they had a weak and evil leader Israel had no one to help them, so God still allowed Jereboam to retake some lands that Israel had lost, because he “had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven.” So he wasn’t done with them yet. So that’s a little more context as we approach this story—Jonah was an established prophet. When we see him being called in this story, it is a next step in his ministry, not the first step, he would have had a deep relationship with God as one of his prophets to Israel by the time this happened.
Which is an important thing to realize, because it gives him no excuse at all. Maybe we’re tempted to think as we read “Now the Word of the Lord came to Jonah” that maybe he wasn’t completely sure that’s what he was meant to do, I mean how did this word come to him? Did he hear it audibly? Did he have a vision of it in a dream? How sure was he that his ministry had been directed to Ninevah? Well, for an established prophet he would have plenty of experience discerning the call of God, and the actions that he takes in response to the call make it absolutely clear that there was no question in his mind of what he was being commanded to do.
So that’s the first phase of our story and our first lesson, the Calling of God. What does it mean to be called by God? Well, you’re all here, aren’t you? You’ve all been called by God to be here this morning, and called to worship him. We’ve spent quite a bit of time this spring learning about how to rightly view our lives according to scripture. And the conclusion of that discussion brings us to an understanding that for the Christian, the call of God is an all-encompassing call, and that is important to remember here. The call of God to you and me and to every Christian is to serve him with our whole lives, not just part of it. I made the point a few weeks ago that in your life there isn’t God time, time that you spend on Christian things, and then neutral time or your own time—it’s all God’s time for the Christian. You are slaves to Christ in your whole lives, not just part of the time.
That’s important to remember and keep in proper view, because when we read the story of a prophet of God, one who carried the words of sacred scripture from the Holy Spirit and recorded them for us, it’s easy to look at that call from the outside and give ourselves a pass. Well, that prophet, he got that amazing call, but I’m just lowly old me. We like to, wrongly, put our callings into multiple categories—here are all of my spiritual calls over here, and here are my mundane calls over here. It is true that some callings have more impact in the greater world than others—someone who is called to be the leader of a nation is going to have more “impact” than someone who has been called to be a dishwasher in the same country, but that doesn’t make the calling lesser in an ultimate sense. Seeing some callings as absolutely lesser than others leads to all kinds of problems. It’s what leads some Christian young people to be discouraged when they don’t feel called to some form of formal ministry as a career. I’ve seen dozens of my peers who on analysis were ill-suited to the task of formal ministry, usually because of personality, yet still I’ve watched them attempt to become youth pastors or missionaries, only to become frustrated and fail because they were chasing after a call that wasn’t theirs. And they did it because they believed that any vocational calling other than missions was necessarily lesser.
I won’t belabor that point any further, but it is a cautionary tale that is kind of on the opposite side of Jonah’s story here, since we see him running away from formal ministry, but in the end it is the same, picking and choosing the callings you want rather than the one you’ve been given.
In reality, we all live under the calling to be a Christian, to follow Christ, and that means that whatever we’re called to, whatever sphere we are called to live and work in, we do it to the best of our abilities, with a Christ-like attitude, and all to the glory of God. Because what is infinitely more important than the nature or stature of the task to which you’ve been called, what is infinitely more important than the calling, is the one who calls.
Another tangent to this issue of calling is a warning against looking at calling too narrowly. I said just before that we are called to be Christians, to follow Christ, and follow whatever call because he is the one who called. We need to remember that the callings on the Christian are many and varied. We so easily get hung up on calling, think of calling as only being a calling to a vocation, as if that is one of the upper-echelon, higher callings, or maybe the only one. I may be called to teach music, but haven’t I been called to many more things than that? I am called to be a father to six children. I am called to be a good husband to my wife. I am called to be a good son to my parents. I am called to many different things with respect to the people around me. Side note, I think in America especially this overemphasis on vocational calling only has led to many families where children get to spend far less time being raised by their mothers and their fathers, especially mothers, who are now pressured by social norms to develop a vocation, a career, because being a mother is seen as a lesser call, side issue, vocation is more important.
But to continue on this thinking about the many things God calls you to, stop to think, holistically, about all of the things that includes. I listed a few non-vocation things before, primarily family relationships I’m called to serve in, but what about specific things that every Christian, everyone sitting here is called to because they are a Christian. We have a whole book of them.
We are called to obedience to the Word of God. And here is where we get to the truly difficult callings of God. We are called to order our entire lives to what is said in scripture. We are called to love those that God has put in our path, particularly our church family, even when it is really hard to love them. We are called to love all of our neighbors because they all bear the image of God. We are called to give to the church, with our gifts and with our finances. We are called to support the things that scripture says to support, and hate the things that it hates. We are called to hold the opinions about morality that the bible holds, and declare immoral the things it declares immoral. We are called to defend a true theology found in scripture, not moderate it, and call out heresy when we see it. And then the extension of that, we are called to suffer for our standing on scripture alone. Those are all callings of the Christian. We are all called to some very difficult things that can only be accomplished with the work of Christ through us.
And receiving that call, what does Jonah do? Someone else preaching on this said that the way this book opens is one of the most jarring moments in scripture, which is why I had, for our New Testament reading that sending of the disciples in Luke. Jesus told them to go, and we read, “And they departed and went through the villages.” That’s how we normally hear the story, right? God says go, and they go. What do we read here in Jonah, which is why it is a little shocking?
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai… But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
But Jonah fled. Since Jonah is writing this himself, it is a shocking turn of events and quite an admission. But Jonah rose, not to go as instructed, but to flee to Tarshish. We need to get a picture of how complete this running was—even going to Ninevah begrudgingly, or taking an unnecessarily long time—even that would have been a form of fleeing, but Jonah’s fleeing is complete. Ninevah is quite a ways inland, actually, at present-day Mosul, Iraq. Jonah goes the opposite way – he gets on a boat and sails out into the Mediterranean. We don’t know where Tarshish is, but it’s definitely the opposite way. He’s called East and he goes West, he’s called to travel inland and he gets in a boat.
There is another bit of literary symbolism going on here too. God’s original call was for Jonah to “arise,” to go up. And we see what he actually does. The text says that he didn’t go up, he went down to Joppa to find the boat. Once he’s at the boat in verse three we hear that he went down into it. And where in the boat did he choose to go? Down, into the inner part. And in verse 5, what did he do down in the inner part of the boat? He laid down. God called him to go up, and he went down, down, down, down.
And what do we think of when we listen to this story? We think, “you’re crazy Jonah, you know you can’t hide from God!” And we are right, we can’t hide from God, our lives are an open book to him. But I would submit to you that we are no different. We scoff at the “oppositeness” of how Jonah reacts compared to what he was supposed to do. It’s crazy! Called up, you went down, ridiculous! But are we really any different? God laid a path for Jonah, and he went the opposite way, and God has many paths for us that we are supposed to follow. We so often take a calling from God, and we don’t run the opposite way, but we tweak it. We follow near the path but not on it, because near is easier.
The way we often run from our callings is a little less drastic and complete than Jonah, but no less running. I read something earlier this week, and it was very timely, commenting on how we see Christian individuals and Christian organizations reacting to the unrest of the last few weeks. It was calling Christians for being selective in their outrage out of fear of persecution by the mob. Christians being morally outraged only at those things that the society at large was morally outraged about, but then stopping short when what we should also be outraged by is not approved by the mob. Case in point, no one, Christian or not, is not morally outraged by the death of George Floyd at the hands of someone who was called to protect him. But violence, looting, disregard for private and public property, and much of what has happened in the aftermath is also a moral outrage, but being publicly outraged by that invites persecution. We are called to uphold all of scripture, all of God’s truth, whether it is uncomfortable or not, whether we are persecuted or not, whether we die or not. Isn’t selective moral outrage also running away from God’s call? It’s not as dramatic as Jonah, but it’s still not the path to which we are called. We are called to follow the entire counsel of God.
That is a contemporary example that comes out of what we are experiencing in our country right now, but there are countless examples of how we moderate our callings to be Christ-like to make life comfortable. We do it all the time. And it’s how the church doesn’t just suddenly turn from one view of morality, or church structure, or anything else. It happens after years, decades, sometimes centuries of accommodation, moderation. When a church, and a Christian, does not keep their eyes completely focused on Christ and the Word. We should constantly examine ourselves. To what extent are we willing to flee to gain a little carnal security?
Because the truth is that we can’t hide. The psalmist says that “you perceive my thoughts from afar, before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.” God knows you better than you know you. And that is not something to be scared of. I love it (actually I don’t) when I walk into the basement or into a room and one of my kids quickly hides something. There’s a rustle of paper, or a move of a pillow, or a turn of the shoulder. It’s usually because they’ve taken some candy or a snack or something. But why do they hide? Because then I can’t see and they know they’re going to get in trouble. Our relationship with God isn’t like that. God isn’t lurking around the corner ready to pounce, he’s not walking into a room ready to say “I caught you!” and make you feel guilty. He doesn’t need to pounce, or walk into a room with no warning. There is nowhere to hide! And he’s not there to accuse—that’s what the devil does—he’s there to take you in his arms and be your savior, to show you a more excellent way, a path to real freedom built on obedience to his Word and a giving of your life. And that brings the peace that passes all understanding.
So what happens to Jonah? The good news is that if God wants you, if he is calling you to something, he can make it happen. He doesn’t often choose to do it in as dramatic fashion as he does with Jonah, but he will get you. His calling is effective. God has many ways to return us to his calling. For Jonah it was accomplished through a storm, sailors, the casting of lots, and a big fish. How might it be for us? Through prayer, constant and continual prayer. Through the reading of the Word and sitting under sound teaching. Prayer and the Word—there is no better way to get to know your savior better. And through other practical means, his will is accomplished by your making countless little choices to better serve your spouse, your children, your neighbor, your fellow church members.
But above all, your call from God is that you be his. You are called to be a brother or sister of Christ, and all the other callings that come along with it. If you’ve never actually truly felt that call before, now is the time, repent and believe in the one who saves, Jesus Christ. And even if this has been your story for as long as you remember, it’s still helpful to be reminded to stop running. Stop turning away, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. This story is here to remind us of that very thing. Stop running the way you want to run, and run into the arms of Christ and all he has planned for you. Amen. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for blessing us today with your Word, may it lodge deep in our hearts, reminding us that your plans are greater than our plans, your timing is greater than our timing, and even though the slings and arrows of the world encourage us to run to the safeties of this world—stature, prestige, money—we know that the only real security we have is in Jesus Christ. Strengthen us for the journey. In the precious name of Jesus, amen.