HYMN SPOTLIGHT O God, Our Help in Ages Past (1719) Isaac Watts, 1674-1748 As a teenager attending church with his family, Isaac complained to his father that the hymns they sang at church were boring. His father replied that, if he thought that he could do better, then he was welcome to try to write some. So he did. By the time of his death, Dr. Watts had written over 650 hymns and they are among some of the best loved hymns in the Christian church. This hymn is a rather close paraphrase of the opening verses of Psalm 90 and is considered to be one of the finest hymns ever written in the English language. MUSIC SPOTLIGHT

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THE GOD WHO PURSUES A sermon based on Jonah 3:10-4:11 First Baptist Church of Lynchburg September 20, 2020 By Paul Dakin May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen. In today’s sermon text, we are going to tread on some very familiar ground. We are going to be considering one of the more famous stories to be found in the Old Testament. It is a story that practically any Sunday School child would probably be able to tell you. It is the story of the prophet Jonah. When I say “the prophet Jonah,” the first thing that is likely to pop into everyone’s mind is:___________. That is what the story is most famous for, isn’t it? The prophet being swallowed up by a whale, being inside the whale for three days, and then coming out of the whale to go preach to the evil city of Nineveh. (A bit of trivia here: The original Hebrew language doesn’t describe the creature that swallows Jonah in the sea as a “whale.” It simply says “big fish,”… but let’s not quibble about such details. In the popular mind, it’s a whale, so we’ll leave it at that…) It is a shame that the whale gets so much attention in the book. It is almost as if it overshadows everything else. The point of the book is not that God can perform miracles by keeping a man alive in the belly of a whale for three whole days. The point of the story is something much bigger and much more grand…and much more relevant to us living 2500 years later…The teaching of the book that I want of focus on is that God is a God who pursues us relentlessly…unceasingly…untiringly…and he does it sometimes in spite of ourselves… In the opening verses of the book, Jonah was told by God to go to the city of Nineveh. He was told to speak to the people about the coming of God’s wrath against them. Faced with that rather unpleasant responsibility, Jonah decides to head west instead in the opposite direction. He goes to the port city of Joppa and books passage on a boat to Tarshish. The exact location of where Jonah thought he was going is unclear. The word “Tarshish” comes from a root word meaning “to refine metals.” There were several places along the Mediterranean coast that could fit the bill, including a place located in Spain. That’s not so important, other than to let us know that Jonah was attempting to escape from the presence of God to as far away as possible…and Spain would have been at the end of the known world to Jonah… If Jonah had the thought that he could elude God and God’s purpose for him, he was sadly mistaken. A big storm blew up, threatening to break apart the boat and drown everyone aboard. (As I was preparing this sermon this week, images and videos of the wind and the surf that accompanied P a g e | 2 Hurricane Sally as it came ashore flooded my mind. I wonder if that storm in the book of Jonah looked anything like that…) The crew aboard the ship tried everything they knew to do to try and keep it from sinking—and they even resorted to praying to their various pagan gods for help. Eventually they determined that the source of the storm was Jonah and God’s displeasure with him. So they tossed him overboard into the sea. The storm immediately abated and became quiet. It was then that Jonah was swallowed by the whale to save him from the waters of the storm…and not incidentally, to provide free transportation back to where Jonah had started. Three days later, the whale spits Jonah onto the beach back in Israel. Jonah heard the call of God. But he resisted it and fled headlong in the opposite direction. Nevertheless God pursued him with a love that would not let him go. Getting away from God would prove harder than he anticipated. For the Lord, Jonah’s attempt to run away was just a minor setback. And so God pursued him, even as he was trying to move beyond God’s reach… Psalm 139 lets us know that there is nowhere we can go that God cannot find us. In that psalm, David wrote: Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up into the heavens, You are there; If I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, If I settle on the far side of the sea, [Doesn’t that sound just like Jonah?] Even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me And the light become night around me,” Yet even the darkness will not be dark to You; The night will shine like the day For darkness is as light to You. (Psalm 139: 7-12) Over the years, I would have to say that I have encountered very few people who seemed to me to be in active rebellion against God—that they hated God and were doing their best to defy God at every turn. I have known a few—I have met some folks who were angry at God for one reason or another. But not very many. Most of the folks that I have met who were far away from God just did not want to be bothered with him. For them, God was too much of an imposition. They felt like how they live their lives was none of God’s business. They perceived that a vibrant relationship with God would P a g e | 3 cramp their style…and they did not want any part of that. Or…they were of the opinion that, in the final analysis, God’s presence in one’s life really does not make that much of a difference anyway. (Let’s be honest—it doesn’t seem to affect in a positive way the lives of a lot of church people, does it?…) So, for them, their feeling is something like, “I don’t see the point of letting God into my life if it’s not going to make that much of a difference…” Here is a central truth of the book of Jonah: The love of God does not give up that easy. Augustine of Hippo was a 4th Century church leader whose writings have had—and continue to have—a profound effect on the church. But the process by which Augustine came to know God was long and not without a spiritual, intellectual and moral struggle. Consequently no one has written more on the depths of sin and its effects than Augustine… Of all his struggles, probably none were more difficult for him to master than his sexual appetite. He had taken a mistress when he was sixteen years old and she bore him a child. Afterward, his mother arranged a marriage for him, but he was unable to keep his vows. As the love of God continued to pursue him, he took a number of other mistresses. But he was still unsatisfied and miserable deep in his soul. He was well aware that God was pursuing him, but he was not ready to give in. One of the prayers that he prayed during this time of spiritual indecision was, “Lord, give me chastity—but not yet…” Eventually though, the love of God reached him and he became a devout follower of Jesus. In his autobiography, known as the Confessions, he wrote these words to describe the workings of God’s love in the life of everyone. That includes both the believer and unbeliever alike. They are some of Augustine’s best-known words and reflect an important spiritual truth. In thinking back upon his long and tortuous journey to God, he wrote, “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in You.”1 Those words are as true today as when Augustine first wrote them over sixteen centuries ago…Augustine was describing the never-failing love of God that pursues us…and how we are truly unsatisfied deep down inside without him… In chapter three of the book of Jonah, the whale spits the prophet out onto the beach. The word of the Lord came to him again, requiring him to go to Nineveh. With an unambiguous lack of enthusiasm for the task, Jonah went to Nineveh and proclaimed the message that God had given him. He walked around the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s his entire sermon as recorded in the book. Only five Hebrew words total. Not much of a sermon, is it?! (I doubt that it would have impressed any prospective pastor search committees present in the city…!) Jonah brought his bad attitude and his lackluster sermon to the streets of Nineveh. He was doing what God told him to do. But he did not want to be there. And he did 1 C. Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses—Sermon Illustrations and Devotionals from the Christian Heritage (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993), 28, 30. P a g e | 4 not want to do what he was doing. By almost any standard, this missionary endeavor of Jonah’s should have been an abject failure. But miraculously, it wasn’t. Because the love of God does not give up that easy. Nineveh has been described by one historian as one of the most beautiful cities in the Ancient Near East. It had gardens, temples and splendid palaces. It was a marvel of engineering for its day. Archaeologists have discovered that it had a sophisticated system of canals and aqueducts that ensured a steady supply of water, with public parks and gardens. It also contained one of most extensive libraries of its day which was said to contain over 30,000 clay tablets, the books of its day. It was one of the largest, most influential and affluent cities of its day. It was also the seat of power for the Assyrian Empire, the most powerful empire of Jonah’s time. The Assyrian army had a well-deserved reputation for fierceness and cruelty that struck fear into the hearts of its enemies. They asked and gave no quarter in battle and would torture enemies that they conquered. No one wanted to face them in battle… Nineveh was also a city with a reputation for vice and sin. This was due to the fact that Nineveh was also the most important center for the worship of the pagan goddess Ishtar. In fact, some have speculated that the very name “Nineveh” could very well mean “the House of the Goddess” or “The House of Ishtar.” Ishtar was the goddess of war, fertility and sex. She was always characterized as young, beautiful, impulsive and a patroness of the alehouse.2 (I wouldn’t be surprised if an ancient tablet was discovered somewhere in the Middle East that said something like “What happens in Nineveh, stays in Nineveh”…!) So God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh with God’s message to “shape up or else.” Because of its association with power, wealth, Ishtar and sin, no one would think that Nineveh would be a potentially good place to start a religious revival. At least, that’s what Jonah figured. But he was wrong. God knew better. Nineveh’s response to Jonah’s sermon was immediate and all-inclusive. The people, from the king on down, repented in sackcloth and ashes. The city so completely turned from their wicked ways that God withdrew his coming judgment and let the people of Nineveh live. Another evidence in Jonah that the love of God does not give up that easy. That is true even of a city as godless and sinful as Nineveh… Would that that were the end of the story in Jonah…a great revival where an entire city turned its face toward God. Wonderful! How great that is! But it’s not the end of the story. Jonah did not celebrate what God had done. Instead, he was furious with God for not following through with his initial promise to destroy that wicked city. Jonah went to a hill outside of the city and set up camp, so he could 2 www.ancienthistory.eu/nineveh and www.britannica.com/topic/Ishtar-Mesopotamian-goddess (Accessed September 16, 2020) P a g e | 5 watch and wait to see what God would do next. Perhaps he thought that God might rain down fire and brimstone on Nineveh after all. If he did, then Jonah wanted a ringside seat to catch all the action… While he was camped out waiting and watching, God caused a plant to grow up over his tent that would provide shade from the intense heat and hot wind. Just when the shade began to provide Jonah with a bit of comfort, God caused a worm to eat the plant and cause it to die. Not surprisingly, given his penchant for complaining, Jonah let God know about that too and said that he was ready for God to take his life. But once again, the Lord shows that the love of God does not give up that easy. God did not leave Jonah alone to stew in his own juices and remain bitter. Instead, he once more spoke to Jonah and compared Jonah’s feelings for the plant—which God pointed out that he did not plant nor tend to—to the Lord’s compassion for the people of Nineveh. Not unlike when Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem and commented that the people were “harassed and harried like sheep without a shepherd,” God felt for these one hundred and twenty thousand people who were not able to tell their right hand from their left. And then God pointedly asks Jonah, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” And that’s where the book of Jonah ends. It does not record what the prophet’s answer to God’s question was. I frankly doubt if he ever gave one. I imagine that Jonah stood there, lowered his eyes, stared at his shoes and maybe shuffled his feet a little bit. It was hard for him to admit that the love of God so big and so inclusive, that even people in a godless city like Nineveh could be recipients of his grace and mercy. But it was. And it is… And that is the main takeaway from today’s sermon: the love of God does not give up that easy. When we would rather not do what God wants us to do, the love of God continues to reach out to us. It continues to search for us…and track us…and try to bring us back to him even when we would rather not. We may decide to spurn or ignore God’s love in our lives. That is certainly true. But that will not stop God from pursuing us. It does not matter if we have been trying to follow Jesus for a long time…or we have been avoiding God like Jonah did. The love of God—as shown to us through his son Jesus—does not give up that easy… To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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