The right to speak
Sermon by Jan Fluit
I would like to read from the book of Jonah. Jonah chapter one starting from verse one.
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amitai saying “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me”.
God speaks to His prophet Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh. So Jonah goes and finds a ship, pays for his ticket, and sails away,…. in completely the opposite direction to what God had said!!
God had told him (and I summarise a few things now) God had told him to go and preach in Nineveh………..about the wickedness there. There was a lot going on in Nineveh that God considered to be wicked and wrong, and He felt that it was time to do something about it.
And when God wants something to be done, then He knows that there are people ready and willing to come into action for Him. There are people who will put his thoughts into words. And these people are called ‘prophets’.
And you know, you are all really prophets, because a prophet is someone, who speaks the words of God. God speaks to the prophet, and the prophet passes these words, God’s message, on to others.
So when it comes to preaching about the wickedness in Nineveh, God has a prophet, and he sends him to the city. But if God sends the prophet to deliver his message, and the prophet thinks: “I’m not going to do that”, then God’s message won’t reach the people. And that’s a pity. Because then all the good things that God has in mind, won’t happen.
So why doesn’t Jonah do what God tells him? Why don’t I do what God tells me sometimes? Well, because it was a very difficult task. He knew what sort of reception he could expect to get in Nineveh, and it was a very big city, with a lot of people. And he was supposed to bring a message that would put a stop to the wickedness in the city. And Jonah thinks the task is too difficult for him.
In order to be a good judge of Jonah, whether he was right in thinking that the task was too difficult for him, and whether I am right in thinking that something is too difficult for me, we have to consider HOW I reach the conclusion that a task is too difficult. What makes me think it is so difficult? Difficult compared to what?
Do you think that if you were a Jonah, you could preach a sermon so powerful that it could actually have an impact on the wickedness of the whole city. Could you do that?
What about the task that God has given us: Are we capable of helping to restore the whole of God’s creation? Are we capable of doing that? God says we are, but are we?
I mean, look at how busy we can be with difficult situations with colleagues, or with members of our own family, or even just with ourselves. And then I wonder: should we even WANT to be used for such important matters, and if so, are we capable? Are we up to all these important tasks. This gospel and everything that God has for us, aren't we aiming too high? Shouldn’t we put everything back into the right perspectives. Focus on something we can succeed in? Because all the rest is much too difficult.
Well, if I start thinking like that, then I’m running away from the task that God has for me too. Even this word ‘task’ can sound rather negative. I would rather put it like this: I would be running away from the faith that God has in me. He believes that Jonah can preach a sermon that will put an end to the evil and wickedness in Nineveh. God has faith in Jonah, faith that he can do this. And God also has faith in His own Word, that His word can achieve this.
But Jonah is worrying about how difficult it is, and that’s why he flees from God. And I think that’s such a pity. That when God speaks, when an idea is born, that people go away from God to consider whether or not they think they will succeed. That they go to sea, and look for answers in a place where they are not to be found, because the answers are only to be found where God is.
I mean Jonah could have said ‘that’s a really hard task God, I’d like confirmation, and some support and more information, because I think it’s a rather difficult task you’ve given me’. But instead, he turns his back on God and walks away, and goes to sea. That is also an image of the spiritual reality, because THAT’s what happens to Jonah when he runs off to sea, he is separated from God, physically but also spiritually.
And then the ship that he is on comes into a terrible storm, and, according to this translation, GOD caused the storm. You often see that in the Old Testament. That everything that happens, good and bad, is attributed to God. But who was it, who wanted to end the life of this prophet? Not God, because God had a task for Jonah. No it was Satan. Satan is the one who doesn’t want God’s Word to be brought to Nineveh by Jonah. That’s why he tries to use Jonah’s situation on the ship to his own advantage.
If he can get at him there, if Jonah were to drown for example, then he’d definitely not be able to go to Nineveh. He’d be out of the way.
While the sailors are doing their utmost to get to land, and the sea is getting rougher and rougher, and they have called on all the gods for help, except Jonah’s God, Jonah is lying fast asleep at the bottom of the ship. And the captain says so to him: ‘How can you lie there sleeping so soundly? Are you oblivious to what’s going on?”
And that struck me: How can you be so oblivious when God speaks to you. How can you NOT hear what God says to you. And the captain says to him: ‘speak and call to your God for help’, because Jonah had paid fairly for his ticket, and had told them why he was running away. And when things go wrong, in this case the storm, then people start looking for someone to blame. That always happens, even nowadays, people always want someone to blame.
Look at your own life, how that happens there too when something goes wrong. Either you are looking for someone else to blame, or you feel guilty and you blame yourself.
Well, Jonah realised that he was the cause of the storm. That the reason why there was such a terrible storm was because he had made the wrong decision. So he says, ‘if you throw me overboard, then the sea will have want it wants, then the enemy of God will have what he wants, and it will become calm again. You’re looking for someone to blame, you’ve found him, it’s me, I surrender myself to the sea’. And that means death!
And that is typical of what happens if you turn and go away from God. Then you find yourself in a situation exactly the opposite to God, and the opposite to life. You often see this, even with prophets, the desire for the opposite to what God is, and Jonah says. ‘O just let me die’. As if THAT would solve anything! You dying.
Mind you, there are situations where dying IS the solution to the problem, but that’s only when it means being ‘dead to sin’ by accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. If you are dead to sin, then you start to become alive.
There’s no point in longing for something that won’t help anyway. Wanting to die won’t help at all. I don’t want to long for something that is empty and without purpose. But Jonah made a wrong choice, and the consequence of that choice, is that he is thrown into the sea, and then given up to death.
And so that’s why I think what comes next is so wonderful: It says “and God provided a fish”. So at the moment of his downfall, his imminent death, it is not his downfall and he doesn’t die, because God says: I will provide a means of escape for you, I will save you. I will save your life.
I think that’s why Jesus says in Matthew chapter twelve verse forty: ‘No sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”. Then too, the disciples thought everything was going wrong. There are many people who often feel like this too, that everything seems to be going wrong. Then they are surrounded by wrong thoughts, and they keep going over and over the things they have done in their mind, until in the end they think that everything will go wrong.
What I think is so special about what happens here, is that in another translation it says ”He called me to go into the deep”.
It is special, because it should have meant death. But Jonah says: ‘You called me, you called me to go into the deep, God.’ It became a missionary journey, into the deep. He is confronted with death. But if that happens while God is with you, even if, as with Jonah, you made the wrong choices, then the outcome is the other way round. It’s death that is confronted with life. Because that is the gospel. The whole atmosphere of the gospel is not ‘We want to do good, but there is an enemy and he always decides what happens’. No, it is that God has a wonderful plan, and things go the way HE wants it to. The plan that He has, He sets in motion, and what He sets in motion, he will also see through to end.
So it seems here that death has the last word, and get’s it’s own way as a result of accusation and blame. But in fact it doesn’t. Death loses the battle for Jonah. Because God is a God who provides a fish. This reminded me of the symbol of the first church, that was also a fish, Ichtus, the Christ. With Christ things go the right way, even though everything seems to be lost. And Jonah comes to his senses in the fish. He sings a song of worship, which you can read in Jonah chapter two, and reaches some conclusions.
He says ‘When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to Thee into thy holy temple”, or into the ‘hall of Your glory’, as another translation puts it. You bring me to the place where Your glory is, Your way of thinking. And as far as this glory is concerned, God had always destined it for mankind, - they have a right to it, He says. So what Jonah is really saying is: I came into the place where my thoughts were like those you have. Then he draws a conclusion that I think is very clear and oh so true.
In Jonah chapter two verse eight he says, and take note: ‘Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty’. In Dutch it says: ‘Those who serve worthless gods forsake Him who is good to them’. And another translation says: ‘those who serve idols of no worth have to leave the subject of a friendship’.
It’s one or the other. If you worship another god, then you drift away from the true God. If I serve another god, a false god, then I am subject to mortality (Romans eight verse twenty-one). If I serve another god then I have to relinquish the true God, Who is good to me. I let Him go. The one who is good, and compassionate, I actually let Him go if I continue to nurture other ideas and a different way of thinking.
And the very reason that the Lord came, as was prophesied, was so that we may be freed from any service to mortality. So that I may become free and have eternal life, not obligated to all that is material, temporary, mortal, and to do with death. And there is more. Not only set free FROM, ……… but also freed into the free glory destined by God for his children, His people. So if I listen to the true God, then I take a different path. So it is a choice. Which thoughts do I serve, who do I listen to?
The other thing which I think is rather wonderful, is that these false gods, who fulfil such an important rôle and have such a big say in everything, that they are called “worthless idols”. It says here , “they are all nothing, worthless”. Whose conclusion is that? Jonah’s. Because he has his eyes focussed on God again. On God’s redemption. He is thinking once again as God thinks. In terms of salvation and what God has provided. A fish. A way of escape. Jonah says, I was surrounded by death, by the kingdom of death, but I am alive. I am not dead. Those thoughts, this realisation, save him too.
But what is God to do with Jonah now? A prophet, contráry, rebellious, not thinking straight, and running away. Well, he is going to save him. And that’s what God has done. And then you would expect God to choose another prophet to go to Nineveh. After all, he can’t trust Jonah to do what He says. But in chapter three we read the same as in chapter one, ‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’.
The first time the task was ‘preach about the wickedness that has come up before me’, and here it says, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’.
Another translation says: ‘Convey to the city the calling that I speak to you’. God had a calling for Nineveh.
Do you know what is so wonderful here. Nineveh had to be turned upside down, didn’t it? Yes, Upside down. God wanted that. That’s not an incorrect text. There had to be a turning point. A conversion. That’s what God had in mind. He thought there was evil in Nineveh and wrong-doing. The people there had wrong thoughts, wrong motives and they followed the wrong gods. So there had to be a tremendous change in Nineveh. Because God had a calling for Nineveh. He wanted to call the people in Nineveh, who were so far away from God. And he says again, and that is because of His faith, the faith that he has in Jonah, “Jonah, you are the preacher”. Well, that’s him restored in honour, isn’t it? And so we see that the faith that God has in Jonah, or the faith he has in YOU, must be very strong, if God chooses to keep you for the task he has in mind, despite the things you’ve done wrong. I would probably have thought: ‘keep Jonah for this mission? ‘ No way!’ Jonah only means problems. You have to keep on at him, and he doesn’t really understand anyway’. But Jonah had met God, and had spoken wonderful things to Him. In chapter two verse nine : ‘But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” So he wants to make a sacrifice, to make good his promises, he wants to pay, and he says very clearly, ‘deliverance belongs to the Lord’. And that certainly makes you a suitable prophet, capable of preaching salvation to Nineveh.
So Jonah goes to preach. I think we all know the story. He was a powerful preacher, I must say. But why was that? Well God said quite emphatically to him: speak the words that I say to you..
That is very important, that you convey what I want you to say. And he DID that, but unfortunately his motives were not right. Because HE thought that Nineveh would be destroyed. He thought his powerful preaching meant the end for the heathens. It was their own fault. It was a heathen city. They had done wrong. So if you preach powerfully, and bring a powerful message, and you are thinking in terms of blame and guilt, then you expect destruction. And Jonah wanted to bring sacrifices of praise to thank God for this destruction, because he was focussed on himself. The deliverance that God spoke of, he thought was for him. He was the one to be saved. But his preaching has a spectacular result. The whole city is converted. What a wonderful result for the preaching of Jonah.
Nineveh is spared. But Jonah isn’t happy about this at all. In fact he is extraordinarily upset about it. Chapter four. And you can convey these sort of feelings in your prayers too. Look at verse two. Jonah says: “Is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.
In other words: “Shame on you, God. It is scandalous what you have in mind. You are gracious and merciful and kind. I knew that beforehand. So if such an evil city is not going to be destroyed, then I don’t need to come into action. What’s the point. So, he says: “Take my life. It is better to die than to live”.
Whatever are you thinking if you say things like that? ‘God, I had expected something spectacular to happen. I thought the whole city would be destroyed’. Even nowadays people still often think in terms of revenge: ‘You will never forgive what they have done to you, they have made enormous mistakes, and you have to make that clear to them, once and for all. They never listen, they have wronged me. But then YOU want us to be gracious and forgiving. Well God, you needn’t send me anywhere anymore’.
You want to be a prophet, but then you also want something spectacular to happen. We don’t want to let people walk all over us. Then things start to go wrong. Your conclusion? Jonah says: ‘What we need is harsher punishment, then they will learn. But YOU don’t do that, God. And because You don’t do that my life is worthless’. His thoughts go round and round in circles that don’t fit into Gods way of thinking at all. And once again Jonah is quick to jump to the conclusion that death would be a solution.
Don’t forget, this is the same Jonah who only a little earlier had said, just as we often do in our hymn: “I will bring sacrifices of praise to you O Lord, almighty and great God,” but his enthusiasm fades away when it doesn’t work out as he had expected.
So what should God do now? What should YOU do if things like this happen to you, or to others? What does God say? Well, what God says is so clear and caring. He says to Jonah: have you got a right to be so angry? Just as he can say to us, have you got a right to be so disappointed. Are you justified in being at your wit’s end. Are you justified in being so angry? Are you justified in going another way? Is that right? What you are doing and thinking, is that right? Is that justified? Do you ever check your reactions? Do you seek confirmation about thoughts you have? And if so, do you go to the right person for this? Do you go to God, to Jesus? Does the holy spirit, that you have received, have a part in this decision. Or don’t you have the holy spirit? Wouldn’t you like to receive God’s spirit so that you can function properly, and check to see if your way of thinking is right, and so through grace be delivered from your fickle existence into something stable?
The story continues. Jonah is sitting outside the city. He had built a hut and sat waiting to see what would happen to the city.
He thought it was going to be something spectacular, and he had one of the best seats. He was looking forward to seeing what was going to happen. And then God provides a miracle tree, a place where you can sit, in the shade, wondering about the results your preaching will have. Wondering what is going to happen. So there Jonah is, on the one hand, very angry, and on the other hand, so happy with his miracle tree. HE has a miracle tree. Wonderful. A private miracle tree all to himself. Others are going to be destroyed, but you have a miracle tree. You really do have a wonderful position to watch from. But what happens to that tree? YOUR tree, it dies. And what do you have left? Nothing. Then you have absolutely nothing if your miracle tree dies. Then everything happens at once. The tree withers, and there is a scorching easterly wind, while the sun burns down on your head. So what conclusion does Jonah come to, do you think: “I would rather die”. Jonah thoughts always go to death, if things don’t go as he expects. While God is so near. SO near. And Jonah is SO angry. And SO lonely, blinded to the reality, to what is really going on.
What was the reality? Well don’t forget that this was the biggest city ever, a city which took three days to travel through. What a prophet he was, and what wonderful words God gave him. Those words that he had spoken, led to a whole city being saved. A whole city turned back to God, a whole city found God.
THAT was the result of his preaching. That is what was really set in motion by his prophecy. That is the reality.
I think, if you look at yourself, through your life with God, you can see what a good co-worker you are, and what a good effect you have on the lives of other people. And that sets wonderful things in motion, and then there YOU are, sitting thinking to yourself, ‘that is all nothing and worthless’. While in reality you have put things in motion, are putting things in motion, that are really wonderful. But there you are, sitting looking at your miracle tree, your good luck, your success, your prosperity. And the miracle tree, then. You could think, that ought to be able to remain standing. Well, I don’t think so, not these private miracle trees.
If you look at Jonah’s situation, he shouldn’t have been sitting there at all! He was waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen, and what he should have been doing was to go away from the tree and into the city, to see what effect his preaching was having. To listen to people witnessing about how they had been lost, but now were saved. How they had found God. He should have been there celebrating with these people and learning from their new experiences and their new-found life.
And God says again, and that is what I think is so wonderful about God. He stays the same. He says, Do you have a right to be angry?
I think that question goes very deep. Is very profound. God puts something to Jonah, and it is up to him what he does next, what I do next. The question he is really asking is: what is right and just. The thoughts I am having, the thoughts that I act on, are they right, are they just. Could it be that I am too concerned with what is NOT right? Am I too focussed on what is not right and not enough on what is right andjust? God wants us to focus only on righteousness, so that we may become righteous. God says, do you know what my motives are? See verse ten: “You pity the plant for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle!”
I think this story is about those children of God who know nothing of spiritual things. Really know nothing. “should I not save them”, He says.
And if we are co-workers in the liberation and restoration of God’s creation, then the first people you come up against, are people who, as God says here, spiritually do not know the difference between their left and their right hand. Who do not know the truth.
Should we make them pay? Do I have to make people pay for doing things they didn’t know were wrong. So many people have been written off, in people’s minds as well, discarded as being worthless, because they had wrong thoughts or ideas, or just didn’t know. But if you DO know, and you put that to work prophetically, then many people could profit from your knowledge. Then instead of a life with private miracle trees, we would have a life of fellowship with each other. You could be a co worker of life, starting with yourself, if you just accept what God says about you.
Let’s look at the text about false gods in Jonah 2 verse 8 ‘those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty’ and let’s turn that around. “If I serve Him who is good and kind, then I forsake the worthless idols”. Then I forsake what is not right. Then I relinquish that and say, God, I want to serve you, in what you say to me, and in what you believe of me, and you seem to believe in me as a prophet. You believe that I can speak your words, but Lord, sometimes I don’t know at all what I should say, but if you give me words and thoughts about myself and others, then I will speak these words and make these words become a reality in my life.
And all those who don’t know, may profit from those who DO know!
God is always compassionate to those who are ignorant, or know little. He cherishes the weak. Accept that.
If you think that you are also a bit like Jonah, and maybe you are, then accept what he says about the weak. God wants to save your life too. Look at what great faith God has in you. His words can be very close to you, and yet they can easily be misted over by the enemy, who keeps on pushing bad thoughts in between those words of God.
But I am able to choose. I have a right to speak. I can confirm, and I can also deny. Some thoughts I can resist and push away, because the Lord says in Jeremiah chapter fifteen verse twenty: ‘I will make you a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you”. So wrong thoughts and ideas may come to me, but I can say, ‘I won’t let them enter my mind any more. I won’t act on them, because I have accepted God’s way of thinking. I have accepted HIS love and His greatness’, and then maybe you will be amazed to discover that you are already a great blessing for Nineveh.
Turn it round the other way. The Nineveh in your life is no longer a threat to you, but is given to you by God to conquer. Then you have some weapons in your hand, then I am busy changing the Nineveh’s, instead of Nineveh changing me. Then the oppressor is no longer the one who oppresses me, I oppress him. That’s a whole new way of thinking. God’s way. And it will completely change your life.
And how can we do that? Well, what God is accused of, not such much by Jonah, but by the powers of darkness, was that He is compassionate and loving and kind. That’s what God is like, and if you let that sink in, and let those thoughts fill your life, then you will see that a wonderful person will emerge. It is so wonderful, so marvellous to be loving and kind, and to spread warmth and be loved in return. If you try to do that, then it will become real in your life. At times you may think, ‘it’s all very new and I am not too sure of myself, but I am beginning to understand how it works, and I will turn to God and let him help me, through his word, and through my brothers and sisters. I will listen to what God says to me now, and let Him help me’.
Finally, God says, ‘if THAT’s the attitude you have, do you know what I will do, I will give you cities. I give them to you. And to understand what He means, you mustn’t think in terms of a city or village where you live, but in figurative terms, regions and territories that you come up against in your life. I will give you guardianship over them, says the Lord. YOU are the one who decides what happens there. I have given you my spirit. So don’t try and do everything in your own strength. I have given you my spirit. Let my spirit be at the centre of all that you do. I believe in you, I believe that you can do what I ask of you. And you may say and do these things in faith. It’s really wonderful to be able to walk this path of life together with the Lord. And that is the destiny of the whole of creation.
Let’s pray together:
Thank you, that right from the very beginning, your plan was for God and his people to work together, to proclaim love and to be loved. To proclaim righteousness to all people. And to form a creation that is good and beautiful.
Thank you that you have kept to your original plan, and that in this day and age you still share your plan with people, so that they can work with you to realise your plan with creation.
Lord and then when it becomes difficult, we don’t want to move away from you, we want to come nearer to you. To be close to you, so that we can hear what you say. Because you radiate so much compassion and love, and peace and healing and care.
Thank you Lord, that if we are a bit changeable, that you will make us stable, that you give us a place close to your heart, full of your spirit and your truth and your life. Yes, that we may find peace knowing that you believe in us.
Thank you Lord that you bless us and do only good, day in day out. That you are near to us.
Receive healing and restoration from the Lord. It is for us all.
Thank you that you are a Lord who is near to us, and that you give us the right to speak. That you believe in us. That you give us ears to hear what you say to us. To us personally, about compassion and faith and support and healing.
Thank you Lord for this fellowship, and this wonderful life that you have set in motion in us, and that will never end.