Change—We Can Learn a Lot from Jonah’s Story

Post a Comment » Written on June 26th, 2009     
Filed under: News
By Don Meyer

PORTLAND, OR (June 26, 2009) – It was one of those messages that has you thinking you know where the preacher is heading, only to find a surprise waiting at the end.

It came during this evening’s second worship service as part of the 124th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church currently under way.

OneLisa Orris quickly engaged her audience in describing a situation familiar to most parents—teenagers who make plans apart from the parents, then inform the parents that they have to change their plans to accommodate the kids—only to change their minds and leave the parents…and their changed plans…hanging.

“We don’t like change,” she confessed. “We like it when the world operates according to US!”

Change pushes us to do things we never thought we would do and takes us to places we never thought we would go, she observed. “It causes us to rethink what we are doing…and why we are doing it, to realign priorities, perspectives and purpose.”

The more serious concern, she suggests, is how we respond to change. What do we do when things turn our world as we know it upside down? Moving to a more personal level, she asks, “How will we respond when God gives us a new revelation of what we can be?”

At this point she introduced the text for the evening—the familiar story of the prophet Jonah who is directed by God to go to Ninevah to warn the people that unless they repent and turn toward God, they will be destroyed. Jonah disobeys and heads a different direction—and is swallowed by a large fish so that God can get his attention.

“We stop at chapter two—the story of the fish,” Orris says of the popular childhood story. “But the story doesn’t end until chapter four.”

Jonah did not want to do what God wanted him to do, and went his own way instead. God punishes him—to get his attention— and after the prophet is delivered from the belly of the fish, he concedes the point and goes to Ninevah to warn the people.

TwoIt is at this point that the intent of the message seems clear—this is going to be a sermon about obedience, how each one of us needs to learn from Jonah’s experience and do what God directs the first time. Wrong.

Orris explored deeper questions. Why was Jonah so angry that the people of Ninevah—from the king down—responded to Jonah’s message and repented and turned to God?

“God changed the plan, and Jonah didn’t like it,” Orris said. No doubt Jonah was well aware that the people of Ninevah had been an evil and wicked people, and Jonah does not understand why God would change his mind, why those evil people would not get what they deserved.

“We always want to figure God out,” Orris suggested. “But he says his ways are not our ways. God had a heart for those people—and he asks that we also have a heart for people.” Jonah didn’t get it.

It’s at this point God decides to teach Jonah a lesson. God caused a gourd plant to grow, a large leafy plant that gave shade and comfort as Jonah sat outside the city under a scorching sun to see what God might do to the city. In a sense, God delivered Jonah a second time (following his deliverance from the fish)—he gave Jonah a second chance, so to speak. “Yet, Jonah was not willing to give the people of Ninevah the same second chance,” she observed.

As Orris described the shade of the gourd plant and how comfortable Jonah felt, her message took a different tack. She wondered aloud if the church today, like the leafy gourd plant of Jonah’s experience, has become our place of comfort—we know everyone, we like our programs, we are comfortable inside the four walls of our churches.

She described a church that was considering changing its service schedule to try and attract other people and the angst that caused for many of the members. In particular, she noted the language that was used in conversation—“our” Sunday school, “our” choir, “our” church.

“We prefer the shelter of our own gourd and the comfort,” she suggested.

ThreeThen, God causes the plant sheltering Jonah to wither and die. Jonah is angry, and twice tells the Lord he would rather die than live. “At some point, it became more about Jonah,” she noted. “I wonder if what he really meant was that he would rather die than change—that’s what he is really saying to God.

“Change requires surrendering deep things and taking risks,” she continued. “When we step out of our shelters, it will be into an area of uncertainty. Outside, there are people who talk different than we do, they dress different, they look different.”

God reminds Jonah that it was God who caused the gourd plant to grow, not Jonah. “The same is true today of the Church of Jesus Christ,” Orris said. “We don’t grow the church—God does.” And God reminds Jonah that God loves the 120,000 people of Ninevah.

“This is who our God is,” Orris declared. “He is concerned about people on the outside. We are called to be the people who are not afraid to leave the shelter and comfort of the gourd plant.

“And remember, too, that we were once Ninevah,” she continued. “We once were sinners, but Christ loved us anyway. That is who our God is.”

Orris recalled that about a year after her first encounter with the church that was contemplating changes to reach those outside, she paid a second visit. The church was filled with people from the neighborhood who had never been there before. “They saw Ninevah,” Orris said of that congregation.

“So, here’s the question,” she asked her audience. “Will you stay in the comfort of the leafy gourd, or will you step out for those who don’t yet know Jesus? That is my challenge to you. That is our call as the Evangelical Covenant Church.”

Earlier in the evening, David Olson was installed as executive minister of the Department of Church Growth and Evangelism. Names that are part of the Bringing My World to Christ initiative also were noted and communion was shared.

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