We are now in our third week of our sermon series “Things That Go Bump In The Bible”. Our first week we talked about monsters on land and in our dreams. Last week we entered the depths of the oceans and the depths of our fears. Today, we stay in the water but much closer to the surface and try to discover what we are really afraid of…
Last week I spoke about as humans we fear the unknown because it brings us to the reality that we are not in control or may not have power in a given situation. And that’s a hard thing to admit sometimes. We are human. We are the dominate species, at least in our own minds often. We have Scripture that tells us that God has placed humanity over creation to care for it.
So it is easy to see why we like to think we are in control. We’ve been granted free will. We are able to make decisions. So it’s not really a far jump over time to get used to the idea that we are in full control of our lives and everything in them. Some scholars have even said that as humans, we have an incredible arrogance about us in our views of our control in the world. But I think sometimes, even though it may be hard, we can admit that we are not always in control or that we believe that there are other forces at work in our world.
Let’s look back at our Scripture reading about Jonah to get some more insight. I have to be honest that this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible, partially because of the VeggieTales movie of the same name. And while I acknowledge that the VeggieTales versions of some of these stories are not always 100% in-line with the text in the Bible, I do feel that they still get the overall message right. And besides, how can you not love a talking tomato and cucumber?
Anyways, back to our Scripture. We enter at God commanding Jonah to go and speak out against the wicked and evil city of Nineveh. As you may have guessed, Jonah was a prophet of God who went around sharing God’s message to the different intended peoples as God instructed. But rather than follow God’s command, Jonah goes the opposite direction.
But why? Why does he do this? Is he afraid of God? Is he afraid of Nineveh and its wicked people? Well our Scripture only says that, “Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” The VeggieTales version shows Jonah as not wanting to deal with the evils and horrors of Nineveh. It also portrays him as believing that they are not only unlikely to change their ways, but not worthy of God’s forgiveness even if they did.
So Jonah tries to run away from God and the responsibility that God has given to him. And that’s where things get interesting… Because you see, Jonah tries to escape by getting on a boat headed far, far away from Nineveh and God. Or at least he thinks so. And while on the boat a great storms rises up and tosses the boat around like a child might with a toy during their bath time.
And the poor sailors are panicked. They start praying to their gods and throwing cargo overboard trying to regain control of their ship. And the whole time, Jonah’s down in the hold taking a nap. A nap! During a storm of what I can only assume was especially rough and life threatening. And this guy is fast asleep while everyone else is scattering to just try and survive. I have to say, Jonah doesn’t seem like such a great guy right now does he?
So they finally go down and wake him up and figure out that he is the reason for the storm. He even tells them that he is trying to run away from God. And the sailors continue to panic, trying to figure out what they can do to appease God and save their lives and their ship.
Then something surprising happens. Jonah tells them to throw him overboard to appease the storm. They resist at first, but when things look their worst they pick him up and overboard he goes. And as soon as they do, the storm quiets and they recognize the power of God and begin to make sacrifices to him and promising to serve him.
And then everything is good right? End of story. Jonah swims to shore and everyone lives happily ever after right? Hey did you guys hear something? There it goes again. Okay I’m starting to get a little freaked out now.
Well while Jonah did not meet his fate at the jaws of a shark like the victims in the movie Jaws, God did send a great whale to swallow him whole. And that’s pretty darn scary if you ask me. Can you even imagine that? You’re treading water, or even swimming along, and you happen to look down and see a huge dark hole coming up at you from below. And you realize that you cannot swim fast enough to get out of the way. It’s only a matter of few seconds and you’re done. That’s pretty terrifying.
And even though the Scripture passage does not give any insight to what Jonah was feeling I cannot believe it was good. I don’t get the impression that even back then, people were getting swallowed whole by large whales on a regular basis. Even if he recognized God’s hand being active in the moment, human fear had to overtake him at some point in this nightmare.
Now nowhere can I find any indication that after God set Jonah free from the whale and again called him to go to Nineveh and deliver his message, did Jonah do what God asked out of fear. He just went out and did what God told him to do. And I think that is interesting because I am guessing most of us if we had been swallowed by a whale because we disobeyed God would not falter again given the chance, and at least partially out of fear.
I am thinking the threat of being swallowed by a whale only needs to happen once to take hold with most people. So is that what we should be afraid of? Our God? Well there is Scripture that offers that idea. And I am not saying that I don’t have some fear of God, but there is a difference between a healthy fear of God and doing things out of coercion because you fear for your life.
So what are we really afraid of? Are we afraid of God? Are we afraid of perceived dangers in following God’s call to us? Are we afraid of failing in those calls and disappointing God and ourselves? Or is it just really a fear of lack of control over our lives and our destinies? What are we really, truly in the depths of our very beings afraid of?
Well I think any and all of those things are possible answers for almost anyone. Obviously as we are humans and live the human existence, there may not be one, universal answer to this question of fear. For some, the fear is over lack of control. For others it may be fear of failure. For others still it may be a fear driven by lack of trust. These are normal fears that almost everyone will experience at one time or another.
But as I think about this Scripture and the book of Jonah in general, something jumps out at me. Jonah was called by God to tell the people of Nineveh to change their ways. God gives them a second chance. Just like God gives us a second chance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So in a way, I would argue that Jonah was being called by God to go and evangelize to the people of Nineveh.
Now obviously his message was not about Jesus because this is well before that time in history. But it was a message of God’s love. And I know that might sound kind of funny because the message talks about the wicked ways of the people, but remember what else it says. “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and speak out against it; I am aware of how wicked its people are.” Did you hear the key phrase there? “I am aware.”
Think about it. If God didn’t love the people, would God even care to pay attention to them? Would God be aware of their wickedness? Would God send them a prophet to share this message if He did not love them? I don’t think that God would do any of that if God did not feel love for the people.
And do you know what the best part of that message is about God’s love? God’s love means we do not have to be afraid. God’s love means that we do not have to fear death. God’s love means that we do not have to fear eternal suffering. God’s love means that we do not have to fear the evils and dark places in this world.
So does that mean we should live our lives without any fear? Probably not. While it’s a nice idea to live that boldly through our faith and trust in God, I think as long as there is evil in our world it would be irresponsible to live life without any fear. But we can find opportunities to live without fear and do something bold in the world.
Have you ever wanted to share your faith with someone but were not sure where to start? That’s an opportunity to fight our fears and do something bold! And I don’t mean drag them kicking and screaming to church. While kidnapping is a bold move to be sure, that goes a bit beyond what I am thinking of.
But you could be bold and ask them to come to church with you. And it’s okay if they say no. At least you asked. If you never ask, they can never say no but they can never say yes either.
You can be bold by offering to help a neighbor with work around the house. You can be bold by spending time with those who are not able to get out and travel. You can be bold by getting more active in the missions and work of this church. There are countless ways that we can be bold and push against the fear we have in our lives.
Fear is a very powerful thing. Look at the story in Luke when Peter denies knowing Jesus three different times. Jesus told him that he would do it, but Peter swore he never would. And then, in that terrifying moment when he teacher was taken away and everything seemed to be falling apart, fear took over Peter and he denied the man he had come to follow and respect and love.
So we should not be ashamed of our fear. But we do need to fight against it. We cannot let our fears drive us away from God as Jonah did. It can lead to even scarier realities. But we need to also remember that if we do falter and find ourselves running from God, we cannot ever escape God’s love. God will still be with us in those times when things look their worst. Because God loves us.
So I ask you today to do something. Go and do something bold. Reach out to the neighbor who needs help. Reach out to the friend you have wanted to invite to church. Share your faith in a loving way. Do not the let fear overtake you and remember that God is always with us. God is all-powerful and can conquer the fears. So be bold and open yourself to God so the fears can be defeated.