Who’s In Charge Around Here?

Delivered January 6, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Remembering that the Mission is our authority.

Sermon Text:
Acts 3:1-3
and Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-5,10; 4:1-11

Acts, Chapter 13: Verses 1 through 3.

In the church of Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart from me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his Word.

I am not sure why it is, but at Central Church in the last few years it seems that the beginning of a calendar year has ushered in momentous changes. Changes have taken place beside January, but there have been some major ones in the last few years. I mean think of it, two years ago the beginning of 2000 and Central Church had to adjust to the eminent loss of a beloved pastor of 12 years, Ron Skates. A year ago this time at the beginning of 2001 we were anticipating the advent of the third service. Maybe some of us were bracing for it. That certainly had an impact on life among us. And now at the dawning of 2002, there is much talk about how we are to go about the business of being the church. Interestingly, I think the first two of the last three things I have mentioned have had more visible and emotional impact, but I think its the one that we are involved in today that has the most potential for decades to come of shaping the future of Central Church. I am sure it hasn’t reached everyone’s radar screen yet, but in a nutshell, this congregation is trying to move from a program orientation to a lay driven model. Now please understand it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more programs in a few months, it’s just there’s a focus that’s different on how the ministry happens. It’s like an aircraft carrier making a U-turn, it takes time and it will take time. But through the Holy Spirit and I truly believe this, that the Holy Spirit and the deliberate decision making guidance of the leadership of this church, every single person is part of this congregation will be affected by this paradigm shift in some way.

I liken it to how healthcare has changed over the past 10 years. You know if you were the COO, the chief operating officer of the hospital 10 or 12 years ago you made money by how long people stayed in your hospital. If you operate that way today you will never make it. You make money now by how short a stay people are in the hospital. So its real important if you’re a COO which model you’re working with. Well in the same kind of way administrators and leaders here are really aware of this model and how it’s really going to change us. If you have been really healthy for the last 12 or 15 years, you may have not noticed anything. What I am trying to say is that as God leads and this paradigm shift happens, it will help the church fulfill it’s mission more clearly than ever before. Now from a personal perspective let me say that I am absolutely amazed by the way that God is moving among us. In fact, this interim ministry will be instructed for me the rest of my life of what God can do with open, humble, obedient followers of Jesus. I do and I will boast about God’s work here, wherever I go. Now in the midst of all this shifting of authority and responsibility and I know some of you are sitting there thinking, “what on earth is he talking about?” But in the midst of the ground swell shifts that were proposing, it’s very easy to begin asking the question, “Exactly who is in charge around here?” And I am going to answer that question, but not right away. I am asking the Book of Jonah, not the prophet, the book to help us answer this question because this book focuses less on prophetic words and more on a person who lost sight of his purpose and so we’re going to take little exerts from the book as we go and talk about the main theme and in Jonah the books main theme is God’s loving concern for all people and nations, even the most unlovely. The problem is that Jonah wasn’t the prophets theme. So lets take a look at the first section. Verses 1 through 3 of Chapter 1.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Go the the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed to Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”

You know many prophets and leaders of God had felt inadequate and have balked at God’s call, but Jonah takes the cake. He does a complete 180. He ran away from the Lord. Let me give you a better translation. Jonah set out to flee from the presence of the Lord. Now in ancient times to stand in the presence great was to act as their official minister. So to flee from the presence of God is basically saying, “I refuse to serve God in the office that has been given to me.” How do you flee God’s presence? I mean Martin Luther thought about that for a little bit and he said there are two ways to answer that question. There’s a natural way in which we would say that is impossible, because no matter where you go God’s presence is universe, deepest part of the sea God is. But he said there’s a spiritual way that one can flee God’s presence. And he asked the question, “Where is God’s presence?” God’s presence is in the church, it’s in the word, it’s among people of faith, it’s where the spirit of truth is, it’s where the sacraments are celebrated. And so we can seek to go where there is no word of God proclaimed, where there are no people of God, where there is no spirit or knowledge of God. In other words, we can flee from the presence of the Lord spiritually by trying to shut out everything that the Lord would want to say to us and Jonah in going towards Tarshish, and you probably already know this, but that was the western most part of the known world, it was the coast of Spain. He was going to the end of the world to flee from God’s presence. Now I don’t have time to develop the rest of Chapter 1 or 2 and you know the rest of the story. You know about the great fish and the question is not, “Did a whale swallow Jonah?” The question is, “Do you swallow the whale?” Now if God is able to do whatever God wants to do, whenever God wants to do it to accomplish God’s purpose, why is it any different from any of the other miracle of the scriptures. But the whole thing about the fish is the problem because it obscures the message of the book and it’s not the message of the sermon. So we will go on to Chapter 3. Verses 1 to 5.

“And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

What a preacher. Eight word message. Three days. Thousands, tens of thousands are turned to God.” You know you would think that that would please Jonah, you would think that would make him the happiest prophet that ever lived. But in his heart Jonah still wanted to flee.”

Let’s look at Chapter 4. Actually let’s not miss 10. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction that he had threatened.” Chapter 4. “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Oh Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” See now we are getting the reason why he ran. “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Almost word for word, the way God describes himself in Exodus 34 when he is talking to Moses. “Now I Lord take away my life for its better for me to die than to live. But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?” You see Jonah was angry because God was so gracious toward people who had harmed his people, Israel. Nineveh was a serious capital. And one of my sources reads this way about the behavior of the Assyrian people. For ages Assyria had plundered all the peoples within her range, wherever her name was known it was execrated. You know what that means? Nobody liked them. Everybody hated them. They were international bullies who had no goals but conquests, and enslavement of those who are weaker to impose their will. So when the word of the Lord came to Jonah providing a gracious message in a sense to these people, we couldn’t handle it.

In a way Jonah was a representative of all of Israel at the time. It was though God was saying to all of his people, let’s be willing to give Assyria another chance. Another chance? Those murderers. I hate what they are and what they stand for. God, are you just going to overlook their ways? No, Jonah I am not going to overlook their ways, but I am not indifferent to evil. In fact, if they don’t repent I am going to wipe them out. But I am going to give them another chance. How can you warn people like that? How can you care about them? Does anybody have an illustration come to mind at this point? I mean seriously, to try to get into Jonah’s shoes, it would be like God proclaiming to Osama Bin Laden and Al- Qaida network and the Taliban people and they repent and they escape retribution. Now how does that feel? That’s the way Jonah felt. Is there anyone you really hope doesn’t make it in the kingdom? I mean let’s be honest for just a minute. Osama, Jeffrey Dahmer, the guy across the street, the kid in your gym class, a pedophile, an abuser? You know there is a bit of Jonah in all of our hearts whenever we forget God’s main theme in this book. Maybe no other book in the Old Testament has the spirit of the gospel more than this. Gods loving concern for all people and nations, even the most unlovely. Whenever we forget that, we forget part of the reason why we exist as a church. You know the main reason why congregations die? They forget that they exist from mission, for a costly mission. They forget that they exist for the people who are not inside the doors yet, as well as for the people who are. Whoever they may be. Did you know in Central Churches history, I know you do, that Central Presbyterian Church was on the ropes, big time. I mean it was on life support. It was dying, it died in the city almost. Its mission was right there at its doorstep and that generation did not perceive it. And yet there was one saint in that dwindling congregation who gave a bequest that said Central will exist somewhere. He was hanging on a thread of mission. You will exist somewhere, just a mere what 50 something or 60 something years ago. And that bequest helped support Pastor Smoot and his young family and brought that church to become transplanted just about where we sit today.

Today is Epiphany Sunday, that’s why we have the candelabra left over from the New Years Eve services. How many of you woke up and stretched and said, “Boy I am glad this is Epiphany Sunday?” But it means revelation to the Gentiles. It’s when Simeon scoops up the baby Jesus and says, “here he is, a light for the Gentiles. A revelation and a glory to your people Israel. Its what makes three Magi’s as Jerry preached so beautifully a few weeks ago, go a long distance. And the Gentiles start to see the Messiah. And so January, an Epiphany has always been a time to say, “What is the mission of the church?” It’s to proclaim and show forth the kindness of God to others no matter how distant or different. We can’t shrink God down to our size, it just won’t work. So to answer the question that I originally posed and that’s my sermon title, “Who’s In Charge Around Here?” It’s certainly not me, and it certainly won’t be the new pastor, and it’s certainly not the session. The session is even downsized itself. The session has shrunk itself. And it’s not the Presbyterian and the PCA National and it’s not even some group of people that you don’t know who sit in corners and try to make this thing work. I tell you the mission, I will tell you the authority. It’s right on the front of your bulletin cover. It’s right there. The authority around here, what leadership is saying more and more, it’s always said it, but they are saying it more and more in ways that affect each of our lives. The mission of Central Presbyterian Church is moving people toward Christ, by being a community of faith etc. etc. That’s who is in charge. And if anything doesn’t obey the mission, then it should go. And if were not obeying mission, we should find some way to obey it. And we know that Jesus is really in charge, don’t we? But isn’t Jesus the heart of mission? God so loves the world that he sent his only Son. Let me give you another definition for mission. Mission is the caring activity of Jesus through us collectively. The caring activity of mission through us that moves people toward Him. Its not just caring activity, we’re not the democratic party. It’s the caring activity of Jesus that moves people toward Him. This is why we do it. That’s why we exist. That’s why the church is and that’s why Jonah missed.

You know many commentators believe the book was written at a time when Israel only had institutional survival in mind. I know that doesn’t apply here, but they were racially exclusive. They were narrowly nationalistic and they were religiously intolerant. And this book of Jonah was a rebuke to all Israel, to anyone who believed that the people of God existed solely for themselves, to serve any individual or any particular faction. Do you know what Jonah’s biggest obstacle was? It’s revealed in the rest of the text, from Chapter 4 verses 5 through 11. He had an anger that just wouldn’t quit. You know at least God’s anger, which is always righteous, is a sign that God will not be indifferent to evil. But Jonah’s anger and it ends, it has an end to it, but Jonah’s anger didn’t end. So let’s look at 5 through 11.

“Jonah went out and sat down at the place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter and he sat in the shade and he waited to see what would happen to the city.”

Do you believe that? God already told him that they were going to be forgiven, they were going to be spared. He still takes a ringside seat in hopes there would be fireworks. He just can’t believe that God is really going to do this.

Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give him shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. For the first time something made him happy. “But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and he said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah (the second time he asked the question,) “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” But the Lord said, “You’ve been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

The literal Hebrew translation, “Is it good to be angry for you? You, Jonah who experienced my gracious deliverance, my gracious rescue. Do you have any right to be angry about how gracious I want to be to human beings? You care about a vine that doesn’t have a soul? I care about 120,000 souls in this city. God still gently rebukes Jonah, even Jonah, if anybody deserved a lightning bolt between the eyes, its Jonah. But listen, God still comes and says to you, “you disobedient prophet. I even love you not to wipe you out right now.” You’re not going to perish. I think the way the book ends kind of makes us wonder, but it also calls us to silently meditate on Gods ways, which are so far beyond ours.

This past week Ellen and I were in Ohio attending her grandmother’s funeral. Thank you for all of you who prayed and sent a word of comfort. We were seated at the lunch after the funeral as often happens and it so happened that Ellen’s cousin, Nancy who had her two children with her was there at the table and they are a Christian family, and her husband Ralph was not there. But Nancy and her kids were basically telling us of a very recent real Damascus Road conversion of her husband. I asked the children, I said, “Do you notice anything different about your father since he has turned to Christ?” And the little guy said he was probably about 12 years old, he said, “Oh man, I really notice a difference, when I get in trouble in school now, he is a lot easier on me.” And the daughter said something similar and the wife Nancy who was just kind of rejoicing and amazed at the changes in Ralph’s life. He said a few months ago he was just going around the house, after this all happened, he was just going around. He would say maybe once or twice a day, I was blind, I was blind, but I see, I see. Just like the hymn. You know that’s what the mission is about. It’s about changed lives. Moving people towards Christ, no matter where they are in the spectrum and so God’s word comes to us today and says whom shall I send? What will your answer be? Amen.

Lord, we pray that you would indeed send us and that you would indeed wash away all that keeps us from touching the lives of the people you call us to serve. Lord, even as we sing the hymn, restore to us the vision of lost humanity. For we pray it in Jesus name. Amen.