"Evangelicalism's preoccupation with lesser passions than reaching the lost"
I want you to turn with me to the book of Jonah please, the book of Jonah - now don't be embarrassed to look up the contents at the front, some of these Old Testament Minor Prophets are hard to find, even if you're well-schooled in the scriptures! I remember recently having a visiting preacher to my previous church, and he asked us, I think, to turn to Jonah - and I had a Bible with me that was not my normal Bible, it was unfamiliar, and Jonah was contained on just one side of the page. Could I find Jonah? I was conscious of all the people behind watching me flick through - 'There's the Pastor, and he can't find Jonah!'. So don't worry, look up the contents, don't be embarrassed - it's a hard one to find at the best of times.
I want to speak to you this morning under the heading of 'Mis-gourded Zeal' - you've heard of the statement 'misguided zeal', but I have entitled this message 'Mis-gourded Zeal', and it will become clear why I have chosen that.
Verse 4 of chapter 4 of Jonah: "Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry? So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. And the LORD God prepared a gourd", or a plant, "and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?". Your margin, if you have a marginal reference Bible, renders it: 'Art thou greatly angry?'. "And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night" - or the margin says the gourd was 'a son of the night'. "And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?".
On Friday night under the heading 'When Hell Freezes Over', we looked at Evangelicalism's aversion to the doctrine of eternal punishment, and the evangelistic consequences of that. We saw that we, as a church, generally speaking, must rediscover the doctrine of hell as eternal punishment - and we must allow that rediscovery to motivate us again to worldwide evangelisation. Last evening, under the heading 'Tiny Tears', we looked at Evangelicalism's emotional detachment from the pain and peril of the lost world. It's one thing to believe in hell intellectually, it's another thing to be moved emotionally by this great truth.
This morning we're looking at 'Mis-gourded Zeal', Evangelicalism's preoccupation with lesser passions than reaching lost people. The tragedy of the story of Jonah, I think, is often misunderstood. Jonah was a spiritual man, he was godly man, he was in touch with God - in touch enough to know that God was asking him to do something. Many of us have problems regarding guidance from time to time, and we would love a red telephone to glory to know what to do - well, here was a man, though he may not have had that red telephone, he knew what God was telling him to do. He was walking with God.
Nineveh was the capital city of Israel's prime enemy, Assyria. God said: 'Jonah, I want you, on your soul and heart, to carry a burden for the people of Nineveh, for lost Ninevites' - who, incidentally, probably are modern-day Iraqis - 'I want you to carry a burden for the Iraqi people'. Now, many Bible commentators and preachers, understandably, have portrayed Jonah as, at times, a petty-minded bigot - a racist, an anti-Gentile, a prodigal prophet who just had scant regard for God's will in his life, and he turned his back on God. Some have even called him a coward! I want to say that I disagree with those interpretations of Jonah, because I think it underestimates and belittles the great dilemma that this prophet of God had. It's too simplistic to call him any of those names.
What was the dilemma? Well, Assyria was the rising power, the superpower of the day - and Jonah knew, because Jonah knew the word of God, that Assyria was destined to destroy Israel, or to attempt to do so at least. Twenty years before Jonah, the prophet Isaiah foretold that Assyria would spoil Israel for her sin. Add to that fact that the Assyrians were notable for their brutality - you could call them the Nazis of the day - he was afraid, terrified of what would happen to his own kinsmen and kinswomen of the nation of Israel if Assyria was to survive, and if they were to come down and invade Israel.
Now, we know that Jonah came from a border town, and he may well have witnessed the savagery of the Assyrians. No doubt Jonah initially, when he was guided of God, was overjoyed at the thought that God was wanting him to go and pronounce judgement, that God's wrath was going to be poured upon the Ninevites. But Jonah's dilemma came because of one fearful thought that he had: he knew God - here's a man who not only knew God's will, but he knew God - and Jonah's one fear was that God was merciful. If you look at verse 2 of chapter 4 you see this, he expresses it: 'He prayed unto the LORD', after the Lord spared the Ninevites and there was great awakening, 'and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying', was this not what I was afraid of, 'when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil'.
Jonah knew that if these Ninevites cried at the eleventh hour, God would have mercy on them. Now that's something we rejoice in today, isn't it, if we're saved? The long-suffering mercy of God - but you see here is the dilemma of the prophet, and you find it in the Old Testament Scriptures time and time again. The prophet was a man of the people and a man of God, he was a man for the nation and for Jehovah - and so there were times when the nation was going away from God, and God was calling the prophet in another direction, and the prophets felt torn in two - their heart was broken with the people and God going in two different directions. This is where Jonah is. This is a mighty man of God, and here Jonah - with a heart for the nation and a heart for God - chooses not to go with God, to let the Ninevites get what they deserved, and to actually take upon himself the judgement from God for being disobedient to His command.
Wrongly, of course, he chooses divine vengeance upon himself rather than talking to Iraqis about the Living God - and he decides to run away to a Spanish holiday resort, Tarshish on the coast of Spain, to get away from God. Now you know the story, I don't need to tell you about it - the great fish is sent by God to discipline and chasten, and that's what God does to us when we are disobedient, even for understandable reasons. The great fish swallows him up, three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, and God spews him out of the fish, and God gives him a second chance and tells him to go and preach repentance to these people. He preaches with the hope, tongue in cheek, that God wouldn't grant them grace and mercy but would judge them in the end - and there is a citywide repentance, a great awakening! Jonah gets exceedingly angry, we read it in verse 1 of chapter 4: 'It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry', and in verse 2 he more or less says, 'God, this is what I feared, that you were going to do this!'.
Well in verse 4 of chapter 4 we see that he hasn't lost out all hope that God would judge these folk. He sits down on the east side of the city and makes a booth, and sits under the shadow till he might see what would become of the city. He's still hoping that God would send fire and brimstone from heaven and judge them! While he is sitting there, we read in verses 6-11, God caused during the night a gourd, a plant, to grow up to shelter and shadow him. It says that Jonah was overjoyed at the fact that God had provided this thing for him. Then in the morning God sent a worm, and that worm ate away at that plant, and Jonah got so upset that God had given him this plant, and now God was taking it away. Jonah was more upset about the destruction of his precious gourd than he was about the peril of lost Ninevites.
God had to teach him this lesson, verse 10: 'Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?'.
Now my message, really, this morning is very simple, and that is: we as Christians, we as the church of Jesus Christ today in our generation, can have gourds. What am I talking about? Well, there can be things in our lives and in our churches that we cherish at the expense of the eternal destiny of lost souls. Things that can prevent us, hold us back from the great commission that Christ has given us. We can be more zealous about conserving and preserving, protecting those things, than we are about saving never-dying souls! Those things can even be God-given things, good things, just as the gourd was.
Now I want to give you six suggestions of the gourds that we might have within the 21st-century church, at least here in Ulster - things that are preventing us from reaching the lost, things that we esteem more highly, perhaps, and if we lost them we would be more upset than about millions of people going to hell.
Here's the first: comfort, the gourd of comfort. In Amos chapter 6 and verse 1, the prophet there said: 'Woe to them that are at ease in Zion'. One of the greatest problems the church has in the West today is the enemy of materialism and affluence. Now don't misunderstand me, I don't want us all to go into the bad old days when nobody had anything, no shoes on their feet or anything like that - I'm not talking about that. Every good and perfect gift comes down from God, but we need to be very careful that we don't start to worship God's gifts and not the Giver.
Affluence and materialism have become a great problem. Campbell Morgan, many years ago, said: 'Persecution is only Satan's second best weapon, his first is materialism' - that was in his day, it's a lot worse today! In the prophet Haggai's day the people were dillydallying over rebuilding the Temple, and that was God's commission on their lives. They didn't understand why their crops were starting to fail, and their businesses were going down the pan, and God told them: 'Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house'. In other words they were materialistic, they were more concerned about their own houses, their own domestic lives, than the house of God.
Is that where we are today? It was the zeal of God's house that ate up the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe, prophetically speaking, we are in the period of Laodicea. One of the things that marked ancient Laodicea in Revelation chapter 3 was affluence and wealth. On a human level, in Asia Minor, there was no better place to live than Laodicea - you've heard what they said: 'We're rich, we're increased, we're blessed' - and yet in God's eyes they were poor, they had the poverty of riches. The enemy, Satan, took them by stealth through materialism.
Now some of you, I'm sure, were watching the Olympics over the summer, and you'll know from all the media coverage of it that China has been undergoing a consumerist, a capitalist revolution of some kind over the last number of years. Now that has caused a great problem to the church of Jesus Christ in China that has literally mushroomed during the years of severe persecution. The church is now having to grapple with what has affected us for years: materialism, affluence. Lee Tian, a famous Shanghai pastor, said these words: 'Consumerism makes you think you don't have to suffer to follow Jesus. It makes you think you can have lots of things and Christ as well. In reality you end up with lots of things, and most of the time you don't even realise Christ has gone'. A very well-known Christian Chinese leader said: 'It could be that consumerism is a more effective killer of Christianity than communism ever was'.
William MacDonald put it like this: 'Luxury living abounds on every hand. While souls are dying for want of the gospel, Christians are wearing crowns instead of bearing a cross. We become more emotionally stirred over sports, politics, television, than we do over Christ. There is little sense of spiritual need, there is little longing for true revival'. We would be - let's face it - we would be more concerned, I would be more concerned, if my home comforts were lost from me than I am about souls that are being lost every moment for all eternity. Am I wrong?
'Could a mariner sit idle if he heard the drowning cry?
Could a doctor sit in comfort and just let his patients die?
Could a fireman sit idle, let men burn and give no hand?
Can you sit at ease in Zion while the world around you is damned?'
Comfort is a great gourd. Another is self-preoccupation. What does that mean? Well, I suppose it's connected a little with comfort, we like to pamper ourselves, don't we? Amusing and entertaining ourselves - there's a very interesting book that has come out in recent years by a man called Neil Postman, who is a humanist professor and media theorist, and do you know what he entitled the book? Let me tell you what it's about first of all: it's about how television, essentially how television has affected all our lives. Do you know what he entitled the book? 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' - a humanist! Do you know how the word 'amuse' is made up? It's made up of really two words: 'a', which means 'no'; and 'muse' which means 'think'. You put the two together, and it means 'no thinking' - putting your brain out of gear. Now it wouldn't be so bad if amusement and entertainment was only harming ourselves, but Paul said: 'No man lives unto himself, or dies unto himself'. John Dunne said, 'No man is an island' - and it doesn't just affect us. 'Who cares if I spend my life amusing and entertaining myself, it's not doing anybody any harm!', if you are a Christian it is, for it is a gourd.
We can be fiddling while the world burns - you've heard that expression, haven't you? 'Fiddling while Rome burns', it means to occupy oneself in unimportant matters, and neglect priorities during a crisis. The origin of that statement, 'fiddling while Rome burns', is the story that Nero played his violin while Rome burned during the great fire of AD64 - now it might not be true, because apparently fiddles weren't invented then, but the sentiment is true - and it is certainly true of the church! The church is fiddling while the world burns! Our selfish preoccupations, we'd be more distressed and devastated to lose them than the fact that lost people are bound for hell.
Comfort, self-preoccupation, here's the third one: isolation. Now we believe in separation, the child of God is to be holy - in the world, but not of the world. But the fact of the matter is, our separation very quickly can become isolation, and we get out of touch with what's going on in the world. The Lord Jesus prayed: 'I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the world. Ye are the salt of the earth. Ye are the light of the world'. We're not to go into a wee corner in a holy huddle and become sheltered from what's going on in our world, because do you know what happens then? We become detached from the pain that sin is creating, and we get so sheltered that we don't know what's going on!
Often petty legalism can add to this. Now I don't want to go into this in too much detail, but you know that there are people around that whenever, particularly a young person, wants to do something for God, they have all the man-made laws and reasons why they shouldn't do it. Now that's a big problem in Ulster. I believe my Bible like anybody else, and I stick to it as close as I can, but we've got to get away from man-made rules - and that's often what they are. D. L. Moody was greatly used of God, but he had a hard time from some of the religious folk when God was using him. One of the criticisms he came under was that he had appeals at the end of gospel meetings. Do you know what Moody's answer to that was? 'I prefer the way I do it to the way you don't do it', isn't that brilliant? I prefer the way I do it to the way you don't do it. We need to start doing something, whatever the naysayers do and say, because people are lost! That's the issue, not the gourds of our isolation!
Comfort, self-preoccupation, isolation, and then fourthly: denominationalism. I'm holding nothing back this morning! You see, I believe that denominationalism comes from human pride. Now I'm not saying that organisations and denominations were not Spirit-born acts of God in the beginning, but division and sectarianism in the church of Jesus Christ was never ever in the mind of God - never. That men should separate themselves from one another in the one body that is Christ, and put a man's name, or an organisation's name, or a sacrament's name over their building and keep themselves to themselves, was never in God's intention. The only place in the Bible I find anything like that is in the book of 1 Corinthians, where Paul said: 'Some of you say, 'I am of Apollos, I am of Paul, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ', is Christ divided?'.
It was never of God's intention, but human pride conceived of it - but here's the problem evangelistically speaking: many folks in their various sects and organisations (and people can do it in independent churches as well) they are so busy conserving their own corner with a partisan spirit of competition, that the energies they should be investing in winning souls is put into conserving the little corner of their own vineyard at the expense of others! That's what's happening: time, prayer, money, energy, sweat is going into keeping our flag flying, and the world is going to hell! Everybody is afraid to say it...
Mark 9:38 is a wonderful verse: 'John answered the Lord Jesus, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us'. Do you know what the disciples' gourd was? Their little group, their group of disciples - and boy they had reason, if anybody had, to be protective of it, because they were twelve who were commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But here was a man outside their little camp, and God was using him - and in fact, if you look back at Mark 9:28 you find that the disciples, when they were faced with the demon-possessed boy, they haven't the power to cast out the demon. They said to the Lord in private, behind closed doors, 'Why could we not cast it out?' - and here was a man doing what they couldn't do, and they were criticising him because he wasn't one of their number!
Now that's a problem today, when we allow our group to become a gourd - do you know what happens? God goes and uses somebody else. I say, before it's too late, let all our gourds of denominationalism, and whatever 'isms', perish, and let Christ and His gospel alone arise and the one true church!
A fifth gourd is theological extremism. You see there are theological gourds - now I don't wish to be controversial for controversy's sake - but there is a strain of reformed theology and Calvinism that has all but paralysed evangelism in some quarters of the church today. Let me say that some of the godliest saints and some of the greatest evangelists were Calvinists, and I'm not entering into that debate just now - but let me say this categorically: there is something systemically wrong with any theology that mutes the call of the gospel, whether it's Calvinism or universalism. Young people are being instructed today that they can't tell a sinner that God loves them, they can't tell a soul that Christ died for them - and that can only stifle true evangelism.
In 1786 William Carey had laid on his heart the burden for world mission, and he laid it before a ministerial meeting in Nottingham in England. The eminent Doctor Ryland stood to his feet and said: 'Young man, sit down. When God is pleased to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine'. That was a lie from the pit of hell if ever there was one, because God has ordained that He should do it with the preaching of foolish men. It'll not happen any other way. God can, God can have exceptions to that rule in miraculous ways, but the norm is that we preach the Gospel and seek to win souls. The Bible does not teach a falsified view of God's sovereignty that nullifies man's responsibility, both are in this book.
The tragedy is the effect upon gospel preaching today. T. DeWitt Talmadge, in a sermon, put it like this - not referring to Calvinism - but he said, this is many years ago, over a hundred years ago: 'The present attitude of things is like this: in a famine struck district, a table has been provided and it is loaded with food enough for all, the odours of the meat fill the air, everything is ready, the platters are full, the chalices are full, the baskets are full. Why not let the people in? The door is open, yes, but there is a cluster of wise men blocking up the door, discussing the contents of the caster standing mid-table. They are shaking their fists at each other. One says there is too much vinegar in the caster, one says there is too much sweet oil, another says there is not the proper proportion of red pepper. I say, Get out of the way and let the hungry people come in! The door is blocked up by the controversies of men with whole libraries on their backs, disputing as to what proportion of sweet oil and cayenne pepper should make up the creed. I cry 'Get out of the way and let the hungry world come in!'' - that's what we need!
The gourd of comfort has become a problem, self-preoccupation, isolation, denominationalism, theological extremism, but sixthly and finally there is the political and cultural gourd - and boy, we know about that in Ulster. For years the gospel - whether you like it, or I like it, or not - was wrapped up in a Union Jack, and God is exceedingly displeased with that I believe.
Hudson Taylor, I encourage you to read his biography, he went to China at a time when Britain was at war with China. Maybe you didn't know that. It was like a missionary going to Germany in World War II. If that wasn't stigma enough, when Taylor got out there he took the monumental decision of becoming a Chinaman to Chinamen to win Chinamen. He shaved his hair, that's the way they all wore it, and he kept the big long ponytail - the traditional ponytail that all Chinamen had. He dyed it black, his hair wasn't black, and he almost blinded himself in the process of doing it. He continually went about wearing Chinese dress, and even the Chinese now at this time believed that a British man's dignity was seen in the way he dressed differently - so Taylor's actions not only deeply shocked British people at home, but it was shocking to the Chinese. He had gone native, and as far as the British were concerned he had lost all credibility, he lost much of his support, and many went to the extent of labelling him a traitor to the British Empire! But he set all of his liberty aside, and became enslaved to their customs in order to win souls for Christ.
Is that not what Paul did? 'To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak. I am made all things to all men; that I might, by all means, save some'. Now listen: Jonah was a good man, let's not miss that. Don't you be all hard on Jonah, he was a good man, he was even a godly man - but even though he was good and godly, he didn't understand the mind of God toward lost people. He had the truth - and you can have the truth - and yet he wasn't in tune with what God was doing among the lost world.
Now the encouraging thing was that God used him anyway, but the tragedy is that - though God used him - Jonah didn't enjoy the blessing. Now please conceive this for just one moment as we close: here is a good man, a godly man, a righteous man, and he's in the middle of revival, and he's not enjoying it! Isn't that sad? You know that can happen. During the Lewis revivals - I'm sure you're very familiar with them - did you know that there were several ministers in Lewis who opposed Duncan Campbell in his preaching. It was chiefly to do with his understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit - I happen to think his terminology was wrong, though his experience was right - but surely the revival was welcome, and surely they needed more of the Holy Spirit, but these men couldn't get past their doctrinal gourds.
Peter Brandon, the evangelist, tells the story of how he went to do a mission in a Gospel Hall in England. He doesn't name any of these places, but he tells the story straight. He was staying there for a few days, and he had a few messages to do - as we would say - and he went into the greengrocers in the town. The woman remarked right away, she said: 'You don't belong here, you're a stranger, what are you doing here?'. He said: 'Oh, I've come to preach in the local church, the Gospel Hall'. As soon as he said 'Gospel Hall', she said: 'Well, I'm glad you're coming to the Gospel Hall and not to the Church of England down the road!'. He said: 'Oh, why is that?'. 'Well, there was a preacher came a few months ago, and he was there for a couple of week's mission - and he got everybody in the church to pray and fast for two weeks'. She said, 'Nobody came into my shop to buy any groceries or any drink! I nearly went out of business!'. She said: 'When the mission started, oh', she said, 'it was terrible! A friend of mine that I've known for years with a drink problem came in after one of the evening meetings and said, 'I know if I died tonight, I would end up in hell'. He was half demented!', she said. This is what she said: 'The presence of God, you could feel God everywhere!'. Peter Brandon told the story, not me. He said he went to the Gospel Hall for his meetings, and he says they were a group of lovely believers - and he remarked to them: 'I believe you've had a real visit of God in the area over the last while?' - and they didn't know anything about it.
'Pass me not, O gentle Saviour,
Hear my humble cry:
While on others Thou art calling,
Do not pass me by'.
I say this morning, this is my message: let our gourds perish, not the lost. Whether it's comfort, self-preoccupation, isolation, denominationalism, theological extremism, political or cultural gourds - God does not need them, and maybe God needs to curse them as He did to Jonah's - even our good gourds! What is it that hinders us? Verse 11 says 120,000 children, probably, children alone were perishing in Nineveh - and that's what mattered to God. Do you know what Jonah is, the whole book? It's the Old Testament version of John 3:16: 'For God so loves the world'. As we come to the Lord's Table this morning, we all need to say:
'O teach me what it meaneth,
That cross uplifted high,
With One, the Man of Sorrows,
Condemned to bleed and die!
O teach me what it cost Thee
To make a sinner whole;
And teach me, Saviour, teach me
The value of one soul!'
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This sermon was delivered at The Lifeboat Mission in Moy, Northern Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the third recording in his 'Evangelicalism's Evangelical Emergency' series, entitled "Mis-gourded Zeal" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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